James steps in as the successor to two historically bad right tackles, Marc Columbo and Tyson Clabo. Both were a bit washed up and had been dumped by their respective teams and former GM Jeff Ireland lazily plugged them in at RT.
This year, to the dismay of some, new GM Dennis Hickey selected James in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft to fill a hole that has been recurring since the retirement of Vernon Carey.
James was brought in mainly for his pass protection skills as at least two games were lost last season due to a sack surrendered by Clabo. James was the most polished RT in the draft with 49 collegiate starts under his belt at the position.
If James struggles in his first season and provides protection similar to the likes of Columbo and Clabo then it will be a long season for Ryan Tannehill.
Koa Misi/ Dannell Ellerbe
Whomever starts at middle linebacker is an extremely vital player. MLB is the quarterback of the defense, meaning he is responsible for lining everyone up in the right spot and making sure they are on the same page.
Ellerbe started at MLB for the Dolphins last season, but has temporarily switched roles with Misi due to concerns about Ellerbe's physicality and ability to take on a blocker and stack & shed (concerns that are evident by the 1,998 rushing yards Miami gave up in 2013). The solution to the woes of the run defense, whether temporary or permanent, has been to move Misi from strongside linebacker to the middle.
Misi is the Dolphins' best run-stopping linebacker, but his ability to be a vocal leader, diagnose offenses and set up the defense appropriately has yet to be seen. Ellerbe was not strong in these areas either, so if Misi can do these things at least as well as Ellerbe and also stop the run, the linebacking corps will improve and the experiment of Misi at MLB will be a success.
Whoever is eventually the starting MLB will be a prime piece to ensuring that nearly 2,000 rushing yards are not embarrassingly surrendered for a second year in a row.
It should be no surprise that two offensive linemen are on this list after the Dolphins fielded one of the NFL's worst offensive lines in 2013. Albert is a key cog to the future success of the Dolphins, but his importance will be magnified if he ever misses time due to injury. Albert has played only a full 16-game season once in his career, and that was three years ago in 2011.
Albert has missed seven games over the past two seasons and has already missed time in OTAs with injury. An absence of Albert in any capacity immediately hurts this team's chances of winning as the only back-up to Albert is Nate Garner (though I believe Billy Turner or Ja'Wuan James could play the position in a pinch). If the Dolphins want to win in 2014, Albert needs to be on the field.
Wallace has been said by many to be more comfortable in Miami and have a better attitude about being a Dolphin. $60 million seems like good enough motivation…. But I digress. Wallace being comfortable is huge for this offense. Wallace seemed lost on the field far too often last year and his less-than-ideal attitude was evident after the first game of 2013 when Wallace sulked and asked reporters to "ask coach" about his one-catch debut in a Week 1 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
Wallace being comfortable means he will be much more of a team player, will run crisper routes and will have a better connection with Ryan Tannehill. All of these things will lead to more offensive success in 2014. Also, Wallace said he is really excited about new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's offense, citing how fast it is. Wallace should thrive in this system.
Wallace's importance cannot be overstated because he provides a down field threat who deters opposing defenses from loading the box to commit to stopping the run. Wallace also commands help from a safety which opens things up for the rest of Miami's talented receiving corps.
As I've mentioned a few times before, this is a make-or-break year for Tannehill and the coaching staff that has hitched it's wagon to him. Tannehill, as the quarterback, is the most vital part of this team in this pass-happy league.
Tannehill is playing in a new offense for the first time since high school and his ability to adjust will determine the level of success Miami has. Fortunately, Lazor won’t change a whole lot in the offense and will get the best out of Tannehill through demands, expectations, and teaching.
Tannehill will have the best surrounding cast of his young NFL career in 2014 and has a coordinator who will use these pieces to create mismatches all over the field.
Will Tannehill be able to find these mismatches? Will the ball come out on time (something Lazor harps on and something that reduces sacks allowed)? Will he be able to throw an effective deep ball to Mike Wallace?
These are all questions that remain to be answered that will determine the fate of the 2014 season.
Louis Delmas/ Jimmy Wilson- the starting free safety is responsible for getting the secondary on the same page. Whoever owns this job (I have a feeling Wilson will make a strong run for the position) will have important responsibilities.
Knowshon Moreno - his ability to consistently churn out positive yards will keep the Dolphins in favorable down-and-distance situations, his ability to catch passes out of the backfield gives Tannehill another weapon and adds another dynamic to the offense, and he is a wonderful pass blocker.
Brian Hartline - Hartline is Tannehill's favorite receiver and he is a specialist at keeping the chains moving on third downs. Hartline is coming back from a knee injury, so his rehab will be one to monitor. Without Hartline, Tannehill looks notably less comfortable on the field (which could change after an offseason filled with new receivers).
Earl Mitchell - Mitchell is tasked with replacing Paul Soliai, a favorite in the locker room and throughout the fan base. This is a tough task to do personality wise, but if Mitchell can provide big plays on the field he will be endowed with the love that was once reserved for Soliai. Mitchell has to be a force against the run, but he is in his natural position after playing the past few years as a 3-4 nose tackle (Dolphins run a 4-3).
Charles Clay - this list wouldn’t be complete without Clay. Expect Clay to continue his success from last season under Bill Lazor and make his first Pro Bowl. Clay is a big-play monster and his level of comfort with Tannehill is second only to Brian Hartline.