Last of the Deals
With the upcoming training camp bearing down on us like a runaway freight train, it has dawned on me that now might be a good time to try and finish up my series about the free agents that the Dolphins have signed this summer.
And once that's done, I'll have just enough time to do the draftees before full practices begin.
Unfortunately, there are just too many players to cover completely in a reasonable amount of time. By my count, the Dolphins have signed (or traded for) 21 free agents this year....
...not counting any of the rookies.
So I'm afraid that I'm going to have to limit my coverage of the free agents to the remaining few who I believe will make an impact on the team. Out of the 17 free agents that I haven't talked about, I figure that about 6 stand a chance at being on the roster in September.
Of course, given the Dolphins' recent history, there will undoubtedly be a free agent or two who will surprise all the pundits and come out of nowhere to make the final cut (like Oronde Gadsden did last year...), but those guys are impossible to predict, so I'm just going to stay with the contenders.
First on our list of contenders is the player that JJ hopes will be this year's Robert Jones. His name is Dixon Edwards and, like Jones, he plays linebacker. Unlike Jones, however, his experience is at outside linebacker, most recently on the strong side of the Minnesota Vikings defense.
Now, the reason that the Dolphins have acquired this player is that the Vikings cut Edwards in a salary cap move (again, like Jones). And as soon as Edwards was cut, JJ was on the phone to his agent, trying to get him to come to Miami.
Another similarity to Robert Jones is Edwards' ties to JJ and Dave Wannestedt. Edwards started his career in Dallas, playing for Wannestedt and JJ, first as a special teams player and eventually as their starting strongside linebacker.
He went to the Vikings in 1996 after being signed as a free agent, where he initially switched to weakside linebacker. In 1996 he had the best year of his career, amassing 96 tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception. Unfortunately, his stats declined after that after he was moved back to the strongside linebacking position.
With Robert Jones and Zach Thomas firmly entrenched as starters in the other two linebacking spots, the only starting position that Edwards might challenge for is at the weakside linebacker's spot. Fortunately for the Dolphins and for Edwards, that's just where they've put him.
Last year, Derrick Rodgers started at weakside linebacker for the Dolphins but had a bit of a sophomore slump after a very impressive rookie year. Of course, some of that is just in contrast to what Robert Jones and Zach Thomas were doing, but I think it's fair to say that Rodgers did not make as many big plays as JJ would have liked.
So in comes Dixon Edwards. It's difficult to say who has the edge right now - Rodgers is younger and quicker but Edwards has size and experience on his side. In my opinion, the decision as to who starts will be mostly influenced by Edwards' speed and quickness. If Edwards still maintains enough speed from his former playing days to do everything JJ wants, he'll get the nod.
On the other hand, if Edwards has lost a step or two (as some have alleged), JJ won't hesitate to let Rodgers retain his position.
My hunch (which is completely unencumbered by supporting facts) is that Edwards will take the starting job away from Rodgers. As a rookie, Rodgers had 80 tackles and 5 sacks, but last year had 47 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He'll need to boost his performance to keep his starting job.
Unfortunately for OJ Brigance, who is recovering from an injury, the signing of Edwards, along with Brian Jones and Sammie Burroughs puts Brigance in a very precarious position. If any of the three new linebackers can play special teams well, Brigance could be gone.
And while we're on the subject of linebackers, another player I wanted to discuss is Sammie Burroughs. Burroughs was originally signed by the Colts in 1996 as a rookie free agent. He started one game each in 1996 and 1997 for the Colts, but was on injured reserve all last year before being released by the Colts this spring.
Despite only starting 2 games in 1996 and 97, Burroughs racked up 42 tackles in 1996 and 29 in 1997. He also did a good job on special teams - and if he can return to his earlier form, he could push Brigance off the team.
... but he's got a lot of pushing to do.
The other two free agents who could be significant on defense are Rich Owens and Greg Jeffries. Owens is a defensive end who was originally drafted in the 5th round by the Washington ... team (name withheld to avoid offending anyone...). After registering 3 sacks as a rookie, Owens had a breakout year in 1996, when he picked up 11 sacks while playing next to defensive tackle Sean Gilbert for the .... Washington team.
In 1997, Sean Gilbert sat out the season and Owens bulked up, making him stronger but slower, and his sack total dropped to 2.5. Last year Owens was injured and didn't play.
So, in an effort to bolster their pass rush and replace an aging Danny Stubbs, the Dolphins have signed a slimed down Owens to back up Jason Taylor. JJ is hoping that Owens can return to the form that gave him 11 sacks in 1996.
Owens, of course, maintains that he'll compete for the starting job and might be able to take it away from Taylor. While that's an admirable ambition, it's not likely to happen. But with the Dolphins rotating their defensive linemen as often as they do, Owens will see plenty of playing time.
I've never seen Owens play, so I can't comment on how much impact he'll have on the pass rush, but he should at least be better than Danny Stubbs was last year.
