(Note: This continues a series in Daily Dolphin spotlighting members of the team individually. In addition to reliving highlights and lowlights of the past season for each, we’ll provide analysis and criticism, plus take a look at how each player fits — or doesn’t fit — into the team’s plans for 2018.)
Experience: Entering fifth season, all with the Dolphins
Acquired: Fourth-round draft pick in 2014
Contract: Re-signed to a two-year contract worth $2.7 million
Pro Football Focus rank: None
Stats: Made seven tackles on special teams; downed five punts inside the 20-yard line
Notable moments: Had two special teams tackles and forced a fumble on a punt return at New England. The fumble was by Danny Amendola, who’s now a Dolphin, but the Patriots recovered.
Straight talk: The Dolphins say when they sliced up their salary cap, they quickly determined they could retain Walt Aikens or Michael Thomas but not both players who contributed heavily to their success on special teams the past few years.
By choosing Aikens, they went with a player a year younger and $1.3 million cheaper over the next two years.
By not choosing Thomas, they let go to the Giants the Pro Football Focus special teams player of the year, who twice contended for the AFC special teams Pro Bowl slot.
So now it’s Aikens’ show, with every indication that he’ll be named successor to Thomas as special teams captain.
“I think Walt is a guy that we’re going to see really step up in a leadership role this year,” coach Adam Gase said. “I don’t know if anybody can really replace Mike as far as his leadership goes and his ability to make plays was outstanding. He’s a tackling machine.”
There shouldn’t be much doubt what the athletic Aikens can do as well. He caught fire late in the 2016 season, blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown and scoring a defensive two-point conversion on a blocked extra point.
Prospects for 2018
Aikens will need to be a leader on Darren Rizzi’s revamped special teams units. He seldom gets on the field on defense, which may continue to be the case in 2018.
Aikens has often worked at safety but admitted last year he was happy to be told he was moving to cornerback, his college position.
The Dolphins currently list him at both positions, but where his focus will be is murky because of all the changes in the secondary. In addition to the first-round pick being spent on S Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Dolphins get CB Tony Lippett back from an Achilles injury and will tinker with S T.J. McDonald at LB or as a hybrid player.
DAVIE — The more people want to boil down the anthem flap in the NFL to patriotism — are the players respectful of this country or not? — the more we see this issue is not, and probably never will be, so simple.
On Tuesday afternoon, Dolphins safety Walt Aikenswalked into the team auditorium at the training facility to meet with the media. But he wasn’t alone. He was with a group of kids and Jeff Hood, CEO of the National PAL (Police Athletics/Activities League).
Aikens is not one of the kneelers. His connection to the larger issue can be traced to growing up in Charlotte, N.C., where he was a hotshot basketball player in PAL who also took a liking to football. Of course now we know which path life took Aikens, which is why PAL saw an opportunity to involve an NFL player in its program and Aikens saw an opportunity to give back. He accepted an invitation to become an official spokesperson for the organization.
“It was the best way to give back, me going back to these local communities and showing these kids that no matter where you are or where you’re from, you can always make it and there’s a positive way out of every situation,” Aikens said.
In a lot of ways, it’s the kind of story you can’t get enough of. But — going back to the original point — it’s also not so simple.
PAL’s stated goal is to bridge gaps between kids, police and communities. Anyone paying even the slightest attention knows how important, and how tenuous, that bridge looks today.
Which is why Walt Aikens, official spokesperson, has a bigger task on his hands than just encouraging kids to try real hard in school and in sports. Asked if kids today hit him with tough questions at a time when his peers are protesting social injustice, Aikens first said, “No, they’re kids.”
But he then went on to give you the impression kids are learning hard lessons younger and younger these days.
“And if they do know about it, I’m pretty open with my situation,” Aikens said, referring to a brush with the law in his younger days that could have been a trend if he let it. More on that in a minute, but first, it’s important to see the police through Aikens’ eyes.
“Up until more recently, I’ve had a pretty good viewpoint of police,” Aikens said. “I’ve never been in any situation where it was just wrongfully an outburst, or something that was drastically crazy. My viewpoint was always good. Back in Charlotte, we have a nice group of police officers that a lot of them were my friends’ parents, so we grew up in that environment where I know his dad is a cop, but at the end of the day, that’s my friend’s pops. So, we always had a good relationship.”
Fully recognizing what he’d just said also raised a question, Aikens continued.
“When I said up until recently, I still don’t have a bad viewpoint. But we’ve seen what’s been going on in the media with police and people going on, beatings and all that stuff right now. It affects me. It affects me because I have police friends.”
