With several roster spots still up for grabs, the Miami Dolphins will host the St. Louis Rams Thursday at Sun Life Stadium, giving the coaching staff one last chance to evaluate players before final cuts on Saturday.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and many of the starters will almost certainly sit out the final preseason game as they did last year, but head coach Joe Philbin refused to confirm that after Tuesday’s practice. However, a few key players returning from injury, such as kicker Caleb Sturgis, could possibly participate in order to get some game action under their belt.
"It’s an opportunity for these guys to show us what they’re capable of doing in that game setting," Philbin said. "We talked yesterday about how important it is to get these guys out there in a game setting and demonstrate what they’re capable of doing. Really, that’s what we want to see again. We’ll have one more opportunity for that and they need to take advantage of it."
Though last week’s "dress rehearsal" against the Dallas Cowboys may arguably have been the most important preseason game on the schedule, Thursday’s exhibition game still represents a valuable opportunity to see how different position battles will shake out.
The Dolphins must soon decide not only which running back will start the regular season but who makes the final cut on Saturday. Knowshon Moreno appeared set as the No. 2 RB for the time being with Lamar Miller leading the way during training camp but a very strong showing last week (64 yards on 10 carries) has quickly catapulted Moreno into consideration to start against the New England Patriots now that his knee issues are behind him.
With Moreno likely to sit out Thursday’s game, the Dolphins will give Damien Williams, Daniel Thomas and Orleans Darkwa the bulk of snaps with possibly one roster spot and one practice roster spot under consideration. On Tuesday, the team placed Mike Gillislee on the injured reserve list, effectively ending his season, which gives Williams or Thomas a clear chance of making the roster.
A solid game against the Rams from either one will help make a strong case for their chances, particularly Thomas who will be making his preseason debut after recovering fully from his hamstring injury that has limited him so far in practice.
SPECIAL TEAMS MUST IMPROVE FROM LAST WEEK’S POOR DISPLAY
The special team unit wasn’t necessarily a cause for concern during the preseason until their unusually weak showing against the Cowboys. They yielded extra yards on just about every punt or kickoff return and had trouble handling Dwayne Harris, who had a huge 50-yard kickoff return. The Cowboys also blocked a punt in the second quarter that would have put them in prime position to score, but they were (questionably) penalized for an illegal defensive formation.
The Dolphins kickers have struggled with injuries as of late but if Sturgis can play on Thursday and restore some balance to the unit then the Dolphins won’t have to use a roster spot on another kicker. Overall improvement is still expected after last week’s performance and Philbin is well aware of the importance of the unit.
"We are going to get roughly 30 special teams snaps a game, give or take a couple," said Philbin. "They are all important, every single one of them is important. We all know they can change a game. Sometimes people don’t like to see teams punt the ball, but punting might be as an explosive as a play as there is in football."
LINEBACKERS MUST MAKE A STAND
The Dolphins caught a break after the Cowboys game when they learned the injury Koa Misi sustained during the game was not serious. Misi did not appear to be limited in practice this week and neither has Phillip Wheeler, who injured his thumb. The starters would seem to be firmly entrenched here but there is no question that there is room for improvement.
Regardless, the coaching staff will need to take a hard look on Thursday at the rookie trio of Andrew Wilson, Chris McCain and Jordan Tripp to see if they can truly augment the weakest area of a talented Dolphins defense this season. McCain and Tripp have made solid plays in the preseason and they have a good chance of making the team, though the Dolphins may still be tempted to look elsewhere to shore up some depth for insurance against injuries. Eight-year veteran Jason Trusnik is a solid reserve but Jelani Jenkins so far this preseason has not shown much improvement over his rookie season last year with the Dolphins.
The Dolphins have not made a transaction involving linebackers since Ryan Rau was waived on Aug. 5. If the reserves want to keep it that way, they will have their chance on Thursday to convince the coaches they deserve a place on the final roster.