Greg Jeffries is a player who's signing completely baffled me at first - until I found out that he was a very good nickel back. Last year, at the end of the season, the Dolphins got burned a number of times when Jerry Wilson got matched up on opponents' starting wide receivers. He was the most vulnerable of the Dolphins' cornerbacks and JJ would like to upgrade that position.
While it's true that Jeffries started at free safety for the Detroit Lions in 3 games last year, he doesn't stand much of a chance of bumping Brock Marion out of the starting job. What he could do (if reports of his competence at nickel back are correct) is to bump Jerry Wilson out of the 4th cornerback slot against the spread offensive formations that were used against the Dolphins last year.
JJ has already spent a lot of time working out defensive schemes for these formations and upgrading players would help complete the picture.
Also, Jeffries played for the Lions - which was another division rival of Dave Wannestedt's Bears in the NFC Central. That means that Wannestedt saw Jeffries twice a year for the last few years. Anybody want to bet that Wannestedt didn't have any influence on this signing?
... I thought not.
As an added bonus, Jeffries has enough experience at safety to provide depth at that position. But I think that the reason he was picked up was to compete with Jerry Wilson and provide that extra nickel back.
So far, I've been talking exclusively about defensive players. But JJ did bring in a number of offensive players other than Wheatley, Martin and Gogan, the most significant of which are Willie Green and Roosevelt Potts.
I discuss Potts first because he's easier to figure out. JJ originally picked up Potts towards the end of the 1997 season to play fullback when Stanley Pritchett was injured. Potts didn't get to play much, but JJ liked what he saw enough that he tried hard to sign Potts after the 1997 season. However, because Potts' agent is Ted Marchibroda's son and because Potts had played for Marchibroda in Indy, Potts signed with the Ravens...
... where he started for 15 games last year. He didn't do much running the ball, averaging 3.2 yards per carry, but he did catch 30 passes for 168 yards and 2 TDs. But with Marchibroda getting the ax in Baltimore, Potts was free to come back to Miami and he did.
I believe that JJ plans to use Potts as he's always used his fullbacks - as a blocker and an occasional pass catcher. In that role, Potts may turn out better than Pritchett and could put Pritchett on the trading block. I think that Potts is more likely to make the team than Pritchett at this point - if Rob Konrad lives up to expectations.
The signing of Willie Green is harder to figure out, although there were signs of it in 1998. A source that I have learned to trust told me last year that the Dolphins were very interested in Green and were considering trying to acquire him from Denver last year. When he became a free agent this spring, I figured it was just a matter of time.
What's harder to figure out is why the Dolphins would be so interested in him. At 6'4" and 191 pounds, he seems to be just a taller version of Lamar Thomas. And while Thomas has had a few moments of glory, he is not consistently a dangerous threat.
Now, Willie Green has had some pretty good seasons, but it's been a while since he was a genuine deep threat. His best season was in 1995, when he played for the Carolina Panthers. He started 7 games for them, catching 47 passes for 882 yards and 6 TDs. That's an 18.8 yard per catch average, which is terrific.
Unfortunately, he hasn't done much lately. Since that great 1995 season, he's been pretty average. In the last 2 years, he's only started 2 games and has averaged less than 13 yards per catch each year.
Now, there may be something about Green that JJ feels he can use and/or his experience may give him an edge in training camp. But if Yatil Green's leg continues to hold up, Willie Green will be fighting for playing time with Yatil, Oronde Gadsden, Lamar Thomas, and Nate Jacquet, not to mention Larry Shannon (who is bigger and probably faster than Willie G.) and the other free agents.
And to top it all off, Willie Green doesn't play special teams.
Now, JJ may know how to use Willie Green better than anyone else in the NFL, but my feeling is that Willie doesn't have much of a chance to make the team. JJ is not likely to keep a 5th or 6th wide receiver who doesn't play special teams, and I can't see Green beating out Gadsden or a healthy Yatil for a 3rd or 4th WR spot.
Like Fred Barnett, I'm afraid that Willie Green's time has probably passed. He was an insurance policy that was taken out in case the Dolphins couldn't get Tony Martin or if Yatil Green doesn't make it to the regular season - again.
But I don't think the team will need that insurance and will be canceling the policy in September.
So that completes my look at the important free agents the Dolphins have signed this year. Remember, please, that this is just my opinion and if this year is anything like previous years, one of the players I haven't talked about will step forward and surprise us.
In fact, I've already heard some rumors that cornerback Emmanuel McDaniel from East Carolina has turned a few heads and could be a surprise in training camp.
But I think that I've covered most of the guys who have a chance to contribute this year. When comparing the players that were available to the ones that JJ has signed, this could turn out to be the most successful year for free agency that the Dolphins have had since JJ took over.
But the free agents are only part of the equation. So during the next few days, I'm going to talk about the other half of the personnel equation - the draft picks. And even though there's only a handful of draft picks this year (as compared to past years), these players have a chance to make as big a difference to this team as any class of rookies since JJ came to town.
And with training camp coming up shortly, I'd better get busy and cover the draft picks real soon. Which I will do...
... On Porpoise.