WEDNESDAY BUZZ COLUMN
Note: If you have already read the top item, we've added a ton more Dolphins, Heat, Marlins and UM news throughout the evening Tuesday. Please scroll down for all of that.
• Biggest concern about this Dolphins’ roster? The lack of proven players at cornerback beyond Byron Maxwell.
Second-biggest concern? There’s still reason to be worried about the run defense unless this roster proves otherwise.
The Dolphins spent most of last season ranked in the bottom two in run defense before finishing 28th, allowing an unacceptable 126.2 yards per game.
By comparison, among AFC East rivals, the Jets relinquished 83.4 yards per game on the ground, New England 98.8 and Buffalo 108.1. One caveat here: Because teams often held the lead against Miami, those Dolphins numbers are skewed a bit.
But keep in mind that nine of the 10 teams who finished in the top-10 in run defense went to the playoffs, the Jets being the only exception.
And here’s the concern: Every single front seven addition rated lower against the run (often much lower) than the player he replaced, according to Pro Football Focus.
But the Dolphins believe they will be more effective against the run, because they believe: 1) they have upgraded their defensive line; 2) that Kiko Alonso will be an enormous upgrade at middle linebacker over Kelvin Sheppard; and 3) that their new wide nine defense will pay dividends.
"Me, personally, I’ve had a lot of success in it,” Ndamukong Suh said of the wide nine. “We have the best coach in understanding how the defense is run in [Jim Washburn].”
Coach Adam Gase said “it’s a very difficult scheme to run against. That front seven is going to do a great job being able to stop the run this year.”
The wide line spreads out the linemen more across the line of scrimmage, trying to set the edge.
“It does have its advantages in the run game,” defensive end Jason Jones said.
Defensive tackle Earl Mitchell explains the wide-nine this way: “It gives us the opportunity to attack upfield. It turns everything back (inside), especially in the run game. It takes that read away from the inside guys too.
“You don’t have to read down the line of scrimmage. You can just attack and not necessarily worry about losing your contain on the outside because when you have guys on the outside, it turns everything back inside. It makes it easier for you to attack and not worry about if anything’s going to get on the outside.”
And linebacker Jelani Jenkins said: “I think with the Wide 9, it kind of keeps everything in the box and inside. So it doesn’t put too much pressure on us.”
But a change in strategy isn’t a cure-all. Jenkins said last season, teammates were “playing things a little differently and I think that caused gaps in the scheme. In the past years, I think if everybody was on the same page and we’re all playing stuff the same exact way, it probably would have been a little better. That’s what I saw.”
The folks who grade players at Pro Football Focus aren’t optimistic we will see much improvement.
PFF ranked the defensive ends that Miami lost -- Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby --- 12th and 19th against the run among 166 edge defenders last season. Conversely, it rated Dolphins newcomers Mario Williams 46th, Jones 68th and Andre Branch 158th among those 166. Cam Wake, coming off an Achilles’ injury, was 145th against the run.
Though PFF reviews tape of every play, it certainly cannot be regarded as gospel, though a bunch of teams pay for their metrics.
For example, Alfi Crow, who runs the Jaguars’ web site used by SB Nation, says Branch was “very good holding up against the run” in Jacksonville, and the Dolphins would be more inclined to agree with his assessment than PFF’s.
Branch has been solid throughout the offseason program and early in camp, so we will give him the benefit of the doubt unless we see evidence to believe PFF's low regard for him.
The Dolphins also assuredly disagree with PFF about Jordan Phillips and Earl Mitchell, who were rated 122nd and 123rd against the run among 123 defensive tackles.
The Dolphins quickly decided this offseason that Phillips and Mitchell generally weren’t the problem with the run defense, though the former coaching staff believed Phillips (who has reduced his body fat) needs to be much more consistent. Mitchell has consistently run with the starters during camp.
The Dolphins instead blamed some of their run defense deficiencies on Sheppard, whom PFF rated 148th of 176 linebackers against the run. But Alonso was rated 171st. (The Dolphins believe in this system, the instinctive Alonso will be much better than that.)
In PFF’s evaluation, Miami’s only two high-end run-stoppers in its front seven are Ndamukong Suh (rated 16th last year against the run among 123 defensive tackles) and Koa Misi (15th among linebackers). Jenkins rated 84.
DOLPHINS PRACTICE NEWS
Even with rookie second-rounder Xavien Howard recovering from knee surgery, Tony Lippett isn’t simply being handed the starting cornerback job opposite Byron Maxwell.
On the fifth day of camp on Tuesday, the Dolphins gave substantial first-team work to veteran cornerback Chimdi Chekwa, who hasn’t played in the league since 2014.
Chekwa said he received a few first-team snaps over the first four days of camp but was told before Tuesday evening’s practice that he would get a lot of work with the starters.
“He’s a guy who does a good job in press,” coach Adam Gase said. “He has had good ball disruption, as far as what we’ve seen. We’re just going to keep giving him a shot.”
A former fourth-round pick of the Raiders out of Ohio State, Chekwa has appeared in 32 regular-season games, all for Oakland, and started four of them. He spent two months with New England in the spring of 2015 before being released. Oakland released him off injured reserve last September, and did not return to the league until Miami signed him this spring.
The six-foot Chekwa, 28, said he has been held back by two knee injuries and a hamstring injury over the past couple of years.
His strength? “Breaking on the ball,” he said. “I get out of my breaks fast. I can go up and jam, play man.”
