Of the five panelists asked to pick the AFC East, four had the Dolphins finishing third and I picked them to finish second. Here's my intelligence report on Miami:
Five things you need to know about the Dolphins:
1. Henne must improve: Chad Henne needs to play better in 2011 than he did a year ago. He just didn't convert enough big plays to throw as many interceptions as he did (19). Still, I do think he was slightly unfairly criticized and I think he can revive his career, especially since Miami was quite proactive this offseason in getting him a lot of help at surrounding positions. And as Football Outsiders so adeptly notes, Henne was the most "unlucky" quarterback in the league last year as far as interceptions -- no quarterback paid more for his mistakes. This offense also has to get more aggressive with play calling. But any way you cut it, the Dolphins will go only as far as Henne can take them.
2. Defense is elite: I love the Dolphins' defense. Led by a very deep but greatly underappreciated defensive line, I fully expect Miami to have one of the top three or four defenses in the league. Vontae Davis and Cameron Wake are budding superstars with a ton of big-play potential, but young complementary players like Sean Smith and Koa Misi are also quite effective -- and should only be getting better. This defense needs to do a better job of taking the football away, and I don't love its free safety situation, but all in all, there are only a couple of NFL defenses that I rank ahead of the Dolphins'. And Mike Nolan is one of the best defensive coordinators in the league.
3. The Reggie Bush effect: As a former second overall pick in the draft, many consider the often-injured Bush a bust. I am not going to say that Bush was worth such a lofty draft slot, but I will tell you that he can make a major difference in Miami. Bush is as much wide receiver as he is running back, which makes accounting for him extremely difficult when he is on the field. Do you play nickel or base defense when he is the lead back? If you chose the smaller, more athletic defensive personnel, Miami will run the ball with Bush. If you chose the heavier base set, the Dolphins can split Bush away from the formation and get a coverage mismatch against a linebacker. His stats are not extraordinary, but Bush's effect on the game can be. Bush and Brandon Marshall should quickly become Henne's best friends.
4. Offensive line rebuilt: Henne isn't very fleet of foot. He struggles against interior pass-rush pressure, which was a big problem a year ago. In turn, Miami used its mid first-round pick on the best interior offensive lineman in the draft, Mike Pouncey, who is penciled in as the starting center. Former right tackle Vernon Carey has moved to right guard. That move is a bit curious, though, as I have major reservations about now-starting right tackle Marc Colombo. The plan is that the revamped line should help an ailing running game while also providing better interior protection for the immobile Henne.
5. More team speed: Miami clearly made a concerted effort to become a faster team this offseason. On offense, the Dolphins added a burner at wide receiver, Clyde Gates, who should open room for the Dolphins' other skill positions. We touched on Bush's potential effect in this offense, but clearly he is an improvement just in terms of his pure speed compared to the running backs from a year ago. Miami desperately needs more big plays on offense. On defense, the addition that really sticks out is every-down linebacker Kevin Burnett, who is replacing the slower run-stuffing Channing Crowder. Burnett's athletic ability and extreme versatility should serve Miami very well, especially when dealing with the Patriots' wide array of tight ends and running backs who can torture a defense from a matchup standpoint. He should make a very formidable inside linebacker pair with Karlos Dansby in Miami's 3-4 scheme.