The Miami Dolphins rookies reported for training camp last week, with the veterans following suit this Wednesday and the first on-field practice coming Thursday morning. We are officially back to football this week, which also means it is time to start thinking about the things we will see, and the things we will want to see, at camp this year from the Dolphins.
Miami comes into the 2017 season with expectations rising after last year’s 10-6 record and the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2008. Will they be able to back up last year’s run to the postseason with another winning season and a potential spot in the tournament again?
Today, we take a look at five questions that have to be answered in training camp for Miami to have a chance at a repeat playoff appearance.
1. Can the Dolphins get healthy?
Ryan Tannehill’s knee. Reshad Jones’ shoulder. Mike Pouncey’s hip. Koa Misi’s neck. DeVante Parker’s hamstring. Xavien Howard’s knee. Laremy Tunsil’s knee and shoulder. Kiko Alonso’s hand. Anthony Steen’s foot. All of these and more caused players to miss practice and game time last year. The majority of them seem to be fully healed, but there are still lingering question marks, starting with Tannehill’s knee. The quarterback was moving well during the team’s offseason training program, but until he is in a game situation and taking hits, the questions will still be there. Jones’ shoulder does not seem to be an issue, but Pouncey’s hip and Misi’s neck both still have to receive medical clearance before they are allowed to take part in football activities. Miami has to be healthy coming out of training camp if they want to get a good start to the season, and that is more than the normal situation of trying to remain healthy this year; the Dolphins have to get healthy.
2. Who will start at left guard and where is the offensive line’s depth?
The offensive line will again be a question mark as training camp begins, with the left guard the biggest of those questions. Ja’Wuan James is the starting right tackle, Jermon Bushrod should resume his role as the starter at right guard, Pouncey (assuming he is medically cleared) takes his place at center, and Laremy Tunsil moves out to left tackle this year. That leaves the left guard position to be filled by the winner of a position battle between Ted Larsen, Kraig Urbik, Anthony Steen, and rookie Isaac Asiata. Behind them, and across the line, the depth behind the starters is a concern. Center is a favorite question because Pouncey’s health could make a solid starter there behind the Pro Bowl center a necessity. Urbik and Steen could fill that depth role if needed. At the guard positions, the players who do not win the left guard battle are clearly able to be the depth at those positions. The tackles is where there could be some concern. Behind Tunsil and James, Sam Young is likely the swing tackle, but the team is relying on extremely young, unproven players behind him. The team has to make sure they are developing some offensive line depth in training camp because injuries happen every year.
3. Who starts at linebacker, and where?
Kiko Alonso joined the Dolphins last year as a throw-in on the trade that brought Byron Maxwell from the Philadelphia Eagles, but he quickly showed that his struggles remained in Philly, becoming the solid middle linebacker the Dolphins needed. He missed one game with a broken thumb, an injury that required two surgeries to repair, but otherwise, Alonso was out there every game looking much more like the 2013 Buffalo Bills version of Alonso than the 2015 Eagles version. Miami brought Lawrence Timmons to South Florida this year after ten years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers’ 2007 first-round pick has primarily played inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, so it seems likely he will play middle linebacker for Miami, which would make Alonso a likely candidate for the weak side. Rookie Raekwon McMillan, Miami’s second-round pick this year, should have the first shot at a starting role this year, probably as the strong-side linebacker though he could make a push for the middle linebacker and force the coaches to reshuffle where everyone else plays. Koa Misi, who missed 13 games last year with a neck injury, is still awaiting medical clearance from a neck injury that required a fusion surgery and was thought to be a threat to his career; whenever Misi receives the clearance, he is thought to be the top competition for McMillan in the starting lineup. Behind those four, the Dolphins also have Mike Hull who could make a push to break into the top spots on the depth chart, along with Neville Hewitt.
4. How many receivers are the Dolphins forced to keep this year?
Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and Kenny Stills are the top three receivers on the Dolphins’ depth chart, with Leonte Carroo likely in the fourth spot and Jakeem Grant holding the fifth position, in part because of his return ability. With five wide receivers seemingly locked into the roster, that does not leave a lot of room for seven other players currently on the 90-man version of the roster. Seventh-round pick Isaiah Ford could make a case to claim a roster spot, while second-year receiver Rashawn Scott could also be a factor in finalizing the regular season’s 53-man roster. Undrafted free agent Drew Morgan was the story of the offseason training program, but will have to continue to produce in training camp and the preseason. Miami also has rookies Francis Owusu, Malcom Lewis, and Damore’ea Stringfellow, along with first year player Mitch Mathews.
5. Can the secondary become an elite unit in the NFL?
National analysts do not give the Miami secondary much love, but that seems to be a lack of realization about what happened last year and what seems to be ready to happen this year. Injuries decimated the secondary last year for the Dolphins, especially with the loss of safety Reshad Jones. Cornerback Xavien Howard struggled as a rookie, in large part because of knee issues that required two surgeries, including one in the season. Isa Abdul-Quddus, who was expected to be paired with Jones all season, was forced to retire this offseason after a neck injury he sustained at the end of the year. Cornerback Byron Maxwell sustained an ankle injury and missed two games because of it. In other words, the Dolphins secondary was banged up all season. This year, they come into the year appearing to be healthy. Jones’ shoulder is 100 percent, Howard has looked like a shutdown corner throughout the offseason (with the normal caveat that it was without pads and in a small sample size), Maxwell has not had an issue with the ankle this year, and the Dolphins added Nate Allen to start at safety next to Jones for the first half of the season. Miami also has T.J. McDonald to bolster the secondary when he completes his eight-game suspension. Add in the continued development of college receiver turned third-year Dolphins cornerback Tony Lippett, and the Dolphins could have a great set of cornerbacks and safeties, without even mentioning nickel corner Bobby McCain, who is continuing to develop in his third year, and rookie Cordrea Tankersley. The Dolphins also have depth at the position, with Michael Thomas and Walt Aikens both able to play safety and cornerback, as well as Lafayette Pitts at cornerback. There is a ton of potential in the group.