8 Miami Dolphins Who Will Make Biggest Leaps from 2011 to 2012
The Miami Dolphins might not have the capacity to win more than seven or eight games, but they certainly have the capacity to lose 11 or 12.
In order to maximize their potential, the Dolphins will need contributions from players who haven't provided it in the past.
And they're not afraid of giving these players major roles.
Miami will have first-time starters at right tackle and defensive end, and possibly at wide receiver as well. Beyond that, the Fins will seek substantial production from two unproven safeties, and a handful of underachieving skill players.
If these nine players can make great leaps from 2011 to 2012, then the Dolphins can easily win between seven and nine games. But, if they don't, we could be in for another agonizing season.
It's easy to make excuses for Daniel Thomas.
You can blame his struggles on injuries, poor offensive line play or the lockout. But ultimately, Thomas needs to take responsibility for a disappointing and lackluster rookie season that saw him rush for a measly 581 yards on 165 carries.
Thomas did show flashes last season, specifically in Weeks 2 and 3 when he rushed for a combined 202 yards. Save a decent Week 12 outing against the Raiders, those were the only noteworthy performances Thomas had.
There's no doubt Thomas can be a dangerous, multi-dimensional back. He's overpowering and deceptively shifty. The three things Thomas needs to improve upon this offseason—field vision, confidence and ball protection—are all rectifiable issues.
The Dolphins traded up to secure Thomas' services in the 2011 draft, but that was under Tony Sparano's watch. Not Joe Philbin's. This coaching staff has no loyalty to Thomas, so if he doesn't break through this year, he could play elsewhere in 2013. Hopefully pressure will push Thomas to the next level.
The San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers both saw potential in Legedu Naanee. After all, there aren't many 6'2", 225 pound wide receivers with 4.38 speed out there. Neither team believed he was worth long-term investment, however.
Naanee spent four uneventful season in San Diego before landing in Carolina in 2011, where he posted career highs in receptions and receiving yards. Despite a considerable influx in production, the Panthers didn't make an effort to re-sign Naanee.
Now entering his sixth NFL season, Naanee still hasn't harnessed his physical gifts, and this might be his last chance to put it all together and prove he's a viable player.
The door is wide open for him to swoop in to secure a starting—or at least prominent—role in the Dolphins' passing game. His main competition for reps is 34-year-old Chad Ochocinco and Brian Hartline, who's been sidelined all summer by an appendectomy.
Naanee should be thankful the Dolphins are giving him an opportunity, and if he maintains the momentum he garnered in minicamp, then he's bound to make great leaps in 2012.
If you thought Legedu Naanee's measurables were impressive, then check out Roberto Wallace's. The third year wide receiver, who's wavered between the practice squad and active roster for the last two years, is 6'4", 225 pounds and boasts 4.49 speed.
But, as Naanee has shown, it takes more than size and speed to succeed in the NFL.
Meager opportunity and nagging injuries have held Wallace back these last two years, but now that Brandon Marshall is gone and he's healthy, the stars are aligning for a breakout. Wallace is now the tallest wideout on the team (except for UDFA Jeff Fuller, but he's a longshot for the active roster), and that alone should grant him exponentially more reps than he's ever received.
Plus, check out this excerpt from Barry Jackson:
Wallace made leaping catches, tight-roped the sidelines for others and used his size (6-4) and speed to make people notice.
“Roberto is going to be a pretty good receiver in this league,” David Garrard said. “He’s that guy I’ve really been looking at and trying to work with. When he puts it all together, he can be a big talent.” Julius Pruitt also turned heads but faces longer odds to stick.
This is a do-or-die season for Wallace. If he doesn't break through this year, then he won't be a Dolphin in 2013.
Nobody outside of Miami knows who Charles Clay is, but that should change in 2012.
Clay spent his rookie season at fullback, but the Dolphins are now moving him to tight end. So far, the transition has been extraordinarily smooth. Clay consistently stood out during minicamp and Barry Jackson believes Clay "will be a valued weapon in this offense."
It's been years since the Dolphins had a viable seam-threat tight end, and Clay can end the drought. While Anthony Fasano will demand his share of targets, Clay is far more dynamic and athletic, and thus should receive more touches.
Offensive linemen never receive adequate praise, so it's no surprise we haven't heard much about Mike Pouncey this offseason. But, is it also possible that everybody is so confident Pouncey will blossom into a Pro Bowl caliber center that he's not worth discussing?
Pouncey hardly looked like a rookie in 2011. He held his own from Day 1, and by the end of the season, he looked like a seasoned veteran.
Pro Football Focus named Pouncey to their 2011 All-Rookie Team, adding: "I blame Broderick Bunkley. Up until the Bronco defensive tackle lined up across from him Mike looked the better Pouncey, but since then he’s become the player his brother is. He doesn’t do a lot wrong, but nor does he do an awful lot more than you’d expect like the top centers."
Sophomore slumps befall even the most promising of rookies, but there's no reason to believe Pouncey won't be a stud in 2012.
If I asked you to name a few of Miami's recent first-round picks, I bet a majority of you would respond with some variation of the same names: Ted Ginn, Jr., Jake Long, Mike Pouncey and Ryan Tannehill.
For one reason or another, Jared Odrick is seldom judged by his fellow first-rounders' standards. Maybe it's because he was drafted at the end of the first round, or maybe it's because he missed his rookie season with a broken leg.
Regardless, in 2012, Odrick should remind everybody why he was a first-round selection three years ago. He's stepping in to a starting role for the first time in his young career, and he can establish himself as a topflight defensive end.
In a situational role last season, Odrick racked up six sacks, displaying an ability to apply pressure and defend the run. Now that he's a starter, he can be a 10-sack player.
Technically, Sean Smith "made the leap" after his rookie season. He played at an elite level in 2010, posting statistics that put him on par with names like Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha.
Last season, however, he digressed drastically, surrendering the 13th-highest yardage total amongst cornerbacks.
Despite this inexplicable decline, there's no reason Smith won't reverse his woes. He's arguably the most gifted cornerback in the entire league and he's played at an elite level before. Now entering his fourth season, it's time for Smith to weave the inconsistency out of his game and play like a mature veteran.
Plus, he's entering the final year of his contract. If he wants to get paid next summer, then he has to make the leap this season.
The Dolphins are entrusting faith in a few unproven players, but none more so than Reshad Jones.
Last season, Jones wasn't just bad, he was one of the worst safeties in the NFL per Pro Football Focus' calculations. Despite his depressing performance, Jones is slated to start for the Dolphins in 2012, and he says he's ready to become "one of the elite safeties in the game."
Miami gave Jones a huge vote of confidence by not drafting or signing another starting-caliber safety, and he's rewarded them with outstanding play in minicamp.
The Dolphins clearly believe Jones will make the leap in 2012, and he showed in minicamp that he just might do it. Jones has to make the most drastic progress of any player on this list if he wants to make that leap, and the coaching staff will look very bad if he doesn't.