A lot has changed for the Miami Dolphins since they defeated the New York Jets on New Year's Day to conclude the 2011 season. The Dolphins hired a new coaching staff, drafted their quarterback of the future, traded their Pro Bowl wide receiver, and drafted a few high-upside players. But for all the change, some things have remained just the way they were at the end of last season. Despite the best efforts of some enthusiastic fans, Jeff Ireland remains the General Manager. The Dolphins still have a hard time attracting proven talent to the team. The incoming coaching staff has veteran coaches in place as coordinators, but is led by a rookie head coach.
There are a lot of storylines for fans to watch during training camp, preseason, and even carrying over into the regular season. Here are some of the things worth following:
New Schemes on Offense and Defense
Out are interim head coach Todd Bowles, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. In are new head coach Joe Philbin, the former Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator, new offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, recently the head coach at Texas A&M and also the former head coach of the Packers, and new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, who spent the past nine seasons as the defensive backs coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Let's start with defense. The new coaching staff told the public earlier in the offseason that the Dolphins would continue to operate a 3-4 hybrid defense. However, Coyle comes from a scheme that operated mostly out of a 4-3 formation and early indications point to the 4-3 being the base defense of the Dolphins. The biggest adjustments fall on the linebackers. Cameron Wake will move to defensive end while Karlos Dansby, Kevin Burnett, and Koa Misi will have to adjust to new coverage schemes.
On offense, the Dolphins are implementing a West Coast Offense. The West Coast Offense, and variations of it, calls for more pass plays than Tony Sparano's favored run-first scheme. The offense's effectiveness is based on timing between the quarterback and wide receivers and spreading the ball around. This is why Brandon Marshall was traded. There is no "number one" receiver in the new offense.
How quickly each unit adjusts to the new schemes will impact the Dolphins' early season record. As each unit becomes more comfortable, the coaching staff will be able to introduce more complexities into the schemes and make the team more difficult to scout. Until that point, the schemes are going to be basic and their effectiveness will be limited. By the time preseason rolls around, the units should be making greater strides as the players who best fit the schemes are identified. Until that point, there could be much shuffling on the depth chart.
The Quarterback Battle
The Dolphins selected quarterback Ryan Tannehill with the 8th pick in the 2012 draft, and I still like his chances to start for the team in 2013 or 2014. The only way he sees the field this season will be injuries to the other quarterbacks or mop-up duty late in the season if the Dolphins have been eliminated from playoff contention. While he acclimates himself to the speed of the game, Matt Moore and David Garrard will battle for the starting job. Early reports have Garrard in the lead for the starting job, but Moore showed what he is capable of last season. Still, that was the old coaching staff and he will have to prove his value to the new staff. Garrard missed all of last season after being released by the Jacksonville Jaguars and had back surgery, so his health is worth monitoring.
Wide Receiver Depth Chart
Pro Bowl MVP Marshall was traded to the Chicago Bears early in the offseason, leaving the Dolphins thin at wide receiver. Ireland was expected to draft a wide receiver as early as the second or third round by fans and NFL observers alike, but waited until the sixth round to select the first of two drafted receivers. As it stands, there are only four receivers on the roster with substantial NFL experience. All of them carry question marks heading into training camp.
Brian Hartline has been productive when the ball has been thrown his way, but can he maintain that level of production in the new system? Davone Bess was one of the better slot receivers during his first two years in the league, but can he avoid the injury bug that weighed him down last year? Chad Ochocinco (soon to be "Johnson" again) used to be a Pro Bowler, but disappeared last year as a member of the New England Patriots. Can the Miami native, at 34, become a productive player again? Legedu Naanee has 21 career starts on his resume, but mostly as an injury fill-in or lack of an alternative. He's big (6'2" 220 lbs.), fast (4.41 40-yard dash at the 2007 Combine), strong (19 bench reps at 225 lbs. at the 2007 Combine), and has explosive power (40" vertical jump at the 2007 Combine, highest among wide receivers). Still, why he have only 107 career catches for 1,213 yards in five seasons? Will his physical tools ever translate into on-field production?
Only six wide receivers will make the team, and two of those spots will go to Hartline and Bess. Ochocinco will probably get another. That leaves three spots between Naanee, Clyde Gates, Marlon Moore, Roberto Wallace, Julius Pruitt, Chris Hogan, and three rookies - B.J. Cunningham, Rishard Mathews, and Jeff Fuller. Nine guys competing for three spots will ensure a spirited battle, but at least three still need to prove they belong on an NFL roster.
