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  Dolphins Corner the Draft
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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On April 24, the Miami Dolphins had a glaring need: cornerback.


On April 25, they addressed it…emphatically, and twice over for good measure.


Addressing it is one thing, solving it is another; we won’t know if the Dolphins hit paydirt in the 2009 NFL Draft for some time to come.


“I judge it probably in three years”, said Dolphin GM Jeff Ireland. “You have to judge them in how they contributed to your roster and how well they are playing.”


Right, and why I like to focus on strategy versus a team’s overall philosophy. Were they able to move their vision forward?


In my estimation, Miami’s primary goals in this draft were to: a) rebuild the secondary, b) add a pass rusher, and c) add explosive players to the offense. The Dolphins were able to address a) and c), and have other options to solve b).


This is why I believe that, overall, they had a very successful weekend.


1(25) Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois

As was the case last year with Jake Long, the Dolphins were able to address a top need with the top prospect. The best cover corner in the draft, Davis has the size, speed, and range to match up well with the top receiver talent in the AFC East and the NFL. He is a very physical player in coverage with excellent quickness; these are qualities that will serve him well versus the varying styles of Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Lee Evans, and Wes Welker. Davis is also very solid against the run.


Not many teams have a player of this potential.


Alleged character issues were the reason he lasted as long as he did, longer than corners of his caliber usually do. Yet his college coach, Ron Zook, was effusive in his praise of Davis’s talent and character, comparing him to Rod Woodson (former Steelers All-Pro). The Dolphins apparently agreed.


Davis will compete with Jason Allen for the starting job opposite Will Allen and is considered the favorite to win it.


“He's big, he's physical, he's fast, he can play either man or zone, he can play man off, and he plays the run very well”, Ireland gushed. “He's a good kid, we like the player very much. We feel like he can compete for a position right away.”


2(44) Pat White, QB/WR, West Virginia

White was the most controversial pick on Day One. Is White a quarterback or a wide receiver? Did the Dolphins pick him too early? How this plays out remains to be seen.


Bottom line is that Pat White is an outstanding all-around talent. What does this mean? Put in comparative terms, he is as good a runner as Michael Vick but a better passer and a better receiver. In this world of specialized football, it is rare to find someone of his caliber and proficiency.


White is destined for the Wildcat, where his electric talents can be immediately put to use. The Dolphins also expect him to compete with heir apparent Chad Henne at quarterback. Is this latter expectation realistic in its chances for success? Right now, no. For one thing, White’s lack of height (6’0”) behind the monster line that Parcells and company have assembled could be a problem. For another, it isn’t clear if White is a better passer than Henne.


Perhaps an accurate perspective to have for now is to view the Dolphins as a two system team with potentially two starting quarterbacks (one per system). It will be interesting to see how this plays out as White gains experience.


“Pat White has an unusual set of skills that can help us”, Ireland explained. “He enhances our offense. He enhances how we play offense. He's got an unusual skill set, whether he plays quarterback, or another position. Right now he's going to line up at quarterback. There will be a lot said about how we are going to utilize him. I think we are creative enough as a coaching staff, that he will be able to enhance our offense in a multitude of ways. We are excited to have him, and I am excited to see what this young man can do not only as a quarterback, but possibly other ways.”


2(61) Sean Smith, CB, Utah

The Dolphins were fortunate to be able to get Smith as late as they did in the second round. At 6-4, 214, he is very big for cornerback. Yet he is surprisingly fluid and fast, most unusual for a CB of his dimensions. If not as an immediate starter, he should prove useful in extra DB situations, especially defending the fade route to the outside and the jump pass in the corner of the endzone.


“It definitely makes it more difficult for receivers to catch the ball and ball placement for quarterbacks”, said Smith. “With my reach and size, you definitely have to keep the ball away from me. I understand splits and route combinations. I understand the open holes inside defenses where people like to fit inside zone coverages. Being a former receiver helps me out a lot.”


"As a defensive back you have to work on your breaks and your quickness. I am a bigger guy, so I can definitely work on my quickness when it comes to guarding those smaller wide receivers. That is something I am willing to work on and get in there and compete."


“His skill set is rare for his size”, noted Ireland. “We have to do a good job of continuing to develop those skill sets. I think he will play, and I think he will play pretty early.”


3(87) Patrick Turner, WR, Southern California

Some draft gurus feel the Dolphins reached badly for Turner, a player they feel could have been had two or three rounds later. The knock on him is inconsistency, with only a solid senior season under his belt. What’s indisputable is that, at 6-5, 221 lbs., Turner epitomizes the Dolphins’ love for size and adds to the height dimension currently on the wide receiver roster (Brandon London). Turner appears to be the type of player that will complement Chad Pennington’s game right away.


“I feel I bring a red zone threat, I feel I bring a lot of mismatches, I feel like I'm a possession receiver”, said Turner. “When it comes to third downs, and being on the other side of Ted Ginn, Jr., and having Ernest Wilford, I feel like we can make some big plays. I feel that in the fringe area, to be a bigger guy, I feel I run pretty good routes, and I feel sure-handed, like I can contribute."