Lippett has been up and down in camp. During one sequence Tuesday, he allowed far too big a cushion to Kenny Stills, who caught a pass along the sideline for a first down. But a few minutes later, he knocked away a pass to Leonte Carroo.
• Running back Damien Williams practiced for the first time in training camp, and it was eventful. After linebacker James Burgess administered a particularly physical hit against Williams, Williams then leveled defensive end Farrington Huguenin on a pass block.
“At the time, I’m thinking, I’m just making a block and getting out,” Williams said. “I wasn’t thinking of anything else but making my block and doing my assignment.”
Huguenin was carted off -- he was actually injured initially on a play before that -- but Gase said he "will be fine." A few minutes later, Ndamukong Suh appeared to scold Williams in an animated conversation.
Was Suh angry with him?
“No, he was just like, ‘I like how you came back,’ that kind of thing, ‘but we don’t want to hurt anybody,’” Williams said. “You don’t want to see a guy go down because once somebody else goes down that’s like a domino effect. Everybody starts falling and you don’t want anybody to get hurt.”
Of Williams’ big hit, Gase said: “You don’t want somebody to do something that will injure your teammate. He was a little upset what happened on the play before. It’s not something we’re looking for in practice.”
But Gase was pleased to see Williams return from practice after dealing after a hamstring injury and working his way back into shape.
“I am excited to see what he can do,” Gase said. “I love his energy. I love his physicality. I love his route running ability.”
• Receiver DeVante Parker missed practice with a hamstring injury, but the Dolphins do not believe it is serious, Armando reports.
“He felt something yesterday,” Gase said. “I wasn’t very smart. Should have put him out in two minutes. He’s a little bit dehydrated. We felt if we gave him today off, with tomorrow, we should get him back soon.”
Running backs Jay Ajayi (knee) and Isaiah Pead (hamstring) also sat out, as did receiver Tyler Murphy (hamstring).
• Gase is pleased with Billy Turner, who continues to get the majority of the first-team snaps at right guard and also received some second-team work at right tackle.
“Billy has done a great job,” Gase said. “I love what I’ve seen out of him. I love the way he works. I love his intelligence. He has done a great job picking up what we’re doing and trying to play as physical as he can.”
Jermon Bushrod also is getting some first team work at right guard, and Gase reminded that Bushrod “has never played guard before. He’s never played on the right side before. It’s a whole new world for him. I never realized moving from left guard to right guard was such a big deal until Chris Cooper told me when we were in Denver. It’s a big difference. Bushrod is trying to catch up as fast as he can, use his athletic ability to catch up.”
• Former Dolphins receiver Chris Chambers attended practice and worked with the receivers, at the Dolphins’ invitation…. Dallas Thomas opened with the starters at left guard but Laremy Tunsil also got some first team work…. Jason Jones got a lot of first-team work at defensive end, opposite Mario Williams…
Andrew Franks hit from 51 and 50 yards on field goals but missed from 44.... Jakeem Grant dropped a punt; he continues to get much of the punt return work… Carroo got work with the starters in Parker’s absence…. Former UM offensive line coach Art Kehoe attended practice.
• Though Fox said Adeiny Hechavarria was available before the trade deadline, other teams did not ask for him in the Marlins’ trade discussions for starting pitching, according to a team source. And the Marlins preferred to hold onto him until at least this offseason.
He’s under team control for two years and the sides were far apart on extension discussions last winter. The Marlins might need to trade an infielder (potentially Hechavarria or Derek Dietrich) for a starting pitcher this winter, because the free agent pitching market is awful.
• Though the Marlins ranked San Diego-bound Josh Naylor ahead of Luis Castillo among prospects, they were very happy to get Castillo back from Padres after Colin Rea’s elbow injury, and some in baseball believe Castillo will be the better player (over Naylor).
One Marlins official said Tuesday he believes Castillo can be a 20-game winner because of “good velocity, mound presence. Has three quality pitches, doesn’t pitch scared.” He has a 2.25 ERA in Jupiter, with 84 strikeouts in 100 innings.
• Point guard Beno Udrih is considering a standing offer from the Heat, mulling his options and plans to make a decision in mid-to-late August when he returns from vacation. He likes Miami but also is aware the Heat’s backcourt is crowded.
• As we've reported, UM coach Mark Richt has said he fully expects everyone in this incoming recruiting class to make it into school, and that includes receiver Dionte Mullins and safety Cedric Wright. That hasn't changed.
But UM doesn't expect either player to be on campus and enrolled for the start of practice on Thursday, and until either has enrolled, nobody can be 100 percent certain.
• While Canesport.com reports tonight that Alabama cornerback/potential grad transfer Maurice Smith will enroll at UM at some point in August, longtime Georgia writer Seth Emerson of Dawgnation.com tonight quotes Smith's mother as saying her son wants to transfer to Georgia but Alabama coach Nick Saban is blocking it.
Smith played mostly special teams for Alabama last season but was working with the starters at nickel corner during the spring. He would be eligible immediately if he transfers. UM would certainly welcome him if he's blocked from going to Georgia.
• One thing that bothered UM players under Al Golden, according to one of them, is how some players who didn’t practice much during the week played in games, contrary to what was preached about the importance of excelling in practice. They’re hopeful that will change. Another player spoke of how more faith the players have in this staff finally putting them in the right position.
• Media notes: Marlins ratings in July were their highest for a month since July 2012… Per sources, ESPN is hiring the winner of The Bachelorette, Jordan Rodgers (a Dolphin for a month in 2014), as an SEC Network studio analyst.
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