Ryan Tannehill probably won’t be the spread-option threat Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson were last year, but the Dolphins expect him to play as well as those other two draft classmates because, in Year 2 of their careers, there are no longer excuses for the Miami quarterback. Last year, with limited weapons, Tannehill was not nearly as good as RG3 or Wilson or Andrew Luck. The Dolphins spent a lot of money this offseason to build around Tannehill so they expect him to be the most improved quarterback in the NFL. Miami, meanwhile, has what some consider the best backup in the NFL. Last year when Tannehill got hurt against the New York Jets, Matt Moore entered the game and won it for Miami. That’s all you can ask a backup quarterback on the field. Off the field, Moore is a good sounding board and motivator for Tannehill.
Running backs: C
Reggie Bush is gone and philosophically that’s the right call because the Dolphins had two, younger, cheaper players they drafted waiting in the wings that needed to play. That’s how great teams do business. Small problem is neither Lamar Miller nor Daniel Thomas have been electric in the preseason to the point they battled until the end of training camp for the starting job. This might just be a position that requires platoon work from Miller, Thomas and a third running back. The fullback position? What fullback? The Dolphins might have one on the roster but you probably won’t see him a ton other than goal line and short yardage situations.
Receivers/tight ends: B+
This was a terrible, horrible, pathetic team weakness last season. But general manager Jeff Ireland upgraded quite well, thank you, to the point the Dolphins probably have the best receiving corps in the AFC East. Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline are both former 1,000-yard receivers. Brandon Gibson is an upgrade in the slot. The Dolphins seemed truly set at tight end with veteran Dustin Keller showing great chemistry with Tannehill but he’s out for the season with a major knee injury. It’s time for youngsters Charles Clay, Dion Sims and Michael Egnew to perform. Will they? Yes, but probably inconsistently.
Offensive line: B-
The line looked like a mess in the offseason and early in camp. Jake Long departed for St. Louis and while Jonathan Martin struggled, John Jerry had to deal with an injury and the rest of the line lacked cohesion. But something happened in late August. Martin started playing better. Jerry got healthy. Suddenly, the swinging gate to the quarterback was closed. If the group remains healthy, it should be fine. Nate Garner remains the unit’s most dependable backup. The team needs depth at both tackle spots.
Defensive line: A
This group has been the team’s strength for years and remains that way. Although rookie first-round pick Dion Jordan had a disappointing preseason (injured) the club remains hopeful he can add pass rush to a unit that doesn’t seem to need much help. Cameron Wake is still a beast and at the other DE spot new starter Olivier Vernon has made strides. No, Vernon might not be a 12-sack player, but perhaps 8-9. Beefy Paul Soliai clogs the middle and Randy Starks remains the most versatile player of the group because he can play inside or outside and stops the run as well as rushes the passer. Jared Odrick would start on most other teams. He’ll get some starts for Miami but more likely will be a fine reserve that still gets a lot of playing time.
Kevin Burnett and Karlos Dansby found themselves atop the tackle chart for most of 2012 but then found themselves on the street in the offseason because the Dolphins believe they upgraded to Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler. That upgrade must be proven, particularly by Wheeler who must match against fine tight ends and show himself better than Burnett. There is no doubt the new players are faster and they are expected to be threat in blitzes as well. Koa Misi, meanwhile, remains a steady contributor while the backups are mostly special teams contributors.
Brent Grimes is the real deal. He is a Pro Bowl caliber upgrade over Sean Smith and if he remains healthy, he’ll likely be a dangerous (to quarterbacks) player in the secondary. The Dolphins also expect Reshad Jones to take yet another step toward stardom and put money behind that expectation by giving him a contract extension during training camp. Chris Clemons remains solid and steady. Nothing stellar. Nothing terrible. Solid. Everyone else is a question mark. Dimitri Patterson won the cornerback job opposite Grimes but questions about him linger. The team hopes Nolan Carroll, who played well early in 2012 but poorly toward the end of the season, will shore up the nickel package at least until rookie Will Davis improves enough to replace him. The Dolphins need both Davis and Jamar Taylor to get good quickly. Davis is on the path. Taylor, injured much of training camp, has much ground to make up.
Special teams: A-
The expected firing of Dan Carpenter happened as predicted and now rookie Caleb Sturgis must prove that he’s ready to kick in the NFL under pressure situations. He did it in front of 90,000 people for the University of Florida so the expectation is he’ll do it for the Dolphins. The rest of the special teams promise good things. Brandon Fields is among the best punters in the NFL. John Denney is among the best and most consistent long snappers. Marcus Thigpen, very good in his first year as an NFL returner in 2012, is better so far this year. Special teams are a strength for the Dolphins.
The assignment of the Miami coaching staff this year is quite simple, really: Develop Ryan Tannehill into a franchise quarterback. Develop Dion Jordan into a fine pass-rush threat. Develop the three young tight ends — Sims, Egnew and Clay — into good players. Develop the young cornerbacks — Davis and Taylor — into player worthy of their high draft status. Tannehill still isn’t a finished product. The tight ends are merely coming along but not quite good enough yet. Everything else is uncertain.
The Dolphins are the second best team in the AFC East. They have improved. The question is whether that improvement is enough to overcome New England or make the playoffs as a wild card team.