It's finally here! Miami Dolphins football is on the horizon, and it all starts tonight with the preseason opener in the Georgia Dome against the Atlanta Falcons. Yesterday, I talked about three things I was going to be watching for in Friday's exhibition game. Today, as the hours tick down till game time, I am going to discuss which players you should keep an eye on heading into this game.
When watching certain players instead of how an overall unit performs, I will be watching for who makes plays and who plays the hardest/ with the most determination or "want" (or inner "dog" as the Sun-Sentinel's Omar Kelly calls it).
In preseason games, you likely won't see someone who has already secured a job, such as Mike Wallace or Ryan Tannehill, play with great determination as they are basically participating in a glorified practice.
While Tannehill and Wallace will both definitely be on my "players to watch" list for the regular season opener, the preseason is for players who haven't made a name for themselves yet. The preseason is the time for players, who are playing their hearts out despite the fact that the game has no statistical meaning, to prove that they belong in the NFL (and more specifically on their team's final 53-man roster).
With all that being said, let's finally get down to which players should be watched closely during Friday's exhibition game.
RB Mike Gillislee
Mike Gillislee has been having a very good camp, so I will be watching to see if that translates to success in game action. Gillislee was a very dynamic runner at Florida, but didn't do much in his rookie season last year due to various factors.
However, it's a new year for Gillislee with new opportunities. With Knowshon Moreno likely out for this game, and Daniel Thomas' status questionable, Gillislee will likely see a bulk of the carries, or split them with only one other runner (Damien Williams), when starter Lamar Miller exits the game.
They say the biggest jump a player can make is from year one to year two, so it will be interesting to see if Gillislee can start to shine in his sophomore year debut tonight.
TE Dion Sims
I am excited to watch Sims tonight as he will likely handle the bulk of the duties with Charles Clay still nursing a knee injury and Michael Egnew and Gator Hoskin's health status unsure.
Sims, Arthur Lynch, Kyle Miller and Brett Brackett will be the only available tight ends tonight if the two mentioned above can't go, which means that Sims, who has been practicing very well, should shine in his larger role.
Sims is trying to lock down the second tight end role in this offense that will feature two tight end sets frequently. One of the main reasons Sims struggled last season was because he was a wide-eyed rookie who had yet to adjust to the speed of the game in the NFL. Fortunately, Sims has improved upon his play speed and has been making plays as a receiver in practice.
Sims was drafted mainly to be the blocking tight end that Clay and Dustin Keller weren't. It's vital that either he or Arthur Lynch can fill this role adequately with the way the Dolphins would like to run the ball. However, if Sims can fill this role and prove to be an adequate option as a receiver, it could greatly increase his playing time and opportunities.
Sims, a 2013 fourth round pick who stands at 6'4", 260 pounds, could be a big weapon for the Dolphins opposite of Clay in 2014, and we will get a glimpse into how ready Sims is to become that weapon tonight.
OL Billy Turner
Billy Turner was a mammoth of a man at North Dakota State when he was the biggest lineman in his conference. In the NFL, Turner doesn't have that size/strength advantage so he will need to learn to play with better technique to have a long, successful career. If he does this, though, he will be a very good lineman for a long time due to the athleticism and strength he possesses.
Turner will be playing as the second team right guard tonight. Turner needs to focus on himself and handling his responsibilities, but it would be naïve to believe that Turner won't be watching Dallas Thomas, who is starting at right guard tonight, closely. Thomas isn't a lock to be the Week 1 starter at right guard and Turner has more upside. If Turner can dominate this game, using proper technique in addition to his regular tools, then he could earn an experimental call up for next preseason game.
If nothing else, though, I want to see some nastiness from Turner. No, not unsportsmanlike conduct, but ferociousness on his blocks. This is what Turner was known for in college and this is what I would like to see to confirm that one day (when the technique of his position is learned) Turner will be a beast.
WR Rishard Matthews
I will be very interested to see who begins to separate themselves from the pack amongst the back-end of a stacked receiving corps.
I expect that to be Rishard Matthews, who has a toughness to him that no other receiver on the Dolphins roster has displayed in the NFL. Not only that, but Matthews, a former seventh round pick, has experience entering his third season and now better knows how to get himself open and get to the right spots.
The way Matthews plays the game is fun to watch, and I can almost guarantee that he will make a few big plays tonight. Matthews undoubtedly plays with the inner fire and determination that drives football players to be great. That's why he has beat the odds and stuck around so long despite his humble draft status.
Matthews' hands have been inconsistent throughout camp, so I will be watching to see if that trend continues tonight.
Matthews could be on his way to earning the starting slot position, but he will need to beat out two of my personal favorites, Brandon Gibson and Jarvis Landry, to do so.
I predict that Matthews will earn the starting slot role but there will be a rotation for playing time in games. Matthews is one of the best run-after-catch receivers the Dolphins have and can make some incredible catches (though he does have mental lapses).
I wouldn't be surprised to see Matthews string together a few strong performances in these next couple of weeks to solidify his spot in the receiving corps and leave many wondering why his name was ever mentioned to be on the chopping block (truthfully he was a bit of a bone-head, but he has matured and cleaned up his act).
LB Koa Misi - This honorable mention category is specifically for veterans who have solidified a spot on the team. However, Koa Misi had to be named on this list because, for the one or two series he will play, it will be very interesting to watch how he adjusts to playing middle linebacker for the first time in his football career. Will he handle his run lanes properly? Will he be adequate in coverage? Will he be able to put the rest of the defense in the proper alignments? We won't find out for sure tonight, but I will be intrigued to see Misi's progression.
CB Cortland Finnegan - Will Cortland Finnegan return to the form he held with the Tennessee Titans when he was one of the best cornerbacks in the league? This is the big question regarding Finnegan. While no definitive answers will be had tonight, it will be interesting to see how Finnegan plays in first live game action.
LB Chris McCain - Chris McCain would be on the normal list, but he was featured extensively in my "3 things to watch" article from yesterday. McCain has talent and he has great determination. These two things, coupled with opportunity, are a recipe for making plays.
RB Damien Williams - Like McCain, Damien Williams was featured in yesterday's article. However, I couldn't make this list without adding Williams' name to it. Call it a last name bias if you want, but I cannot wait to see what Williams brings to the table tonight. I feel that the way Williams' college career ended (being kicked off the team his senior season) was a huge wake up call that awakened the inner "dog" inside of him and he will tear it up this preseason.
Tonight is our first real look at the 2014 Miami Dolphins and our first opportunity to put them on a measuring stick. For the record, I don't expect Miami to win as Seth Lobato and Brock Jensen will see a majority of the snaps at quarterback. With that being said, we can receive a ton of insights tonight.
I would like to thank Phinsider member ct1361 for his role in inspiring this article.
Let me know which players you will be watching closely in the comments, enjoy the game everyone!