Miami Dolphins starting free safety Louis Delmas officially has been ruled out for the entire 2015 season after the team placed him on injured reserve Tuesday.
The much-anticipated move, which frees up a roster spot, is a crushing loss to the Dolphins’ defense.
The six-year veteran — who contributed 63 tackles, one interception and one sack in the 13 games he played last season — was viewed as one of the team’s leaders and considered the glue that holds Miami’s secondary together.
Delmas had been embarking on an impressive recovery from the anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered in his right knee in December. But he re-tore the ACL during last week's practice with the Carolina Panthers.
Delmas suffered the non-contact injury while trying to cover former Dolphin Ted Ginn Jr. downfield. Delmas, 28, screamed in pain while laying on Wofford College field in Spartanburg South Carolina before being carted off.
“He means a lot. I’d say if not one of the best leaders, he is the best leader on our team,” receiver Rishard Matthews said. “He brings a lot of excitement to the game. I think everybody will tell you he’s just an exciting player to be around.”
Delmas first tore the ACL in that knee on Dec. 7 in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. But he had made an exceptionally fast recovery.
He was walking without a brace or crutches two weeks after his knee was operated on. He was running in March and practiced without many limitations since May.
Last year, the Dolphins’ defense came apart at the seams after Delmas’ injury. His absence showed the organization how important Delmas was to the team, and he was re-signed this offseason to an incentive-laden one-year deal worth $3.5 million, which was set to pay him bonuses for each game he played.
Delmas will now count as a $413,000 cap hit instead of costing the team $1.477 million in base salary frees up additional cap space.
“He’s a great teammate, a great guy. It’s bigger than football. I just went to make sure his mind is right and say a prayer for him,” strong safety Reshad Jones said. “Next guy in, you have to be ready. Coach does a great job of preparing each and every individual and I think we have great depth at the position. The next guy should be ready.”
Walt Aikens, a 2014 fourth-round pick, will likely get first crack at replacing Delmas.
Aikens, who played collegiately at Liberty University, struggled with grasping the complexity of coordinator Kevin Coyle’s defense as a rookie last year when given an opportunity to replace Delmas. Aikens, who had 15 tackles and one interception, was eventually replaced by nickel cornerback Jimmy Wilson, who signed with the San Diego Chargers as a free agent this offseason.
This camp Aikens has been playing much better, earning the trust of his coaches, who started him against the Bears in last week’s preseason opener, in part to be cautious with Delmas.
“It’s a little early on all of that stuff, but Walt’s had a good camp, he’s improved,” head coach Joe Philbin said when asked if Aikens is ready to step in for Delmas. “He’s been practicing well and he’s real serious about everything that he’s done. I like where he’s at, but we’ll see where everything is at.”
Michael Thomas is also an option at free safety. He started two games for the Dolphins last year before suffering a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 8.
The Dolphins are grooming Cedric Thompson, a rookie from Minnesota selected in the fifth round, to eventually man the free safety spot. Thompson played strong safety in college and is trying to get adjusted to the position switch. His time might come this year if he plays well in the final three preseason games.
Where this leaves Delmas, a North Miami Beach High product who grew up dreaming about playing for the Dolphins, is unclear. The 2009 second-round pick of the Detroit Lions has battled knee injuries for much of his career, and now it appears he’ll miss significant time for a third season because of one.