The Final Cut: Predicting Who Makes the Miami Dolphins’ 53-Man Roster
The NFL allows teams to form a 90-man roster heading into training camp. This is designed to take some of the pressure off of the starters, allowing for more rest and a better ability to give reps to players who don’t run with the first string. These large rosters lead to a mass exodus of players during waves of cuts.
By the Miami Dolphins’ first game of 2016, they will have cut almost 50% of the players they enter training camp with. Some decisions will be easy. Others will be determined entirely by preseason action and where chips fall in terms of depth and injury.
So, without further ado, I will attempt to predict which 53 players make the Dolphins’ final roster before seeing any of the relevant practices, preseason games or determining injuries.
Isn’t sports writing fun?
Only one QB is a lock. His name is Zac Dysert.
Matt Moore could be unseated with an exceptional preseason from Brandon Doughty. If Doughty struggles and Moore plays well, the Dolphins could try to stash Doughty on the practice squad. I believe the most likely scenario is that the team ends up with three QBs during the 2016 season: Tannehill, Moore, and Doughty.
Verdict: Tannehill, Moore, and Doughty (3)
Jay Ajayi and Kenyan Drake are both locks at the running back position. A healthy Arian Foster is also a lock. However, Foster could just as easily end up getting hurt or not making a true recovery from his torn Achilles.
I believe that Ajayi, Foster, and Drake will make up the top end of the Dolphins’ running back depth chart. However, all three of these players come with injury concerns. Ajayi has long-term knee issues, Drake suffered several injuries at Alabama, and we all know about Foster’s history. With that being said, I believe the Dolphins will keep a fourth running back entering the season.
The fourth running back on the roster will not need to be active on gamedays, but he will be kept around for the sake of insurance. One can expect Daniel Thomas and Isaiah Pead to be cut, leaving Damien Williams as the fourth back.
Verdict: Ajayi, Foster, Drake, and Williams (4)
The Dolphins have six locks on the offensive line: Branden Albert, Ja’Wuan James, Laremy Tunsil, Mike Pouncey, Jermon Bushrod, Billy Turner, and Jamil Douglas. I believe that all of the others are fighting for their jobs.
In my projections, this leaves three spots remaining for lineman on the final 53. While we have all watched Dallas Thomas struggle mightily, he did receive some reps with starters during early minicamps. This indicates to me that he is far from being in a position where he could be cut.
Sam Young is a player with six years of NFL experience and has been able to hold his own at times in various starting lineups. I believe he can enter camp with some level of comfort.
Kraig Urbik was signed by the Dolphins this offseason for depth at guard. While the team could end up keeping an undrafted rookie here if promise is shown, I believe Urbik will make the final roster.
This leaves the Dolphins with nine offensive linemen. In addition to the starters (which is a list I believe Billy Turner will be on), the team would be entering the season with Jamil Douglas, Jermon Bushrod, Dallas Thomas, Kraig Urbik, and Sam Young. The Dolphins will have versatility in this group, as Jermon Bushrod and Laremy Tunsil can both play guard or tackle if need-be.
I would be comfortable with this group as a whole, but would not be surprised if they kept one more lineman than I am predicting.
Verdict: Albert, Tunsil, Pouncey, Turner, James, Bushrod, Thomas, Douglas, Urbik, and Young (10)
Jordan Cameron and Dion Sims appear to be locks. While Sims has disappointed in recent seasons, he is far better than playing the free agent market. Adam Gase’s offense also relies heavily on the position, meaning that Sims will be a necessity.
Thomas Duarte will also have a clear path towards making the final roster. Dion Sims’ deficiencies as a pass catcher leave a distinct role for Duarte to occupy. That, coupled with the fact that the team did spend a pick on the UCLA-product, should result in a spot with the Dolphins for 2016.
Jake Stoneburner could be a wildcard here and, with a solid preseason, the Dolphins could end up risking a move to get Duarte onto the practice squad. However, I do not believe the team would take the chance.
