After checking out the Falcons first two opponents of the year in the New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Rams, let’s look at their Week Three opponent in the Miami Dolphins and what things will be happening in South Florida this summer.
The Dolphins are a team in flux hoping that their second year under head coach Joe Philbin will lead to greater success than the 7-9 finish in 2012. They spent quite a bit of money this off-season to bring in new starters at several positions on both sides of the ball and are hoping it pays immediate dividends. The main thing people watching Dolphins camp will be looking for this summer is how things gel with all the new faces.
Much of the focus is going to center on second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, as many are expecting big things from him this season as he matures into a more consistent passer. Tannehill has skills to be a very good quarterback in the NFL, showcasing all the physical tools you want. Despite limited experience playing at both the collegiate and professional levels, he shows a relatively strong mental grasp for the position which indicates that with added experience the sky could indeed be the limit for how good a player he matures into. But there were too many times he was erratic last year. And it certainly didn’t help that there were no true weapons for him to throw to last year.
That changes with the free agent additions of Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson at wide receiver, as well as tight end Dustin Keller. Wallace had a disappointing 2012 campaign with the Pittsburgh Steelers, seemingly due to the uncertainty of his future in that city after two excellent seasons as the league’s most-feared vertical threat. The Dolphins hope that now that he has is sated contractually, he can get back to those former ways. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, history suggests that when free agent wide receivers change teams their level of success with their new teams isn’t very good. The Dolphins hope that Wallace is the exception, rather than the rule.
Gibson will be competing with Armon Binns for the third spot at wide receiver. Philbin wants to incorporate an explosive vertical attack into the Dolphins offense, akin to what he helped build in Green Bay years ago, which will make ample use of three-wide sets. Gibson is a solid possession receiver that was productive in St. Louis over the past few years. Binns has good size and many observers are suggesting his strong off-season will cause him to win the job this summer. If either one can become the underneath option for Tannehill while Wallace and Brian Hartline continue to do what they do best on the outside: stretch the field, then it should give the Dolphins a major upgrade in their passing attack.
But one of the key areas of competition this summer on offense will be at the running back position. Gone is Reggie Bush, with his backups in Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller competing for the starting job. Miller is expected to win the job and certainly will enter camp as the starter. Thomas had a few moments last year, where his size and inside rushing ability could prove to be an effective change of pace to the quicker, more explosive Miller that is better rushing on the edge. Depending on how strong a summer Miller has could determine just how much balance the Dolphins have this season. And despite roots in Green Bay, Philbin being a former offensive line coach is not going to run an offense that throws the ball every down. How much success they have on the ground will be a key factor in taking pressure off Tannehill to be able to better pick and choose his spots in 2013.
Speaking of the offensive line that might be where most of the big questions lie. The team picked up former Falcon Tyson Clabo to play right tackle, formerly helmed by second-year player Jonathan Martin. He moves to left tackle where he replaces long-time Pro Bowl fixture Jake Long. Martin protected Andrew Lucks’ blindside at Stanford and filled in at left tackle down the stretch in 2012. He was serviceable there, looking much more comfortable there than he did earlier in the season on the right side. But for the most part, Martin’s rookie season would be considered more of a disaster than a success. How he adjusts to playing the left side could determine how effective the Dolphins offense and especially their passing attack is this season. The last thing you want is for the left tackle to be the liability up front.
Defensively, the Dolphins have revamped some positions and have the makings of what can be a solid unit. They are anchored up front by defensive end Cameron Wake who is without a doubt the league’s most fearsome edge rusher off the left side. He will be joined by top pick Dion Jordan in the hopes that their speed off the edge creates havoc for passers, especially one Tom Brady up in New England. However, Jordan’s off-season hasn’t been great. He’s been recovering from a February shoulder surgery and missed all of OTAs due to the league’s rule about players being unable to participate until their college class graduates. He’ll have to quickly get up to speed when camps start later this month. If he gets off to a slow start this summer, then slack must be picked up by Olivier Vernon who has been working in the starting lineup in Jordan’s absence. He flashed some things as a rookie (a 2-sack effort vs. St. Louis), and they hope he can start to put it all together this year to give them a more complete rotation.
The Dolphins added free agent linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler to replace the aging Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, respectively. Dansby and Burnett were solid last year and leaders on their team. This year their replacements will be asked to fill those same leadership roles and also be upgrades on the field. Ellerbe is already bringing a bit of swagger to the unit with recent comments involving the vulnerability of the New England Patriots. They will be joined by Koa Misi at strongside linebacker, and how quickly that unit gels could determine if it remains a strength defensively.
Another big addition came at the cornerback position where former Falcon Brent Grimes is expected to be their top cover man. Grimes is coming off an Achilles tear suffered in the Falcons season opener last season, but all reports indicate that he is 100% recovered and ready to go this summer. The main thing for Grimes won’t be proving he’s healthy, which he already has, it will be proving he can remain healthy this year. And if he does and returns to a level comparable to where he was in 2010 and 2011 with Atlanta, he will once again be among the top corners in the league. But he’ll also get help from rookies like Jamar Taylor and Will Davis. If either can hit the ground running this summer in camp, that could allow them to limit other starter: Richard Marshall more to a role in the nickel which is where he is ideally suited. He too is coming off an injury-plagued 2012 season and will need to prove this summer that he’s ready to contribute.
Safeties Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons are underrated players that are both coming off solid first seasons in the starting lineup and with the additions made at cornerback hope that leads to even greater success. If the additions of Ellerbe, Wheeler, Grimes, and Jordan work out it should give the Dolphins one of the league’s better defenses. How good will largely depend on just how good those players are in their first seasons in Miami.
Another key position battle will come on special teams where kicker Dan Carpenter is competing with rookie Caleb Sturgis. Carpenter has been one of the league’s best kickers the past few years, but with the selection of Sturgis in the fifth round this past April he appears to be on the outs. If that proves to be the case, then Sturgis is going to have to try and pull a page from players like Blair Walsh (Vikings), Kai Forbath (Redskins), and Justin Tucker (Ravens) all of whom were excellent last year in their rookie seasons.
Overall, the Dolphins don’t have a ton of unsettled position battles. Most of their camp will be devoted to the new additions such as Wallace, Ellerbe, Jordan, and Grimes as well as players at new positions like Martin or new roles like Miller settling in at their respective spots. Without the distraction of HBO’s cameras looming all over the place, it should help things settle down a bit. They hope the gains that Tannehill makes this summer will spearhead them to make their first playoff appearance since 2008, and only their second in over a decade.