Finally, a home game.
Five weeks after the Dolphins reported to training camp, their fans get a chance to see their team up close.
But don’t get too attached to many of the newer names. Odds are, they will be gone in a week.
They call the third (or fourth for the Dolphins, who played in the Hall of Fame Game) exhibition affair a dress rehearsal for the regular season. Starters are expected to play at least a half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night.
And for those starters, plenty of questions remain. Who will be the starting running back, Lamar Miller or Daniel Thomas? Can John Jerry or Lance Louis stabilize the right guard position? Who will replace Richard Marshall as the team’s nickel cornerback? Which, if any, tight end will step up?
But look past the first line of the depth chart and the story lines are endless. Teams must have their rosters pared down to 75 players by Tuesday, and then again to 53 by Aug. 31.
The Dolphins got a head start on their cuts Friday, releasing guards Jeff Braun and Chandler Burden; defensive tackle Chris Burnette; linebacker Alonzo Highsmith; and wide receiver Kenny Stafford.
Still, there are a few jobs to be won — and lost.
That means by shining in their final two exhibition games some undrafted rookie or waiver-wire afterthought could force themselves onto the opening-day roster.
“We look at the total picture,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “We’ve roughly averaged 115 snaps a day out here on a typical day. A particular player may only get 15 in a game. He may get 30 in a game.
“I think we look at the whole spectrum of things, and hopefully by the time the end of next week rolls around, we’ve got enough information to make good decisions.”
There will certainly be some tough ones.
Wide receiver Chad Bumphis (whose seven catches for 111 yards leads the team in the preseason), defensive end Tristan Okpalaugo (three sacks) and linebacker David Hinds (seven tackles) have stood out in games. Defensive tackle A.J. Francis has been a force, at practice and under the lights.
But each has factors working against him that he can’t control. Namely: Are they a fit for what the Dolphins want and what they need?
Get past the starting 22 and most every player (other than quarterback and some linemen) on the roster will have to play special teams. Particularly on the defense, decisions will be based more on their value to the team on fourth down than first.
Take, for instance, safety Kelcie McCray. He has not done much on defense this preseason but was on the field for 21 of 30 special teams snaps last week in Houston. That’s telling.
Other backups used heavily in the kicking game include linebackers Jelani Jenkins and Josh Kaddu, receiver Julius Pruitt and running backs Mike Gillislee and Evan Rodriguez.
Also, do the Dolphins keep a pure fullback (Jorvorskie Lane) or are they comfortable enough flexing a tight end into the backfield in heavy sets? Of the 55 first-team offensive snaps this preseason, Lane has only been on the field for one of them.
The Dolphins have flexibility in the secondary and aren’t locked into keeping a certain number of safeties or cornerbacks. Versatility is just as important — if not more so — than simply being a strong backup at one position.
Even after cutting Richard Marshall earlier this week, the Dolphins have far more depth at cornerback than at safety.
So if they think one of their cover men can play center field, they will be more inclined to keep the extra cornerback.
Nolan Carroll and Jimmy Wilson alternated at the nickel corner position in practice, but don’t discount draft picks Will Davis and Jamar Taylor, who is expected to play Saturday despite still having occasional pain from sports hernia surgery.
Also, on the offensive line, do they go with superior talent (like a Louis) over versatility (Josh Samuda, who can play anywhere on the interior)? The Dolphins paid Nate Garner, who probably will miss the rest of the preseason with a shoulder injury, so they likely want to keep him.
If Garner gets healthy and the Dolphins think he can be their backup center, it could make Samuda expendable — even though he started the first three exhibition games.
And every year there is a surprise cut who everyone assumed was on the team. Miami already had one by releasing Marshall. Is there another? Do the Dolphins go with two quarterbacks and cut Pat Devlin? Do they roll with their young defensive linemen and let Vaughn Martin walk?
Lots of unknowns. Here’s a look at who’s in, who’s out and who needs to finish strong:
LocksOffense (12): Defense (14): Specialists (3):
Probably safeOffense (8): Defense (7):
On the bubbleDefense (10):
Long shotsOffense (8): Defense (10):