Cameron Wake will report to Miami Dolphins training camp next month with a starting job secured, which will be a change from last season for the five-time Pro Bowl defensive end.
A year ago, Wake was still recovering from Achilles tendon surgery and uncertain how much he much he would play in 2016. Now he ranks among the fittest 35-year-olds on the planet, and believes he's poised to help the Dolphins advance deep into January for the first time since he came to Miami in 2009.
"I'm just improving upon where I was at the end of last season, tweaking and fine-tuning some things to go out and have a tremendous season and help the team win," Wake said Thursday following the final practice of mini-camp.
Wake is coming off an 11 1/2-sack Pro Bowl season, which is especially impressive considering he saw limited action early in the year. Adam Gase, who was in his first year as coach, used Wake sparingly at first in an attempt to protect the veteran's surgically repaired left leg.
The Dolphins began the season 1-4. After Wake joined the starting lineup, they went 9-2, and the resulting playoff berth was the first of his career.
This week Gase said he made a mistake regarding Wake.
"I should have been playing him more early," Gase said. "We thought we were being smart, and it backfired on us. What we should have done was just let him play."
Wake smiled when asked about the admission by Gase, who is popular with his players.
"Hindsight is always 20-20," Wake said. "We all make mistakes. In this game, you've got to be able to admit when that happens. I think there are probably other coaches who don't do that, and with him being a different kind of guy, I think that's part of the reason why guys respect him, why guys relate to him and why guys love him."
Wake commands respect, too, for his leadership and work ethic, along with his productivity. His 81 1/2 career sacks rank behind only the Steelers' James Harrison among undrafted players.
He's one of three players in the past decade to achieve a double-digit sack season at age 34 or older. And that was following the Achilles tendon injury that ended his 2015 season.
"I think this will be a very fun and exciting year for him," teammate Ndamukong Suh said. "Obviously he's not having to worry about an injury, and he's having a good offseason from the looks of it. Being with him the last four weeks, he's in great shape."
Wake has become a mentor for rookie defensive end Charles Harris, Miami's first-round draft pick from Missouri. Wake said the role is fun and his protege is "very gifted."
"He's obviously explosive and aggressive, and to play this position, there's no way you can be successful unless you have those tools," Wake said. "Hopefully with a little bit of urging from some of the veterans around here and the coaches, he's set up in the right place to make plays."
Harris was drafted as an eventual successor to Wake, and the rookie will likely begin the season as a pass-rush specialist. Wake remains the starter until further notice.