Verdict: Cameron, Sims, and Duarte (3)
The Dolphins have five locks at wide receiver, including Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, and Leonte Carroo. The fifth is Jakeem Grant, who will in all likelihood make the team purely for special teams (with occasional implementation as an offensive weapon).
This will result in one of the toughest decisions in camp: what to do with Matt Hazel?
Hazel has showed value as a depth player for the Dolphins and is a valuable piece to keep around in case of injury. However, the presence of Thomas Duarte does hurt his case.
At UCLA, Duarte was more of a hybrid receiver than he was a true tight end. This means that if the Dolphins needed him to line up outside, he could do so. In addition to having Thomas Duarte for versatility, the Dolphins have Kenyan Drake, who Nick Saban did utilize as a receiver at times during his career at Alabama. This puts Hazel at a severe disadvantage. The Dolphins could keep Duarte and Drake active on gamedays as their fifth and sixth receivers, meaning that Hazel could end up as the odd man out.
While the Dolphins will try to keep Hazel on the practice squad, I see almost no way that he makes it through without being claimed.
Verdict: Landry, Parker, Stills, Carroo, and Grant (5)
In 2015, defensive end was a strength for the Dolphins, which resulted in plenty of roster spots allocated to valuable players at the position. In 2016, a large number of spaces will once again be allocated to the edge of the line, but for a very different reason.
The Dolphins’ massive question marks at defensive end really mean that they need to keep more players to maintain a solid rotation and overcome what could be a deficiency in top end talent as Cameron Wake recovers from a torn Achilles.
The locks at defensive end are Cameron Wake, Mario Williams, and Terrence Fede. Fede seems like an odd addition, but the Dolphins lack talent at defensive tackle, and Fede could play inside if need-be. He is also a special teams contributor. Versatility is the ultimate weapon when trying to make the team.
Dion Jordan will be a major monkey wrench in the Dolphins’ plans at the position. If Jordan returns and is in football shape, he could be a major contributor. If he returns and isn’t ready, I still believe they will try to keep him. In Cincinnati, Vance Joseph coached defensive backs behind pass rushers that consisted of lengthy, tall players. Dion Jordan would fit that mold and could be utilized quite creatively in Joseph’s zone-heavy defense.
With Josh Gordon’s recent reinstatement, I believe it is likely that Dion Jordan receives similar mercy from the NFL.
The next tough decision comes down to Andre Branch and Jason Jones. I do not believe that the Dolphins will keep both players. This will be an interesting training camp battle, and one that I believe Branch will win.
Then, the final wild card: Chris McCain. The Dolphins have seen McCain misused horrifically under Kevin Coyle and Joe Philbin. Now, McCain will have a coach that allows him to hone his ability at the defensive end position. I believe that a motivated McCain will be able to work at improving his craft within a specific position and earn a spot on the 53-man roster. The upside is too great to pass on, but 2016 will be the final audition for McCain, who will also need to contribute heavily on special teams.
Verdict: Williams, Wake, Branch, Fede, Jordan, and McCain (6)
Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Phillips are both locks. Earl Mitchell could be in danger any other year, but the Dolphins lack serious depth at defensive tackle and will need to keep Mitchell on the final roster.
In a time of need, Terrence Fede could be the fourth inside lineman.
Verdict: Suh, Phillips, and Mitchell (3)
The Dolphins’ starting linebackers in 2016 will be Jelani Jenkins, Kiko Alonso, and Koa Misi. This much is certain.
However, linebacker features one of the larger logjams on the roster after the starters.
Zach Vigil and Neville Hewitt should both make the team. Their flashes in 2015 are enough to warrant roster spots for inexpensive depth players with clear untapped potential.
Spencer Paysinger will be an interesting decision. The veteran’s contributions on special teams will make him valuable to Darren Rizzi, who can be expected to return some of his players from last year’s unit. However, Paysinger is by no means a lock and will need to work hard to make the team on Rizzi’s recommendation.
