Future Fins: Top Five Players to Watch at the End of 2015

We are now entering the final stretch of the Miami Dolphins’ season. As the fourth quarter of the schedule begins, many fans have already started looking towards the 2016 season. It is impossible to make judgments about what the future holds for the Dolphins given the lack of a leading head coach candidate, and the uncertainty surrounding the roster.

While few things are certain, we can still use the remaining games as a chance to evaluate the roster and see what the Dolphins have heading into the future. Here are the top five players to watch as we enter into Weeks 14-17 of the 2015 season.

5. Jay Ajayi

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Seeing Lamar Miller walk after this season would be very difficult. His path as a Miami native, from the U to the Dolphins, has been an amazing story, and fans have watched him grow into a very talented NFL back.

It is hard to predict if Miami will be able to keep Miller. NFL running back contracts fluctuate greatly. However, the team drafted insurance this past year. Jay Ajayi was selected in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, and he has come on strong after missing the first half of the season with a rib injury.

Ajayi has actually exceeded expectations early on in Miami. Many felt that he was a risky pick due to his tendency to dance in the backfield instead of picking a lane. However, upon his arrival in Miami he has seemed determined to become a physical player. He fights through contact, and has been decisive in his reads and cuts. So far, Ajayi has impressed.

The question now remains whether or not he has impressed enough to warrant looks as the number one back next season. I believe that Lamar Miller will resign with the Dolphins, but if not, these last four games will be crucial tools of evaluation for Ajayi heading into 2016.

If Lamar Miller resigns, we will see what the two can accomplish as a true one-two punch out of the Miami Dolphins’ backfield under a new coach next season.

4. Derrick Shelby

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The Miami Dolphins have a free agency issue next season at defensive end. The team has a high cap hit for injured star Cameron Wake, and will be forced to pay a premium for Olivier Vernon if they want to keep him. While many have accepted that Vernon’s departure will be a forgone conclusion, there is a wildcard in the speculation for what Miami can do in order to fill the hole opposite Wake. That wildcard is Derrick Shelby.

Shelby has always been a solid rotational player for Miami, but the question remains if he can continue his progress and show that he is a starter quality player for the Dolphins. If speculation holds true, Olivier Vernon will receive a substantial contract in free agency this season. That being said, the Miami Dolphins in all likelihood cannot afford to keep the ex-Hurricane on their roster.

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(Sun Sentinel)

Many will not be upset to see Vernon walk, as his penalties and occasional issues with his motor have hurt the team. However, he is an incredibly talented player. It would be very difficult for Shelby the fill his shoes, but we should all watch very closely over the next month to see if he is worth the opportunity to try.

Shelby will need to be assessed as a dynamic player. Currently, he is a rotational piece, and a very good one at that. It is an entirely different assignment to be a starter than it is to be a role player. The Dolphins need to look at Shelby’s ability and see what he is capable of when asked to defend the run, rush the passer, and perform as a starting caliber defensive end.

3. Jelani Jenkins

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(PhinPhanatic)

The Miami Dolphins currently have the worst linebacking corps in the NFL. They appear incapable of attacking downhill, and fail to take advantage of the multiple blockers occupied on each play by Ndamukong Suh.

In a very bleak positional group, there is one light. Jelani Jenkins, the third-year player out of the University of Florida, has showed a great deal of promise and could be a starter next season for Miami.

The team will have to rebuild the linebacker group. There is no way that the Miami Dolphins enter 2016 with Kelvin Sheppard as their starting inside linebacker, and Koa Misi’s contract could make him a salary cap casualty. It is incredibly tough to ask a front office to acquire three new linebackers in a single offseason, each filling starting roles. Hopefully, Jelani Jenkins will remove the need for one of those new additions.

It remains to be seen who Miami’s defensive coordinator will be next year, but the next few games could tell us plenty about Jelani Jenkins. He knows that this is an audition, and the young linebacker should be in an attacking mentality over the next four games. The Dolphins’ defense has lacked that mentality, outside of Jenkins who has been shooting gaps and disrupting offenses all season. He really does get a bad rap because of the unit he plays with. Jenkins has showed promise, and will most likely be able to start for the Dolphins again in 2016.

