So, what are the 2018 Miami Dolphins?
Yes, they’re a professional football team, but I’m asking specifically what kind of team are they going to be in 2018? I’ve been around this team since late July and they walk around like they’ve got a secret no one else knows.
They see that no one thinks they’re going to be good. They don’t care. They get that from their head coach who is itching to throw prophesies of doom back in the faces of the naysayers.
We shall see starting on Sunday when the regular season begins at home against the Tennessee Titans if the quiet confidence (smugness?) I’ve perceived from some quarters of this team are warranted. Or if it is just plain ignorance of what they’re about to endure.
You’ve read over and over how coach Adam Gase likes his locker room because they prepare so well and pay attention to detail and work exceedingly hard. He loves that he’s got a bunch of football guys that are dedicated to being good at, not marketing nor celebrity, but football.
Me? I don’t see all that because, as one source put it bluntly, I’m looking at this team through a straw. I don’t see the whole field. That is true, by the way. I don’t know all the inside details (although I know more than anyone thinks, trust me, as you’ll see in the coming days).
This is what I do see: I see mostly good-but-not-great players, who may meld and be a well knit group. But I don’t see major stars. I don’t see season-defining talent.
I don’t see future Hall of Famers on this roster.
And guess what? When a team is competing with other teams that do have one or two future Hall of Famers on their roster, you have a disadvantage in the games you play those teams.
Think about this: In the AFC, where the Dolphins must rise to being one of the top six teams to be a playoff seed, I count eight teams -- Kansas City, Los Angeles Chargers, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Houston, Jacksonville, Baltimore and New England -- with more talent than Miami.
The Steelers, Chargers, and Texans have at least one Hall of Fame caliber player on the team. The Steelers, Patriots and Chargers may have two.
The Patriots are the standard by which all AFC East teams are measured. It’s been that way for years because the Patriots have won the division 14 of the past 15 years.
The Patriots are a dominant NFL team that has seemingly lapped division rivals time and again since Bill Belichick installed Tom Brady at quarterback in 2001.
And compared to the Patriots, the Dolphins don’t match up in the overall talent or great player department.
The Patriots have two great players. They have Brady. They have tight end Rob Gronkowski.
And for all of New England’s warts through the years -- and there are quite a few this year -- none of the other teams in the division have figured out how to consistently deal with those two.
Right now Brady remains the best quarterback in the division.
Gronkowski remains the most difficult matchup in the division.
And, yes, Belichick is a great coach, too.
The only person in the division that rises to the level of those three names plays in Buffalo. His name is LeSean McCoy. He’s great.
But the team around him is terrible. So there’s that.
So what is going to happen when the regular season begins? What does Uncle Mando think is going to happen in the AFC East?
Glad you asked. The 2018 AFC East standings:
1. New England 11-5
2. Miami 9-7
3. New York 7-9
4. Buffalo 5-11
The Patriots: I don’t like their offensive line because left tackle is so uncertain. But they have the best offensive line coach in the business in Dante Scarnecchia. I don’t like their receiver corps because Brandin Cooks is gone and Danny Amendola is in Miami and Julian Edelman is suspended four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substances policy. I also don’t love their cornerback depth.
I don’t see them dominating as they have in the past. But in the flawed AFC East, that still gets them a division title because Belichick typically gets more out of less, especially later in the year. And did I mention Brady, at 41 years old, remains the best QB in the division?
The Dolphins: The linebacker corps is a huge problem. It’s the weakest unit on the team and perhaps one of the weakest in the entire conference. I’m not saying that because there is no talent. I’m saying it because there is no experience outside of Kiko Alonso. I don’t like that Raekwon McMillan, who was drafted to play the run, is being pressed into duty in the nickel. That shows me someone else the Dolphins expected to step up hasn’t. Jerome Baker? Fast. Eager. Cool. But he’s green. It’s going to take him a while. And the rest of the NFL isn’t partial to giving the Dolphins a break to get their guys up to speed so this group is an issue at least early in the season.
I like the offensive line. It’s the best line on paper the Dolphins have had in maybe 15 years. The right guard spot with Jesse Davis is a question mark so we’ll see how much and how fast he grows -- if at all. But he’s not a void. He’s solid.
Ja’Wuan James has a history of inconsistency and injuries. Can he rewrite that history? And health is an issue because there is some age on this line with Josh Sitton. Nonetheless, this unit is the best unit on the team.
