MIAMI (AP) -The Miami Dolphins' old man in the middle wants help from the rookies, and this year he's optimistic he'll get it.
Starting his 12th season in Miami, the most of any active player, linebacker Zach Thomas has seen a lot of young teammates come and go. A succession of bad drafts and rookie flops is the primary reason the Dolphins have failed to reach the playoffs the past five years, the longest such streak in franchise history.
Now Miami has a new coach in Cam Cameron, a revamped front office and a touted rookie crop. And this year, according to the ever-candid Thomas, the kids might be all right.
``This is one of the best classes we've had in a long time,'' Thomas said. ``I've never said that about a class, because you've seen that it hasn't been too good. We missed on a lot of drafts. That's the reason we're in the position we are. But now, there's a lot of future.''
General manager Randy Mueller, who was put in charge of personnel when Cameron became coach in January, said he hopes at least eight or 10 rookies make the 53-man roster. That would be a substantial change from recent seasons; the last time more than five draft picks survived the final training-camp cut was 1997, when Jimmy Johnson was coach.
The Dolphins had 10 draft choices in April, their highest total since 1998. It's possible all 10 picks will make the team.
``It's a great group of kids,'' Mueller said. ``We need to have a good nucleus of young guys contribute to this team. It has been something that has lacked.''
The track record regarding first-round picks is particularly dismal - busts in the past decade include Yatil Green, John Avery and Jamar Fletcher - and the Dolphins expect to reverse the trend with Ted Ginn Jr. The receiver-returner from Ohio State already ranks himself among the NFL's 10 fastest players, and Miami hopes his speed will stretch defenses, open up the running game and create a scoring threat on special teams.
The plan is for second-round pick John Beck to spend this year as an understudy to caretaker quarterback Trent Green, acquired in a trade with Kansas City. But Miami's third-round choice, Lorenzo Booker, may be used from the outset as a backup and third-down running back.
Looking to shore up the Dolphins' weakest area, Cameron installed two rookie offensive linemen with the first team early in training-camp practices: second-round pick Samson Satele and sixth-round choice Drew Mormino.
``It has been good, because they've kind of agitated me,'' Thomas said. ``I love that because they agitate me, and that means they're a little dirty, and you need dirty linemen.''
Satele quickly clinched the starting job at center, and Mormino is the top backup at guard. The Dolphins will have a rookie punter in Brandon Fields, fourth-round pick Paul Soliai will be part of the defensive line rotation as a 344-pound nose tackle, and rookies Abraham Wright and Kelvin Smith seek to make the team as backup linebackers.
The Dolphins went 6-10 last year, and many prognosticators envision only modest improvement in 2007 - and perhaps the team's third losing season in four years. But the influx of promising youngsters has made the long-term outlook brighter.
``This rookie class is great,'' Beck said. ``Coach always talks to us about how coming in we really need to step up and be the people he recruited us to be. He brought us in to make plays. On both sides of the ball, I think this class is coming to help this team.''
Cameron inherited an aging defense and an offense that has been a drag on the team's fortunes in recent years. With many holes to fill, Cameron knew it would take more than one or two acquisitions to rebuild.
He did obtain the 37-year-old Green and 30-year-old linebacker Joey Porter to provide an immediate impact. But unlike predecessors Dave Wannstedt and Nick Saban, who traded away high draft choices in deals that backfired, Cameron prefers to stockpile picks.
``We all know how this thing works with the salary cap,'' Cameron said. ``The ideal scenario is to have that veteran nucleus, but you've got to have some youth coming into your program to develop.
``The critical element of developing young players and building through the draft pays huge dividends over time and really gives you a chance to maximize the NFL's system, which rewards you for doing a good job of developing young players and drafting correctly. That's the road we're heading down.''
Cameron sees it as the path to the playoffs.
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