By: Jason Sarney
Football is a team game with three separate phases. Offense, defense, and special teams, and within those units are personnel packages, positions groups and specialists. A Super Bowl contender need not have a league-best unit across the board to succeed, however, you would be hard-pressed to find a championship team who can be considered, “weak” in any of these aspects of football.
While not a “sexy” 33.33% part of the game this world loves and craves, Special Teams is vital to the success of a team in any given season. Sometimes it is a specialist within special teams that creates an X-factor for a team. A return man, a punter who just may be able to throw on a fake or even tuck and run for a 4th and 3 surprise conversion, or even a long-snapper, could all play minor yet key roles in a teams overall record.
Sometimes, it is a position that does not have a true statistic that creates a role for a player on a team. A role that may leave a player anonymous on a box score to the naked eyed fan, yet a vital cog to those watching with a bit more of a laser-focus on what makes teams successful for the long haul.
There is a cliché being used for about 15 months now regarding the new look Dolphins and the northern exposure they have been given by former Patriots defensive coordinator and current Miami head coach Brian Flores. He and general manager Chris Grier have created a “New England South” mentality.
The blue/red print of Patriot Dynastic success is more than one coach and one quarterback. It’s the players who had the “next-man-up” mindset, it’s the players that take a lesser role as on offensive producer and instead accepts his role as a supporting cast member within a team to create long term success.
Miami has been building their roster with “football players,” meaning that the individuals signed and drafted are those who will become self-less, and those who would accept any role they can on this team to become part of a 53-man roster, where about 35 other players are fighting to earn a spot on.
In my mind – one “spot” may already be locked up by an undrafted free agent rookie wide receiver…however, he does not need to record a single reception to make a pro-bowl in his career. A feat that may be as likely as any other Miami rookie in the 2020 class for the Dolphins that, once again, has about a dozen non-selected prospects looking to prove 32 teams made a mistake during April’s Draft process.
In 2019, as we all know, “undrafted gems” such as Preston Williams and Nik Needham are now embedded into the Miami Dolphins roster and future, and there could be three to five rookies who follow in their cleat-marks.
The New England Patriots have an 8-time Pro-Bowler on their team, and he has only known them as a squad since they drafted him in the 5th round out of UCLA in 2008. 12 seasons later, Matthew Slater is the league’s premier Special Teams Gunner, which is the player who is responsible for beating the punt down field, and either downing the ball, tackling the return man, or getting their so fast a fair-catch needs to be signaled.
Slater, who has been named to two All-Pro Teams is listed as a wide receiver. However, in his decade plus as an NFL “wide-receiver,” Slater has just one more career reception than the author of this article. That is right, just one single catch for an 8-time all-star, champion with a hat trick of Super Bowl Rings.
Are there many “more” decorated players in this league than Matthew Slater? Slater was recently rewarded with a multi-million-dollar contract extension, as he is a well-known and valuable asset in the NFL to a team that built a dynasty the last two decades.
The Dolphins are taking a carbon copy approach to the Patriot Way and making it the Dolphin Way. Undrafted wide-receiver, Matt Cole out of McKendree University is a small school prospect with big-time potential as a replacement to now former Dolphins defensive back/gunner, Walt Aikens.
Aikens, a former team captain as well, held the Gunner role which is now up for grabs. The Dolphins have a crowded room of receivers in the AFC yardage leader from 2019 at the position in DeVante Parker, returning sophomore Preston Williams, and veterans Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant, Allen Hurns and Isaiah Ford.
The Dolphins even made another savvy post-2020 Draft rookie free agent signing in Arkansas State’s Kirk Merritt, who could be the second-coming of homerun 2019 prospect, the aforementioned Williams. Merritt makes things hard for Cole to become the team’s 6th or 7th wide-out, however, there is a tad of a “catch.” Cole could very well be the new Gunner for the Miami Dolphins if his college tape is any indication.
Cole has the work ethic, the hunger and most importantly the speed to excel in this extremely important role for the Dolphins. A player like Cole could be a field position flipper, and a preventative measure against all-world punt returners.
When scouring the current loaded roster of the Dolphins, one must count 53 players to field a team, and of course, add a sprinkle of practice squad players. Cole must be added as not WR7, but ST1. Cole is the player Miami brought in for the palatable price of “show me what you got before we show you the money.” If Cole decides to see this opportunity and well, “run” with it, it could be a savvy way to add yet another under-the-radar piece to a future puzzle of a decade-plus long winner, built from the ground up.
You can follow Jason on Twitter @OrangeAquaman