The NFL season is about to begin, which means Jeff Ireland’s job is almost done.
Like all general managers who basically steer their teams from February to September but become little more than observers once the season begins, Ireland is about to hand off the Dolphins to coach Joe Philbin.
It will be Philbin’s ship now.
Ireland is merely along for the ride.
And no one, not even Ireland, is exactly certain if the Dolphins are headed on a pleasant cruise or headlong into a storm.
“It can go either way,” Ireland told me at one point this preseason, “but I think it will go in the right direction.”
I think it will go in a better direction than it has the past four losing seasons. No doubt about that. I think it might lead to a turnaround year.
And although this Dolphins team Ireland pieced together might not yet be ready to displace AFC beast New England because it has trump card Tom Brady, there’s reason to think the Patriots at least will have a fight on their hands.
And to what extent the Dolphins land blows in that fight will determine Ireland’s 2013 success.
So far, it seems the often-criticized general manager has done a good job of preparing the Dolphins for the challenge.
Positive review so far
Simply, there is no one who can argue the Dolphins aren’t already a better team today than they’ve been at any point in the past few years. Philbin believes he has a better team than he had a year ago.
“Yes I do,” he said. “But we’ll find out Sept. 8.”
We don’t have to wait for the regular-season opener to know the team that for so long has lacked speed and dynamic playmakers on the outside has those now.
Mike Wallace will be a success in Miami. He should collect his usual statistics — six to eight touchdowns per year — while also creating situations that make other receivers, namely Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson, better.
There is admittedly little proven talent behind those three, but if the trio stays healthy, it would represent the best starting receiver corps in the division. And what division team has a deep receiver corps anyway?
The tight end situation is a potential problem, particularly because the free agent Ireland signed — Dustin Keller — was lost for the season after an ugly tackle weeks ago. But with this potential problem, the Dolphins see a potential solution budding in rookie Dion Sims.
Sims, a fourth-round pick, seems to have “it.”
He’s football smart. He works hard, as evidence by his shedding of 20 pounds since his college days to get down to 260 pounds. And he has better hands than anyone expected.
The entire tight end corps as now constituted is an Ireland project. He drafted all of them. If they have success, it should reflect positively on him. If they flop, well, that’s going to serve as a mirror for him as well.
It can go either way, but the fact it’s not the disaster everyone predicted after losing Keller is encouraging.
Fans criticized Ireland early during training camp for his drafting of high-round selections Dion Jordan and Jamar Taylor. Both rookies were nursing injuries and looking nothing like contributors for this season.
Both are healthy now. And although they have miles to go before they become starters, they are nonetheless on a path in that direction — perhaps by the end of this season.
So those training-camp injuries served as a delay but not a denial of Jordan’s and Taylor’s coming productivity.
It’s already obvious Ireland did good work in landing Brent Grimes. If he stays healthy, this will become the best signing of the offseason, dollar for dollar.
Grimes is the most freakishly athletic, most ball-aware cornerback the Dolphins have had in nearly a decade. How the Atlanta Falcons didn’t try to keep him is puzzling. For other cornerback-needy teams that didn’t snatch him up, it will be their loss.
Ireland signed Grimes for $5.5 million while declining to offer Sean Smith a contract before he signed with Kansas City for the same average $5.5 million per year over three years.
Same position. Same average price tag. But the upgrade will be palpable.
It’s all up to Tannehill
Ireland’s attempt to upgrade at linebacker by cutting Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett while signing Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler was initially a head-scratcher to me. And, I confess, numerous agents have privately criticized Ireland for giving Wheeler $13 million guaranteed.
But the Dolphins believe the exchange of talent makes them younger, faster, better in pass coverage and, in truth, brings cap savings at the positions. So Ireland pushed all his chips to the middle of the table on this one for a chance at the two linebackers’ big-play potential.
Obviously, Ryan Tannehill’s performance will ultimately be the biggest factor in deciding how we feel about Ireland once this season ends. If Tannehill is terrible, the GM blew it.
But if Tannehill plays as well in the regular season as he did this preseason — with an outstanding 98.6 quarterback rating — there will be no one complaining about the Dolphins in 2013. Yes, Tannehill will get credit for his performance. Yes, Philbin will get credit for developing the player.
But Ireland should also then get credit for making the pick.
It’s going to be a fun season.