Make sure you watch Jenkins as the season wraps up, as you will see a player who is carrying a subpar unit of linebackers as best he can.

2. Bobby McCain 

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(Sun Sentinel)

We have all seen Brent Grimes struggle this season. It is no secret, and not a trend that has gone unnoticed by offensive coordinators. Grimes is attacked each and every week, and his style of play appears to be changing with age. The 5’9 corner previously made up for his height disadvantage by playing to his otherworldly athleticism. As that element begins to fade from his game, you see a corner struggling to match up with the faster and more physical receivers in the NFL.

The team has a strong incentive to move on from Brent Grimes this offseason, given the salary cap situation. However, they will be unable to sign a big money cornerback, which is probably for the best. With the Jamar Taylor experiment all but over, it seems that Bobby McCain could be next in line to step up and shoulder the load within the Dolphins’ group of corners.

McCain was the Dolphins’ fifth round pick this year out of Memphis. In a season with a stunningly low number of reps going to rookies, McCain has been a pleasant surprise. During Miami’s game against the Eagles, he outperformed all expectations. During the game against the Ravens, his first start in the NFL, he had some ups and downs. However, he showed strong instincts and a great deal of potential.

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The Miami Dolphins will need to do a very strong assessment of Bobby McCain over the next four games. That being said, he will be challenged with some of the NFL’s top players at the position. In the next four games, he will face Odell Beckham Jr. and TY Hilton, two of the league’s most dangerous pass catchers.

It will be interesting to see where McCain’s strengths lie. Does he succeed in zone or man? Can he be physical with the league’s larger targets? Does he have the poise to forget a mistake and stay in the frame of mind necessary to play full 60-minute games? We do not know the answer to any of this. However, if the team can figure it out by the end of 2015, it could make Brent Grimes expendable, and the upcoming offseason much easier with a young corner stepping up from within the organization.

1. DeVante Parker

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(Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Against the Jets, we saw a flash.

Against the Ravens, we saw an explosion.

DeVante Parker put himself on the map last week. It was not just his highlight reel grab, during which he went up over the defender to high point the football and bring it down. It was his consistent play throughout the game, and his rapport with quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

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The two showed chemistry and trust. Tannehill went to Parker early and often, including on a key 3rd and 11 during which Tannehill threaded the ball between linebackers and dropped it in perfectly to Parker on a quick slant. That type of crisp execution is what Miami has waited for since Week One. So, can he keep it up?

This will be our only taste of DeVante Parker for the season. The team faces four more teams, all of which will be ready for the young receiver. Rishard Matthews is dealing with injuries heading into the final stretch of 2015, so the reps will continue to be filtered to Parker.

Matthews is a free agent this offseason, and his exceptional play this year has most likely played him out of a permanent place in Miami. Keeping him would be outstanding, but it seems unlikely. If DeVante Parker continues to progress at the rate he has, they will not need Rishard Matthews.

Parker is a dynamic player, and simultaneously provides a vertical option as well as a physical presence for the Dolphins. His emergence would not just be a huge boost on the field for the team; it would be an emotional boost. There would be reason for hope.

If they can get four more strong performances out of DeVante Parker, it could place a glimmer of hope on the prospects heading into the future, with the Tannehill-Parker connection set to take place in Miami for at least a few more seasons to come.

The Skinny:

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The Miami Dolphins roster will undergo a complete shakedown over the next few seasons. The team will be changing coaches, which means a new philosophy, which also means a new set of players that will allow the coach to execute that philosophy. So, who will be left standing?

These five players could be key to the future in Miami. Their decisions have substantial implications for both the salary cap and the style in which the roster is constructed moving forward. The team has four more games to evaluate them. Much like a college player is concerned about what he leaves on film, the Dolphins will be evaluated by their next coach based on this film.

These players have one last chance to impress. Whether it keeps them in Miami in a larger role or sets them back remains to be seen. For some players, the implications are not so dire. However, these players will be the most intriguing, and most substantial storyline for Dolphins fans as the final quarter of the 2015 season begins against the Giants on Monday night.

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