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Dolphins face delicate balance this summer with T.J. McDonald

T.J. McDonald had two of his four career interceptions last season for the Rams. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

The Miami Dolphins knew exactly what they were getting into when they signed safety T.J. McDonald to a one-year deal via free agency in March.

They liked McDonald’s skills enough to add him to their roster, even though the safety is facing an eight-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. The ruling followed an incident in May 2016 in which he was suspected of driving under the influence of prescription drugs. McDonald pleaded no contest to a lesser charge in January.

McDonald said after the signing that the incident would never happen again, and has followed up his promise with a solid spring of organized team activities and minicamp practices. His diving interception of starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the end zone was one of the top defensive plays during offseason practices open to the media.

With training camp and the preseason looming, the Dolphins face a delicate balance this summer with McDonald. The safety needs reps before his lengthy suspension begins at the start of the regular season, but Miami must also get other safeties ready for immediate playing time.

“I’m a football player. I want to play,” McDonald said. “I want to play no matter what. Preseason is definitely a stride for me, just to be able to get used to the system at full, live bullets and whatnot. But at the same time, there’s going to be guys that also need to get some time that will be there for Week 1. I understand that. So however the coaches want to use me, I’ll be ready for whatever.”

Miami is expected to begin the regular season with veteran safety Nate Allen and former Pro Bowler Reshad Jones as starters. Michael Thomas is the top backup, and McDonald will push for playing time when he returns at the midpoint of the season.

The Dolphins were familiar with McDonald prior to signing him, having faced him last season during a 14-10 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. McDonald had three tackles in that game. He finished with 64 tackles and two interceptions last season.

McDonald, 26, has played in all 16 games in two of the past three years. But the safety must adjust to being sidelined for half the season before he can help his new team.

“It’s different for sure,” McDonald said. “It’s something that I don’t take for granted, I don’t take lightly. I know that I love football more than anything. This is something that is an experience that I’ve definitely learned from.”