Defensive Line Rotation
The defensive line has arguably been the team's strongest unit for the past few seasons. Paul Soliai and Randy Starks grew into Pro Bowlers while Kendall Langford, now with the St. Louis Rams, solidified the starting line. However, the Dolphins usually had only three players on the line, enabling the team to rotate talented players throughout games to keep the line fresh. Jared Odrick had six sacks, in what was essentially his rookie season, as an end in the 3-4. He also introduced the best sack dance this side of the Playhouse.
This year, in addition to Wake's transition to the line, the Dolphins will count on a larger contribution from Tony McDaniel. Olivier Vernon was drafted out of the University of Miami to provide a pass rushing presence, but is considered raw. Ryan Baker has alternated between NFL unemployment and grasping onto the 53rd spot on the roster, so he shouldn't be count on. All that leaves are five rookies not named Olivier Vernon. If the defensive line is to remain strong, two players will have to step up and perform at least as well as Tony McDaniel has the past few seasons.
Players in Their Contract Year
Five players who have played key roles on the Dolphins recently have their contracts expiring at the end of the season. Players in their contract years typically focus more and play to the best of their abilities to get as much guaranteed money as possible in the next contract. Keep an eye on Jake Long, Reggie Bush, Sean Smith, Starks, and Hartline as they adjust to a new system in their contract year. They will have no choice but to acclimate quickly, or else risk their paychecks for 2013 and beyond.
Jake Long's Health
Speaking of Long, his contract situation is currently the messiest in Miami. When healthy, Long is a premier left tackle in the league. However, his health has been in question for the past couple of seasons and he will demand an enormous salary when his current deal runs out. If he has difficulty staying healthy this season, the Dolphins could end up severing ties with the number one overall pick of the 2008 draft. Today's NFL doesn't require an elite left tackle and the Dolphins could decide allocating the resources Long would consume would be better served by improving multiple positions.
Development of the 2011 and 2012 Rookie Classes
This will be the first time both classes have had OTA's, training camp, and a full preseason. Even though the lockout robbed the 2011 class of precious development time, four players made varying levels of contribution at different points during the season. Center Mike Pouncey started all 16 games last year, and is expected to eventually play at a Pro Bowl level, but his growth isn't a huge concern. Daniel Thomas showed flashes of ability, but spent most of the season injured. If he stays healthy, the Dolphins can have a dynamic backfield. Charles Clay came on late last season as a converted tight end after playing fullback in college and will challenge incumbent starter Anthony Fasano for the starting job. Coyle is trying Jimmy Wilson out as a safety, his position in college, after former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan played him at cornerback last season. Wilson made is presence known during last year's training camp and could be an impact player in the near future. Gates is in the mix to make the final roster, but needs to show marked improvement. His speed could keep him on the team.
The 2012 rookie class offers a mix of projects and league-ready talent. The Dolphins need at least two of their draftees to be able to contribute immediately, and one of those guys has to be Vernon. The defensive end may be inexperienced, but he is also a great athlete. If he becomes a regular part of a defensive line rotation that already features three Pro Bowlers, the Dolphins will be in a better position up front in case Wake or Odrick go down with an injury.
Two other rookies that the Dolphins hope will see the field early are right tackle Jonathan Martin and running back Lamar Miller. Martin was drafted to shore up the right side of the offensive line, but didn't excel at OTA's. He has time, but if he doesn't step up, the Dolphins will look awfully thin at right tackle. Miller ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the Combine this year at 4.40 seconds. That was .05 seconds faster than former Oregon star LaMichael James. His homerun ability is obvious, but the Dolphins will only need him to step if Reggie Bush is sidelined with an injury.
The rookie wide receiver battle between Cunningham, Mathews, and Fuller won't make many headlines, but one of them could emerge as the team's third or fourth receiver by the end of the season. Fuller signed as an undrafted free agent, but played for Sherman at Texas A&M.
Michael Egnew struggled to block as a tight end, and will probably start the season at the end of the depth chart, but has a chance to become a good pass-catcher who can stretch the seams. Josh Kaddu is a bit undersized and will be fighting Gary Guyton, Jamaal Westerman, and Austin Spitler for the last linebacker spots on the depth chart.
The Dolphins on ‘Hard Knocks'
They may not be America's team yet, but I am looking forward to the inside access HBO's ‘Hard Knocks' provides for fans. Many fans across the nation weren't thrilled with HBO selecting the Dolphins, and owner Stephen Ross may be doing it to repair the team's image, but Dolphins fans will be able to witness some of the inner workings of the organization. We may already have Johnson providing sound bites, but is there any way we can lure Channing Crowder back, just for a month or so?
As you can see, there is no shortage of storylines for the Dolphins heading into training camp. The season is still a month and half from beginning, and so much about this team is still unknown, but one thing is certain: the next month and a half will be fun to watch.
To see my thoughts on the Dolphins' regular season schedule, click here.
The Dolphins are in a good spot to meet all of my New Year's resolutions for the team.