Dolphins limp into regular season

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

The offense's best player unexpectedly retired. A top wide receiver suffered
a season-ending knee injury on a non-contact play. And the AFC's 2003 sack
leader was traded to Chicago after a long-term contract agreement couldn't
be reached.

But the worst may actually be yet to come for the Dolphins.

The loss of RB Ricky Williams, WR David Boston and DE Adewale Ogunleye comes
on the heels of what was considered arguably the worst offseason in
franchise history. The Dolphins now enter the regular season with so many
questions on offense that the team's NFL-best string of 14 consecutive
seasons without a losing record is in serious jeopardy.

"Ricky left, Wale's gone now, David Boston got hurt," DE Jason Taylor
lamented. "We've got to keep chipping away, though."

Quarterbacks: The Dolphins could very well wait until days before their
Sept. 12 regular-season opener against visiting Tennessee to name a starting
quarterback, although Jay Fiedler appears to have the edge over A.J. Feeley
at this point. Fiedler has earned head coach Dave Wannstedt's trust after
posting a 35-17 record as a starter the past four seasons and looks more
poised during preseason practices. Feeley has the edge when it comes to arm
strength but has yet to show he was worth the 2005 second-round draft choice
Miami sent to Philadelphia for his services. Grade: D.

Running backs: In light of Williams' retirement, Travis Minor and Sammy
Morris are expected to spearhead what may become a tailback-by-committee.
Minor is a decent all-around back who lacks the power between the tackles
that Williams provided. Morris is a bigger back but an inconsistent
receiver. FB Rob Konrad is likely to receive more ball-handling
opportunities as a runner and receiver. Grade: D.

Receivers: The Dolphins believe they landed WR Chris Chambers some valuable
help in acquiring Marty Booker from Chicago as part of the Ogunleye trade.
Booker missed three games last season with an ankle injury and caught a
modest 52 passes, but the Dolphins believe he can rebound to regain the form
that helped him log a combined 197 receptions during a two-season span.
Chambers began to blossom in his third NFL season, which led to him
receiving a five-year, $30 million contract extension in early August. The
third-receiver spot is a toss-up between 2003 free-agent bust Derrius
Thompson and Antonio Freeman, who was signed in mid-August. Like with
Chambers in '03, the Dolphins hope TE Randy McMichael is set for a breakout
campaign in his third NFL season. Backup TE Donald Lee is expected to
receive extensive playing time as the Dolphins plan to use two-TE end sets
to bolster the running game. Grade: B.

Offensive linemen: The biggest area of concern for a unit with four new
starters is on the right side. Although he supplanted Greg Jerman as the
starting right guard after one exhibition game, Taylor Whitley may just be
keeping the seat warm for 2004 first-round draft choice Vernon Carey. Carey
was shifted inside from right tackle after being unable to beat out
offseason acquisition John St. Clair. The Dolphins are counting on Jeno
James, a free-agent signee from Carolina, to provide an upgrade at left
guard. OLT Wade Smith must prove he can handle speed rushers better than as
a rookie in '03. C Seth McKinney is starting after spending the past two
seasons as Tim Ruddy's understudy. Grade: D-plus.

Defensive linemen: With the departure of Ogunleye, Taylor (13 sacks in '03)
can expect more double-teaming than last season. But any extra attention
given to Taylor should help new starting DLE David Bowens' pursuit of
opposing quarterbacks. DTs Larry Chester and Tim Bowens are again being
counted on to occupy opposing interior linemen so MLB Zach Thomas can make
tackles. Chester dropped 55 pounds during the offseason and should be a
much-improved player at 325. Weight issues and health remain concerns
surrounding Bowens, who missed a career-high three games in 2003. Grade: B.

Linebackers: Thomas has led Miami in tackles for seven of eight seasons and
should continue playing at a high level. The Dolphins are hoping WLB Junior
Seau can make more impact plays after failing to log an interception, forced
fumble or fumble recovery in his first season with the Dolphins. Seau,
though, did finish second on the team in tackles (133) and was voted the
winner of Miami's annual leadership award by his teammates. SLB Morlon
Greenwood has shown improvement each season since being a 2001 third-round
draft choice, but he only plays on about 40 percent of the defensive snaps.
Grade: A-minus.

Defensive backs: The strong press coverage provided by CBs Sam Madison and
Patrick Surtain is one of the keys to the success of Miami's defense. By
signing Reggie Howard away from Carolina, the Dolphins now have the luxury
of shifting Surtain inside to face slot receivers. Will Poole looks like he
was a steal in the fourth round of April's draft, frequently forcing
turnovers in practice and showing savvy beyond his years. SS Sammy Knight
said he is much more comfortable with Miami's defense entering his second
season with the Dolphins. The biggest question mark is at free safety, where
Antuan Edwards and Arturo Freeman are jostling to replace the departed Brock
Marion (Detroit). Grade: A-minus.

Special teams: With so many questions on offense, the Dolphins may be forced
to heavily rely on P Matt Turk and PK Olindo Mare for field position and
points. Turk did a solid job after being signed early in the 2003 season,
placing 23-of-68 attempts inside the 20-yard line with only seven
touchbacks. Mare finished with a career-low FG percentage of .759 and had a
crucial miss in a 19-13 overtime loss to New England. The return of LS Ed
Perry from a serious knee injury will help both specialists. The return game
remains shaky, although undersized rookie RB Fred Russell has provided a
spark on kickoffs in the preseason. Grade: C.

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