The receivers are solid but there is not one superstar. DeVante Parker was drafted to be super. He’s not. He’s hurt too often. Kenny Stills is good. Amendola is a first-down machine. Albert Wilson has a chance to be dynamic in spurts. So does Jakeem Grant. This is the best wide receiver group in the division.
But, they’re going to hate me for this, any general manager would trade any of them for Gronkowski. Just a fact.
The running back corps is solid. For now. Kenyan Drake has a chance to be dynamic both rushing and catching the football. If he can be that for 16 games, the running back corps rises to being great and Miami can aspire to better than 9-7. If Drake disappoints, it’s going to be a long year.
The quarterback? Ryan Tannehill is good. He’s not the problem. But that’s not the point. The point is whether he’s the solution? That’s what everyone is supposedly asking now. Is Tannehill ready to be great?
I think Tannehill is ready to be Tannehill. He’s 30 years old. I’ve seen what I’ve seen. He’s not suddenly going to morph into a 30-year-old Brady. Look up Brady’s stats the year he played as a 30-year-old.
The tight ends? We’ll see. Mike Gesicki has a chance to be outstanding. And he has a chance to be a major disappointment. The Dolphins think he’s going to be the former.
They also thought Julius Thomas was going to be good last year. They also thought Jordan Cameron was going to stop suffering concussions when he arrived in Miami. We’ll see on Gesicki. I’m hopeful. But not yet convinced.
I really love Minkah Fitzpatrick as the new starting nickel. If he plays in the NFL as he did for Nick Saban at Alabama, he is basically going to erase the other team’s slot player week to week. That’s important when the other guy is Edelman for New England or Quincy Enuwa for the Jets. This week, it’s Fitzpatrick against either Rishard Matthews or Corey Davis. He must win that matchup.
The rest of the secondary seems solid except for Bobby McCain. I think McCain is an outstanding slot cornerback. I love him in that role. I don’t like him on the outside. I have to be convinced. And my guess is McCain will get a chance to do plenty of convincing because Xavien Howard on the other side will force opposing quarterbacks to throw away from him and test McCain instead.
I like Miami’s safeties. Reshad Jones is maybe the best box safety in the NFL. T.J. McDonald is very good as a box safety. The problem is the Dolphins are going to be asking McDonald to play deep a lot.
The defensive line promises to get after the passer. That’s awesome! They promised to do that last year and didn’t. If Robert Quinn stays healthy, this should be fun. If he doesn’t, the line will be worse than last year.
My concern with the defensive line is that it is smallish. The ends are smallish. The tackles, beyond Jordan Phillips, are smallish. And that means a team with the desire and patience will be able to run the football on the Dolphins.
It’s physics. And we’ll have that physics experiment soon, with Derrick Henry running behind Tennessee’s big offensive line on Sunday.
Special teams? It needs upgrading. Mike Hull going on injured reserve hurts. The Dolphins need to add more core special teams talent. It’s not that hard, people. There are a dozen special teams stars available following the final round of cuts. It would be wise for the Dolphins to add one or two.
The Dolphins are going with rookie kicker Jason Sanders. Rookie kickers are always an interesting ride.
The Jets: They’re breaking in a rookie quarterback. They’re going to slog until Sam Darnold either proves he’s a franchise quarterback or he’s not. I doubt they wait until he’s 30 for the answer. The Jets don’t have an offensive player that makes opponents say, “Oh, crap!” The offensive line is solid but not overwhelming. I like the defense more than the offense but it lacks a dynamic pass rusher or shutdown cornerback. This team is building. And they’re barely past laying the foundation.
The Bills: Nathan Peterman? Really? He’s their starting quarterback right now and it actually feels like the right call because the offensive line is so atrocious that it would be a sin to throw first-round draft pick Josh Allen to the wolves. The receiver corps scares no one. Charles Clay is coming off a Bills career low for catches (49) and touchdowns (2). McCoy is their difference maker. He’s their lone difference maker.
The Buffalo defense has holes. Vontae Davis starts for them at one cornerback. And we’re not talking 2014 Vontae Davis when he was one of the better corners in the NFL. Vontae Davis in 2018? Well, you’ll see.
The defensive line is counting on Trent Murphy, who signed a $22 million contract in the offseason, to regain his 2016 form. He collected nine sacks that year for Washington. Last year he was out with an ACL injury.
Look, folks, the Bills are having a fallback year. Last year was a nice story, with them making the playoffs for the first time this century. This year will give them a chance to get another high first-round selection in the next draft.
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