Mike Hull could make the final roster with a strong showing, but if he does not make an impact (thus avoiding headlines and attention), I believe the Dolphins will try to stash him on the practice squad. They will almost certainly keep one or two linebackers in that reserve unit and I believe that with a quiet preseason Hull could very well slip through the cracks and remain on the practice squad in Miami.
Verdict: Jenkins, Alonso, Misi, Hewitt, Vigil, and Paysinger (6)
Despite being a position that could be expected to pose problems for the Dolphins in 2016, the cornerback position might be easy to work out when determining who makes the final roster
Byron Maxwell will surely make the team, as will second round pick Xavien Howard. Tony Lippett and Bobby McCain, while unproven, are expected to play major roles in 2016 in an effort to determine the true potential of the 2015 draft picks that really were not utilized much last season. Maxwell, Howard, McCain, and Lippett will, in some order, make up the top of the depth chart at cornerback.
The Dolphins will then have tough decisions to make in regards to Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Jordan Lucas. If Lucas impresses, he will be able to make the team. If Ekpre-Olomu is healthy, then he could be a huge addition for Miami.
Based on early reports from OTAs and minicamp, it seems that Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is returning to health. In my eyes, this at least gets him through the early portion of the season.
Jordan Lucas becomes necessary based on Ifo Ekpre-Olomu’s history and the recent news that Xavien Howard is recovering from minor knee surgery. Even if Howard doesn’t miss time in the regular season, he truly needs the reps in training camp and the preseason. Jordan Lucas moves one step up the depth chart and puts himself in position to carve out a larger role than expected as a rookie.
Verdict: Maxwell, Howard, McCain, Lippett, Ekpre-Olomu, and Lucas (6)
Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus will almost certainly be the starters in 2016.
The Dolphins have depth at safety entering next season, which can be considered an asset in a talent-deficient secondary. I cannot see the team parting ways easily with Walt Aikens, and Michael Thomas is a major asset on special teams. Thomas will not be eligible for the practice squad, and Aikens would almost certainly be claimed. In a pinch, I believe one of them could potentially even play cornerback (while the results would certainly be subpar, bodies are bodies).
Verdict: Jones, Abdul-Quddus, Thomas, and Aikens (4)
Andrew Franks and Matt Darr both played well during their rookie seasons. They are on cheap rookie deals and can be expected to fill the kicker and punter roles respectively in 2016.
If you have read my work before, you know how I feel about John Denney. The man is a deity. He is the most consistent player in the NFL. How can we say that an undrafted rookie will come in and unseat him? He has been disrespected for his entire career, and I do not doubt that he will be disrespected during camp this year. However, I cannot buy into the belief that Denney’s job is going to be lost this offseason.
Verdict: Darr, Franks, and Denney (3)
I started my spreadsheet for this roster prediction with 59 players. Those cuts, indicated on the chart below in red, are players who I believe will be strong practice squad candidates if eligible. If they are not eligible, they simply fall under the distinction of a very difficult cut.
The Miami Dolphins, like every NFL team, will have some tough decisions to make in terms of personnel this preseason. Their situation is uniquely difficult because at many positions they do not have clear-cut top end talent. For example, the cornerback position is highly unsettled, as is the defensive end spot. The Dolphins will not be simply deciding to keep a young player for development – they can only afford to hold onto players who are ready to contribute now.
Mike Tannenbaum, Chris Grier, and Adam Gase will work together to dwindle down the 90-man roster to 53 players by the closure of the preseason. In that time, injuries, practice performance, and preseason game displays will all help contribute to who makes the cut. At the end of the day, there really is no right decision. However, as the answers become clearer throughout the beginning of the 2016 season program, we will see how close these projections come to the final result of the Dolphins’ offseason roster construction.
Oh, and there’s one more thing I forgot to mention…
Football. Is. Back.