Brian Flores wants tough decisions. He's hoping that what he sees Thursday night in the preseason finale at New Orleans makes those decisions even tougher.
"This game," Flores says, "is a great opportunity."
An opportunity for young players to reaffirm what the Dolphins already know and perhaps revise what they think they know. This is the Last Chance Bowl for so many of the players on the bottom third of the roster. Jobs will be won in this game. Some will be lost. A few might do enough to interest other teams.
Any way you look at it, the young players on this team, at least the ones fighting for a spot on the roster, well understand the importance of a Thursday night in New Orleans, nor do they need to be reminded that this Saturday at 4 p.m. is when rosters must reach the regular season limit of 53 players.
Translation: If these players have another gear, it would be wise to find it now.
"This game," said free agent defensive back Nik Needham, "could mean everything."
Normally the starters sit in the fourth preseason game and I anticipate many of them will. But this, by and large, hasn't been a normal summer for the Dolphins what with this major infusion of youth coupled with a new coaching staff, a new system and generally a new way of doing things.
As a result, I'm not quite sure how Flores will handle things against the Saints, whether he'll decide that some of the young starters – like two rookie guards on the offensive line – require further seasoning before Baltimore comes to Hard Rock Stadium on Sept. 8th. It's an interesting balance. It is paramount to keep your players healthy heading into the opener but they also need to be sharp and well tested. That's usually not an issue with a veteran team. But a team this young? This inexperienced? This, in many ways, is unchartered territory.
"It's all about getting better," said Flores.
About a month ago when training camp began, I wrote a column about defensive back Montre Hartage, an undrafted rookie out of Northwestern. He had made a big impression on the first day of training camp, intercepting a pass in the end zone, and was cautiously optimistic about his chances of surviving the summer.
Earlier this week I caught up with him again in the locker room, now so much more aware of what is expected, but still so uncertain about his future, a future he hopes to solidify with a strong showing against the Saints.
Hartage has had a good summer. He's been moved from cornerback to free safety full time and seems to have adjusted well. Nothing that has happened over the past month has changed his belief that he has what it takes to make it at this level, that the stage isn't too big and that the challenges aren't too imposing. But do you ever really know for sure?
Now it's about putting an exclamation point on his summer, finishing things off with some attention-getting plays against the Saints and, as a result, making a tough decision a relatively easy one.
"Anything can still happen and you never want to feel too comfortable," Hartage said. "But you can't find a substitute for experience and that's what I'm trying to gain now. I need to go out in this last game with a gritty mindset. I have to make plays. I need to be relentless and determined. I need to focus on everything I can control."
One final preseason game. So many livelihoods hanging in the balance. One big play, one defining moment, can change everything.
"I need to show the coaches I can be trusted," Hartage said.
Hartage is part of a packed defensive back room. There are currently 16 on the roster and the team figures to keep 10 or 11. Then there's the real possibility of waiver wire pick-ups, which means if Hartage makes the 53-man roster, there are still no long-term guarantees.
"I have to stay hungry all the time," he says. "Just keep pushing."
Hartage is one of the many players I'll be focusing on Thursday night. Here's a quick rundown on five others:
- Linebacker Sam Eguavoen: The more we see him the better he looks. It's no longer a question of whether he'll make the roster it's more about how much he'll play. Another quality performance against the Saints and he could be starting against the Ravens.
- Wide receiver Preston Williams: The undrafted rookie has been one of the feel good stories of the summer. But he has yet to come close to his performance in the preseason opener against the Falcons. Thursday night is about making sure that arrow continues to point up.
- Quarterback Jake Ruddock: The expectation is that Ruddock will receive the majority of the quarterback reps in this game. It is uncertain whether the Dolphins will keep two quarterbacks or three. Ruddock has done a nice job this summer and would love an opportunity to stick around on his hometown team.
- Running back Patrick Laird: Has this undrafted rookie done enough to earn the third running back spot behind Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage? He leads the team in rushing with 101 yards, more than double his nearest teammate. A productive performance against the Saints and Flores will have another one of those tough decisions.
- Cornerback Chris Lammons: His special teams play got our attention last Thursday against the Jaguars and now it's about building on that. For so many of these players, how they perform on special teams is their ticket to the 53-man roster.