After four straight non-playoff seasons, you can say this about the Dolphins: They are decidedly different. Jeff Ireland, the holdover general manager, spent the offseason deploying owner Stephen Ross’ cash and his draft pick stash to transform the roster, leaning on input from second-year coach Joe Philbin. Gone are many players — such as Jake Long, Karlos Dansby, Reggie Bush and Davone Bess — who gave the Dolphins plenty of good games in recent seasons, but collectively, weren’t good enough.
Miami will have at least nine new starters, including free agent signings Mike Wallace and Dannell Ellerbe, and first-round pick Dion Jordan. Even with all the additions, though, the Fins still might have issues in the secondary and along the offensive line, and they still need second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill to take a giant leap forward.
“There’s no doubt I feel like we’re a better football team,” Ireland says. “I think we’ve gotten faster in a lot of different areas. I think we’ve added some playmakers.”
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 12th
Do the Dolphins finally have their first franchise quarterback since Dan Marino? Maybe. Aided by the presence of his former Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman as the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator, Tannehill ascended to the starting spot as a training camp rookie, and rarely looked overwhelmed by the assignment. Even so, he had little surrounding talent, and his overall performance was uneven, best evidenced by his underwhelming passer rating of 76.1. Miami actually slipped in points and yards per game from the previous season, when Matt Moore, now the backup, was the primary quarterback. Tannehill has the arm strength, mobility and feel for the position, and Sherman expects big improvement in his quarterback’s second season.
The Dolphins believe Tannehill will have more help, even after letting Bush, their leading rusher and most dynamic playmaker, leave for Detroit. Lamar Miller, a fourth-round pick in Tannehill’s draft class, flashed some potential as a rookie, and he will get the chance to carry the backfield burden. Daniel Thomas, a former second-rounder who has had trouble staying healthy or upright in his two seasons, is also in the mix.
Brian Hartline was re-signed to a rich contract after a breakout season in which he and Tannehill quickly developed chemistry, even if it didn’t produce points. Now he can settle into the more appropriate role of second receiver. The top guy? That will be Wallace, who got nearly $30 million in guaranteed money to scare safeties, stretch the field and score touchdowns. Wallace’s contract is relatively small in the first season, but it quintuples in size in 2014. To be worth that, he will need to do something he didn’t in his fourth and final season in Pittsburgh — top 1,000 yards — and at least match his career average of eight touchdowns. At tight end, Dustin Keller signed a one-year deal to replace the departed Anthony Fasano, but the former Jet sustained a serious, season-ending knee injury in the Dolphins' second preseason game. Now the team will look to Charles Clay, fourth-round draft pick Dion Sims and 2012 third-round selection Michael Egnew for production from the position.
Mike Pouncey, one of the league’s better centers, will be expected to lead the line, especially after Long, the former No. 1 overall pick, resisted a late Dolphins effort and signed with St. Louis. Richie Incognito, a wild card in prior stops, has actually been a steadying influence in Miami, and the massive John Jerry showed progress at the other guard spot last season. Jonathan Martin was the regular at right tackle as a rookie and, after bulking up in the offseason, likely will move to the left side to make room for veteran Tyson Clabo.
Over the past two seasons, the Dolphins ranked sixth and seventh in points allowed, hardly the sort of statistics that cry for a major overhaul. Still, there was some softness beneath the surface, with too few game-turning plays made when it mattered, especially on the edge and in the secondary. Kevin Coyle, in his second season as defensive coordinator, has been given plenty of new pieces to integrate into the 4-3 scheme he introduced in 2012.
The strength remains on the defensive front, where the electric Cameron Wake made the transition to putting his hand in the dirt and put up great numbers (15 sacks) without his teammates mustering much support. That was the inspiration for Ireland’s decision to deal an extra second-round pick, move up nine spots, and grab the ultra-athletic Jordan. He played defensive end in high school, and finished his Oregon career as an outside linebacker. Ireland characterized Jordan as an every-down player, though that will depend on how quickly he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery and whether he can hold up against the run.
Miami should be set inside, with space-eater Paul Soliai and the versatile Randy Starks, though Starks missed some conditioning sessions due to a contract issue.
The biggest offseason surprise came at linebacker. Few expected Miami to dump both Dansby and Kevin Burnett, after both had been productive — though, in Dansby’s case, overpaid — during their Dolphins tenures. In an effort to get younger and faster, Miami aggressively pursued Baltimore’s Dannell Ellerbe and Oakland’s Philip Wheeler, and got them both. Wheeler can play all three positions, and Ellerbe emerged as one of the most reliable performers on the Ravens’ Super Bowl squad. The third linebacker is Koa Misi, who has flashed ability but needs to provide more productivity.
The starters at safety likely will be the same with Chris Clemons re-signed to pair with Reshad Jones, who had a breakout season at age 24. Jones led the team in interceptions and the secondary in tackles and the team rewarded him with a four-year contract extension in early August. Prior to Philbin’s first training camp, it appeared the Dolphins were set for years at cornerback, with the players (Vontae Davis and Sean Smith) they had drafted in the first and second rounds in 2009. Now, neither is on the roster. Instead, Miami will pair a veteran signing (Brent Grimes) and a second-round rookie (Jamar Taylor) to see if that works. It’s better, but there still isn’t much depth.
If Brandon Fields hasn’t been the best punter over the past four seasons, he’s been in that conversation. No worries there. Kicker, however, has been a different story, which is why the Dolpins drafted Florida's Caleb Sturgis in the fifth round. The coaching staff obviously has liked what it has already seen from the rookie, as incumbent kicker Dan Carpenter was released during training camp, meaning the job belongs to Sturgis. Marcus Thigpen was an undrafted find last season, and he will be the primary returner again.
Final Analysis: 2nd in AFC East
For the first time in a while, there appeared to be a clear offseason plan for the Dolphins — throw picks and cash at a variety of problems, notably the lack of support for Tannehill and the speed on both sides of the ball. How will that translate to wins? That largely depends, as it always does, on the quarterback. If he makes the leap that his coaches project, Miami can compete for a playoff spot. If not, there will be more calls for Ireland’s ouster and Philbin will be under pressure early in his tenure.
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