Highlighting the Miami Dolphins' Best Preseason Performers so Far
We're two games into the Miami Dolphins' preseason, and plenty of players are sticking out and making the case for playing time or even a roster spot.
The Dolphins currently stand at 1-1, but that's not what preseason football is about. You want to look for how players did individually, where they need to improve, who should start and who should be sent packing.
Plenty will be talked about on the negative side of the coin, but today we're going to focus on the positives, highlighting the players on the Dolphins who have played well this preseason.
This isn't a ranking, just a list, and for the most part you won't see players already assured of their starting spot on the list (no Ryan Tannehill). Instead, you will see players who are either earning a starting spot or simply a spot on the final 53-man roster.
Ja'Wuan James, Right Tackle
I like seeing improvement during the preseason, especially from the rookies.
Ja'Wuan James had a very good debut with the Dolphins against the Atlanta Falcons, not allowing a single sack. His run blocking was a concern, as it is for the entire offensive line.
James topped his performance in Atlanta when the Dolphins faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night. Once again, James didn't allow a single sack, and not only did his run blocking improve a bit, but his pass blocking improved as well.
In his first game, James graded out at minus-1.2, thanks in part to a plus-1.0 in pass protection with a minus-2.3 in run blocking, per Pro Football Focus.
Against the Buccaneers, James graded out at plus-0.9, with a plus-2.0 in pass protection as well as a jump to minus-1.3 in run blocking.
The only sign of regression was in penalties, as he was called for two against Tampa Bay and one against Atlanta.
Keep in mind, Tampa Bay has a much better defensive line than the Falcons, especially on the edges. James holding his own in that matchup bodes well for his future.
He's a surefire starter now, barring injury.
Billy Turner, Guard
I use Pro Football Focus a lot because their analytics do a great job of telling the story with numbers, a story that I try to interpret with words.
However, there are times when the numbers don't match the words I say, which is also based on the game I watch.
Billy Turner is said example, as from what I've seen, he's been pretty good this preseason.
Turner should be battling Dallas Thomas for the starting job at guard, for Thomas has been terrible. I've seen the Gerald McCoy excuse being used; however, while I don't expect Thomas to dominate a player as gifted as McCoy, he could at least hold his own and try to look respectable.
Could Turner do that? I'm not sure, but I would've liked to have seen him try, and I'd like to see him try against Dallas' first-team defense this Saturday night.
Against the Buccaneers, Turner's lead block led to Damien Williams' touchdown in the second half, while Turner also did a good job of keeping the quarterback clean, despite allowing a hurry (but no sack).
When Turner played against the Falcons, he did allow a sack, but his run blocking was still better than most of the team's linemen.
Now compare this to the man he's competing against at right guard, Dallas Thomas. If you have a Pro Football Focus subscription, then you know what I mean when I say "Yikes!", thanks in part to a minus-9.4 grade.
Turner's PFF grades on the other hand are comparable to fellow rookie Ja'Wuan James.
Keep this in mind: Turner was a tackle throughout high school and college, while Thomas played every position along the line at Tennessee and has had a year in the NFL where at the very least he's practiced against NFL players.
Chris McCain, Linebacker
Is there hope on the horizon for Miami's linebackers?
As it stands, this position is not only the biggest weakness on defense but also the most glaring weakness on the team. There's potential for the linebackers to become the 2014 version of the 2013 offensive line—a season-killing position that gets exposed by division rivals the second time around.
There's usually hope in youth, though, and while fifth-round pick Jordan Tripp is usually seen as that hope, it's been an undrafted free-agent rookie providing it.
Former Cal outside linebacker Chris McCain has made some noise this preseason and throughout training camp, and at this point he seems like a lock for the final 53-man roster.
Pro Football Focus graded out McCain at plus-4.1 against Tampa Bay and plus-2.2 against Atlanta. Here's what the site said about his performance against the Buccaneers, per Michael Renner, on Saturday night, one that saw him working with Miami's first-team defense:
Against Tampa Bay he took 11 snaps at end and 14 at outside linebacker in a role similar to Dion Jordan’s. It’s been McCain, though, that’s played like he was drafted third overall. He generated two quick hurries late in the game Saturday with a speed rush and made two stops in the running game for an overall grade of +4.1.
