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.