Greg Cote

Looking for reasons the Dolphins can surprise their doubters in 2018? Here are seven

The return from injury of quarterback Ryan Tannehill is one of seven significant changes that give the Miami Dolphins a chance to be much better than most doubters think they will be this coming season.
The return from injury of quarterback Ryan Tannehill is one of seven significant changes that give the Miami Dolphins a chance to be much better than most doubters think they will be this coming season.

Three weeks from the start of training camp, the sharp dichotomy of opinion on the Miami Dolphins continues this week, by which I mean the people coaching and playing for the team think they will make the leap from 6-10 to playoff-good, and nobody else seems to.

At the behest of ESPN.com, Pro Football Focus plumbs its database and newly ranks every NFL roster, 1 through 32, based on projected 2018 starting lineups and how those players fared last season. PFF meticulously analyzes every player on every snap, so you don't have to. (Because why on Earth would you want to).

The New England Patriots' expected starting lineup is ranked fourth overall to (of course) lead all AFC East teams, as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been out front of the division seemingly since the Eisenhower Administration. The Buffalo Bills follow at a midpack 16th, the Miami Dolphins are in the cheap seats at 26th and the New York Jets are even worse at 29th.

Here are PFF's top-graded players in the AFC East based on 2017 performance by projected '18 starters, but stick around because we're going to tell you why several key variables make the Fins especially hard to predict:

AFC East top 10 PFF-graded on offense: 1. Patriots QB Tom Brady 95.5; 2. Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski 93.3; 3. Dolphins LG Josh Sitton 86.0; 4. Bills RB LeSean McCoy 84.4; 5. Patriots C David Andrews 81.8; 6. Patriots RG Shaq Mason 81.1; 7. Dolphins RB Kenyan Drake 80.8; 8. Dolphins WR Danny Amendola 80.1; 9. Dolphins RT Ja'Wuan James 80.0; 10. Bills WR Kelvin Benjamin 79.1..

AFC East top 10 PFF-graded on defense: 1. Bills CB Tre'Davious White 92.0; 2. Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore 89.4; 3. Patriots DE Trey Flowers 87.8; 4. Bills SS Jordan Poyer 87.6; 5. Bills FS Micah Hyde 86.2; 6t. Patriots DT Adrian Clayborn 85.5; 6t. Jets ILB Avery Williamson 85.5; 8. Bills DE Jerry Hughes 85.0; 9. Jets DE Leonard Williams 84.8; 10. Patriots CB Jason McCourty 83.9. (Dolphins DE Cam Wake and FS Reshad Jones are 13th and 15th at 83.2 and 81.6).

The ranking of rosters based on this criteria is skewed, though, because it does not factor players who did not contribute in 2017 — meaning recently drafted rookies and anyone who missed last season injured are excluded.

That's particularly noteworthy in the AFC East, where the Jets (Sam Darnold) and Bills (Josh Allen) both top-drafted quarterbacks who might be brought along slowly but also could emerge to be major factors this season. And the Patriots get back Brady's favorite target, Julian Edelman (albeit perhaps after a four-game suspension) following a season lost to injury.

But the Dolphins easily lead the division in players not around last season who are expected to be huge factors this year. Here they are, the reasons Miami has a chance to bridge that dichotomy, be better than most folks think — and better than a No. 26 roster ranking:

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill speaks to the media about his knee injury and being back to play football this year.

1. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill: He turns 30 on July 27 and is coming off a major injury, but also was having his best season when first hurt late in 2016 before missing all of '17 with a second knee injury. And he has looked sharp this offseason. With good health (not a small if), this as his best season yet may not be a far-fetched notion.

The Miami Dolphins selected Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick with the draft's 11th pick, adding a dynamic defensive back who can play all five positions.

2. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick: The highest 2018 defensive draft pick in the division (11th overall) should show immediate impact all over the field. That's direly needed. And he better. Only three times in club history (1969, 1992, 2013) has Miami drafted as high or higher for a defensive player.

Miami Dolphins rookie tight ends Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe, talk to the media about the challenges of training in the heat and humidity during the OTAs at the Miami Dolphins training facility in Davie, Florida, June 11, 2018.

3. Tight end Mike Gesicki: Offense-minded and in the Gronk mold physically, the rookie is poised to give Miami its greatest impact in years at a position long underutilized around here.

Miami Dolphins linebacker Raekwon McMillan speaks to the media at Miami Dolphin training facility on Thursday, May 24, 2018.

4. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan: He was looking like the real deal as an inside tackle machine before an injury in last year's training camp erased his rookie season. If his debut proves worth the wait, Miami might have its best middle 'backer since Zach Thomas.

Miami Dolphins running back Frank Gore speaks to the media about returning to Miami and seeing his son Frank Gore Jr. play football.

5. Running back Frank Gore: No matter who ends up starting, the recently signed Gore and returning back Kenyan Drake should form a solid tandem. Even at 35, Gore, the Old Cane, is a dependable yardage-eater with good hands out of the backfield.

Miami Dolphins Laremy Tunsil and MarQueis Gray talk about teammate Robert Quinn and his bend.

6. Defensive end Robert Quinn: He's only 28, once had a 19-sack season and chipped in 8 1/2 for the Rams last season. Miami traded for him in March thinking he will be a bookend sackman with Wake. If he stays healthy, he could be.

Danny Amendola, Miami Dolphins WR, talks to the media for the first time after being acquired in a trade from the New England Patriots.

7. The receiving corps: Free agent signees Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson joining DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills give Miami a position room that lacks a bona fide No. 1 wideout but should furnish enough productivity to make Jarvis Landry not missed much. With his wideout depth, a beefed-up tight end presence and the addition of Gore, Tannehill won't lack for options.

The Dolphins don't enjoy much margin of error. They need a lot to fall right if they're to surprise people this season. And that starts with getting lucky with these seven factors that weren't here to help last season but need to, big time, in 2018.

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