« Lots of Wednesday Dolphins nuggets: OL; practice notes; Wake; WRs; the Dolphin with the unusual diet; Rex Ryan lashes out | Main | Cameron, Stills and Gase hope to reverse a disturbing Dolphins trend; Marlins, UM, Panthers »

Thursday buzz on the Dolphins' special teams battles: kicker, return jobs and more

One of the most interesting things from Dolphins availability today happened when I asked Jordan Cameron who said something to him to make him want to take a $1.5 million pay cut and stay with Miami. He said tight end Julius Thomas, who played for Adam Gase, told him he had to play for Adam Gase... More on this later.

In the meantime, special teams talk:

Of all the Dolphins’ most prominent jobs on special teams, the only one that’s seemingly resolved belongs to the player who was a clear-cut underdog to win a job at this time last year.

Yes, punter Matt Darr is safe, a year after the undrafted Tennessee alum beat out Brandon Fields and averaging 47.6 yards per punt, third-best in the league.

But everything else is in question.

The kicking job is a toss-up between incumbent Andrew Franks and Iowa rookie Marshall Koehn.

“Couldn’t say one is ahead of the other; they have a similar skill set,” special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said Thursday, noting Franks made five of six field goals on Thursday, including a 52-yarder with “15 yards to spare.”

The punt and kickoff return jobs are unsettled among rookies Kenyan Drake and Jakeem Grant, with Jarvis Landry still in the mix and willing if needed, and Damien Williams and others available as fallback options.

Even the long-snapper job is in doubt, with San Jose State undrafted rookie Ryan DiSalvo expected to challenge John Denney.

Franks, who beat out Caleb Sturgis for the job last year, attempted the fewest field goals of any full-time kicker last season, converting 13 of 16, with all three misses over 40 yards and one from 63. But he also missed three extra points in 36 attempts.

His kickoffs were generally good, with 61 percent resulting in touchbacks, 11th-best in the league. The NFL this season will experiment with placing the ball at the 25-yard line after touchbacks, instead of the 20.

“Andrew has come leaps and bounds,” Rizzi said. “Has ironed out his technique. Andrew didn't get a lot of field goal opportunities last year….Some people may think the jury is still out on this guy. I saw a major improvement out of him from training camp, this time last year, until we got to game one. He made a huge jump and that's why he made the team.

“He has a huge leg. I want to see him become more consistent in everything he's doing. We missed three PATs last year. One wasn't on him; it was on the operation. But the makeable kicks that he missed are the ones we want to see. We just want to see him become more consistent. I've seen that in practice."

As for Koehn, he hit 12 of 16 field goals as a junior and 16 of 20 as a senior, including a game-winning 57-yarder against Pittsburgh. But after making all 38 extra points as a junior, he missed six of 53 last year.

Koehn is a better athlete than many kickers. Koehn ran a 4.61 40-yard dash, the fastest by any kicker or punter as far back as NFL.com's records go for the Combine. He was faster than every quarterback except one, almost every linebacker, 10 wide receivers, and five running backs.

“Marshall (Koehn) had a hell of a career in the Big Ten,” Rizzi said. “He kicked in inclement weather. He kicked in some big situations. He made a 57-yard game-winner last year at home.

“He's going to definitely compete for the job. No doubt about it. He has a great skill set. He has a real strong leg. He reminds me a lot of Andrew (Franks), to be honest with you, coming out last year. The only difference is that (Koehn) kicked at a bigger school. But they have a very similar skill set and kicking leg."

As for returns, it would be ideal of Grant and/or Drake seize both jobs, though they are far, far more experienced on kickoffs than punts. Bobby McCain, Tyler Patmon, Isaiah Pead and AJ Cruz also got work on kickoff returns in the one OTA session that was open to reporters this week.

“We are going to have multiple guys back there,” Rizzi said. “I don’t think the deep guy is always going to get the ball. We have got to have as many guys ready to field kicks as possible.”

Grant averaged 24.9 yards and scored four touchdowns on 87 career kickoff returns. Last season, he averaged 26.1 and scored two touchdowns on kickoffs.

Drake averaged 26.6 yards on 19 kickoff returns --- all last season – with one touchdown coming on a 95-yarder against Clemson in the national championship game.

Keep in mind that Landry’s 27.1 career average on 47 kickoff returns was better than Grant’s or Drake’s college averages. Rizzi said Landry will keep the job if he’s the best option, and Landry said he’s fine with that either way.

“If we're going into Week 1, Game 1, the best option for the football team is going to be the guy that goes back there,” Rizzi said. “I still will always use the Antonio Brown example. He's still the Pittsburgh Steelers punt returner and you could argue he's their best player. You could argue he's one of the best receivers in the league and he's still back there returning punts and making game-changing plays.

“I think the thought process is to get more options on the table. We didn't have a lot of them last year. We haven't had a lot of them the last couple of years. So at that point Jarvis Landry was our best option.

“You look at what Jakeem Grant has done in college and if he can bring that same juice and energy and big-play ability. You look what Drake did as a kick returner. If those guys can match what they did in college, then they are certainly going to be great options for us.”

Grant has never returned a punt in a college game, and Drake returned only one (for 19 yards, in 2013). But the Dolphins are comfortable with both rookies handling punts, too.

“Jakeem is a little ahead of where I thought he would be as a punt returner,” Rizzi said. “He really worked it as coming in. Kenyan was a lot better early on as I thought he would be as well…. Grant caught punts all the time, but for whatever reason he didn't do it in games. Jarvis Landry never returned a punt in college either. I think people forget that.”

Denney, 37, has been the Dolphins’ long-snapper since 2005, spanning five permanent coaches and two interim ones. But DiSalvo will be given a long look.

Denney has a $1.2 million cap hit if he’s on the team, with $100,000 in dead money if he’s cut. DiSalvo would have a $450,000 cap hit if he makes it, no hit if he’s cut. So the savings would be about $650,000 if a change is made, with that money adding to the Dolphins’ $16.9 million in cap space and likely being carried over to next season.

“In college, it’s hard to evaluate long snappers because 90 percent of them don’t block,” Rizzi said. “Ryan DiSalvo played for three years in a pro style punting scheme, which is very rare in college these days.  He’s a little bit ahead of the curve. What we saw out of him… was impressive. I worked him out myself.

"I like his personality, body type. He’s going to have a tough time beating out John, who’s been a multiple Pro Bowler. It’s going to be a competitive situation.”

Meanwhile, Rizzi said wants to see a “big jump” not only from Franks, but also from Darr, who could be the Dolphins’ punter for a decade.

“Now some people would say, 'Well gosh, Matt Darr was third in the league in gross punting,’” Rizzi said.

“But there are certainly areas of the game he can improve on. Our net punting could go up better. He did a great job on going-in punts inside the 20. But some things like location, hang time ... little things that he can work on. I'd love to see ... I think the sky is still the limit for this guy. I still think he could be an elite NFL punter, if he's not already.”

For a lot of Dolphins nuggets at other positions, including Rex Ryan taking aim at a top Dolphins player, please click here.... Twitter: @flasportsbuzz