Nine painstaking months we have waited to see the Miami Dolphins take the field after a disappointing end to the roller coaster ride of 2013 left a bad taste in the mouths' of many.
Nine months since we were left yearning for more after a two-game collapse, featuring only seven points scored, dropped the once 8-6 Dolphins to 8-8 and out of playoff contention.
And this Sunday, none of that matters.
Over these past few months the Dolphins, who were on the doorstep of the playoffs in 2013, have gotten unquestionably better.
A new general manager in Dennis Hickey, who has handled his duties well in his young career, and a new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, whose demeanor, coaching roots, and offensive system, which features creativity in play calling and formations and diversity in player use, excite many about the potential of the Dolphins this season.
The offensive line, arguably the biggest issue in 2013, has been rebuilt completely, featuring five new opening day starters.
While the words promise, potential and playoffs have been thrown around, there are lingering questions with these 2014 Miami Dolphins.
In this season preview, I will:
- Highlight issues to monitor throughout the season
- Highlight the units of concern
- Highlight the strongest units
- Tell you what to expect when watching games
- List possible breakout players
- Give a final record prediction
1. Things to monitor throughout the season:
Offensive line- the Dolphins' offensive line will feature five new starters on opening day, and all but left tackle Branden Albert have question marks hanging over their heads. Even Albert isn't exactly a sure thing as he has only started a full 16-game season once in his career.
Hopefully the right mix of pass blockers and run blockers on the line has been found as balance is extremely important to any offense.
It will be interesting to see how this group holds up until Mike Pouncey returns from his late-June hip surgery and eventually gels together throughout the season.
Ground game - This issue is tied into the offensive line. If the Dolphins' line cannot create lanes for the running backs then this offense will be severely crippled and Bill Lazor will be handcuffed in his play-calling.
Conversely, the Dolphins running backs need to prove that they have the vision to find the proper lanes and create positive gains to keep drives flowing smoothly.
So far, only Knowshon Moreno has shown consistent vision to find lanes and gain yards in what is now a thin running back group which features two undrafted free agents. One of those UDFA's Orleans Darkwa, has displayed good vision, but he has only done it against third string players and is currently the last running back on the depth chart.
The Dolphins cannot afford to allow 58 sacks on Ryan Tannehill again, but if they cannot run the ball then another high sack total will be unavoidable.
Redzone efficiency/ability to finish drives - While I don't expect sustainability of drives or three-and-outs to be issues, I am concerned about the Dolphins ability to finish drives.
The Dolphins starting offense scored only one touchdown in four quarters of preseason football and had to settle for two field goals. Three-and-outs weren't common, but neither drives that ended with points.
Dolphins LBs ability to stop the run -
This will be much less of an issue in 2014 than it was in 2013 with the move of Koa Misi to middle linebacker. Misi is the Dolphins' biggest LB and is stout against the run.
The move also allows Dannell Ellerbe to shift from middle to weakside linebacker, which is the position he played with the Baltimore Ravens when he earned the big contract that he didn't live up to last season. This move allows Ellerbe to be able to move more freely, something that will greatly benefit his game.
While the ability of the Dolphins' LBs to stop the run will be monitored all season, I don't expect it to be an issue. The real issue is...
Dolphins LBs in pass coverage against scatbacks and big tight ends - This is a recurring issue that will cause a concussion epidemic amongst Dolphins fans who are banging their heads against walls
In the first four weeks of the season, Miami will face a scatback every week. This will be a very telling test for the Dolphins linebackers, and I expect them to struggle.
Injuries - Injuries are inevitable, that's why depth is necessary. But an injury to a key player, such as Branden Albert, Mike Wallace or Koa Misi, could derail the Dolphins season.
2. Most troublesome units:
- Offensive line - Pass blocking shouldn't be as much as an issue as it was in 2013, but the run blocking on this unit is worrisome. If this team cannot run the ball it will be tough for them to move the ball consistently. Worse, the lack of run blocking will hinder the Dolphins ability to kill the clock when holding a lead in the waning minutes of a game.
- Secondary - This unit has potential to be very good, but features multiple guys with an injury history. The Dolphins safeties, Louis Delmas and Jimmy Wilson, have also had trouble with tackling in the preseason. That is an issue that could cost the Dolphins seven points at any point in a game if it recurs.
