Perhaps Miami's biggest upgrade from last year has been its receiving core. The front office has made it clear that they want to surround second-year QB Ryan Tannehill with as many weapons as possible in order to put more points on the board. Miami looks to lead an aerial attack this upcoming season and be faster and more explosive on the field. Let's look at Miami's receiving core a bit more in depth to see who will be playmakers to watch during the five weeks of preseason and all the way up to week one.
Mike Wallace - Mike Wallace brings explosion to Miami's passing game that they haven't seen since trading Brandon Marshall. Like Marshall, Wallace offers elite YAC potential, however Wallace uses his speed as his prime attribute. Wallace will have his opportunity to be a certified #1 WR on the Dolphins, though his top quality very well may be deception; the attention that Wallace will garnish will open up opportunities and space for other receivers as well as the running game. But, let's be honest... Miami didn't make Magic Mike this year's highest paid free agent just so that he can ‘open up the field" for other players. Wallace will be expected to make his fair share of plays and more importantly, score touchdowns. Recently, Wallace has been bothered by a minor groin injury, so coaches may play it safe when it comes to #11's minutes in preseason. At the same time, it will be important for Wallace to improve his chemistry with his quarterback before the wins and losses start actually counting. Either way, expect Wallace to be a major player on Sundays and prove to Miami that he is worth being one of the NFL's highest paid wideouts.
Brian Hartline - Hartline has been constant debate for Dolphins fans since joining the team as a fourth round pick in 2009. Fans bicker on how Hartline would fare on other NFL receiving cores but often fail to recognize the fact that Hartline has been the best drafted receiver Miami has had since Chris Chambers, and has been fantastic value since producing as early as his rookie year. Brian had a career year in 2012, surpassing 1,000 yards and was awarded with a new contract this free agency. Hartline will be expected to continue as Miami's top go-to possession WR, while improving on his big plays and endzone opportunities. Hopefully the addition of Wallace and his insane speed will allow Hartline to do so while preying on team's #2 corners. Regardless, Miami will need Hartline to continue to be a top receiver if they want their offense to have improvement in 2013.
Brandon Gibson - Gibson will be Miami's x-factor this season considering nobody really knows what to expect from the new addition. Gibson's signing this free agency came to a surprise to some, including me, considering the decision to also re-sign Brian Hartline. Gibson will place a tough task in replacing Miami fan-favorite Davone Bess in the slot receiver position, after he left to join the Cleveland Browns. According to accounts, Gibson has come a long way in working in the slot and will hopefully give Miami shades of last year when he had the top completion percentage in the league on third down. Gibson will be a major focus to see how he adapts on the new offense. The more he thrives this year, the more you have to believe that Tannehill and his receivers are gelling. Watch him carefully during the next month.
Rishard Matthews- After the loss of Armon Binns, who suffered a tom MCL and ACL a week ago in camp, there seems to be a huge dropoff after Miami's top three receivers. Someone has got to step up and incumbent second-year WR Rashard Matthews seems to be the logical choice. The only problem is that Matthews has been injured with a knee issue that has kept him off the practice field, and may sideline him a few more weeks. Matthews, a former sixth round draft pick from Nevada, can ill afford to lose his positioning on the depth chart. If Matthews can show that he can stay healthy and produce when called upon, than he will be the frontrunner for the fourth WR Spot. Until then, his job is just as safe as the following guys.
Marvin McNutt- I wonder with all the controversy surrounding Riley Cooper, and the season-ending injury to Jeremy Maclin, if the Eagles are regretting releasing McNutt a few weeks ago? McNutt, who I'm hoping makes the team just for jersey sales alone, is quietly putting together a solid camp. With Binns being cut, McNutt has one less spot to jump to be a part of the final 53. His special teams play may be the ice breaker if Miami looks elsewhere with their final WR spot, So McNutt should buckle down on his kick coverage and try to open some eyes with his hands and size in his preseason debut. He may be running with starters on Sunday due to Hartline, Wallace and Mathews being less than 100% health wise, so he should have ample opportunities to do just that.
A handful of other players will be vying to make a name for themselves starting this Sunday versus the Cowboys. I would be willing to bet that we will be talking ALOT more about at least one of these players as the following weeks progress. As much as we will be hearing these names over the next month, the harsh reality of these bubble players is that one good block/catch or one dropped pass can be the difference between following their dreams as a NFL player, and potentially finding a new career.
Julius Pruitt continues to be a favorite camp body here in Miami, after he received a call to return after Binns was waived. Pruitt does have some experience of making some preseason plays and finding himself useful on special teams. Could he turn heads and end up sneaking onto the roster? Brian Tyms is another name to watch as he has quietly been productive so far in training camp. Jeff Fuller may have a leg up on some other guys due to his college chemistry with QB Ryan Tannehill at Texas A&M, but he has a ways to go to prove he can be a go-to receiver on Sundays. One guy I really want to see shine is undrafted free agent Chad Bumphis. Bumphis is a speedy, agile relieve who could fit the void in the slot after the departure of Bess. I will be carefully watching his production and see if his stock rises. Keenan Davis and Kenny Stafford are also more than likely camp bodies, unless either blows up in the preseason.
Tight End is another revamped position after the team replaced long time vet Anthony Fasano a few months ago. Let's take a look at what to look at for the tight end position.
Dustin Keller - something tells me that the acquisition of Keller will be one of the biggest sparks of the Miami offense this season. Keller fills a void that Miami really missed last season: a certified red zone scoring option. Keller is quick on his feet and offers a big target to Tannehill, as well as some after-the-catch ability to get downfield. However, as much as Keller is an upgrade in the passing game compared to Fasano, he is as much of a liability as a blocker. Which brings me to the next name on the list...
Dion Sims - I am listing Dion Sims as a starter because while I know he won't be on the field on all downs, his strength in blocking will make him an essential part of a few formations on Sundays. Plus, Sims has already leapfrogged Egnew as the No. 2 TE on the team's depth chart (though that's not saying much). I believe we will see a good amount of Sims in the preseason, and unless he regresses before week one, he should be active for all 16 regular season games.
After Keller and Sims, the remaining tight ends should not be too comfortable. I would like to believe that Miami will likely keep three tight ends, making this last position a battle between these players.
Charles Clay would most likely be the favorite of the bunch due to his versatility and use last season. He did have more touchdowns than any of the dolphin receivers last year (2). However, he has struggled heavily with drops and has shown to be an inconsistent blocker. Clay needs to improve his all-around consistency and prove that his versatility can be used as a threat and not a headache.
Perhaps no other Dolphin needs a stronger preseason than Michael Egnew. After narrowly avoiding cuts last year stemming from a poor preseason and a verbal bashing in Hard Knocks, Egnew has responded with more of the same in 2013. He may have just stuck around last year so GM Jeff Ireland didn't have to admit to his mistakes, but Egnew continues to be a poor blocker and show inconsistent ball handling. In an ideal situation, Egnew will finally see the light and replace Keller next year as an athletic passcatcher, however it's looking more and more as it he won't make it to see September.
Other tight ends include hybrid FB/TE Evan Rodriguez who was released by the Bears for character reasons. He will need to prove that he is more valuable than Charles Clay, plus convince the coaching staff that his attitude has changed for the better. Kyle Miller has been having himself a nice camp but he needs to prove that he can produce in games, and not against reserves, to be warranted a serious look.
So there you have it! I am eagerly awaiting the Miami Dolphins to kick off the NFL season and my eyes will be glued to the screen to see who with be our top receivers. Who will you be watching?