CAMP COUNTDOWN: DEFENSIVE BACKS

As the Dolphins prepare for the start of training camp, we take a close position-by-position look at the roster, including a prediction of who will start and make the 53-man squad. Today we look at the defensive backs.

The Dolphins has had a very good reputation throughout the years, but the truth is it will be looking to rebound after a sub-par performance in 2003.

And for the most part the cast of characters will remain the same.

The two significant players from last year's group who are gone are veteran cornerback Terrell Buckley, who was very solid as the No. 3 corner, and free safety Brock Marion, whose play never measured up to his reputation and certainly didn't merit his Pro Bowl invitation.

But the core remains.

And that includes cornerbacks Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison, as well as strong safety Sammy Knight.

Surtain, plain and simple, is one of the top cornerbacks in the league. You can argue all you want about exactly where he ranks, but there just aren't many better.

Madison, for his part, is coming off a season where he got beat more often than usual. He sais he played most of last year with a bum knee, which could explain his performance. But one also has to wonder if age is starting to catch up to Madison, who never was a speedster to begin with.

The Dolphins rebuilt their depth at cornerback by signing free agent Reggie Howard, a starter on Carolina's Super Bowl team last year. The hope is that Howard can do as well, or better than, Buckley did last season -- at a much younger age.

They also picked up Will Poole in the draft, and the fourth-round pick looks like a steal at this stage. There was a much-publicized one-day stay in jail for a DUI charge, but on the field Poole has been very impressive.

Beyond those four, the other cornerbacks on the roster are Kevin Millouse, Mesene Louisdor, Todd Howard, Korey Banks and Alphonso Roundtree.

We would anticipate only one of them making the team, and our early favorite would have to be Roundtree, who is coming off a good showing in NFL Europe.

At safety, the big question is who will start opposite Knight.

Arturo Freeman will enter camp first on the depth chart, but he didn't really impress the Dolphins as a starter at strong safety two years ago. Maybe switching to free safety, where Freeman says he's more comfortable, will make a difference.

But Freeman will get a challenge from free agent pick-up Antuan Edwards and 2003 sixth-round pick Yeremiah Bell.

Edwards has battled injuries since entering the league as a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, but he has cornerback experience and is physical as well.

As for Bell, he drew rave reviews in the offseason camps, but the fact remains he hasn't played in a real game since 2001 (he missed his senior season at Western Kentucky because of a knee injury and was on the practice squad last year when he sustained a foot injury).

The feeling here is that Edwards will wind up beating out Freeman for the starting job.

We're also guessing the Dolphins will keep five safeties, the four guys already mentioned plus special teams ace Chris Akins.

That would mean no luck for the other safeties on the roster: Quintin Williams and veteran Shawn Wooden.

Next time we'll look at the quarterbacks.


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