- Running backs - Knowshon Moreno is the only reliable guy in the backfield right now. While "potential" is a nice thing to have, at sometime production must be had. Lamar Miller needs to prove he has the vision to find the lanes in the Dolphins' zone-blocking system.
- Linebackers - An injury to Koa Misi could derail this already questionable unit.
3. Strongest units:
- Defensive line - Cameron Wake, Randy Starks, Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell and Olivier Vernon. Dion Jordan comes back after Week 4. Good developmental/rotational guys in Anthony Johnson, Derrick Shelby and Terrence Fede. Need I say more? This unit will win the battle at the line of scrimmage on most Sundays and provide consistent pressure on quarterbacks. This group will make things much easier for the rest of the defense.
- Secondary - this unit is polarizing in my mind. This secondary has a chance to be very good (much like this Dolphins team), but a few question marks and the potential for injuries make me weary. Even so, I see this area as a strength as it is. Jimmy Wilson (who will be replacing Reshad Jones until Jones returns from suspension) and Louis Delmas are a solid safety due (if the two can tackle consistently). Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan have potential to be one of the best duos in the league. This unit will be greatly bolstered by the strong defensive line.
- Passing attack - the Dolphins have weapons. So many weapons. Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews, Jarvis Landry, Charles Clay, Knowshon Moreno, Lamar Miller. Pick five and attack a defense. This unit will thrive this year because no defense will be able to cover all of these weapons, especially in the creative ways they will be used. This unit, much like the entire 2014 season, depends on Ryan Tannehill, but there is no reason to believe that he will not take the next step in his progression and deliver the ball to his abundance of weapons.
4. What to expect from the team:
The Dolphins will be running a 4-3 defensive system but they will often use an "under" front, meaning that the linebackers shift towards the strongside of the offensive formation and the strongside linebacker is on the line of scrimmage.
The Dolphins should be able to stop the run effecively, but expect them to have trouble covering the middle of the field against the pass.
The Dolphins offensive system will look very similar to that of the Philadelphia Eagles as Bill Lazor is a Chip Kelly desciple.
Miami will have a zone-blocking scheme when running the ball and will implement many different formations and personnel usage. Lazor's passing game will feature west coast staples and will also get the running backs involved plenty.
Lazor's system features many shifts and motions and gets many guys involved. You can expect to see much more excitement and flare from this offense that is stuffed with playmakers.
5. Possible breakout players:
- Olivier Vernon - many say last year was Vernon's breakout year, but this year will be his first Pro Bowl year. Vernon has an endless motor on the field to go along with his quickness and strength. That equation equals a ton of sacks.
- Ryan Tannehill - Tannehill can be the Dolphins biggest breakout player if his progression goes smoothly under Bill Lazor. Tannehill played well last year despite playing behind a Swiss-cheese offensive line and has showed signs of progression this preseason. Look for a big year from the Dolphins third-year quarterback, which will coincide with big things from the Dolphins team as a whole.
- Koa Misi - Misi has potential to become a fan-favorite this year. I am a huge fan of Misi at middle linebacker and think he will thrive in this position. Misi, a former college defensive end, is a strong run defender and a bull when blitzing.
- Philip Wheeler - Wheeler can create pressure on the quarterback. It's the thing he does best and is the reason the Dolphins shifted to a 4-3 "under" front. Wheeler will have potential to wreak havoc on offenses from his strongside linebacker position. Just don't ask him to play coverage, because it won't be pretty.
- Gator Hoskins - Hoskins will be a pleasant surprise if he can learn to do the little things more consistently. Hoskins, who is very similar to Charles Clay in terms of style of play, will make the middle of the field extremely difficult to cover when paired with Clay.
- Chris McCain - McCain will be featured in the "speed" package on defense due to his pass rushing skills and diversity. McCain has freakish athletic ability and could find himself stealing snaps from Wheeler at the strongside linebacker spot if he thrives in the opportunities he will receive in Dion Jordan's four-game absence.
- Brandon Gibson - I know many would expect to see Jarvis Landry on this list (I still expect Landry to be productive and exciting), but Landry will have trouble stealing snaps from Gibson, who I believe will receive national attention by the end of this year. The Dolphins will spread the ball around plenty this year so all of the weapons will look good, but what Gibson does after the catch will separate him and he will be one of the leaders in touchdown grabs.
6. Record prediction:
10-6, AFC Wildcard playoff berth