For most of the offseason, it looked like the Dolphins were on the way to better days.
They signed Branden Albert and drafted Ja’Wuan James to shore up their sickly tackle position and hired offensive coordinator Bill Lazor in an attempt to ratchet up the production in quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s third season. After losing their final two games to miss the playoffs in 2013, it looked like the Dolphins were making strides toward a better result this time around.
Then came word that center Mike Pouncey will likely miss the opening weeks after hip surgery and that free agent signee Knowshon Moreno needed to have an operation on his knee. A four-game suspension for 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan handed down last week made for three steps backward for a team that can hardly afford them.
Our PFT panel thinks those steps backward will be costly enough to drop the Dolphins all the way to No. 31 in our Preseason Power Rankings. We’ll discuss some of the reasons why in our preview of the 2014 Dolphins season.
The Dolphins may not get any immediate help from Jordan in the pass rush, but they are still in good shape in that area. Cam Wake and Olivier Vernon combined for 18.5 sacks last season to help the Dolphins finish in the Top 10 in points allowed and both should still be big threats off the edge this year.
Miami lost Paul Soliai in free agency, but they re-signed Randy Starks and have Jared Odrick on hand to step into a larger role. They’ll need better linebacker play to improve against the run, but the defensive line is in good shape in Miami.
Cornerback Brent Grimes bounced back from a lost 2012 season with a great year for the Dolphins and Miami was able to bring him back before another team could nab him as a free agent. The Dolphins will need to be defensively sound to compete for a playoff spot this year. Grimes helps a lot in that regard.
While the offensive line remains a major question mark, there’s no doubt that the Dolphins upgraded with the addition of Albert at left tackle. His presence should give Tannehill a bit more time to throw the ball after being sacked 58 times last year and he’s shown promise when afforded such an opportunity. It will take more than promise to make him a bona fide strength, but he’ll have to struggle behind a halfway decent line before he can be deemed a weakness.
At the risk of belaboring the point, the offensive line still has more red flags than a Chinese Olympic Team pep rally. James is a rookie and the guards will likely come from an underwhelming group that includes Shelley Smith, Daryn Colledge, Dallas Thomas and third-round pick Billy Turner. Whoever replaces Pouncey will be a major downgrade and the team will be trying to build a cohesive unit with no returning starters. Maybe the changes to the locker room and the coaching staff lead to a quick turnaround, but it’s a better bet that some of the same problems hinder the team this year and that the Dolphins struggle to consistently put points on the board.
Moreno’s injury and lack of fitness left Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas to do most of the running during spring practices. Both players have failed to grab opportunities to take the job in the past and neither one has looked good enough to thrive with a mess on the line in front of them.
The Dolphins shuffled up their linebackers last season, but neither Dannell Ellerbe nor Phillip Wheeler did a particularly good job. Ellerbe is moving out of the middle this season, swapping spots with former strong side starter Koa Misi , in hopes that Year Two bears more fruit.
Lazor’s arrival to run the offense has people in Miami hoping that Mike Wallace can make more of the big plays that brought him stardom in Pittsburgh. With Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and Charles Clay around as possession options, a return to form for Wallace would be a major boon to Tannehill’s hopes of making the next step in his progression as a quarterback.
However those strides come, they have to come this season or the Dolphins will have to rethink their long-term plans on offense. The unit collapsed with a playoff spot on the line last year and the problems were so widespread that Lazor’s got a big job to do if the Dolphins are going to get back on track.
Grimes was a bright spot of the secondary last season and the Dolphins made a couple of free agent moves in hopes that he won’t be the only one. Safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Cortland Finnegan come with questions about their health and ability to perform at a high level, but they’ve both been good in the past and that’s more than you can say about most of the other options in Miami.
Matthews and Gibson will compete for snaps after Matthews took advantage of Gibson’s injury to make his mark as a pass catcher. Both should play, though, and the same is true at tight end where Dion Sims could push Charles Clay over the summer.
Finnegan is likely to fill a prominent role with Grimes at cornerback, but things are unsettled from there. Jamar Taylor and Will Davis were both non-factors as rookies last season, which may have helped convince the Dolphins to add Walt Aikens in the draft this year. They’d benefit from one of those players stepping up as both a third corner and an alternative if Finnegan doesn’t rebound from a poor 2013 season.
Moreno’s offseason injury and reported lack of fitness are both troubling, but he can probably still move back to the top of the running back rotation with a good camp. If not, Miller’s speed will likely keep him in front of Thomas.
It’s likely going to come down to the offense. If Lazor can get Tannehill and Wallace going while settling on a workable mix in the backfield behind a competent offensive line, the Dolphins should be in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Those are a lot of ifs for a team installing a new offensive system, though, and the defense doesn’t look quite good enough to carry the team through growing pains on the other side of the ball. Head coach Joe Philbin probably needs significant improvement to keep his job in 2015, but it is hard to see where there’s enough talent to provide it.