Everything changes this week.
The pressure is ramped up several notches and so is the uncertainty. It's not only that the regular season opener against Baltimore is now less than two weeks away, it's that this Saturday by 4 p.m. the roster must be trimmed by 37 players, from 90 to 53.
As I look at this roster, as I break it down position by position, I can't think of the last time there were so many unknowns heading into Decision Week, the last time the depth chart was this fluid or the last time so many young players had a chance to dramatically alter the complexion of this team.
I called this Team Opportunity when training camp began about a month ago and nothing that has transpired since has changed that mindset. Yes, there are always a group of players in the "sure thing" category. But that group just isn't as large as it has been in the past, certainly not in a long while.
Instead this roster is filled with young, hungry players, many of them undrafted rookies, each stating their case for further employment, most giving this new coaching staff plenty to think about. I know there will be some brutally difficult decisions this week. I also know that past seasons mean little, that this coaching staff began the summer with a clean slate on each player, that it didn't matter how you got here, what mattered was what you did with this opportunity. Because of that, I envision some major surprises on cut down day and perhaps more undrafted rookies making this 53-man roster than ever before.
This week represents a final chance to sway the minds of this coaching staff. Don't expect much joking around in the locker room, not when livelihoods are at stake. But even when the 53-man roster comes into focus, it would be foolish to think that more changes won't occur. I expect, for instance, the Dolphins to be an active participant on the waiver wire.
After all, 1,184 players will be released or moved to an injured reserve category on Saturday and you know General Manager Chris Grier and his staff will be dissecting every name, trying to determine which players are upgrades over what is currently on the roster. The practice squad, I believe, will be equally fluid with so many of the current group of players being eligible.
The coaching staff has spent the weekend carefully evaluating what happened, both good and bad, last Thursday night against the Jaguars. The game certainly brought some clarity in several important areas. But there is still much to sort through and some positions on this team that will be difficult to pair down. I see four areas in particular that might just involve the toughest decisions.
- Wide receiver: This has generally been considered the deepest area of the team. So much depends on the immediate availability of Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant and DeVante Parker. Wilson and Grant are returning from injuries suffered last season. Grant returned to full practice last week, but didn't play against the Jaguars. Wilson still isn't quite there. Parker, meanwhile, has missed the last few weeks with an unknown injury. Combine all of this uncertainty with some other intriguing options – undrafted rookie Preston Williams, veteran Allen Hurns, second-year player Isaiah Ford (who had a big catch against Jacksonville) and seven-year veteran Brice Butler to name a few – and you can see the difficulties this staff will have coming up with the best five or six. Didn't even mention Kenny Stills yet.
- Linebacker: The emergence of first-year player Sam Eguavoen has changed some of the dynamics here. Complicating matters has been injuries to returning starters Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan that have sidelined them much of the summer. Complicating it even more are some younger players who have shown real promise, players like fifth-round pick Andrew Van Ginkel and undrafted rookies Tre Watson and Terrill Hanks. Do they keep five linebackers? Six? There are 11 on the roster right now, which means five probably have to go. Hard to read what the coaching staff is thinking here.
- Defensive back: There are presently 16 defensive backs on the roster and the Dolphins normally keep 10 or even sometimes 11. The top tier nucleus appears set with Xavien Howard, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Bobby McCain and Reshad Jones. But it's the next group that requires more clarity. Eric Rowe seems to be the leading candidate to start at cornerback opposite Howard, but we've also seen good things this summer from, among others, Jomal Wiltz, Chris Lammons, Nik Needham, Cornell Armstrong and Montre Hartage. This could be a make or break week for many of these players. Special teams could very well be the deciding factor. Lammons, for instance, had a huge game on special teams against the Jaguars.
- Running back: The top two are clearly Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage, though Drake is still nursing an injured foot and his availability for the season opener isn't certain. After that, it becomes more complicated. The Dolphins could keep four, maybe five, running backs but you've got to count rookie fullback Chandler Cox in that equation. Mark Walton was the first off the bench last Thursday night, replacing Ballage. But of the backups, undrafted rookie Patrick Laird has been the most impressive this summer, leading the team in rushing the past two games. What about seventh-round pick Myles Gaskin? Another tough call especially after Drake returns to 100 percent.