It took only two minicamps of the Dolphins’ offseason team program to get a feel for just how wide open the coaching staff has thrown the cornerback race.
Coming in for his first looksee against the veterans, second-round draft pick Sean Smith was slotted as the backup behind free-agent arrival Eric Green. A week later, Smith was found working with the first team.
And ahead of Vontae Davis, the corner who the Dolphins took 36 spots ahead of Smith in the draft.
Talk about your fast risers.
“We wanted to see him versus maybe some better [receivers] there,” coach Tony Sparano told reporters as OTAs reached their midway point. “We watched him down there make a couple of plays in the red area, so I was happy with that.”
The coach quickly cautioned, though, not to read too much into the shift. “Everybody’s kind of going to get an opportunity here to get some reps,” he said.
But it’s fair to say cornerback stands as work in progress — and the biggest mystery once training camp opens in July.
Will Allen, the ink still fresh on a two-year contract extension, figures to hold down one corner. That’s the only reasonably certain spot—the opposite side now appears up for grabs, along with the nickel and dime assignments.
The Dolphins brought 15 cornerbacks into the OTAs. Only about half figure to survive — slim odds once you set aside spots for Allen, Green, Davis and Smith.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Sparano said.
Allen is a decent cover corner whose three interceptions trailed only the departed Andre Goodman.
Green started 33 games in his four seasons with Arizona, including nine during the Cardinals’ improbable Super Bowl run.
Smith, a key player in Utah's unbeaten season, is the tallest of the group at 6'3". He is a huge asset in the Dolphins’ philosophy that emphasizes big cornerbacks to counteract guys like New England’s Randy Moss and now Buffalo’s Terrell Owens.
Davis, meanwhile, may appear behind the curve now but could make up ground quickly. Once the pads go on, he can showcase the hitting ability that impressed scouts while at Illinois.
And that doesn’t factor in guys like Jason Allen, whose Dolphins tenure has found him bouncing from cornerback to safety and back to cornerback. He’s also a solid special-teams player.
Nathan Jones finished last season with the dime assignment.
Another position battle to watch comes at defensive end, where Phillip Merling and Randy Starks seek to replace the departed Vonnie Holliday.
Merling needed time to get his bearings last season, when fellow rookie Kendall Langford, taken one round later than the Clemson product, wound up nailing down the starting job at the other end.
But Sparano saw improvement toward the end of the season, which included an interception of Brett Favre that Merling returned for a TD in the regular-season finale. Merling has worked with the first team throughout OTAs so far.
Starks also must deal with any fallout from his May arrest on South Beach, charged with aggravated battery after the truck he was driving clipped a police officer who had pulled him over.
Lionel Dotson and Rodrique Wright also are competing at the end position.