Aikens cited the case of Brentley Vinson, a white officer in Charlotte who shot and killed an African-American man but was cleared by a prosecutor who provided evidence to rebut assertions that the deceased man had not been armed.
“He went to my college,” Aikens said of Vinson. “I know he’s a good dude and I know that he was doing what he needed to do in the line of duty. But it was kind of hard having mixed emotions coming from patrons and then coming from the police officers. It’s kind of hard when you have friends or family involved in that, but my viewpoint is still the same until otherwise.
“There are a lot of things you have to watch out for nowadays, especially being a young, black male in today’s society. It’s kind of tough. But at the same time, I just try to keep my nose clean, do what I need to do and get out of the way.”
The one time Aikens strayed from the straight and narrow involved a laptop he bought from a teammate. Aikens said he didn’t realize it was stolen, but regardless, the misdemeanor charge was enough for Illinois to dismiss him from the team, so he transferred to Liberty. Today, he uses that as a teaching tool when he talks to kids.
“I would just tell them we all make mistakes,” Aikens said. “I made a mistake my first ever time getting in trouble and it was my last. (I) didn’t make it a habit. Even me, I was in a nice, two-parent home and I made mistakes. I was young. I was a kid, but that didn’t describe my life. I didn’t let that define who I was as a person.
“So, when that happened, I just kept it moving. My pops told me when I initially got in trouble, he said, ‘What’s done is done.’ We’ve got to learn from it and move on. And I feel like that was the most impactful thing that you could say to me, because he wasn’t mad, he wasn’t yelling. He said, ‘I’m not mad or nothing. I’m more upset,’ and that really hit home like if you’re mad you can get over it, but if you’re upset, I felt like I let him down. I let my parents down. I just kept it moving. Like I said, I was hurt by it. I ultimately made the best out of my situation and I tell these kids that they can do the same in whatever situation they come from.”
DAVIE — The Dolphins couldn’t stand Danny Amendola until they finally signed him.
He was a pest for years in New England, causing problems for Miami as a slot receiver and as a return man on special teams. Cornerback Bobby McCain, who got ejected for fighting Amendola last season, said he was his second-most hated player in the NFL (nobody will knock Tom Brady out of the top spot) prior to him joining the Dolphins this offseason.
Walt Aikens had a few clashes with Amendola, too. Most of those took place on special teams, where Aikens has been one of Miami’s best cover men.
“It wasn’t as personal as Bobby and Danny,” a grinning Aikens said after today’s Organized Team Activities practice. “Me and Amendola had some words every few punts or (kick returns).
“We actually ran into each other; it was like three years back. I think it was in New England. He tried to block me, and I made my presence be known. I like to joke with him about that one.”
Unfortunately, nothing turns up on YouTube when searching their names together, but it sounds like Aikens must have leveled him.
That’s all in the past now, of course, and Aikens has come to enjoy Amendola just like McCain has. He also likes the idea of what he can do for the Dolphins’ offense.
“He’s a good dude,” Aikens said. “He’s a nice asset to this team – a hard worker, goes out. You’re going to get the same person every day. Ultimately, he’s going to make this defense better being that he came from a system that can score and (had a) high-powered offense. He’s here now. We’re going to see what he’s got.”
In nine games against the Dolphins over the last five years, Amendola caught 31 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns. At 32 years old, he’s coming off a season of 61 receptions, 659 yards and two touchdowns for the Patriots.
DAVIE — He never showed it on the outside. Among veterans on the Dolphins, few could rival Walt Aikens for the permanent smile painted on his face or the joy in his voice, in both good times and bad.
Tuesday, Aikens admitted appearances deceived. He’s the guy fans know as one of Miami’s best special teams players, but that’s it. Some know he’s listed as a defensive back, but through four NFL seasons, they’ve had little evidence to prove he actually is a defensive back.
Yes, that inactivity ate at him. More than he ever showed.
“I feel like I kind of fell off, confidence-wise, the past couple of years, but I’m coming back in, refocused, refreshed, full of confidence, full of energy, and just ready to ball out,” Aikens said.
The reason he lost confidence is somewhat predictable. Less predictable, however, is that Aikens says his drop in confidence spans more than just 2017, because he ended the 2016 season on a hot streak of huge special teams plays, including a defensive two-point conversion and a blocked punt for a touchdown.
It wasn’t enough for him.