ESPN.com's James Walker has predicted that McCain will make the final cut, while Omar Kelly of The Sun-Sentinel has written: "I've become obsessed with former Cal linebacker Chris McCain, who is all over the field destroying the third-team offense."
The more I see McCain on film, the more I like him, but to me he's a lot like his fellow rookie, Tripp: He has the potential to be good, even better than either Philip Wheeler or Dannell Ellerbe, but he's not ready right now, which is a shame for the Dolphins.
Brandon Gibson, Wide Receiver
Coming off a season-ending knee injury in 2013, there were plenty of questions surrounding Brandon Gibson.
Gibson has spent the preseason answering these questions, looking mighty impressive through training camp and the preseason.
Gibson's speed and initial burst look like a man who hasn't had knee surgery thus far, while his route running actually seems to look better. When the ball is thrown his way, he makes the catch and looks the part of a great slot receiver, regardless of who the quarterback is.
Against the Falcons, Gibson was only targeted twice, and each time he caught the pass for a total of 14 yards and one touchdown.
The next week when he and the Dolphins took on the Buccaneers, Gibson was targeted three times, catching the ball twice for 28 yards, including a 16-yard reception.
What's crazy is that Gibson isn't even the Dolphins' best receiver this preseason, despite his stellar play.
Rishard Matthews, Wide Receiver
Here's the best receiver on the Dolphins this preseason.
Rishard Matthews looks ready to take the leap in 2014 and has been a pest to both the Falcons and Buccaneers secondaries in both games.
Matthews caught two passes for 40 yards against Atlanta, with one pass going for 36. Said pass required plenty of YAC (yards after catch) from Matthews, a welcome sight to see from a Miami receiver.
Matthews followed that up with a tremendous outing against the Bucs, where he was targeted three times and he caught the ball each time for 43 yards total and one touchdown, including an 18-yard pass play.
Per Shandel Richardson of The Sun-Sentinel, head coach Joe Philbin has been impressed with Matthews as well, not just during games, but in practice as well:
He made some good plays in the game the other night. He's been productive here on the practice field. The one thing we talk with the guys all the time about is taking the practice to the game, taking the meeting room to practice, taking the practice field to the game. He's done a good job with that.
Currently Matthews is Miami's leading wide receiver in preseason and has been the most impressive thus far.
Will Davis, Cornerback
Two tweets came across my timeline on Monday that should tell you why I love this kid:
Accountability, something you don't see often, but it's one of my favorite traits in a football player.
Here's the thing with Davis: He doesn't have to pick off every pass he sees, just playing good pass defense is good enough, which leads me to the second tweet:
Dolphins CB Will Davis has been targeted 10 times, allowed 3 catches for 34 yards and has 4 PDs. +5.9 coverage grade tops among CBs— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) August 18, 2014
Interceptions are nice, but with that kind of pass coverage, they're not necessities.
Pro Football Focus also said this about Davis:
Will Davis, on the other hand, looks like an NFL starter this preseason. After injuries limited the third-round pick to just 65 snaps as a rookie, the cornerback has been the bright spot of the Dolphins’ defense so far.
Davis allowed 4 yards on three targets and had a pass defensed along with another nice play that was questionably flagged for pass interference. He finished with a +3.5 overall grade and is currently the highest-graded cornerback in the league.
Davis flashed a bit last preseason, but he barely saw the field in 2013. From the looks of it, though, he could be the most improved second-year player on the Dolphins this year. Miami will likely use him as the nickleback, and in that role, I could see him snagging an interception or four this season.
As for the penalty against him, I blame the NFL's officiating for that. On said penalty, it looked more like great defense than pass interference.
At least it was the kind of defense I saw while watching football back in the halcyon days of 2013.