Next up in the series of training camp positional previews are the safeties. Yesterday, I wrote about how the secondary is the area of weakness for the defense. And although the cornerbacks provide the most cause for concern, the group of safeties has several question marks as well.
What to expect: The safeties are going to face the same challenges, for the most part, that the CBs will have to endure. Although the safeties proved to be solid against the run last season, the more important aspect of their game - and the one that needs the most work - is in pass coverage. As I pointed out yesterday, the crop of receivers on the Dolphins schedule is a tough one, and the AFC East alone provides several headaches when defending against the passing attack. The infusion of Yeremiah Bell as a starter from Week 1 will definitely help the secondary, but they must work on limiting the big play and stopping third-down conversions. Renaldo Hill and Yeremiah Bell are a good starting tandem, but the depth is almost pitiful after them.
Here's a closer look at the individual safeties currently on the roster and what can be expected of them this coming season:
Although the Miami defense doesn't really distinguish between its free safety and its strong safety, per say, Hill generally fits the mold of the free safety. Last season, in his first year with the Dolphins, Hill was a big surprise. When Jason Allen held out of training camp for over two weeks, Hill won the starting job and never let go. He played very solid football all season, finishing third on the team with 86 tackles and 9 passes defensed. He also showed an ability to make plays (something this secondary sorely needs) by nabbing two INTs and one fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown. Hill isn't the fastest or the flashiest safety, but he consistently gets the job done. And with a front seven like Miami has, that's all you can ask for from him. Hopefully Hill's second year in Dom Caper's defensive system will find him even more comfortable and able to make big plays.
It is going to be very exciting to watch Bell this season. After replacing Travares Tillman in the starting lineup about midway through last season, Bell immediately made his impact felt. While he needs work in pass coverage, there is no denying his play-making abilities. Even though he wasn't a starter from the beginning of the season, Bell still managed to record 68 tackles, 2 sacks, 13 PD, 3 FF, and 2 FR. It was almost a given that Bell would be involved in some kind of game-changing play at least once a game. Now, Bell will be able to bring that kind of game-changing ability to the defense from Week 1. It will be crucial for the secondary to cause more turnovers than they did last season in order to get the defense off the field and give the offense more opportunities. Having Bell as the starter from Week 1 will go a long way in helping that cause.
I wasn't expecting Tillman to be back with the team this season, especially after his horrible season last year. After Bell replaced him in the starting lineup, it was clear that starting Tillman at the beginning of the season was a colossal mistake. He just isn't very good. He is a liability in pass coverage and he doesn't compensate for that by showing an ability to force turnovers. Unfortunately, the free agent market for potential replacements was bare, and it doesn't make sense to overpay for a guy who isn't going to provide much more than what Tillman already does. So Tillman will probably go into the season as the third safety, seeing some time in dime packages and giving the starters a breather. I'm not confident at all in his ability to excel at those tasks, but I am happy that at least he won't be a starter. However, if Hill or Bell gets injured, Tillman is the most experienced safety on the depth chart and would most likely have to take over. I really hope that doesn't happen. Tillman will make the squad due to his experience in the system and his ability to play special teams. Perhaps a reserve role will allow him to regain some of his bearings and confidence.
Worrell was signed to be a special teams ace. That is a role he will be able to step right into with the offseason departures of former special teams contributors Sammy Morris, Travis Minor, and David Bowens. While he is a proven special teams player, he has very little experience actually playing safety. If the Dolphins are forced this deep into their depth chart, they will be in trouble. Of course, if the situation were ever to get this drastic, the team may have to consider moving Jason Allen back to safety as a stop-gap move.
I honestly don't know that much about Harrell other than that he was an undrafted rookie free agent of the Arizona Cardinals and that he played for a season in NFL Europa. Training camp will give him an opportunity to prove what he's got, but he is most likely just another camp body.
At 6'4", 234 lbs. Lofton is going to get a look simply because he has tremendous size and could make for a bruising strong safety. He may be considered for the practice squad.
Here's how I think the depth chart will look:
1. Renaldo Hill
2. Yeremiah Bell
3. Travares Tillman
4. Cameron Worrell
5. David Lofton (practice squad)
Training camp battle to watch: It will be interesting to see if Tillman can reestablish some footing and restore some confidence that he can adequately serve as the reserve safety. If he struggles, he may find himself in a battle with Lofton or one of the other youngsters eager to win a roster spot.