The Dolphins are a team shadowed by questions.
Will they break their four-year-long, losing-season skid this year?
Will Ryan Tannehill make the jump to being a franchise quarterback?
Can Jonathan Martin replace Jake Long?
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Can Dustin Keller and Brent Grimes stay healthy? Are Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler really upgrades? Is Lamar Miller ready to start at running back? And will Mike Wallace be as good in Miami as a $60 million free agent as he was in Pittsburgh when he was a humble third-round pick?
Everywhere on the Dolphins’ roster and extending out beyond the locker room to the coach (Is Joe Philbin a good coach?) and the general manager (Did Jeff Ireland finally turn the corner this offseason?) is one giant question after another.
And amid all these question marks stands Cameron Wake.
An exclamation point.
Forget that he’s one of the longest tenured Dolphins. Forget that with consecutive Pro Bowl appearances he’s one of the team’s most accomplished players. He starts 2013 right about where he left off last year.
As Miami’s best player.
As one of the NFL’s best players.
That’s not one man’s opinion. The NFL Network in the offseason ranked the league’s top 100 players for 2013. Wake was the only Dolphins player making the cut. A panel of 481 NFL players submitted ballots to come up with the list, and Wake came in at No. 89.
Fans also voted, and they decided the players vastly underrated Wake, something that would get no argument from the defensive end.
“That’s one of those things that comes from the outside,” Wake says with a shrug. “I had a guy tell me about the top 100, but when you look at other studies, for example Pro Football Focus where they break down things and get a more holistic view of the game, I think that’s a more accurate tally of where I stand.
“And more important than that, I look at Coach Philbin and [defensive coordinator] Coach [Kevin] Coyle and [defensive line coach] Kacy Rodgers and ask them where they rank me. And they have trust and confidence in me. They think I’m one of the best out there.
“That’s where I continue to strive to be.”
Wake’s continued reach for elite production isn’t limited to three hours on Sunday. It involves meticulous computer study of his imperfections because, yes, he has some. And it involves a seemingly obsessive work ethic that never, ever seems to take any time off.
The result of all that?
Well, Wake started the 2013 season by taking his conditioning test like every other player on the roster. Except that unlike other defensive ends, he didn’t run his test with the defensive line. He also didn’t run it with the linebackers, even though that’s the next-fastest group on defense.
He ran with the defensive backs.
“I know running with the D-line is where I’m supposed to be, but in my mind, I can keep up with Mike Wallace,” Wake says. “So I ran the test with the DBs and passed.”
Perhaps that’s the reason Grimes, himself an athletic specimen, sees Wake as something of a freak.
“When I was with Atlanta, we played the Dolphins a couple of times in the preseason and everybody will tell you he’s a beast off the edge,” Grimes said. “Now watching him myself from being here, not just on the field but working out, he’s a special player.”
Miami’s most special player collected 15 sacks last season, and that was third in the conference and fourth-most in the entire league. Wake has 43 sacks his first four season with Miami. That’s the most any player has ever collected in his first four seasons with the Dolphins; Trace Armstrong is a distant second with 32.
And if you want to compare Miami’s best against the NFL’s best, Wake is fourth among the league’s sack leaders since 2009, behind only Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware and Tamba Hali.
You know what those statistics say to Wake?
Time to work harder.
“I don’t sleep or rest and think, ‘Oh, 15 sacks so I’m going to hang out and sit in the shade,’ ” he says. “No, I have to work even harder and get 17 sacks. It’s a never-ending story for me.”
Wake is trying to write new chapters by becoming as much of a student of the game as his obsession allows.
Every offseason he has studied every snap he played from the season before. But the advent of iPads and the Dolphins embracing the technology have helped Wake go through all his plays and break them down instant by instant.
And in doing that, he now sees how the difference between a strip sack and a routine sack can be one misstep. The difference between a sack and forcing an incompletion is a millisecond and the swipe of a hand.
“I don’t look at the sacks and pat myself on the back,” Wake says. “I look at the missed sacks, the penalties, the missed tackles. I look at the things I didn’t do well so I can say, ‘Well, on that play I have to read something better or recognize a formation quicker or communicate better.’
“I don’t watch my sacks to think about how fast I beat somebody. I look at the times I didn’t get my hand on the quarterback.”
Wake estimates he was an instant from at least six more sacks last season and wants to close that gap this season.
“That’s not counting the Tuck Rule fumbles,” he adds.
So where does that all leave Wake?
Confident is a word that comes to mind.
“Every time I step on the field, I look across the way and I don’t care who’s over there, that person cannot block me,” he says. “I’m going to get my job done at all cost, I don’t care who you are. I don’t compare myself to the next super pass rusher or linebacker. I compare myself to myself, and I try to be better than I was last play, or last week, or last year.
“If I go out every game and every play and make it my job to do my best as Cameron Wake, success will fall into place.”