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Dolphins vs. Falcons Preseason 2023 Game 1: What to watch for Miami as position battles heat up

The Miami Dolphins face the Atlanta Falcons tonight in the first preseason game of 2023 for both teams. What should be we watching for as the Dolphins take the field? We break it down.

Miami Dolphins Training Camp Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins will open their 2023 preseason with a home game against the Atlanta Falcons on Friday night. Leading up to tonight’s game, the two teams held joint practices on Tuesday and Wednesday, giving them an extra-long evaluation process for the week as training camp moves from building up into the execution of game-speed play.

Miami’s offense struggled against the Falcons, failing to find a rhythm during the two practice sessions. It has led to concern among the fans, with plenty of media feeding into the idea that the Dolphins’ offense is in trouble this year. Miami is still a month away from playing in a game that counts, and they are in the second year within the Mike McDaniel offense. While there are tweaks being added, and the team is likely to see a more balanced pass/run ratio this season, concerns about the execution of the offense right now feel a little overblown. The team is still trying out new concepts and getting everyone on the same page. They will find their rhythm as the summer continues.

That said, the pre-snap penalties are a concern because those are lingering from last year. Miami saw way too many delays of games or wasted timeouts in 2022 because of late play calls. They saw too many players fail to get set or jump early and create false start penalties. They had multiple players go in motion at times, leading to more flags being thrown. The pre-snap penalties were a thing, and they are showing themselves again in practice.

McDaniel said on Wednesday of the penalties, “Nobody wants to jump offsides. We couldn’t have emphasized it more this offseason in terms of, ‘This is what it is, the facts are the facts. You’re the worst. I’m the worst.’ That’s what it is. So every time we false start, everyone is like – it’s not something that people are very comfortable with or pumped about. The point is to figure out the whys behind it and generally, across the board, the guy that false starts wasn’t about to execute a lazy play...You pride yourself as a coach to produce a clean product for the fans to watch, and our objective is to go forward, not backward, in a non-competitive manner. So that focus, ‘Hey, you want to be good?’ All this work we do, you try to put it in that perspective, but we’re very aware that we’re on the heels of being the worst. That’s not acceptable. We’ll continue to work through it. There are days that are good, but it doesn’t matter if there are quarters that are good if you’re false starting three times in the fourth quarter. So it’s something we’ll continue to get work at and it’s not going to go away. As long as you guys have your eyes open, you’ll be able to see how we’re doing.”

We will have our eyes open during tonight’s game. Hopefully, we will see they are doing better.

With the expectation that the starters will not see much if any of the field tonight, what else should we be watching for Miami against the Falcons?

Offensive Line Rotation

If we presume Terron Armstead is not going to play at left tackle, which seems like a pretty strong presumption, the Dolphins will not have their opening-day offensive line on the field, no matter who else is playing. Robert Hunt sitting makes sense too. No need to risk injury to the starting right guard in the first preseason game. Connor Williams sitting would seem to be an ideal situation, but given his recent snapping issues, Miami could elect to get their presumed starting center on the field for a drive just to get him back into game action.

That leaves left guard and right tackle as places where we could see the top of the depth chart make an appearance on Friday night. Liam Eichenberg is listed as the starting left guard on the depth chart, but he has not locked down the position in camp and he is being challenged. Getting him some game-situation snaps might be in order. Austin Jackson at right tackle appears to be in position to claim the spot, but after an injury-shortened 2022, taking the chance to get him back up to game speed might be a good move.

Even if Eichenberg and Jackson do not play, the offensive line will be something to watch. It is likely the weak point of the Miami roster right now, and they have to come together and start working as a unit. It seems highly unlikely Miami will make it through the season with every starting offensive lineman taking every snap of every regular season game this year, so the second and third-team players will have to step up at some point this year. Seeing how they play in this game - and when they play - could be a sign of what the coaching staff is thinking in terms of making the roster or battles for depth chart positioning.

Kendall Lamm’s performance at tackle - likely as the starting left tackle tonight but could also see time at right tackle - could be the final observation needed for him to assume the team’s swing/third tackle.

Rookies Stepping Up

Assuming the starters are not playing, that opens the door for the Dolphins’ top two draft picks to make an impression tonight. Cornerback Cam Smith, the team’s second-round pick, could earn a starting role this year, and tonight’s performance could be a big step forward for him in that battle. Xavien Howard should not be on the field, which means there should be plenty of snaps available for Smith along with Kader Kohou and Noah Igbinoghene, all of whom are fighting for that second cornerback spot or as the team’s nickel cornerback. They should all see playing time on Friday, and how they perform could be huge in a battle that might last all summer.

Third-round pick De’Von Achane could be the starter tonight if the team sits Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson, Jr. Feeding Achane early and often in the game might be in the game plan to make sure he is ready to move up the depth chart and assume the role as the third runner and someone who needs touches every week. Salvon Ahmed and Myles Gaskin are looking to keep the rookie from claiming that role, but Achane might have an opportunity tonight to slam the door on them.

A third drafted rookie who could see his playing time go a long way to claiming a roster spot is tight end, Elijah Higgins. Converting from wide receiver in college to tight end in the NFL is a tough ask. Rookie tight ends typically struggle as a pro, now add in the position change and Higgins is facing a steep curve. He has struggled at times in camp, but he could show the flashes tonight that force Miami to keep their sixth-round pick.

Defensive Line

Miami’s starting offensive line is listed as Christian Wilkins, Raekwon Davis, and Zach Sieler, with Emmanuel Ogbah on the second team behind Sieler. All four of them sitting would not be a surprise. That would leave Josiah Bronson, Brandon Pili, Randy Charlton, Jaylen Twyman, and De’Shawn Hand to man the line of scrimmage on Friday night. Will any of them leap out and claim a reserve spot on the defensive line?

Twyman has been flashing a lot in camp lately. Pili flashed during minicamp but has quieted down some now. Watching how they play tonight will be worthwhile. Hand was signed a week ago and has experience. How does he figure into the defensive line rotations tonight?

Safety Battle

Jevon Holland, Brandon Jones, and DeShon Elliott are locks for the roster. Behind them will be interesting to watch, especially when it comes to Trill Williams. The Dolphins moved Williams, who missed last year with an ACL injury, to safety from cornerback this year and he could see the field tonight - though Miami may hold him back to give him just a little more time to get to 100 percent. It feels like, as long as he is healthy, he will make the roster. Elijah Campbell and Verone McKinley III have to make an impact, both on defense and on special teams, if they want to force Miami to keep extra safeties.