With practices now entering their third week and workout time in Tampa against the Bucs next on the schedule, let’s hit the rewind button and examine some of the biggest surprises of training camp, in no particular order. You’ll notice this list of 10 includes seven undrafted rookies, which is probably the biggest surprise of all.
- RB Kalen Ballage: We saw the potential on his 75-yard sprint late last season in Minnesota. But now we’re seeing the consistency as well. We’re seeing a player with excellent size for a running back (6-2, 231) that has improved every facet of his game since last season. Will he start opening day against Baltimore? He’s certainly in the mix and that tells you plenty about the training camp he’s had.
- WR Preston Williams: The prediction came from cornerback Xavien Howard, who knows a thing or two about quality receivers. “(Williams) is going to be a No. 1 receiver in this league someday,” Howard said of the undrafted rookie out of Colorado State. That’s powerful stuff coming from a Pro Bowl player. Williams has earned the praise, putting together an impressive training camp resume of big catches and then following that up with a huge game against the Falcons. He certainly has the size (6-5, 218 pounds) you covet. Who knows what this player’s ceiling might be?
- LB Sam Equavoen: Opportunity arrived with last year’s starter Raekwon McMillan sidelined early in camp and Equavoen has clearly made the most of it. He is small (6-0, 236-pounds) but overcomes that with a tenacious mindset and a diverse skillset. After being undrafted out of Texas Tech he spent a year out of football and then three seasons in Canada before signing this offseason with the Dolphins. Now is his chance and so far he sure looks like he belongs.
- DE Tank Carradine: Yes, he’s a fifth-year player and a former second-round pick of the 49ers but Carradine’s career has stagnated, which is why he was available for the Dolphins to sign last February. Sure looks like a good move now. The former Florida State player was the most impressive of the defensive ends early in camp and who could very well be carving himself a spot in the starting lineup. You take a chance and you never know.
- DB Montre Hartage: In the first training camp practice, Hartage picked off a pass in the end zone, perfectly reading the quarterback’s eyes, and he’s had the eye of the coaching staff ever since. They’ve used him at cornerback and they’ve experimented with him at safety and the undrafted rookie out of Northwestern has responded well. His ticket to making the team could very well come on special teams.
- CB Nik Needham: OK, he struggled last Thursday night against Atlanta, but the Dolphins believe there is enough upside to justify further scrutiny. Yet another undrafted rookie – a four year starter at UTEP -- who wasn’t even invited to the Scouting Combine, Needham started opposite Xavien Howard against the Falcons in part due to Eric Rowe being sidelined by an injury and in part because he earned the opportunity with his play in training camp. Now we’ll get to see how he responds after a rough opening act.
- OG Shaq Calhoun: Add his name to that rapidly growing list of intriguing undrafted rookies turning heads early on. Calhoun, out of Mississippi State, has been lining up with the starters for the past 10 days or so. This guarantees nothing, but it does indicate the type of upside this coaching staff obviously sees. Calhoun is more guts and determination than raw physical talent. The remaining preseason games should tell us all we need to know.
- DE Jonathan Ledbetter: His sack against the Falcons was just another indication of the type of summer this undrafted rookie out of Georgia is having. Ledbetter is suited well to play defensive end in a 3-4 defense and the coaching staff sees his versatility as a huge plus. The defensive line is wide open now and there is certainly room for a player like Ledbetter.
- RB Patrick Laird: There is a clear battle going on for the final running back spot on the roster and Laird did nothing to hurt his chances against the Falcons. An undrafted rookie out of Cal, Laird had the longest run of the night, a 19-yarder in the third quarter. He is in a heated competition with, among others, seventh-round pick Myles Gaskin, who certainly helped his cause with a pair of touchdowns against the Falcons.
- DE Dewayne Hendrix: The seventh of those undrafted rookies, Hendrix spring boarded into our consciousness with a two-sack performance against the Falcons. Similar to Ledbetter, Hendrix has a real shot to make this team and the decision will likely come down to special teams. But the upside is clearly there and the next few weeks will certainly bring us more clarity.
Note: I purposely did not include draft picks on this list because it’s hard to label any of them a big surprise given the route by which they arrived, but all six have an excellent chance of making the team.