Help On the Way: Players Who Could Fill Key Voids for the Dolphins in 2016
On any successful team you will find players who exceeded expectations. This doesn’t have to be an undrafted player who bursts onto the scene and rushes for 1,200 yards – it could simply be a veteran who steps slightly above the standards set ahead of the season.
For the Miami Dolphins, plenty of players will need to step up if every role is going to be filled in 2016. The team bled talent in the offseason and, especially on defense, seemed to struggle in addressing those needs in ways that maintained salary cap flexibility while still acquiring talent.
There will be several players who could find themselves in a position to fill key voids on the roster, but who will put themselves in the best position to help lend a hand in filling needs and improving the Dolphins’ fate in 2016?
Cornerback: Byron Maxwell
The only player in the Dolphins’ secondary (other than Pro Bowler Reshad Jones) who has a documented history and a legitimate reason to improve in 2016 is Byron Maxwell. The Eagles signed Maxwell in 2015 and seemingly had watched no film on the ex-Legion of Boom member. He was playing out of his usual scheme, and his level of discomfort was evident. The Clemson product was one of PFF’s worst graded corners in 2015, but many acknowledge that this was not necessarily his fault.
Vance Joseph plays a zone coverage scheme that utilizes the strength and physicality of longer, tougher cornerbacks. This fits Byron Maxwell’s skill-set much more appropriately than the Eagles’ predominately man coverage scheme.
While I do not believe that Byron Maxwell will turn into a 2013 Brent Grimes-level contributor, the change in scheme could lend itself to at least a solid season. Considering the projections towards how abysmal the Dolphins’ secondary could be in 2016, having a slightly above average corner in his spot would be a blessing for the team.
Right Guard: Billy Turner
The Miami Dolphins were incredibly lucky to have Laremy Tunsil fall into their laps during the 2016 NFL Draft. They were able to select arguably the best prospect at a position they desperately needed to fortify. However, due to the presence of Branden Albert, who is expected to be entering his final year as a Dolphin, Laremy Tunsil will play left guard as a rookie. This is a path that was also taken by Hall of Fame LT Jonathan Ogden.
The Dolphins had the NFL’s worst tandem of guards in 2015 and saw Ryan Tannehill take a beating that could only be described as cruel and unusual punishment. So, who is going to step up at right guard given the fact that Tunsil will presumably occupy the blindside interior position?
I believe that man will be Billy Turner.
Jermon Bushrod was signed as a free agent for depth on the offensive line after the team struggled mightily with Jason Fox in the lineup. Many have written Bushrod in as the starter at right guard for 2016, but I believe that defeats the purpose of the signing. The Dolphins desperately needed someone to be available as an alternate at tackle. If they start Bushrod, they would be forced to move him back out in case of an injury, which would cause a shuffling of positions. This positional game of musical chairs has been a detriment to the Dolphins’ line for years.
Turner’s rookie season out of FCS North Dakota State was a scratch. He needed time to not only learn the playbook, but also to acclimate to the strength required to play in the NFL. Turner has unique movement skills and appeared at times last season to have improved his brute strength while maintaining his “dancing bear” status.
Heading into 2016, Turner echoed the sentiment that this is his true sophomore season. Last year was his first substantial playing time, and his rookie year was basically the NFL equivalent of a redshirt. Now, Turner is ready to step into a role that Big 12, SEC, ACC, or other Power 5 players are expected to enter a year earlier. If the Dolphins are serious about prospect development they will allow Billy Turner to start in 2016 and hold onto Jermon Bushrod as the incredibly important backup at the tackle position.
Inside Linebacker: Kiko Alonso
Kelvin Sheppard was one of the weakest links in the Dolphins’ defensive unit during 2015. When Ndamukong Suh plays up front, it is necessary to have an inside linebacker who can take advantage of penetration and work to create pressure or close lanes for ball carriers. However, Sheppard accomplished neither of those tasks.
Initially, I believed the Dolphins’ acquisition of Kiko Alonso was a sign of an impending Jelani Jenkins based trade. However, this did not end up coming to fruition. My belief is that Alonso projects best as a 3-4 ILB, as he does not fit the bill as dominant physical presence inside. The 4-3 defense usually features a player who specializes in stopping the run, especially down hill. Alonso is a sideline-to-sideline player who manages to shut down plays through vision. Alonso was also an asset in coverage before his injury in Buffalo.
Vance Joseph never relied on linebackers for supreme impact in Cincinnati. Geno Atkins was the star of his defense, and the linebackers seemed to rotate with immense frequency. Based on this reduced responsibility, and the presence of Ndamukong Suh, I believe 2016 could be a bounce back season for Alonso.
He will now be entering his second season removed from ACL surgery, which is usually cited as the time that an athlete regains their confidence. With Jelani Jenkins playing the WILL (weakside), and Koa Misi manning the limited responsibilities of the SAM position in Miami’s 4-3, Kiko Alonso should be able to do what Miami needs in the middle of the defense.
While it would have been optimal to secure a “thumper” to play inside and dominate against the run, the Dolphins did not make that acquisition. Out of the players in the group, I believe Alonso will be able to emerge as a presence inside, especially in coverage. Hopefully he becomes the field general the Dolphins have lacked on defense since the incredibly destructive Ellerbe/Dansby transition in 2013.
Kick/Punt Returner: Jakeem Grant
The Dolphins did not have a true need at punt returner, but there was a clear desire to remove Jarvis Landry from dangerous special team duties. Many believed that the selection of Kenyan Drake was partially due to his potential as a returner, but he is injury prone and could play a key role in the running back corps. In the 6th Round, the Dolphins finally found the man to help them with their quandary at returner.
Jakeem Grant should handle the Dolphins’ kick and punt return duties as a rookie. He displayed explosiveness at Texas Tech, averaging 24.9 yards per return and scoring 4 touchdowns returning kicks.
There isn’t too much to make of this, as most realize that Grant’s ability will translate if he is able to stay on the field. Health and durability might be a concern at his size (5’6” and well under 200 lbs), but he can lighten the load placed on Jarvis Landry and reduce the risk of injury to Kenyan Drake, who should be a key figure in the running back rotation.