1. You start the assessment of any team in training camp with its status at quarterback but, even after observing three practices over the weekend, it is difficult to evaluate if the Dolphins are any better at the position than a year ago. Part of the problem is that three-year veteran A.J. Feeley, acquired from Philadelphia in March for a second-round pick in the 2005 draft, has always been known as a terrible practice player. And he did nothing here in two days to dispel that reputation. Philadelphia's coaches always believed that Feeley, who was 4-1 as a starter in '02 when both Donovan McNabb and Koy Detmer were out with injuries, was a "gamer," a guy who always played better when the TV cameras came on. They also believed that Feeley was a player who needed extra attention. But so far, it appears that, no matter how much attention Feeley is garnering from Miami's offensive staff, he still is struggling.
Miami officials would like people to believe the competition between Feeley and Jay Fiedler is as close as their bios in the team media guide, one beginning on page 106 and the other on 109. But unless Feeley absolutely lights things up in preseason games, it sure looks like Fiedler, the man who the Dolphins went into the offseason trying so hard to replace, will hold onto the No. 1 job. It's not as if Fiedler was scintillating in the practices, either, but he seems to have a more calming effect on teammates than does Feeley at this point. And given all the various plagues that have beset the Dolphins in the past month -- what's next, folks, locusts and famine? -- a little calm may not be such a bad thing. For all his detractors, and they are legion, Fiedler still has a 36-17 record as Miami's starter. Not too shabby. When he is on his game, Fiedler is a more-than-serviceable starter, a guy capable of making enough plays to win. Problem is, with the retirement of running back Ricky Williams, the Miami passing game has to make more plays, and neither Fielder nor Feeley might be up to the task. But with his knowledge of the offense, his experience, and his usually positive effect on teammates, the bet here is that Fielder, for better or worse, opens the season as the starter.
2. Just a hunch but, if the Miami offensive line gets squared away and accepts the kind of changes that it must to compensate for Williams' retirement, Travis Minor might be a fairly productive back in 2004. No, he is not Williams, and the Dolphins brass is plenty smart enough to understand that. No one is going to try to transform the three-year veteran into something that he cannot be, even if he grew dreadlocks and developed an eccentric personality. Minor has 144 total career rushing attempts, less than 20 percent of what Williams accumulated during his two seasons in Miami, and there is no way he can be expected to handle a workhorse workload. But the former Florida State player has averaged 4.5 yards per rush and, while he won't move the pile, he will get into the secondary more than Williams did. Minor is more a slasher, has pretty good balance and vision, and will provide the Dolphins a receiving option out of the backfield on something other than just third down. If the Dolphins can divine a way to keep Minor fresh by rotating in veteran Sammy Morris, signed as a free agent in the spring, we're betting he can be in the 800- to 850-yard range, with a higher yards-per-carry average than Williams. Yeah, we know, that's only about half of what was expected of Williams for 2004. But you've got to make the best of the situation and, since no one is going to feel sorry enough for the Dolphins to just hand them a better alternative, Minor is the best option. And all we're saying is that he isn't just some guy who walked in off the street.
On the offense in general, there was some private grumbling about new coordinator Chris Foerster even before the Dolphins lost their two biggest potential playmakers, and things aren't apt to significantly improve. Remember, Foerster got the coordinator job after running backs coach Joel Collier decided he couldn't handle the pressure. And he got it despite the fact coach Dave Wannstedt had other assistants, notably Marc Trestman and Jerry Sullivan, who have been coordinators in the past. It marks the first coordinator position for Foerster and one Miami skill-position player termed the offense, which really hasn't changed from what Collier was going to do, "confused." That's hardly a good sign.
3. This remains a defense with talented personnel but, given the losses of Williams and wide receiver David Boston, the unit is going to have to play even better than it has in the last few seasons. The problem: We're not sure it can. Even if the Dolphins figure a way to resolve the contract dispute with holdout defensive end Adewale Ogunleye -- and agent Drew Rosenhaus reiterated over the weekend that he has some confidence last year's AFC sacks leader will eventually be re-signed to a long-term deal -- that simply permits the Dolphins to maintain the status quo. And the status quo wasn't good enough to boost the Dolphins into the postseason either of the last two years. Really, where did a unit that statistically ranked 10th in the NFL in 2003 and surrendered the second-fewest points get significantly better in the offseason? Beyond spare-part cornerback Reggie Howard, there were no free agent acquisitions of note. The team's top defensive draft choice came in the fourth round and, while Miami appears to have gotten a steal there in Will Poole, who really flashed nice cover skills in the workouts with Houston, the former Southern Cal star is just a nickel defender. Even without Ogunleye and middle linebacker Zach Thomas, the Dolphins got pretty decent pressure on Texans quarterback David Carr, especially from the inside. But the defense has some age on it and it isn't as if there are emerging young players ready to step in to key spots. Ogunleye might qualify as a younger player on the rise but, let's be honest, how many sacks is he going to get beyond the 15 he had in '03? We like strong-side linebacker Morlon Greenwood, who really stepped it up last season and looked good versus the Texans, but he plays a low-impact position. Thomas will be 31 by opening day. Right end Jason Taylor will turn 30 on Sept. 1. Cornerback Sam Madison is 30 now. Junior Seau is 35. There's something about the scheme that is getting a little old, too. For all the rhetoric about what great cover corners Miami possesses in Madison and partner Patrick Surtain, coordinator Jim Bates seems to utilize way too many soft "umbrella" secondary schemes later in the season. Bates is one of our favorite guys, but he may have to dig even deeper into his bag of tricks to get more, if possible, from his charges.
4. Speaking of coaches who might have to work miracles, add offensive line mentor Tony Wise to the bunch. Some believe Wise is living off his reputation. We don't necessarily buy into that. After all, had management retained right tackle Todd Wade instead of allowing him to escape to Houston in free agency (even though the Texans may have overpaid, Dolphins officials probably eyed Wade rather covetously this weekend), the team would have had two pretty good young tackles. As it is, the only starter who is returning is left tackle Wade Smith, who took some lumps playing the pass-protection side as a rookie last year, but who survived and will be better now in his sophomore season. But digest this: The five projected starters average an anemic 13.2 career starts. The relative graybeard of the bunch, left guard Jeno James, who was signed from Carolina as a free agent after an excellent '03 season, has just 28 career starts. We'll concede that John St. Clair, who logged 16 starts in four seasons with St. Louis, but who didn't play a single snap his first two seasons, was better over the weekend than we have seen him in the past. That said, St. Clair is still just a stop-gap, it seems. The staff would prefer that first-rounder Vernon Carey win the right tackle spot but, unless he gets a lot better real quickly, that won't happen. What could happen is Carey bumping the unknown Greg Jerman from the starting left guard slot. Figure on plenty more shuffling before the season starts. Figure, too, on Wise having to live up to his surname if he is to turn this line into an adequate unit.
5. For a team that desperately needs any semblance of good news, let's finish up on a positive note: Miami's tight ends are pretty good. Entering his third season, starter Randy McMichael still experiences some lapses of concentration, but the former Georgia star is developing into one of the NFL's best young players at the position. McMichael still isn't a crushing in-line blocker, but he has developed a nice feel for the passing game and has the ability to get vertical every so often. Second-year veteran Donald Lee is still a work in progress as a receiver but is an improving in-line blocker. On paper, it appears that fifth-year veteran John Jones would provide depth, and a better No. 3 tight end than many teams have on their roster. But Jones is said to be out of shape and didn't exactly endear himself to team officials by missing the charter fight here.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.