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PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 23: Miami Dolphins

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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.

Strengths.

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.

Weaknesses.

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.

Changes.

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.

Camp Battles.

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.

Prospects. 

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.

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Andre Johnson practices as Texans weigh quarterback options

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The good news for the Texans passing game is that wide receiver Andre Johnson returned to practice on Wednesday after missing last week while recovering from a concussion.

With the Ravens shuffling another new cornerback into their injury-depleted corps this week, having Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins available would seem to give the Texans a sound route of attack come Sunday. That brings us to the bad news.

The Texans are without their top three quarterbacks, leaving them to decide between Thad Lewis and the recently reacquired Case Keenum for starting quarterback duties against Baltimore. On Wednesday, Texans coach Bill O’Brien said he’s closing in on a decision that he doesn’t plan to share with anyone outside the team.

“The team has a pretty good idea which way we are going,” O’Brien said, via the Houston Chronicle.

Whoever does get tabbed will be running an offense that’s pared down to what “the position can handle,” according to quarterbacks coach George Godsey. We’re guessing that’s not an onslaught of passes deep downfield, but we’ll have to wait until Sunday to find that out as well.

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Philip Rivers held out of practice, expected to play

Philip Rivers AP

Philip Rivers‘ tough-guy credentials are well-established. Playing with a torn ACL earns you that much.

But even Philip Rivers needs a day off.

According to Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego, Rivers was held out of practice Wednesday with chest and back injuries.

Rivers has started 128 consecutive games since winning the starting job in 2006, and has played through plenty of aches and pains.

They still hope he’s going to be able to play Saturday night against the 49ers.

“I feel good,” Rivers said Tuesday. ‘I’ll be ready to roll on Saturday evening.”

Head coach Mike McCoy took it a step further today, telling reporters “I expect him to play.”

He wasn’t the only one missing, as the Chargers were without wide receiver Keenan Allen (collarbone), running back Ryan Mathews (ankle), tight end Ladarius Green (ankle) and defensive end Corey Liuget (ankle).

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Dexter McCluster out Thursday, likely out Week 17 as well

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The Titans signed Dexter McCluster as a free agent to add to their offense and special teams, but his first year in Tennessee looks like it will come to a premature end.

McCluster has been ruled out for Thursday night’s game against the Jaguars because of a knee injury and Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean reports that it sounds like he’ll be out for the season finale against the Colts as well. If that’s the case, McCluster will miss out on the chance to end a disappointing year on a high note.

McCluster ran 40 times for 131 yards and caught 26 passes for 197 yards while failing to make the same kind of impact on punt returns that he had while returning two kicks for touchdowns for the Chiefs in 2013. McCluster signed a three-year deal worth a total of $9 million with $4.5 million guaranteed and he’s set to count $3.35 million against the cap next year.

Left tackle Taylor Lewan (ankle) and quarterback Zach Mettenberger (shoulder) are both doubtful for Tennessee, which means we’re going to see Charlie Whitehurst start for the fourth time this season. Tight end Delanie Walker (knee) and wide receiver Kendall Wright (hand) are both questionable for the clash between 2-12 teams.

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49ers cut Ray McDonald amid rape investigation

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The San Francisco 49ers have released defensive lineman Ray McDonald, hours after news broke that police searched his home in connection with an investigation into a sexual assault.

General Manager Trent Baalke said the 49ers made the decision to terminate McDonald’s contract because of a pattern of behavior that the team finds unacceptable.

That represents a sharp contrast from the 49ers’ approach to McDonald early this season. When McDonald was arrested and investigated in a domestic violence case, the 49ers steadfastly stood by him, even as they faced harsh criticism from those who said he had no business on the field at a time when Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson were all banished from the league. In that case, authorities ultimately decided not to charge McDonald.

There’s no word yet on whether McDonald will be charged in the new sexual assault case, but it’s clear that the 49ers have decided that McDonald is someone they no longer want representing their franchise.

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Jay Gruden: No matter what I say about RG3, it gets twisted

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Washington coach Jay Gruden has seen his comments about quarterback Robert Griffin III get turned into something worse than they really were, and he’s come to believe that’s just part of life as an NFL head coach.

“I don’t have much of a concern really,” Gruden said, via CSNWashington.com. “I know that no matter what I say about Robert, it’s going to get twisted one way or the other.”

Gruden believes that people will seek to put a negative spin on anything he says about his quarterback.

“If I say he’s doing great, it’s going to be, ah, I’m too easy on him. If I say he needs to work harder, it means I said he’s lazy. If I said he needs to work on his fundamentals, it means I don’t like him,” Gruden said.

