After enduring 16 starting quarterbacks in the 12 years following Dan Marino’s retirement, it seems as if Dolphins fans can rest somewhat easier now. Ryan Tannehill was very raw at quarterback when he was chosen out of Texas A&M, but it looks like the Dolphins pick at No. 8 in 2012 was warranted. There may finally be hope at the quarterback position in South Florida.
However, it’s some of the other positions that Miami has to worry about in 2013. It’s only head coach Joe Philbin’s second year at the helm, but the expectations are extremely high as GM Jeff Ireland is clearly going for broke in what could be his final season in charge. You have to think if the Dolphins fail to finish above .500 in a somewhat weak AFC, Ireland will be out the door.
Five Reasons to Be Confident
1. Cameron Wake
Although he turned 31 early in 2013, Wake still plays like a guy who is in his 20’s. There’s no reason to believe the former CFL standout will cease his dominant play from the 4-3 defensive end position anytime soon. Playing primarily from his favored left side, Wake led his position group in pass rush productivity, tallying 86 total pressures in just his first year as a true defensive end. The former Nittany Lion has made the transition from outside linebacker to defensive end look seamless. It’s scary to think he could improve in his second full year at the end position.
2.The Running Game
The Dolphins transitioned to a zone-blocking scheme last season under Philbin and new offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. Although the new design saw mostly mixed results, I have much higher expectations for the group this season. The system does not rely on any one lineman to excel in run blocking, which is probably for the best with this group. The scheme will also help second-year back Lamar Miller. He had 140 of his 250 yards after contact and forced 6 missed tackles in his rookie campaign, which are both pretty good numbers considering he had just 51 totes.
The onus, if the line collectively does their job, falls on the running back to patiently wait for the cutback lane and hit it without hesitation. Miller demonstrated that patience last season, and will also provide a burst through the hole. While Ryan Tannehill’s protection may remain an issue (we’ll get to that later), Miller can take the pressure off of the second-year signal caller.
3. Tight End Versatility
Last season, Anthony Fasano and Charles Clay were the only tight ends on Miami to receive significant snaps. While Fasano has always been a consistent player, he doesn’t offer much position flexibility. Even though he would man the slot sometimes last season, it was out of necessity more than anything else. With seemingly every NFL team looking for that athletic, “move” tight end, the Dolphins knew they had to follow suit.
In Dustin Keller, the Dolphins were able to sign a cheap, “move” type to cause some matchup problems against opposing defenses. Additionally, they drafted Dion Sims out of Michigan State. A tall, strong, long armed prospect, Sims can easily contribute in the blocking game immediately. His ceiling is intriguing and could prove to be Miami’s tight end of the future. With Charles Clay back in the fold playing the H-back role, the Dolphins can throw one, two, or three tight end sets at opponents.
4. Upgraded Secondary?
The Dolphins’ secondary is not without its question marks. Gone is Sean Smith, but in Brent Grimes, they potentially picked up one of the steals of free agency. Grimes is coming off a torn Achilles, but that came in Week 1 of last season. After being one of the top cover corners in 2011 (+17.2), he’s now about 11 months removed from the injury. The former NFL Europe star has been practicing since the start of training camp, so that leads me to believe he can recapture his 2011 form this season.
Additionally, Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons form a very solid duo at safety. Jones’ overall play earned him his 4 year, $30 million contract with $15 million guaranteed, making him a much better value than recent free agent Dashon Goldson. After being our third rated safety in 2012 (+22.1), Jones solidifies the back-end of the defense. The biggest question mark is easily the number two corner and nickel spots. Veterans Richard Marshall and Dmitri Patterson are starters for now, but the buzz around rookies Jamar Taylor and Will Davis is growing.
5. Ryan Tannehill
While Tannehill was overshadowed by three of his fellow rookie quarterbacks, he performed very well in 2012. Although the rookie signal caller didn’t have the gaudy statistics of his colleagues, he wasn’t working with very much at wide receiver or tight end. Despite possessing below average wide receiver talent, Tannehill demonstrated more poise than someone who only started 18 games at quarterback in college. While I’m somewhat worried about how his pass protection might affect his pocket presence, another step forward is the logical progression in his NFL career.
Five Reasons to Be Worried
1. Pass Protection
This is more about left tackle Jonathan Martin than anyone else. Obviously, protecting their franchise quarterback is paramount to the Dolphins’ success so, with reports that Olivier Vernon was beating Martin like a drum in training camp practices, it’s quite alarming that the Dolphins would just hand the second-year pro the job. Martin did start the last 5 games at left tackle for Miami in 2012, following Jake Long’s season ending injury. The results were not great. In those 5 games, he allowed 17 hurries, two hits, and two sacks, compiling a -6.7 grade over that time. The Dolphins’ smartest move may be to try Tyson Clabo on the left side, but he hasn’t played there since college.
2. All that Money…
Jeff Ireland was not shy about spending owner Stephen Ross’ money this offseason. In all, $248 million was shelled out. While the signed players are sure not to see all of that near quarter billion, nearly $117 million of it is guaranteed. The problem with all that spending is that if it doesn’t work out, the team could find itself in cap hell soon enough. Ireland knows if the team falls short of expectations this season, he will be without a job. Injuries, lack of chemistry, or general decline of players may see his gamble completely backfire.
3. Linebacker Upgraded?
In Kevin Burnett and Karlos Dansby, the Dolphins had two solid linebackers from 2012 that they let go. Although they brought in younger replacements in Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, they paid the two about nine times more than the cheap deals the Raiders and Cardinals gave Burnett and Dansby, respectively. All four were similarly graded in 2012, but Dannell Ellerbe will have to adjust to moving to the mike linebacker position in the 4-3 and being a three-down player. I’m not going to say Ellerbe doesn’t have the ability to excel in the role, but with a new team and position always comes growing pains.
4. Trust in Daniel Thomas?
The Miami Herald reported just days ago that “Dolphins officials are much higher on Thomas’ potential than some fans are.” After disappointing as a second-round pick for the last two seasons, my only question is why? Thomas has put the ball on the ground, picked up a number of injuries including the dreaded c-word (concussion), and has underwhelmed on about 250 total carries. The Philbin regime drafted Lamar Miller in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, as well as Mike Gillislee in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. While Lamar Miller is poised for a breakout year, entrusting Daniel Thomas with any crucial part of the offense may prove to be a massive mistake.
5. Wide Deceivers…?
Ryan Tannehill suffered through his rookie campaign with Brian Hartline and Davone Bess as his main targets. Neither are terrible NFL receivers, but both were suited for smaller roles. After resigning Hartline, Ireland splashed the pot and picked up Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson. In his first three years in the league, Wallace caught 37 out of 91 targets 20+ yards down the field, good for about 40%. In 2012, that number dropped to under 20%, as he hauled in 6 of 31 such passes.
Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Brandon Gibson underwhelmed for four seasons. In fact, two months into his NFL career, the Eagles cut bait on him and he was traded to the Rams. Instead of keeping Gibson, Les Snead and Jeff Fisher decided to go with a very inexperienced corps of receivers. Tannehill has plenty of weapons in 2013, but if he’s not on the same page with his new toys, we could see some struggles in South Florida.
What to Expect
If all goes right for the Dolphins, they may threaten to capture a Wild Card in a weaker than average AFC. However, they have to negotiate the NFC South and AFC North on their schedule, which is no easy task. If they see reasonable injury luck, and a decent return on their large investments in free agency, Jeff Ireland may see his job saved. As long as some guy named Brady runs the show in New England, Miami probably can’t win the AFC East. But, Miami fans should be happy with some second-year progression from their quarterback.
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