Dolphins coach Joe Philbin knows he’s in for a bit of a culture shock when he finally assembles his team in June at the mandatory mini-camp.
The Dolphins, as expected, have been one of the busiest teams in free agency. They started with a ton of cap room, and so far have added eight players expected to compete for starting positions, if not be given them outright: receivers Mike Wallace (Steelers) and Brandon Gibson (Rams), linebackers Dannell Ellerbe (Ravens) and Philip Wheeler (Raiders), tight end Dustin Keller (Jets), defensive end Vaughn Martin (Chargers), guard Lance Louis (Bears), and cornerback Brent Grimes (Falcons).
It’s not a stretch to say that the Dolphins — who also waved goodbye to Tony McDaniel, Jake Long, Reggie Bush, Karlos Dansby, Kevin Burnett, and Anthony Fasano — have had more roster movement this offseason than Philbin endured in six years with the Packers (who basically sit out free agency under general manager Ted Thompson).
“It’s different,” Philbin said. “I don’t think, or I don’t remember, when I was a coordinator ever having a free agent on offense. So that part of it will be different.
“I wasn’t maybe as deeply involved in those discussions as I am today, either, so I don’t know that we were ever in that position. I think everybody would say that probably most guys, you draft, develop, and sign your own guys and you usually don’t have a big void or a lot of money laying around because you are using your money to keep your own guys.
“So I think this was kind of a unique set of circumstances this year. But again, I feel good about the type of individuals that we added as well as the type of football players they are.”
This is going to be a unique team-building period for Philbin, who is coming off a 7-9 season in his first campaign.
“They’ve got to get acclimated,” said Philbin. “We hopefully, in 13 months, we’ve been able to establish a culture and environment, an atmosphere of how we do business when they walk in that door.
“While these guys are veterans and we’re certainly looking for them to put their stamp on things and make an impact, they’ve got to kind of fit into how we do things. So I think it’s more them, at least, understanding these are responsibilities, the obligations that come with being a Miami Dolphin and kind of fall in line and then let their football stuff take care of itself.”
The Dolphins are going to need all of their imports to acclimate quickly if they are to have a chance at dethroning the Patriots in the AFC East.
“We liked all these guys,” said Philbin. “Each one of them has his own unique skill set that he can bring to the ball club.
“Obviously, Mike [Wallace] got a lot of attention. He was early out of the gate, but I like the guys we added.
“On the offensive side of the ball, I think Brandon Gibson, Dustin Keller, Mike Wallace, all those three guys give us obviously some extra tools to work with. Then, defensively, Philip Wheeler was a guy we targeted a year ago. We liked him in free agency a year ago. Things, for whatever reason, didn’t work out, and we were able to get him back.
“Dannell Ellerbe is another player that we like. We weren’t sure if we were going to be able to get that done, but it was good. I think what happens is sometimes you forget that Matt Moore re-signing was big for us, Brian Hartline and those type of things.
“I think it’s a good start. Certainly not over, but a good start.”
Obviously, providing more tools to quarterback Ryan Tannehill was paramount for the Dolphins. But it’s still going to come down to whether or not Tannehill is a franchise quarterback — something the other AFC East teams have lacked since Tom Brady became the unquestioned king of the mountain.
Philbin, who tutored Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers with the Packers, sounds convinced that Tannehill is the guy.
“I think he’s going to be a very good quarterback, yeah, I do,” Philbin said. “You only have 1,100 plays or 1,000 plays, but you’ve got a lot more on the practice tape, you can see him making vertical throws. You can see him making out-breaking route throws. You can see him making in-breaking route throws.
“You can see him move around. He’s athletic and he’s smart, so there’s no really warning signs right now to me that would say he shouldn’t develop into an excellent football player.”
But Tannehill has much room to grow.
“We’re looking for improvement from him, there’s no question about it,” Philbin said. “Part of it’s the decision-making that we think is so important. Part of it’s accuracy. Part of it’s playmaking ability at critical times.