Although Gruden has benched Griffin this season and only put him back on the field after an injury to Colt McCoy forced his hand, Gruden says he has positive feelings toward Griffin.

“I have a ton of respect for Robert, man, and for what he goes through at the quarterback position,” Gruden said, “for what he’s already accomplished as a young quarterback, and what he’s going to accomplish in the future.”

It remains to be seen whether Gruden and Griffin have any future together beyond this season, but for the final two weeks, Gruden is going to say what he pleases about Griffin and let others interpret his words how they please.

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Mike Smith says Julio Jones decision will come Sunday morning

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It doesn’t look like the Saints are going to get much advance word about whether they’ll need to stop Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones this weekend.

Falcons coach Mike Smith said Tuesday that the team anticipated getting Jones back in the lineup after he missed Week 15 with a hip injury. During a media session on Wednesday, Smith said that anticipation would be the only course of action for anyone interested in Jones’s status.

Smith said, via Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com, that he will make a decision about Jones’s status around the time he has to hand in his inactive list for Sunday’s game at the Superdome. There may not be any hints during the practice week, either. Jones didn’t practice on Wednesday and didn’t practice at all last week and it seems likely that the Falcons would save whatever Jones might have until Sunday.

The Falcons were also without Roddy White at practice on Wednesday. White was listed as out with an ankle issue after playing all but three snaps last Sunday, so it may be a rest day for White with Jones’s status very much up in the air.

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Woody Johnson makes a Twitter gaffe

Woody AP

As Twitter blunders go, they usually happen when someone sends an ill-advised tweet, or when someone intends to send a direct message that gets directed to the world.

Jets owner Woody Johnson has demonstrated one of the other potential perils of the social media juggernaut.  Via Deadspin, Woody accidentally clicked the “favorite” button on a tweet directed to Johnson advocating the firing of G.M. John Idzik.

“You really need to #FireIdzik at this point,” the fan said.  “This roster is garbagio.”

Said Johnson after realizing the mistake:  “Have to be more careful when scrolling through my Twitter feed.  The tweet I most recently favorited was inadvertent.”

If only he could claim that the decision to hire Idzik has inadvertent, maybe the Jets would have some hope.

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Panthers playing wait-and-see with Cam Newton

Cam Newton AP

It’s beginning to look like Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will be on the same time frame as Tony Romo.

But the Panthers aren’t going to rush to any decisions.

After Newton practiced and moved well earlier today — eight days after suffering two fractured transverse processes in a car wreck — Panthers coach Ron Rivera tried to tap the brakes.

“He looked like he threw the ball well, but again, a lot depends on how he feels tomorrow,” Rivera said, via Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review.

If Newton’s able to rebound without too much pain and soreness in his lower back, they’ll add to his workload in practice tomorrow.

Rivera said he hoped to know which direction he was going by Friday.

There’s no standard template for back injuries, but Romo missed one game and played the following week with a similar problem earlier this year.

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Ravens sign Chris Greenwood

Captain Munnerlyn, Chris Greenwood AP

The Ravens keep losing cornerbacks to injury, which means the Ravens keep needing to bring in new cornerbacks to keep 11 men on the field on Sunday.

Asa Jackson was the latest corner to make the move to injured reserve, opening the door for Chris Greenwood to join the team. The Ravens announced Wednesday that they have signed Greenwood off the Vikings’ practice squad to bring their roster back to 53 players.

Greenwood was a fifth-round pick by the Lions in 2012 and played in three games for the team last year. He also spent time with the Cowboys in 2013 before landing in Minnesota this season.

Greenwood is the 13th cornerback to spend time on the Ravens’ active roster this season. Jackson, Jimmy Smith, Danny Gorrer, Aaron Ross and Tramain Jacobs are all on injured reserve.

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Revis not talking about next year

Revis AP

When cornerback Darrelle Revis signed a two-year deal with the Patriots, it became clear that the Patriots would either extend the contract or terminate it.  Currently, the second year of the deal calls for total compensation of $20 million and a cap number of $25 million.

So what will Revis do next year?  He’s not saying.

I don’t know what my future holds,” Revis said Wednesday, via Dom Cosentino of NJ.com.  “Right now, my focus is on this week.”

Could Revis reunite with coach Rex Ryan, who is expected to be fired by the Jets soon?

“I don’t know what my future holds, like I said,” Revis said.  “We’ll see.  The future will take care of itself.”

Fairly early in his tenure with the Pats, talk emerged of a potential extension.  Negotiations along those lines have not yet happened, and possibly won’t.  Revis hold the cards and has the leverage, thanks to a second year that works far better than a one-year contract, given that the franchise tag necessarily isn’t an option.  New England either has to keep him at $20 million for 2015 or cut him.

