Last year's list was Tyrone Culver, Andy Alleman, Brandon London, Cameron Wake, and Donald Thomas. London is really the only guy on there that I missed on (and, truthfully, I was basing my selection of him on his ability to put on and maintain weight). Alleman was good enough to net the team a not-insignificant fifth-round draft pick in this year's draft.
To be considered for this list, a player must meet the following criteria (borrowed from Football Outsiders Almanac definition of a prospect):
- Drafted or signed in 2007 or later
- Drafted no earlier than round three
- Less than five career games started
- Still on a free agent contract or their original contract
5. RB Lex Hilliard
Running back is the most fungible position in football, and Miami had to call on its deep reserves in 2009, after injuries to Ronnie Brown and Patrick Cobbs. That left Hilliard, a sixth-round pick of the Dolphins in 2008, to assume the primary backup duties behind Ricky Williams. Miami was able to call on Lex because they opted to keep a fourth RB on the roster to start the season. With Brown and Cobbs returning from injury this offseason, Hilliard may once again get shoved down the depth chart, but the RB situation for 2011 is completely up in the air at the moment since Brown's contract ends after this year and Ricky very well may retire. If Hilliard can stick on the roster for another year, his opportunities might explode in 2011. He impressed with the limited number of opportunities he had (169 offensive snaps). He hit the hole with authority and gained yards after contact at a rate better than Ricky and on par with Ronnie. He particularly impressed me with his receiving output (93.7% DVOA!), which I had believed to be a weakness of his coming out of college. He was also a key contributor on special teams, finishing with 14 tackles, third most on the team. With Lex on the team, there's absolutely no reason to draft a RB this year and it's very easy to envision him splitting the load with another runner come 2011.
4. S Chris Clemons
With the release of Gibril Wilson and the inability to sign either Antrel Rolle or Ryan Clark, Miami's free safety position would currently be filled by Chris Clemons or Tyrone Culver. And honestly, I'm fine with that. Sure, I'd like to see the team draft another safety to compete for the spot, but probably not in one of the first two rounds of the draft. I don't get why so many people are so worried about possibly starting Clemons this year. This is what happens on good teams! They draft guys who go on to start for them within a few years time. You have to put your faith in prospect development sometimes. Not every hole is always going to be filled by a first-rounder or a big free agent. When Miami drafted Clemons in the fifth round last year, I thought it was a great pick because he represented good value in that spot and showed future starting potential. It's not like he's completely raw either; he started for three years in college, playing 51 games (so he's very durable) and he was already called on to start for Miami twice in his rookie year. Now obviously, he didn't wow anyone in his limited chances, but the coaches must have seen something in him they trusted and liked. Another offseason should sharpen up some of his coverage skills and we all know about his blazing speed. Development also takes more than just years of waiting; it takes actual game experience. If you want a long-term starting free safety you've got to give young guys like Clemons real game opportunities to sink or swim. Personally, I think Clemons could handle the job this year.
3. TE John Nalbone
After a year in which the tight ends played magnificently (2008), they came crashing down to earth in a fiery wreck last year. Anthony Fasano seems like the only TE lock to make the team right now, so John Nalbone, a fifth round pick last year, will have every opportunity to make the team in a significant role this season. Nalbone is a complete tight end, meaning that he can both catch and block well. Those kind of TEs are tough to find and are very valuable. I wasn't too shocked that he spent most of last season on Miami's practice squad. After all, he was entering the NFL out of Monmouth, a small school, and that jump to the NFL level is huge and would take some time. He should be well acclimated entering this offseason, and I see no reason why he can't challenge Joey Haynos and Kory Sperry to be Miami's second string TE. Nalbone has future starting potential, and depending on how he performs this season, could be setting himself up to start in 2011 if the team decides to move on from Fasano.
2. WR Brian Hartline
Hartline was the second of two WRs drafted by Miami last year, but he ended up far outplaying Patrick Turner who was taken a round ahead of him. Hartline was very likely the best WR on the Dolphins last year. He is a stat-geeks' dream, too. In the past I've talked a lot about WR body types and how certain Body Mass Index/height relationships indicate whether a WR has a chance to be elite or not. Hartline's body type happens to fall into the "Slight" elite category. The one thing everyone noticed about Turner was his size, but that doesn't mean he has an elite body. Hartline's got one, and it showed up in his rookie season. He saw only 407 offensive snaps, but led the team with three TDs, showed an immediate chemistry with Chad Henne, and posted a fantastic 16.3 yards per catch average. His advanced stats were also off the charts; he had 156 DYAR (30th in NFL) and a 21.8% DVOA (10th in NFL). No one expects Hartline to be anything more than a solid number three WR but I think that's severely selling him short. This guy could be a true surprise player. I'm not saying I would be comfortable with him as the team's long-term No. 1 wideout, but if the season started today, he would be my top WR.
1. OLB Cameron Wake
Two years in a row on this list, whoo! Wake qualifies for the list because he was signed by Miami after 2007, even though he came out for the draft in 2006. Actually, I wish Wake weren't on this list because it would've meant the coaches finally gave him more playing time (and more starts). I realize that he still needs a lot of work setting the edge and stopping the run as well as working in coverage. But I guarantee he would do those two things just as well as Joey Porter supposedly did them last season. And at this stage of their careers, Wake is probably the better pass rusher. So why can't he start for this defense? The bottom line is that Wake was an absolute monster in his limited playing time this past season. According to ProFootballFocus, if Wake had played even 25% of Miami's defensive snaps, he would have been the third best 3-4 OLB in the NFL. Obviously, we're talking a small sample size here (just 167 defensive snaps), but that mistake falls on the coaching staff. Wake should have been playing a hell of a lot more last season. He finished fourth on the team in sacks and third in QB hits in just a fraction of the snaps. He also had 20 QB pressures - as many as Jason Taylor. Even if he's not a complete player at this point, he needs to be starting, or at least heavily rotating. He's already 28 years old, so the team doesn't have forever to coach him up. We all saw how disruptive he can be; now it's time to unleash that to its full potential.