Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland didn’t hear no a lot this offseason.
The team had been the bridesmaid many times in the last few years when pursuing players and coaches, but they landed plenty of big game this offseason. Wide receiver Mike Wallace, tight end Dustin Keller, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Brent Grimes are just some of the players who decided to play in South Florida this season and their arrival has led to a lot of playoff talk around the Dolphins.
That may make it a win-or-else scenario for Ireland, which makes it a good thing that he seems to have positioned the team well from a personnel standpoint. Now that personnel needs to gel in order for the team to return to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill didn’t have too many people to throw to as a rookie last season, which contributed to some of his struggles, and Ireland made sure that excuse disappeared. In addition to Wallace and Keller, Miami re-signed Brian Hartline and added Brandon Gibson as a free agent to give themselves a far deeper and considerably more talented receiving corps than they had last season. There’s been plenty of optimism about Tannehill’s growth this offseason and this group gives him a chance to show it off in a major way.
The Dolphins haven’t had any complaints about Cameron Wake’s pass rush ability over the years. Wake had 15 sacks last season, a career high, and did it without much help from his friends on the defense. If first-round pick Dion Jordan brings the heat as hoped, Wake will be even more dangerous to stop this time around.
Defensive line continues to be a Miami strength when you kick inside to the tackle spot. Randy Starks isn’t likely to get a long-term deal after being franchised, keeping his motivation high to turn in another productive season. Paul Soliai gives them a huge obstacle to opposing run games and Jared Odrick is a handy extra body to use at end or tackle.
Safety Reshad Jones, who is also looking for a new contract, is coming off a very strong 2012 season. A repeat performance will get him that deal and make him someone Miami can build around in the secondary.
Center Mike Pouncey has a good chance to join his brother Maurkice in the Pro Bowl sooner rather than later. He’ll anchor a line that has questions we’ll discuss below and the upside to be an effective unit.
It may not turn out to be a weakness in the long run, but there are certainly plenty of questions to answer about the cornerbacks. Grimes and Richard Marshall are both coming off of injuries that could leave them at less than full strength and one can never predict how much rookies like Jamar Taylor and Will Davis will bring to the table in their first seasons.
We’ll stay in the uncertainty more than weakness column as we turn our eye to the running backs. Reggie Bush went to Detroit, leaving second-year man Lamar Miller as the likeliest choice for the lead back role this year. Miller’s speed is intriguing, but he’ll need to show he can do the more mundane business of moving the chains and picking up pass rushers to help make Miami’s offense balanced and productive this season.
As mentioned above, no one other than Wake rushed the passer well enough. If Jordan doesn’t provide the extra pressure, it’s hard to see who might do it.
Camp will be important for the Dolphins because they have so many new players in the system and chemistry will be a must for units with major changes like the offensive line and linebackers. While you’d expect the players to pick things up fairly well, it’s never as easy as just plugging players into spots and letting them go.
There will be a new look on the offensive line for the Dolphins this season. Jake Long was the rare one that got away this offseason, heading to the Rams and leaving left tackle in the hands of Jonathan Martin. Martin played the position at Stanford and moved there after Long was hurt last season, so familiarity with the job shouldn’t be too big an obstacle.
The Dolphins also signed Tyson Clabo to play right tackle, a move some questioned because his style doesn’t seem to mesh with the zone blocking principles the Dolphins introduced last season. He’s a capable player, so the line should be in good shape if he takes to the new system.
Linebacker was another area of major change as the Dolphins shipped out Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett in favor of Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler. They definitely got younger and faster in the process, but both of the discarded vets were solid players and Ellerbe has a short track record of success for a player who got a big deal this offseason.
Wide receiver Davone Bess and tight end Anthony Fasano were each let go as part of the overhaul of the receiving corps.
One notable area without change was Joe Philbin’s coaching staff, which provides the team with continuity in their effort to build on last season’s result.
Richie Incognito should hold onto the left guard spot, but right guard will be a spot of contention for John Jerry, rookie Dallas Thomas and, assuming he’s healthy, free agent addition Lance Louis. Jerry didn’t play well last season, which should make the competition that much livelier.
There’s plenty to sort out at corner with Nolan Carroll and Dimitri Patterson joining the players already named in a fight for roles in the secondary. The best-case scenario for the Dolphins is that all the competition helps answer some of their questions at corner before the start of the regular season.
Miller’s the odds-on favorite for the top spot on the depth chart, but Daniel Thomas and Mike Gillislee will be fighting for snaps as well. Thomas has disappointed to this point in his NFL career and Gillislee passing him by wouldn’t bode well for his future in Miami.
The Dolphins drafted kicker Caleb Sturgis in the fifth round, which likely makes him a favorite in the battle with erratic incumbent Dan Carpenter.
With Aaron Hernandez in prison, Rob Gronkowski’s status uncertain because of surgeries and other questions about their receiving corps, many have opined that the Patriots could be in danger of losing their perch atop the AFC East.
If they do, the Dolphins appear to be the team in the best position to replace them as division champs. They were 7-9 last season before making additions that should be improvements in several places, Philbin and Tannehill have a year of experience under their belts and the Bills and Jets are riddled with more holes. It’s easy to see things coming together in a winning season and a playoff berth, whether or not the Patriots plummet.
That said, the Dolphins still need to do it. Teams with busy offseasons never suffer for a lack of buzz, but they do fail to answer the bell on occasion. The Dolphins have the pieces and we’ll find out soon enough if they know how to use them.