“We feel real good about this young man”, Ireland said. “He is a big, tall receiver; I think he runs excellent routes. He scored ten touchdowns last year, he’s a playmaker, he’s played inside, he’s played outside, he’s smart. I think he’s got some versatility and some very good hands.”


4(108) Brian Hartline, WR, Ohio State

It was somewhat surprising to see the Dolphins go with a wide receiver in successive picks, which tells us that Ireland wasn’t as warm and fuzzy about his stable of receivers as he suggested prior to the draft. The value Hartline brings to the Dolphins, at least initially, will be to the special teams where he will be counted on to help upgrade the coverage units.


Hartline is looking forward to the challenge. “I'm a guy who loves it, personally, probably my favorite”, said Hartline. “I’ll do returns. I think I'm great in kickoff coverage. I like cracking heads. It's a lot of fun, and hopefully I can do that for Miami.”


Eventually, the Dolphins will look to incorporate him more fully into the offense.


“Hartline (comes from) another successful program [Ohio State]. Very articulate, very smart, very versatile. Plays on special teams, is a good sized kid, plays inside, plays outside with some flexibility at the wide receiver position that is very important to us”, Ireland said.


Hartline was a teammate of Ted Ginn’s at Ohio State.


5(161) John Nalbone, TE, Monmouth

Once again, the Dolphins showed a willingness to look at smaller college prospects in later rounds. Last year, it was Donald Thomas (UConn) and Lex Hilliard (Montana). This year, it’s 1-AA player Nalbone. As with all small college players, the biggest concern is whether or not they can compete against NFL caliber players. In college, Nalbone was proficient as a receiver with good hands and route running skills. Aside from adjusting to the speed of the pro game, Nalbone will need to improve his blocking skills in order to make the 53 man roster. For now, he is viewed strictly as a developmental player.


“Nalbone (is) about 6-5, about 257, runs real good. Three year starter there at Monmouth”, Ireland summarized. “This kid has tremendous skills. He’s going to have to learn to play at NFL speed, there’s no doubt about it.”


5(165) Chris Clemons, S, Clemson

There’s little that breeds more confidence about a college prospect than a guy who was productive and healthy for four years versus major conference competition. As a redshirt sophomore, Clemons was 12th in tackles in the ACC (102) and led the Tigers secondary in passes defended (9). As a redshirt junior, he had 94 tackles, with four double-figure tackle games. As a redshirt senior, he had 92 tackles and an interception for a touchdown.


“Big, strong, tough, aggressive safety”, said Ireland. “Good cover skills as well. We feel real good that he was there for us and I think he’s going to contribute on the roster very well.”


Expect Clemons to get a long look at strong safety, initially as a back up to Yeremiah Bell.


6(181) Andrew Gardiner, OT, Georgia Tech

Gardiner was a productive four year starter for the Yellow Jackets at left tackle, and will be groomed as a depth player behind starters Jake Long and Vernon Carey. His measurables are terrific, some are prototypical. Yet he is viewed as developmental project, needing improved strength and technique. Gardiner suffered a shoulder injury his senior season, which no doubt contributed to his later round selection.


“(Gardiner) played at a good program”, said Ireland, complementing former Dolphin offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. “(Gardiner’s) got left tackle feet. He’s big, he runs good, he’s a good athlete, he’s got real good test scores, he’s very smart. He brings some much needed depth at the left tackle position, so we feel real good about getting him.”


7(214) J.D. Folsom, LB, Weber State

Another small school player, a “developmental candidate” according to Ireland. Folsom will get a look at the ‘Mike’ and ‘Moe’ inside linebacker positions, as well as some special teams reps.


“He’s got real good size, he’s about 6-2 1/2, almost 240, runs really good”, Ireland said. “Smart kid, older kid, he’s more mature, will be about 25 soon. Real good core special teams player. Has some sub-down value as well, so we got a good plan for him.”


Folsom, uncertain as to whether or not he would get a shot at the NFL, applied for and was accepted into veterinary school (Oklahoma State and Washington State).



Other notes:

  • Immediately after the draft, the Dolphins released QB John Beck in order to ensure that White and Henne could get adequate reps in OTAs and Training Camp. Beck is a quality person and a hard worker who deserves a shot with another team. In a way, the Dolphins mismanaged his first two seasons, and did Beck a favor by giving him the opportunity to get a fresh start. It is disappointing, however, to see another second round pick go up in smoke.
  • The Dolphins went into this year's draft intent on addressing a number of pressing needs, one of which was a 3-4 outside linebacker that could rush the passer. They came up empty in this regard, as other teams had the exact same need. Knowing that they had the inside track on Jason Taylor, however, they were wise not to force the issue by moving around on the board and wasting precious picks. I believe that knowledge helped them to stay on an even keel. Now we will see if they follow up this knowledge by bringing the franchise’s all-time greatest defender back into the fold.
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