“While we think he made some really nice strides in his first year, there’s still a long way to go and he’s well aware of that. He’s been in the facility a lot already working. He’s working at his trade. The guy’s a worker.
“So, yeah, we’re excited about the future for growth with him as well.”
MEASURE OF A MAN
In Carroll’s estimation, Wilson is standing tall
Seattle coach Pete Carroll is certainly driving the bandwagon now for quarterback Russell Wilson after he led the Seahawks to an 11-5 season and a playoff victory as a rookie.
But it’s dubious how much Carroll really wanted Wilson, who was taken by Seattle in the third round with the 75th overall pick. Several league sources said that general manager John Schneider, going with his own gut instinct, had to win over Carroll to select Wilson.
Even through much of training camp, Carroll had the same concern that many did about Wilson: his height, which is 5 feet 11 inches. And Carroll acknowledged that he searched long and hard to poke holes in Wilson’s ability to function as an NFL pocket quarterback.
But, said Carroll, “When you watch the film, after a while you don’t notice how tall he is. You watch all that Wisconsin film, it doesn’t have anything to do with how tall he is, it’s just, what play did he make, what throw did he make, how did he move, what was the marvelous decision he made?
“I charted every single throw in seven-on-sevens and walkthroughs and everything I could tell whether there was a factor in there. The more I looked, the less I realized that there was an issue that he couldn’t handle or deal with it and make something good happen with it.
“Some guys are much less adept than he is. He is as adept as you can get at understanding that. And it’s not a factor.”
Carroll said Wilson ended the season in the middle of the pack for passes batted down at the line.
“I think he had three his senior year in college,” Carroll said. “It’s natural instinct and awareness. He knows whether he’s got the opportunity to throw the ball or not based on what he’s seeing and feeling. So if it isn’t there, he just moves or changes the angle of the throw or goes somewhere else with the football, and it goes to the next issue and away we go.”
TOUGH SPOT FOR WINFIELD
Viking ‘glue’ guy stuck on unemployment line
As if you needed another example of how lame this free agency period has been for veteran players, consider the plight of former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield.
Summoned out of the weight room on the eve of free agency, Winfield was told by the Vikings that he and his $7.5 million cap figure weren’t needed any longer. No renegotiation or pay cut, Winfield was simply gone.
Considering Winfield’s cap number, that he’ll be 36 by the start of training camp, and that he is 5 feet 9 inches, the decision, while cold, was understandable.
But for Winfield to still be out on the open market at this point is a little hard to believe.
He isn’t some washed-up veteran. The former Bills first-round pick is still a good player. His 2012 stat line — 110 tackles (11 for a loss), 3 interceptions, 13 passes defensed — is way above average.
He may not have the same coverage skills, but he offers inside and outside versatility, and you won’t find many tougher players at that position. Not to mention his high football IQ, which helps him snuff out plays he shouldn’t get to and rubs off on other players.
“He was the glue,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier told reporters at the league meetings. “The way that he was in our meeting rooms, at practice, his participation in the offseason program.
“His influence, you can’t put a dollar figure on that. It made a big difference on our season and in the development of a lot of players as well.”
There is a chance that Winfield is back for a 10th season with the Vikings. You get the impression that if it were up to Frazier, that would happen. Yes, he would only be viewed as a nickel corner for them, but it’s hard to buy toughness.
Winfield played after his brother was murdered early in the season. He also played the final game of the season and the playoff game with a broken right hand.
He is a true pro. And without a job.
