Greg Cote

How 8 ‘ifs’ play out will tell who’s right in wide dichotomy of opinion on Miami Dolphins

The full blossom of DeVante Parker (left) is one of Greg Cote’s eight big ‘ifs’ that will shape the Dolphins’ coming season.
The full blossom of DeVante Parker (left) is one of Greg Cote’s eight big ‘ifs’ that will shape the Dolphins’ coming season. cjuste@miamiherald.com

There is a huge disconnect going on with the Miami Dolphins. Only one side can be right. Can the other side be that wrong?

The Dolphins are acting like what you'd expect of a 10-win playoff team that thinks it got better. There is palpable confidence, a collective strut. With free agency and the draft past and training camp ahead, coach Adam Gase “has talked a little bit about feeling that swagger,” as defensive coordinator Matt Burke put it recently.

Gamblers, though, are not feeling swagger for the Dolphins, but rather seeing a stagger – a fast fall.

Las Vegas odds reflect public perception, and Bovada and other sportsbooks have set Miami's over/under on victories at 7 ½, no playoff number. That ties for 23rd of 32 NFL teams. The Dolphins are the only one of last year's 12 playoff teams with a sub-.500 projection.

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So, why the disconnect?

Here are eight reasons, the big “ifs” that together will swing the coming season up to the next level Gase expects … or signal the regression many others anticipate.

I have purposely not included Ryan Tannehill as a hinge-point. Too easy. Besides, he's good enough. It's the “ifs” around him and especially on defense that create the dichotomy of opinion on the Fins:

▪  If the run defense is appreciably improved: “Well, statistically, we can't get much worse, right?” is how the new defensive boss Burke put it.

Defensive coordinator Matt Burke speaks to the media about linebackers during Miami Dolphins mini-camp at the Dolphins training facility in Davie on Saturday, May 6, 2017.

Miami allowed the third-most rushing yards (140.4 per game) and the worst average (4.8 per carry) last season – a huge reason the Fins took aim at defense in both free agency and the draft.

Full seasons by Reshad Jones and Kiko Alonso will help, and so should the signing of ex-Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons.

Says Burke: “We've added players at all three levels that'll help.”

▪  If they get instant impact from Charles Harris: The No. 1 draft pick out of Missouri was a great choice. He is not a renowned run-stopper but should make a fast difference in the pass rush.

“Dolphins fans have been telling me over and over, 'You've got to hit [Tom] Brady,'” he says, his smile suggesting he hopes to oblige.

Harris must take over from mentor Cam Wake, 35, and be Miami's leading sack man.

▪  If the cornerback play is good enough: Miami waited until the third round to target this position in the draft. That's a lot of faith – too much? – in the ability of Byron Maxwell and Xavien Howard to be capable starters.

Maxwell was fairly solid last year but is a guy you'd rather have as your No. 2 corner. The health and ascension of young Howard will be crucial.

▪  If they have enough skill at outside linebacker: Alonso, Timmons and second-round draftee Raekwon McMillan out of Ohio State all are primarily inside linebackers.

Miami Dolphins second-round pick Raekwon McMillan talks to the media on May 5, 2017.

Whether Miami will have sufficient skill and speed on the outside is a legitimate question this defense must answer.

▪  If they see the full bloom of DeVante Parker: Jarvis Landry is a catching machine, and re-signing Kenny Stills was big. But it'll take Parker's continued rise to something close to stardom to give Tannehill one of the NFL's best WR troikas.

“We need him to be a big-play No. 1 receiver. He has that potential,” says offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen. “He has the skills, which not many guys do have. Now he's applying himself.”

▪  If the interior offensive line holds up: Left tackle Laremy Tunsil should be great and right tackle Ja'Wuan James is solid. The problems are in between. The guards must rise to a level of adequacy, but the real key is center Mike Pouncey and his fragile hips. He's an all-star when healthy, but increasingly isn't.

“Our goal is to make sure he plays every game plus more,” said Gase.

That'd be quite a trick. Every game would suffice, something Pouncey last managed in 2012.

▪  If the right Julius Thomas shows up: The tight end was in the Pro Bowl in 2013-14 in Denver with a still-great Peyton Manning. And in the toilet bowl in 2015-16 in Jacksonville with Blake Bortles.

Which Thomas did the Fins sign? Manning “endorsing” him means little. But the fact Gase was his Broncos coordinator could mean a lot.

“Gase knows exactly how to use him,” says Christensen. “I have great confidence that we will get that.”

Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen speaks to the media about Ryan Tannehill's progress after being injured last season during the Miami Dolphins mini-camp at the Dolphins training facility in Davie on Saturday, May 6, 2017.

▪  If Jay Ajayi becomes consistently better: “What!?,” you're thinking. “He rushed for 1,272 yards and almost 5 yards per carry last season!” Yes but half of his production (624 yards with a 7.3 average) came in three fantastic games. In his other 12 games, 80 percent of his season, he averaged a mediocre 3.7 per carry.

What if 2016 turns out to have been Ajayi's career year? By a lot?

With the Dolphins as with Ajayi, there can be no assumption of automatic progress, of an upward trend continuing just because last year ended that eight-year playoff drought.

The skeptics already are placing bets on Miami being one-and-done and slipping back off the radar.

How eight big “ifs” play out will prove them wrong or right.

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