DAVIE, Fla. -- The tough questions came at a furious pace in the first week of Miami Dolphins training camp.
Is this team a legitimate playoff contender?
When will we see big plays from free-agent signing Mike Wallace?
Can rookie and No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan make a huge and immediate impact?
Welcome to the world of the 2013 Dolphins. This is not your typical, hapless South Florida football team with low expectations. This year’s Dolphins are gunning for the postseason and have a roster good enough to do damage in the AFC.
The Dolphins have not been to the playoffs since 2008. But this year’s Miami team is deeper and more talented than any in recent memory, which has raised the bar.
“You want to have great expectations for yourself, but at the same time you don’t want to put too much on yourself,” Dolphins second-year coach Joe Philbin said. “You just want to go in and work every single day to get better. We aren’t predicting anything or say we are going to do this or that.”
Are the Dolphins true contenders this season? Let’s examine some key issues.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Can the Dolphins catch the Patriots?
Seemingly every move Miami made this offseason had something to do with closing the gap with the reigning AFC East champion New England Patriots.
The Dolphins had an inconsistent pass rush and needed more to rattle Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. As a result, Miami traded up eight spots to No. 3 and drafted the super-athletic Jordan to pair with Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.
Miami also had the 27th-ranked pass defense because of poor cornerback play and slow linebackers. The Dolphins fixed that by signing former Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes and speedy linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler in free agency.
The Dolphins’ pass offense also wasn’t up to par last season and had only one touchdown reception from the receiver position. As a result, Miami signed tight end Dustin Keller and receivers Brandon Gibson and Wallace in an effort to score points and keep up with New England, which led the NFL in total offense in 2012.
The Patriots have been on top of the division for the past dozen years. But considering New England’s offseason troubles and Miami’s upgrades, the Dolphins believe they have a shot to make a run in the division.
“Nobody stays on top forever, and the underdog will have his day,” Ellerbe said this week. “And I feel like we’re an underdog right now. It’s a new season and only time will tell.”
2. Will QB Ryan Tannehill thrive in Year 2?
The 2012 quarterback class exploded on the scene last season. Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts, Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks all led their teams to the playoffs. Tannehill, who won seven games in Miami, was a cut below. Now, he is expected to take the next step in Year 2.
Miami cannot afford a sophomore slump from Tannehill. The Dolphins built the offense around his strengths and put the right pieces in place for him to thrive. His presence and mentality as a leader are apparent.
“Last year, I didn’t know what to expect coming in other than coming in and fighting for a job,” Tannehill said. “This year I got to really use the offseason to grow my leadership, set things up, get with guys. Now coming in I can really focus on taking this team to the next level, doing everything I can to improve my game and to help improve the guys around me as well.”
Tannehill got off to an uneven start in training camp. He had a particularly poor practice last Tuesday, when he threw a pair of pick-sixes to Ellerbe and safety Chris Clemons. Poor sessions like that are reminders that Tannehill has only 16 NFL starts and still has a lot to learn. However, Tannehill strung together better practices later in the week.
3. Can RB Lamar Miller carry the load?
The AFC East blog touched on this topic earlier in the week. Miller, a second-year tailback, is expected to replace former starter Reggie Bush this season. Keep in mind that Miami is putting a lot of stock in Miller after just 51 carries last season. To Miller’s credit, he led the Dolphins with 4.9 yards per carry.
Durability will be the biggest question. Miller had injury issues in college, which is one of the reasons he fell to the fourth round of the 2012 draft. But Miller has looked healthy and effective so far in training camp.
“I feel very comfortable just getting used to running the ball, the offensive line scheme and just being [involved] more,” Miller said last week. “I just know what I’m doing. I’m not second-guessing too much, and I’m just doing what the coaches are telling me to do. Last year, I was thinking about it too much.”
One of the big things Miller must improve on is his pass protection. It was one of the reasons he failed to get consistent playing time last season. Miller spent a lot of time this offseason with San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore to work on becoming a complete tailback.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Dolphins are a faster and more dynamic this year. Practices are faster and there’s more talent flying around the football field.
