When former Sun Devils Cameron Marshall and Keelan Johnson arrive in Miami on Wednesday to sign free-agent contracts with the Dolphins, it will be the culmination of paths neither expected to take.
Both Marshall and Johnson were at different times projected to be NFL draft picks, and neither anticipated ending up in Miami, but now the former Arizona State teammates will try to make the Dolphins roster together.
“To continue our football career playing with each other is great,” Johnson said. “I’m glad there’s another Sun Devil part of the same team I am.”
Neither Johnson nor Marshall could have predicted this path to the NFL for themselves. After an impressive junior season, Marshall projected as a possible middle-round draft pick had he opted to leave ASU a year early. Then he took on reduced role his senior season under first year coach Todd Graham and his stock dropped significantly.
Accordingly, Marshall knew he might not hear his name on draft day.
“I was hoping to be drafted, but I knew there was a possibility I wasn’t going to be from the jump, so I guess I wasn’t surprised either way,” Marshall said. “I was pretty well-prepared for what might happen.”
Johnson’s stock was the opposite. His strong senior season earned him an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine, and he says he heard projections as high as late in the third round. He was surprised not to be selected in the seven rounds.
“I was a little disappointed,” Johnson said. “To slip all the way to free agent was kind of surprising. I was seeing safeties come off the board from schools we’d never even heard of, so I was starting to get disappointed after that.”
Regardless, both players figured they would have opportunities to latch on somewhere.
Before the draft, Johnson had talked to the Vikings, Jets, Eagles and Chiefs and figured he would end up with one of the bunch if he went undrafted. The Dolphins overtook them all though when general manager Jeff Ireland called Johnson and said he was wanted in Miami.
“You can’t go wrong with Miami,” Johnson said. “What helps was Will Davis, the cornerback from Utah State, got drafted there and (Oregon linebacker) Dion Jordan got drafted there — players that I know, which is good because I want to go play with people I know.”
Marshall, too, did not expect the Dolphins to become an option. As the draft wound down, he and his agent started to hear from teams. The Bengals and Broncos were interested, and the Steelers called him during the draft to offer him a spot if he didn’t get picked. It wasn’t until about a half hour after the draft that he heard from the Dolphins.
“They just called probably 30 or 45 minutes after the draft was over and asked me if I wanted to be a Dolphin,” Marshall said.
On the surface at least, it appears both players found a favorable situation in competing for a spot on the 53-man roster.
The Dolphins lost leading rusher Reggie Bush in free agency. Their leading rusher coming back, Daniel Thomas, had just 91 carries last season. The team also drafted a running back, Florida’s Mike Gillislee, in the fifth round. Marshall should be in position to compete for a roster spot but knows it’s incumbent on him to prove himself.
“That’s a necessity for somebody in my situation to go in there with the mindset of something to prove because if you don’t you’re going to find yourself looking for another job sooner or later,” Marshall said. “I’m sure I’ll play some special teams and things like that. I’m coming in there with a worker’s mentality, starting at the bottom and hopefully I can work my way up.”
Johnson also sees a favorable situation for himself in Miami. The Dolphins bring back four safeties from last season, and one of those, Kelcie McCray, missed the whole year with a foot injury. The team also drafted a safety, Arkansas State’s Don Jones, in the seventh round.
“I just felt like I have a pretty good shot at making this Miami Dolphins team,” Johnson said. “Whatever I need to do to make that happen I’ll do.”
As Johnson and Marshall battle for rosters spot, they’ll be glad to see a familaiar face.
“I’m excited about getting out there, getting to the rookie minicamp,” Johnson said. “I just want to stay there and make it a long-term deal and call that place my home.”
Added Marshall: “I feel like this could be a good home for me. Hopefully I can get in there and do everything it takes to make the team and make an impact at running back.”
Both players expect to participate in the Dolphins’ three-day rookie camp that begins Friday.