“Just not being on the field as much as I would want to and just being labeled a special teams player for so long,” Aikens said. “I kind of got down on myself. I know I can ball.”
This summer, coaches are testing the waters with Aikens in on defense. He saw a bit of action in last year’s finale, against Buffalo, and did well enough to warrant another look this month.
“We were kind of experimenting with a lot of different things in that game and that was one of the things that we talked about doing was trying to put a little package together to where he could play defense and just kind of give him that feel and see how he did,” coach Adam Gase said. “He didn’t have a ton of plays but he did his job. … He’s a really good tackler.”
Aikens’ role this summer has been, in his words, “safety, but being alert for anytime we need corners.” He’s more than content with either, because either job is better than spectating.
“He’s worked extremely hard to try to find that role on defense,” Gase said. “I know he wants to be a part of that.”
Aikens was acquired in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, which wasn’t all that long ago, yet he and tackle Ja’Wuan James are the only players left from that draft class. His consistent production on special teams led the Dolphins to give him a two-year, $2.7 million extension this offseason.
“This is home, man,” Aikens said. “So any other team was just a second option.”
Besides the money, Aikens heard Gase and defensive backs coach Tony Oden say he’d receive a shot at an increased role in 2018.
“Definitely,” he said. “That was a big part of staying.”
First, there’s still work to be done on special teams. With Michael Thomas joining the Giants, Aikens is now poised to become the Dolphins’ special teams captain while hoping 2018 brings a bit more than that.
“We’re just going to keep working on trying to find the best spot for him as far as our defense goes,” Gase said. “We know what he can do on special teams. Watching his film from last year, just when we went back and evaluated, that was special stuff that he was doing.”
Aikens hopes that when training camp begins, the coaches keep working to find that spot for him.
Although he saw limited duty in the secondary, Michael Thomas was a mainstay on the Dolphins’ special teams the past four seasons, even earning Pro Football Focus’ special teams player of the year honors in 2017.
Now that he has joined the New York Giants as a free agent, Thomas leaves a void, especially on kick coverage, that special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi will have to fill in training camp.
The first person he’ll be turning to? Walt Aikens, a fourth-round pick in 2014 who recently was re-signed to a two-year deal.
“We lost a good player,” coach Adam Gase said. “I think when we started this thing, we knew between Mike and Walt both being up (for contract renewals), it wasn’t going to be an easy thing for us to get both of those guys back.”
Thomas once again led the Dolphins in special teams tackles last season with 11. Aikens wasn’t far behind with seven in addition to forcing a fumble.
If there were any questions about what Aikens brings to special teams, they ceased late in the 2016 season when he made a slew of impact plays — blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown against the Jets, scoring a defensive two-point conversion on a blocked extra point and downing a punt on the 1-yard line.
Aikens had seven special teams tackles in 2016 and 10 in 2015.
Assuming he takes over for Thomas as special teams captain, Aikens has a major role to fill.
“I think Walt is a guy that we’re going to see really step up in a leadership role this year,” Gase said. “I don’t know if anybody can really replace Mike as far as his leadership goes and his ability to make plays was outstanding. He’s a tackling machine, but we also have a lot of guys that were impact players that we still have on the roster between Mike Hull and Walt and the rest of that group. We’ve got a good crew of guys and we’ve added some guys that are actually going to be able to help on special teams.”
Thomas tied for the NFL lead with 19 special teams tackles in 2016 and probably would have made the Pro Bowl had it not been for perennial pick Matthew Slater of the Patriots. Thomas also had 14 special teams tackles in 2015 and 10 in 2014.
“I didn’t think he’d last this long on the open market,” Gase said of Thomas, who joined the Giants last week. “We wanted to make sure we got Walt done and we were able to do that. There were a couple of things we weren’t able to get done to help our special teams.”
Aikens, who plays safety and works on multiple special teams units, has agreed to a two-year contract to stay with Miami, per multiple media reports. He has appeared in 62 of a possible 64 games for the Dolphins since being drafted in the fourth round in 2014.
He might be the last member of that ’14 draft class still with the team by the time the upcoming season starts.
Here’s a look at what’s transpired with the eight players Miami took that year:
First round, No. 19, RT Ja’Wuan James: The Dolphins exercised a $9.3 million team option on him for the upcoming season, but are weighing the possibility of rescinding it and making him an unrestricted free agent.
Second round, No. 63, WR Jarvis Landry: He totaled 400 catches, 4,038 yards and 22 touchdowns in four seasons before the Dolphins traded him to Cleveland last week in exchange for a 2018 fourth-round pick and 2019 seventh-rounder.