One of the biggest complaints in Miami the past few years has been that the Dolphins didn’t have enough playmakers. Players such as Wallace, Keller, Ellerbe, Grimes and Jordan were all added to change the makeup of the team. The added speed and athleticism are expected to add at least a couple wins to last year’s total.
“I think we are faster as a football team,” Philbin confirmed. “I think our play speed -- it’s still a little bit early in camp to get a real good feel and to compare it to a year ago as to what it’s going to be this year -- but I think it has the potential to be a very fast team.”
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
I’m still not sold on Miami’s offensive line. This is a group that was up and down last year, and the Dolphins lost their most proven player in former four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long.
Miami’s offensive line is one of the thinnest groups on the team this year. As a result, the Dolphins have been doing a lot of experimenting to find the right combination of players in the first week of training camp.
The biggest question involves new left tackle and 2012 second-round pick Jonathan Martin. He will replace Long and plays an important role in protecting Tannehill’s blind side. Martin was inconsistent at left tackle late last season while Long was injured. His performance in camp so far has been average. We’ve seen both good and bad from Martin.
Projected starting guard John Jerry suffered an injury in the first week, which has affected depth on the team. Miami is trying rookie Dallas Thomas as the starting guard and also exploring Mike Pouncey at guard. This is clearly not one of the team's strengths.
Dolphins backup quarterback Matt Moore looks solid early in training camp. Moore has been mostly efficient and accurate playing with the backup units. Moore also has thrown the deep ball well. A case can be made that Moore has been the most consistent quarterback in the first week of training camp. This is a rare year in Miami where there is no quarterback competition or controversy. But Moore is proving to be one of the best veteran backup quarterbacks in the NFL and looks ready if Tannehill is injured.
Grimes has made several “wow” plays and looks 100 percent recovered from his Achilles injury. Grimes missed most of last season with the Atlanta Falcons, and the Dolphins signed the former Pro Bowl corner to a one-year contract because of durability concerns. Grimes is very athletic, which helps him overcome his lack of size. Grimes and Wallace have had some very good battles in camp, and it's making both players better.
Miami’s kicking competition so far is going to the incumbent. Veteran Dan Carpenter has been more accurate in the first week of training camp. Rookie Caleb Sturgis, a fifth-round pick, came to the Dolphins with strong credentials. But Sturgis missed several kicks this week, and that’s put him behind Carpenter early. Sturgis also injured his groin in the first week and missed some practice time. Financially, the Dolphins could save more than $2 million this year by going with Sturgis. But the company line is that the best player will win the job.
The deepest part of Miami’s roster is its defensive line. The Dolphins have a very strong rotation of starters and backups at both defensive tackle and defensive end. Wake, a Pro Bowler last season, is joined by Jordan and young upstart Olivier Vernon, who has been very impressive in camps. Miami’s defensive tackle rotation includes Pro Bowler Randy Starks, Paul Soliai and Jared Odrick, who has shifted to the position full time from defensive end. These players will be rotated to keep the defense fresh.
Miami’s rookie cornerbacks are off to a slow start. The Dolphins invested second- and third-round picks in corners Jamar Taylor and Will Davis. Taylor missed all of OTAs and minicamps with a sports hernia injury and injured himself again in the second day of camp. Davis has stayed healthy but has allowed several big pass plays in the first week. Cornerback is a tough position to play in the NFL, and it will take time for Taylor and Davis to get up to speed.
The Dolphins’ backup receiver positions are wide open. Miami is expected to keep at least five receivers on the 53-man roster this year, and only three spots (Wallace, Brian Hartline, Gibson) are locked up. Other receivers such as Armon Binns, Rishard Matthews and Marvin McNutt are battling for the final spots. They all occasionally show flashes, but consistency has been an issue.
Finally, the role of fullback appears to be reduced compared to last season. The Dolphins are using more three-receiver sets this year, and tight ends Keller and Charles Clay at times have been moved around and used as an H-back. Versatility will be important for this position. Evan Rodriguez has been getting more looks with the starters lately than last year’s starting fullback, Jorvorskie Lane.