Ultimately, money will be an issue — what the Patriots will offer him versus what other teams (possibly the team coached by Ryan next year) would offer.

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49ers sign Phillip Tanner

Phillip Tanner AP

During the offseason, there was a lot of talk about how much depth the 49ers had at running back.

The season takes unexpected turns, however, and the erosion of that depth is one of the numerous negative ones that the 49ers’ season has taken this year. Marcus Lattimore retired without ever playing a down, Kendall Hunter tore his ACL, LaMichael James was cut and now Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde are both banged up heading into Week 15.

As a result, the team announced Wednesday that they have signed running back Phillip Tanner. Tanner spent time with the Bills this season when they were hurting for healthy backs, but never saw any game action. He ran 56 times for 149 yards and two touchdowns in 39 games for the Cowboys over the last two seasons.

Gore is recovering from a concussion while Hyde is battling back and ankle issues. Neither practiced on Tuesday as the 49ers began preparing to face the Chargers on Saturday.

The 49ers placed tight end Garrett Celek on injured reserve to open the spot for Tanner.

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Report: Police search Ray McDonald’s home

McDonald

As part of a rape investigation, San Jose police have served a search warrant at the home of 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald, according to ABC 7.

Per the report, an adult female received treatment at a local hospital for a possible sexual assault that occurred on Tuesday.  The hospital contacted San Jose police.

The victim reportedly alleged that she was “possibly sexually assaulted.”  Based on the preliminary investigation, the alleged suspect is McDonald.

McDonald was investigated in August and September for domestic violence.  He was never charged with any crime.

Just as McDonald provided the first potential case under the then-new domestic violence and sexual assault policy, McDonald now becomes the first potential case under the new personal conduct policy.  If charged or if the league determines via an investigation that McDonald may have committed a violent crime, he’ll be suspended with pay.

With only two games left in the 2014 regular season, the team and the league soon will have the entire offseason to determine whether and to what extent McDonald should be placed on paid leave or otherwise disciplined.

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DeMarco Murray practices on Wednesday

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said it was not “unrealistic” for running back DeMarco Murray to play against the Colts on Sunday despite having surgery to repair a broken bone in his left hand on Monday.

Murray’s presence in the lineup didn’t get any less realistic on Wednesday. Murray was able to take part in individual drills and coach Jason Garrett said that the team hopes to keep ramping things up as Sunday draws closer.

“He has to get something out of each day,” Garrett said before practice Wednesday, via the team’s website. “Today we don’t anticipate him practicing much but he’s got to move around and get himself physically ready to play in this game. As we go, we’ll see how functional he is – how he can hold the ball, hold it under duress, catch the ball, block do all the things necessary to be ready to play. We’ll try to ease him into drills and practice as the week goes on.”

Murray’s presence was a welcome one for the Cowboys, but two of his blockers weren’t able to get on the field. Right tackle Doug Free and right guard Zack Martin both missed the day of work with ankle injuries, although Garrett said they avoided the dreaded high ankle sprain and are day-to-day heading into the weekend.

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Cam Newton practicing and looking mobile

Cam Newton AP

Eight days ago, Cam Newton was in a car wreck that left him with two broken bones in his back.

Today, he was running around with teammates and throwing 60-yard passes.

In video from Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review, Newton looked fairly comfortable while sprinting from drill to drill and throwing passes during individual drills.

It’s unclear what he did during the portion of practice closed to the media.

We’ll know more later this afternoon when coach Ron Rivera talks to reporters, but Newton looked like a guy they’re hoping to have available Sunday when they play the Browns.

If not, they’ll have to go back to Derek Anderson, in hopes he can keep their playoff chances alive against someone other than the Buccaneers.

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Jaguars leaning toward starting Blake Bortles

Blake Bortles AP

The Jaguars have been out of the playoff race since the first half of the season, leaving them with little to do this year than work toward building a better foundation for 2015 and beyond.

A big part of that is the development of rookie quarterback Blake Bortles, who they selected third overall in May. It looks like that development will continue on Thursday night against the Titans.

A foot sprain created some doubt about Bortles’s ability to play and he’s listed as questionable for the game, but coach Gus Bradley said that the team is leaning toward starting Bortles.

“He’s really progressed,” Bradley said, via Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union. “Tuesday to today, much better. We just need to see him move around better. He’s progressed much faster than anticipated. Another day, I think, will benefit him.”

Defensive tackle Roy Miller missed practice with a knee injury and is also listed as questionable. Defensive end Andre Branch and linebacker Khairi Fortt are both out.

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