Third round, No. 67, OT Billy Turner: Turner played 20 games for the Dolphins before coach Adam Gase cut him during the 2016 season.
Fourth round, No. 125, DB Walt Aikens: He continues to be one of their best special teams players and will be signed through 2019.
Fifth round, No. 155, TE Arthur Lynch: Lynch has never played in an NFL game. He was last seen on an NFL roster in August 2016.
Fifth round, No. 171, LB Jordan Tripp: Miami cut Tripp a year later and he has bounced around the league. He was with the Falcons last season.
Sixth round, No. 190, WR Matt Hazel: Hazel played five games before the Dolphins let him go in 2016. He spent last season with the Browns and Colts, including some practice squad time.
Seventh round, No. 234, DE Terrence Fede: He has one sack in 51 games and became an unrestricted free agent this year. It is unclear whether the Dolphins intend to re-sign him.
DAVIE—The best game of Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard’s career came on a night he spent vomiting on the sideline because of the flu.
Howard was everywhere in Miami’s 27-20 victory over the Patriots and intercepted Tom Brady twice despite being miserable the entire day.
“Yeah, I was throwing up mostly like water,” he said after today’s practice. “And I took some Pedialite, so I was just throwing it up.”
He came down with the illness Monday morning at the team hotel and did everything he could to even consider playing that night. He was administered two bags of intravenous fluids, and none of that really helped. He played nonetheless.
Dolphins safety Walt Aikens, whose locker is right next to Howard’s, described it as a bad scene.
“Yeah, front row seat,” Aikens said. “It was rough. He was throwing up his guts. I thought he was going to die. It was kind of scary. I was in the splash zone. He balled out, though. Next time he gets sick, I’ll know not to care about him, because he’ll be all right for the game.”
Aikens and the rest of the secondary have been yelling “flu game” at Howard all week in reference to Michael Jordan’s legendary performance while languishing in the 1997 NBA Finals.
Beyond the two picks, Howard was exceptional in coverage on New England No. 1 receiver Brandin Cooks. Cooks managed just one catch for 38 yards out of seven targets, and Howard was credited with an additional pass breakup. He defended several other passes thrown his way.
“He was in bad shape, man, but he pulled it out,” Aikens said. “He said he was going to be all right and he was good. He showed up.”
Howard was still sick today, but said he’s feeling “a little better” and will play Sunday at Buffalo.
DAVIE — Something very abnormal is going on with these Dolphins.
OK, so that sentence probably could be written most weeks with this team, but still. After beating Atlanta 20-17 on Sunday, many players left the stadium sporting black T-shirts reading ‘We R Not Normal.’
Asked about them, some players feigned ignorance, while others grinned and said they’d never tell. After you’ve covered this team for a while, you know some players are more forthcoming than others, so I stopped by the locker of special teams ace Walt Aikens to get to the bottom of this.
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, which I can easily rank among the most abnormal of my career. You’re about to see why.
HH: What’s the deal with these T-shirts?
Aikens: What T-shirts?
HH: We R Not Normal.
Aikens: We’re not. We’re just not normal.
HH: How are you not normal?
Aikens: We’re football players.
HH: No. But there are a lot of football players in this league.
Aikens: That’s the only thing that means. We aren’t normal.
HH: Is the team not normal?
Aikens: Team ain’t normal. It’s a lot of people that’s not normal.
HH: How is the team different from 31 other teams?
Aikens: We’re just not normal.
HH: You’re not answering the question, you know.
Aikens: That’s it. We’re just not normal. (To Nate Allen) Tell him, Nate. Why we ain’t normal, Nate?
Allen: You’ve got to be a little different to play football.
Aikens: You got to.
HH: I assume Gase gave you guys those shirts?
HH: And how did he explain it to you guys?
Aikens: We’re just not normal. That’s what Gase said. We ain’t normal.
HH: And overcoming a 17-0 halftime deficit — is that normal?
Aikens: Hey. It’s a good game. A hard-fought game.
HH: But not a normal game?
Aikens: Not a normal game.
HH: Yeah, not a normal game.
Aikens: That adds to the point. We aren’t normal.
HH: OK. Are you going to have a normal game against the Jets?
Aikens: We are not normal.
HH: OK. Did you have a normal childhood? Have you been abnormal for a long time?
Aikens: Nah, nah, nah. Never been normal.
HH: Is normal bad?
Aikens: We are not normal. Normal is not necessarily bad. We’re just not normal.
