The 2015 NFL regular season kicks off this week, and for the Miami Dolphins that means a trip to play the Washington Redskins. The Dolphins come off the Preseason with an offense that has looked impressive and a defense that could be smothering this year. They also appear to be getting healthy just as the season begins. While nothing has been decided, two key players, left tackle Branden Albert ad first-round draft pick DeVante Parker, could be ready to play this weekend.
Albert is ten months removed from a tear of the ACL and MCL in his right knee. The team has been cautious on how they bring back the 2014 free agent signing, making sure that each step of the way is deliberately planned and exercised to ensure Albert is fully healthy when he does return to the field during a game. Doctors have cleared Albert, a 2013 Pro Bowl selection who appeared to be in consideration for another Pro Bowl appearance before the injury ended his season, but the coaches held him out of all four Preaseason contests and are not committing to playing him this week against the Redskins.
"We have more practice before we get ready for the game, before we get on the plane. We’ll take it a day at a time with him as well and see how he does,” Miami head coach Joe Philbin replied after being asked if Albert's status for Sunday would be a later-week decision. “We haven’t committed to anybody yet. He looked good today, he is practicing more, he’s doing more every single day, and we’ll see how it goes.”
The Dolphins need Albert to be ready, but are understandably concerned about putting him on the field too quickly. Miami wants to ensure that Albert is available for the entire season, even if that means missing a game at the beginning of the year so they will have their starting left tackle for 15 of the scheduled 16 games.
Miami also has to consider Jason Fox's health. Fox is Albert's top replacement, but has been battling a concussion and may not be cleared for Sunday. The Dolphins could look to kick Dallas Thomas from left guard back out to left tackle if both Albert and Fox are unavailable, but that would have to an an extreme situation. Albert seems to believe he will play on Sunday, with Miami getting back a big piece of their offense.
Another player who could become a factor on Sunday is rookie wide receiver DeVante Parker. The first-round Draft pick saw his first Preseason action in the team's fourth exhibition game, cathing two passes on the night. Parker, who had foot surgery in June to replace a screw that was inserted when he broke his foot in college, may be deeper down the depth chart than he would like, finding himself behind Greg Jennings, Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, and, likely, Rishard Matthews at this point. He does, however, brig with him a telant and drive that could make him see more playing time than a typical fifth wide out.
“I would expect today that he will be better than he was Thursday night at the game.," Miami offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said after Monday's practice. "I can’t predict how far or how fast it will go, but we are excited to have him. I would think he’s going to keep getting better.”
Parker caught 43 passes for 855 yards with 5 touchdowns in 2014, second on Louisville in receptions, leading the team in yardage, and tied for the lead in touchdowns - all while playing just six games as he recovered from his foot injury. He now comes to the Dolphins looking to prove that he is healthy and among the top wide outs in the 2015 Draft class.
The Dolphins have to prove themselves in 2015, and they have to get out to a fast start on the season if they want to challenge the New England Patriots for the AFC East title. Being able to rely on Albert and Parker would be a big step in the right direction for the franchise.