2014 Preview: Miami Dolphins
The 2013 Miami Dolphins took the league and fans for a ride that many would like to forget — opening the season with a surprising three-game win streak only to lose four straight amidst the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito ordeal.
To their credit, the Dolphins persevered and in the second half of the season put themselves in prime position to make the playoffs. With disappointing back-to-back losses to the rival Bills and Jets to close out the year, Miami finished 8-8 and on the outside looking in.
With a new offensive coordinator and a rebuilt offensive line, the Dolphins hope to flip the script on what was a major weakness in 2013 and make a push into the playoffs. As the season draws nearer, here are five reasons to be confident and five reasons to be concerned about the Miami Dolphins in 2014.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Death, Taxes, and Cameron Wake
There are no certainties in the NFL, but Cameron Wake continuing to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks in 2014 is a pretty safe bet. After leading 4-3 defensive ends in Pass Rushing Productivity (12.9) in 2012, Wake actually improved in 2013 (14.0), trailing only Robert Quinn (15.3). It might be argued that Wake saved the Dolphins’ season from spiraling out of control with a three-sack performance, including a walk-off sack for a safety in overtime, against the Cincinnati Bengals on Halloween. The 32-year-old Wake is showing no signs of slowing down, and will continue to be the cornerstone of the Miami Dolphins’ defense in 2014.
2. Lock-Down Corner
A Week 1 achilles injury in 2012 put into question whether Brent Grimes could ever return to Pro-Bowl form. Grimes signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins as a free agent and quickly answered any doubts about his level of play. Reasserting himself as one of the league’s best corners with a +16.5 grade, and after making the Pro Bowl again in 2013, he was rewarded with a multi-year deal to stay with the Dolphins. With many questions surrounding the rest of the secondary unit, Grimes enters 2014 primed for another stellar season.
3. New Bookends
Merely saying the Dolphins’ offensive tackles were a problem last year undermines the severity of the situation. Tyson Clabo (-5.5), Jonathan Martin (-9.3) and Bryant McKinnie (-11.8) created enormous problems for the offense and are no longer members of the team. The Dolphins aggressively addressed the position by spending big on former Kansas City Chief Branden Albert (+5.9) in free agency and drafting first-round pick Ja’Wuan James. Albert, known more for his pass blocking, finished 2013 tied for fourth in offensive tackle Pass Blocking Efficiency (96.2). Although the sample size is small, James has looked formidable throughout the preseason and combined with Albert, looks to provide a much-needed upgrade at both ends of the offensive line.
4. Sure-Handed Receiver
Brian Hartline isn’t flashy but has proven himself to be, if nothing else, reliable. Hartline quietly put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and features some of the best hands in the league, finishing 2012 and 2013 ranked No. 3 and No. 8, respectively, in Drop Rate among wide receivers. While Hartline doesn’t reach the end zone frequently, scoring only five touchdowns in the past two seasons, he provides a sure-handed target on the outside.
5. Ryan Tannehill
Ryan Tannehill enters his third season poised for a breakout year. New offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has already displayed a fast-paced and creative offense that looks to capitalize on Tannehill’s athleticism, but perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is also the most obvious: improved offensive line play. The 59 sacks Tannehill absorbed easily led the league in 2013 but he also graded among the league’s best when throwing from a clean pocket (+20.5). Tannehill took some deserved criticism for how he closed out the 2013 season, but with long-time mentor Mike Sherman no longer with the team and better protection up front, Lazor’s new system just might be what Tannehill needs to take the next step forward.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Mike Pouncey
The Dolphins’ were already planning to start the 2014 season with a rebuilt offensive line, but a torn labrum in Mike Pouncey’s hip now forces five new starters on the offensive line for the first portion of the season. The Dolphins brought in Samson Satele, a relic from the Bill Parcells-era Dolphins who spent the last two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, to help bridge the gap until Pouncey returns. Satele struggled mightily last season, with a -12.0 grade, which makes the unknown return of Pouncey that much more of a concern and the Dolphins can only hope he makes it back sooner than the predicted eight games.
2. Double-Dose of Offensive Line
While the offensive tackles look to be a major improvement, the guards are still in flux. Veteran Daryn Colledge looks to be penciled in as the starting left guard but second-year player Dallas Thomas may have already lost the starting right guard job to newcomer Shelley Smith. Smith is receiving the first-team reps in practice this week after Thomas posted an abysmal -10.4 grade in the second preseason game, largely at the hands of dominant Tampa Bay DT, Gerald McCoy. With rookie swing-tackle Billy Turner also a possibility to play left guard if Colledge struggles, the interior of the offensive line is filled with question marks.
3. Linebacker Struggles
If any position group disappointed more than the offensive line in 2013, the linebackers were the runaway winner. The Dolphins decided to move on from Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett and spent big in free agency to acquire Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler: the results were something less than what was planned. Dansby had an All-Pro year in Arizona and the Miami duo posted a combined -33.0 grade. This season the Dolphins are experimenting with moving Ellerbe outside and Koa Misi to middle linebacker, but without improvement, rookie Chris McCain may be inserted into the rotation out of necessity. The early returns point to the linebacker unit as the weakest link on the team, and it doesn’t look close.
4. Key Suspensions
Starting safety Reshad Jones and 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan both will serve four-game suspensions due to violations of the NFL drug policy to kick off the 2014 season. The Dolphins were hopeful that the rookie year flashes would translate into a larger role for Jordan, but his suspension leaves the defensive end position void of any quality depth. Jones’ suspension forces Jimmy Wilson to start with new addition Louis Delmas, creating a void at nickel back. While Jones struggled compared to his breakout 2013 campaign, his absence creates a safety situation worth monitoring during the first quarter of the season.
The departure of Chris Clemons in free agency and the previously mentioned suspension of Jones are causing a ripple effect throughout the Dolphins’ secondary. Grimes secures the No. 1 position, but the rest of the depth chart is full of unknowns. Cortland Finnegan looks to rebound from his disappointing stint in St. Louis, which concluded with a -19.8 grade in only seven games in 2013. Second-year cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis are both looking to build upon disappointing rookie seasons and have made positive impressions throughout camp and the preseason. With Wilson filling in for Jones at safety, look for Davis to take control opposite Grimes, and Finnegan to play at nickel corner. A year from now the cornerback unit may be a strength of the Dolphins’ defense, but for now, its Grimes and the unknown.