The Dolphins held their playoff destiny in their hands heading into the last two weeks of the regular season, a fairly remarkable position given the turmoil on and off the field caused by an offensive line that was far harder on members of the Dolphins than they were on the opposition.
Miami couldn’t beat either the Jets or the Bills in those final weeks, however, and Miami missed the playoffs before making major changes this offseason. General Manager Jeff Ireland was fired, four-fifths of the starting offensive line changed and a new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, was brought in to help coach Joe Philbin try to make the playoffs for the first time since coming to Miami.
If you saw our preseason power rankings, you’ll know that there isn’t much optimism at PFT about that happening. If the Dolphins are going to prove us wrong, these are five areas where they’ll need to get positive answers.
1. Is Ryan Tannehill the answer at quarterback?
Tannehill entered the NFL with limited experience as a starting quarterback, but the Dolphins took him eighth overall in 2012 and teamed him with his college coach Mike Sherman in hopes of making a quick transition to the NFL. Tannehill has done that in one respect as he’s made all 32 starts through his first two seasons and he’s shown the kind of tools that you want to see from a starting quarterback. Consistency has been an issue, though, and it remains unclear whether or not he can vault to the next level.
Having an offensive line interested in stopping defenses from pounding him to the turf would be a good start, but Tannehill can also help himself by making quicker decisions before the pressure gets to him. Playing in Lazor’s system should help with that, although there will still be a need for Tannehill to show he can make the right decisions whether or not a defender is bearing down on him.
One way to help could be to get Tannehill throwing on the move more often as he’s been more successful in that area than he’s been when he delivers his passes from the pocket. His athleticism has always been a plus and Sherman’s scheme didn’t always take full advantage of that in Tannehill’s first two seasons. He’s played well in the first two preseason games, which creates some optimism for what’s to follow.
2. Will shuffling the linebackers lead to better results?
The Dolphins brought in two free agent linebackers last year and said goodbye to Karlos Dansby only to see Dansby thrive in Arizona while Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler helped man a linebacking corps that struggled against the run and the pass. Ellerbe played in the middle last year with Wheeler and Misi flanking him, but things will look different this time around.
Misi is in the middle, a new position for him, while Ellerbe has kicked outside in hopes that he’ll be freed up to make more plays from that spot in the defense. The group had a poor first preseason outing, which has opened the door for fifth-round pick Jordan Tripp to gain some snaps with the first team. Whoever winds up filling out the group come the regular season, there needs to be a serious improvement in execution if the Dolphins defense is going to be stingy.
3. Will Mike Wallace’s second year in Miami be more productive than his first?
Wallace came to Miami with a contract that says he’s a centerpiece of the offense, but he didn’t wind up making that kind of impact on the field. Wallace caught 73 passes, but averaged a career-worst 12.7 yards per catch as his speed never led to the kinds of big plays down the field (six catches in 36 attempts of more than 20 yards) that marked his career with the Steelers.
Lazor has plans to use Wallace in a wider variety of ways this season, but neither reports from camp nor preseason play has shown a serious difference on the field. As the most dynamic receiver on the team, Wallace will have to be a major part of the offense for Tannehill to make the kinds of strides that the team wants to see him take this season.
4. Can the offensive line come together on the fly?
The good news for the Dolphins is that the bar was set so low in 2013 that it shouldn’t be hard for this year’s group to be better. The bad news is that being better than the 2013 Dolphins doesn’t mean that the line will be good enough to keep the offense moving.
Left tackle Branden Albert is a clear and big upgrade, but the rest of the line is still a mystery. Center Mike Pouncey hopes to avoid the PUP list, but will miss some time as he recovers from hip surgery and the loss of that anchor could have a ripple effect on a line that will start inexperienced players (tackle Ja’Wuan James, guard Dallas Thomas and guard Billy Turner) and/or underwhelming veterans Shelley Smith, Daryn Colledge and Dallas Thomas.
While the pass protection got all the notice last year, the Dolphins also fell short in the ground game. The backs on hand aren’t world-beaters, so there will be pressure on the line to be much better in that area as well because a little more balance would go a long way in Miami.
5. Do they have enough in the secondary?
The Dolphins were dealt a blow this summer when starting safety Reshad Jones was suspended for the first four games of the regular season, leaving cornerback Brent Grimes as the only sure thing in the secondary to start the season.
They are going to need safety Louis Delmas to stay healthy, cornerback Cortland Finnegan to rebound from a poor 2013 season and at least one member of the Jamar Taylor/Will Davis/Walt Aikens group of young players to make strides in order to be a group that scares opposing offenses. If those things don’t fall into place, they’ll be short even after Jones returns to the lineup and there will likely be some long days for the Miami defense.