Free agency doesn’t provide the quick fix
There is consternation in some areas of Patriots Nation about the team’s lack of pizzazz in free agency. Most of it stems from the false perception that after Tom Brady’s contract extension, the Patriots had “all this” cap room of $25 million. First of all, it’s not a lot when you factor in the $8 million-$12 million needed for expenses (draft picks, possible contract extensions for players such as Devin McCourty, Ryan Wendell, and Brandon Spikes, in-season roster moves, etc). Secondly, the Patriots had the same amount of room last year — no one remembers that because Brady’s restructure came after free agency started — and didn’t do much. But beyond that, you simply don’t rely on free agency to immediately “put the team over the top.” This isn’t baseball, or even fantasy football. The last three Super Bowl-winning teams (Ravens, Giants, Packers) had a total of one free agent (Giants center David Baas) in the starting lineup in his first year with the team. All three of those teams are near the top of the league at drafting and developing talent. After drafting terribly from 2006-09, the Patriots have done much better in their last three drafts and are close to becoming a draft-and-develop team. That’s part of the reason they haven’t gone nuts in free agency this year. The Patriots will still have a few more moves up their sleeves (veteran pass rusher, receivers, maybe a cornerback), but fans should be buoyed that the coaches feel good about the current roster. Sure, there is some work to do at receiver, but the line, tight ends, and running backs are all back on offense. On the defensive side of the ball, they have finally brought back all of the starters and most of the key reserves from the previous season. Continuity. That’s how you build a champion — if the Patriots are judging their roster correctly.
1. I’m a big fan of Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie going back to our Packers days, and I was well aware what a mess Oakland was when he took over in regards to the salary cap and lack of draft picks (thanks, Al Davis). So anybody demanding a quick fix (ahem, Yahoo!’s Mike Silver) similar to the Colts’ was way off base. But the decision to pursue Matt Flynn, who is not a franchise quarterback because he lacks even average arm strength, should give pause to even the biggest McKenzie supporter. He had better have something else up his sleeve (Geno Smith?), or McKenzie could be in trouble.
2. Great deal for the Patriots on Sebastian Vollmer; terrible deal for Vollmer. He deserves something better than that (most of the good money is contingent on his health and the Patriots keeping him in the lineup). Nothing the Patriots or agent Ben Dogra could have done, just bad luck between his knee scope and the worst free agent market ever.
3. Give Vollmer a lot of credit. Facing free agency for the first time, he could have rested longer — or even elected season-ending surgery — after getting the Week 12 Jets game off. Vollmer to that point had allowed one sack and 14 quarterback pressures in 10 games. In the seven games after the injury, Vollmer allowed 5.5 sacks and 23 total pressures. Vollmer sacrificed money for the team. Hope the Patriots remember that when it comes to Vollmer’s playing time incentives.
4. If Tony Romo thought he had undue pressure on him before, wait until he feels the collar around his neck after getting $55 million guaranteed — which is in the same ballpark as Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, and (soon) Aaron Rodgers. Romo has one playoff victory.
5. Chiefs coach Andy Reid hired his former Eagles offensive coordinator, Brad Childress, as “spread game analyst/special projects.” A cutting-edge position for a guy who vowed to bring a “kick-ass offense” to the Vikings but was ridiculed for the simplicity of his system? Should be interesting.
One interesting thing to monitor this season will be the progress of Dolphins tackle Will Yeatman, who was an undrafted tight end for the Patriots in 2011. Coach Joe Philbin thinks they might have something with Yeatman. “Excited about it,” Philbin said. “Let’s be honest, he was playing behind the 8-ball most of the year but worked his tail off and I’m excited now that we have a chance to really kind of sink our teeth in with him. I think he’ll have a chance to compete. I think he might have some position flexibility. I think he’s athletic enough. He might be able to go to the right side. He might be able to go to the left side. He can move. He’s a good athlete.” . . . Seattle coach Pete Carroll on the plight of Mark Sanchez, his former quarterback at Southern Cal: “I think it’s all about team. I don’t think it’s about one guy, I never have and won’t. You could ask the same question about Matt Barkley. It’s about the team around you. Everybody contributes. I think Mark has shown plenty of good play, and I think he’s going to do a really good job when everything gets settled in and all that. I just think he’s a product of where they are.”
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.