HH: Would you rather be normal or abnormal?
Aikens: Abnormal. Definitely.
Aikens: Because we are not normal.
Aikens: Get it?
HH: I think I get it now.
Aikens: That’s it. That’s how it goes.
HH: I want to thank you for enlightening my readers.
(Note: Finally on Monday afternoon, Gase said the phrase came up one day when he was talking with Kaleb Thornhill, who heads player engagement for the Dolphins, and when Cameron Wake caught wind of it, he told Gase, “Sounds like a T-shirt.” So an idea was born. Gase said he figured this goofy past week was the perfect time to roll it out.)
Koo pushed a centered, 44-yard field goal wide right with five seconds left in Miami’s 19-17 win Sunday, and it appears Dolphins 5-foot-11 cornerback Bobby McCain was part of his problem. McCain came through untouched from Koo’s left, and special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi believes he could’ve blocked it had Koo’s kick gone straight.
“I felt like I was really close,” McCain said after today’s practice. “I got a great jump off the edge. He moved it right, but if he kicked it straight-on, I may have blocked it.
“There was a lot of pressure in his face. Our field goal block team does a great job getting around the kicker and making him nervous, rattling him, so as a unit we did a great job.”
Here’s are some still frames of McCain coming off the edge just as Koo struck the ball:
At a minimum, Rizzi is certain McCain’s play pressured Koo. He thus dismissed the idea that the Dolphins got lucky by winning on a missed field goal that many NFL kickers consider routine.
McCain was in that advantageous position in large part because safety Walt Aikens, a known special teams dynamo, took tight end Hunter Henry out of the play.
“I’m the edge pressure, so the safety on my left, Walt Aikens, did a great job bludgeoning the tight end,” McCain said. “I just came off the edge. It really wasn’t even my effort. My effort to get to the ball was great, but everyone else doing their job made it clean.”
OXNARD, Calif. — The Dolphins know that Sunday, there will be fans watching their game against the Los Angeles Chargers on whatever device that still has power.
Some will be listening on radio for the first time in ages.
And the unluckiest won’t be able to pay the slightest attention to the entertainment that is professional football because of Hurricane Irma.
And even though the players’ first concern has to be putting together a game plan for their season-opener, in the back of their minds is what’s happening back home.
“Oh, for sure,” defensive back Michael Thomas said. “If we can offer any type of relief, just to get somebody’s mind off what they just went through — what the whole state is going through by playing in the game, we would try to offer that.”
Thomas, in fact, is planning more than just a boost in spirits with a good performance on the field. He’s from Houston and helped organize a drive to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey. He said he has begun planning a benefit drive for his second home, South Florida.
Safety Nate Allen is from Fort Myers, so it’s easy to imagine his tension as forecasters’ cone kept shifting closer and closer to his hometown. In the end, even though the hurricane swept through the southwest portion of the state, his property suffered virtually no damage.
“We had some panels on our screened patio by the pool knocked out and that was about it,” Allen said. “We got lucky. And we kept power the whole time, our neighborhood. We live in a gated community and we didn’t lose power at all. The lord was watching out for sure. He had His hand around us.”
He knows many were nowhere near as fortunate. It wasn’t that long ago that Katrina-stricken New Orleans rallied around the Saints, who eventually won a Super Bowl. This season, Houston received a lift from J.J. Watt’s multimillion campaign for donations. Now, South Florida’s NFL team is in that spotlight.
“It just puts everything in perspective,” Allen said. “We’re blessed to play a game for a living, yeah. Whatever joy we can bring to somebody who’s going through some stuff right now with the hurricane, it’ll be big for us.”
Safety Walt Aikens half-jokingly said the team hopes to carry fans Sunday — but this Sunday won’t be any different from others.
“That’s every Sunday!” Aikens said. “We play for South Florida every Sunday. We got that ‘Miami’ going across the jersey, man, for sure.”
Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is from Lake City in upstate Florida, “so I’m used to these hurricanes,” he said. “It’s nothing new to me.”
Still, when Tunsil turned his attention to fans back home, he said, “Whatever we can do by giving back, I’ll do it. We’ll do it.”
When Thomas considers what is happening in Houston and South Florida, he sees a lot of destruction in a little amount of time.
“Obviously, we feel blessed to be able to play a game,” he said. “And this is some real-life stuff that people are going through where it’s life-altering. Some people I grew up with in Houston who are very dear to me are starting over. Lost everything — house, car, no clothes, nothing.”