It feels like it's been forever since the Miami Dolphins last played a football game. But on Monday night, the Dolphins welcome the Jacksonville Jaguars to Land Shark Stadium (it's going to take a while to get used to calling the stadium that) to finally kick off the preseason. And while it's only preseason football, you are indeed still allowed to get pumped for this game. After all, these preseason games are going to go a long way towards determining who makes this team and who doesn't. There are also numerous position battles up in the air - and these preseason games will be big factors in who starts and who doesn't at numerous positions.
So here's what I'll be watching for on Monday night, in no particular order:
THE OFFENSIVE LINE
One of the hardest things to determine during training camp is how the offensive line is shaping up. Tony Sparano has a "no-ground" policy that attempts to limit the number of times players get taken down to the ground during practice. That means it's virtually impossible to get a fair gauge of the offensive line's progress and, in particular, how the players vying for the starting right guard job are performing.
Shawn Murphy will likely get the first crack at playing with the first-team offense. Remember, too, that Sparano made it a point to say the RG job is his to lose. No matter how well Donald Thomas performs, if Murphy performs equally as well, I suspect Sparano will remain true to his word. Of course, I"m not expecting Murphy to play as well as Thomas likely will as camp and the preseason wears on. But I'm also not opposed to Murphy proving me wrong. You can never have too many quality interior offensive linemen.
Speaking of interior linemen, this game represents our first chance to see Jake Grove really get at it in an actual game as a Miami Dolphin. They say he's stronger and more physical than Samson Satele and plays with a "mean streak." Jacksonville's defensive line is also big and strong and one of the more physical units in the NFL. So this will be a good test for Grove and the rest of the offensive line.
Look for the first-team offensive line to play most of the first half. Sparano likes to keep his line on the field more than most coaches do because he believes in allowing the unit a chance to gel. With a new center, an inexperienced right guard, and a left guard coming off of a season ending surgery, this unit needs time to work together and the Jaguars have a front line that is most formidable.
THE DEFENSIVE BACKS
One of the highlights of training camp thus far has been the promotion of rookie Sean Smith to the role of starting cornerback opposite of veteran Will Allen. But he's far from a sure thing to win the starting job. First round pick Vontae Davis and free acquisition Eric Green - who opened camp working with the first team - are very much in the thick of the battle to start. Monday's game will be the first time all of us fans get a chance to see what we might have in our young rookie corners.
One thing to keep in mind is that Jacksonville doesn't exactly have a great group of receivers. Outside of veteran Torry Holt, they are loaded with a bunch of players who are also looking to prove themselves to their coaches. That means two things. One - these receivers will be playing as if their careers depend on it. And two - there's no reason why Miami's young corners shouldn't have success against this crop of receivers.
Let's also not forget about our new starting safety tandem in 2009. Yeremiah Bell was re-signed and Gibril Wilson was brought in from Oakland giving the Dolphins a hard-hitting tandem on the back end of the defense. However, how will these two perform working together? Will they be liabilities in coverage? Some think Wilson and Bell are too similar to start in the same backfield. I disagree - but we'll get our first chance to find out in this game.
Obviously, many eyes will be on Miami's quarterbacks. Chad Pennington will start but will likely only see two or three drives before he is replaced by Chad Henne. All eyes will be on Henne during the preseason. Tony Sparano has made it a point to get Henne a lot of snaps during the preseason to get him prepared as fast as possible incase Pennington goes down. Of course, the coaches also need to begin learning what, if anything, they have in Henne. So getting him reps with "live bullets" flying is a priority of the preseason. And since he'll likely have a chance to play behind the first-team offensive line, this game presents Henne with his first opportunity of camp to really show this team what he can do.
Meanwhile, for those who usually only watch the first and second teams play during the preseason, there's now an intriguing reason to watch the fourth quarter. That's likely when second-round pick Pat White will take the field. While it's crazy to think we might get a peek at any 'Wildcat' plays, we will likely see elements of the "spread offense" once White comes in. He's far more comfortable working out of the shotgun and this coaching staff wants to put White in situations in which he is comfortable and can succeed - which will hopefully build his confidence.
EVEN MORE TO WATCH
There's obviously much more to watch for than the above:
- Just as it's hard to gauge the offensive line during practices, it's almost as hard to judge the pass rush. While I don't expect to see any of the "exotic blitz packages" being installed, I do hope to see some quality edge rushing from those second-teamers. Guys like Cameron Wake, Charlie Anderson, Quentin Moses, and others on the "roster bubble" have to begin to separate themselves from the competition.
- Jason Ferguson will likely only play a handful of series. Paul Soliai will then replace him and will begin to answer the question of whether or not the Dolphins have a future starting nose tackle on their roster. We'll also get to see Joe Cohen and Louis Ellis. Perhaps one of those two will flash at some point during the game.
- Speaking of the defensive line, there's an interesting battle brewing for the starting spot opposite Kendall Langford. Phillip Merling began camp with the first-team, but is becoming notorious for being one of those players who play better than they practice. That prompted the Dolphins to also work Tony McDaniel and Randy Starks with the first-team as well. Whoever wins the job, though, all three of those guys will be key contributors to the defensive line all season.
- Receivers, receivers, receivers. Has Ted Ginn really improved his route running that much? Will Davone Bess or Greg Camarillo step up and widen the gap between the two for the other starting job? Are the rookies - Patrick Turner and Brian Hartline - ready to contribute right away? And can either Brandon London or Anthiny Armstrong begin to distance himself from the other in the battle for the 6th receiver spot...if the Dolphins even keep six? Yes - questions abound at receiver.
Be sure to stop by the blog on Monday night as you watch the game or following the game. The first live game thread of the season will go up about a half hour before kickoff. But remember, do not request or give out any information on how to illegally watch this game online.