The Miami Dolphins preseason games in 2012 all carry an interesting undertone: Whatever happens, for better or worse, we're likely to get a much closer look at it on HBO's Hard Knocks.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't be watching this game closely, anyway.
That's especially true for the third preseason game, which is oftentimes regarded as a "dress rehearsal" for the regular season. As we start to get a better idea of the product we'll see every Sunday during the regular season, here's a list of a few things to look for in Friday's preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons.
How Does Ryan Tannehill Respond to Being Named Starter?
Ryan Tannehill was named the starter for the Dolphins' second preseason game against the Panthers, but beyond that, nothing was guaranteed. That is, until the very next day, when Dolphins coaches told Tannehill he would be the starter.
The world was already watching Tannehill very closely, but now that we know he is the guy for the 2012 season, he'll be under an even more watchful eye as a result.
"Everybody's going to make it a huge deal," said Joe Philbin on the most recent episode of Hard Knocks, "and try to blow it out of proportion—Tannehill's a rookie; they don't' have a great wide receivers; why are they putting him out there?; who's going to play the right side? They'll come up with a million reasons, OK? And they're not bad people—that's just what they get paid to do. My point to you is, I want you to be—one reason I like you is you've got a lot of poise, you have composure. You know how to handle yourself."
The rookie quarterback has been up and down, but mostly up through his first two preseason games, going a combined 25-for-46 passing (54.3 percent) for 267 yards and a touchdown. But the stats don't matter nearly as much as the poise he shows, his command of the offense and his ability to keep the up-tempo Dolphins offense on schedule and moving down the field.
The Falcons defense was average last year but has looked below-average thus far in the preseason, allowing 431 yards passing (ranks 22nd in the preseason) to go with 55 points (30th) against the Ravens and Bengals.
Those aren't exactly the most explosive offenses in the NFL.
Speaking of the pressure on Ryan Tannehill, that pressure could be even greater if the defense is unable to improve on its first two performances this preseason.
The defense was supposed to be a strength for the Dolphins. It ranked sixth in scoring defense last year. But thus far in the preseason, it's given up two first-half touchdowns to the Buccaneers and three scores—two touchdowns and a field goal—on the Panthers' first three drives.
Now, it's just the preseason, so there's no need to panic yet. Plus, the Dolphins have been without three key starters: defensive end Cameron Wake and linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, but Wake is expected to return on Friday.
If there aren't any improvements in the "dress rehearsal," it might be time to start dusting off that panic button.
They'll get a solid test against a Falcons offense that is loaded with skill-position talent in quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner, wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. As a result of those talented pass-catchers, the Dolphins secondary will be in focus.
Which brings me to the next thing to watch...
How Does Vontae Davis Play...If He Plays at All?
With trade rumors swirling around cornerback Vontae Davis, all eyes will be on Davis' performance.
That is, if he plays at all.
Now, the rumors are completely unsubstantiated thus far, but if he's kept out of the game, that could be a strong indicator that a trade is indeed brewing for the former first-round cornerback.
Davis has had an up-and-down camp, but after being taken out of the first-team lineup when his conditioning and attitude became a problem, he has slowly worked his way back into the starting rotation even though he didn't start against the Panthers.
Whether he starts is inconsequential, but if he doesn't suit up, it will be easy to assume that something's up.
Will the Real Wide Receivers Please Stand Up?
At present, the starting wide receivers are Legedu Naanee and Davone Bess, according to the team's official website. It's important to note, however, that while Naanee has taken the first-team reps, he's been invisible all preseason and graded out as the worst wide receiver in football out of 115 qualifying pass-catchers, according to Pro Football Focus.
His spot as the starter shouldn't be a lock.
Bess has often been regarded as more of a slot receiver, so it will be interesting to see if that role is affected at all with the Dolphins thin on talent on the perimeter of the offense. His role could be similar to Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, who is listed as a starter and is consistently on the field in two-receiver sets but often lines up in the slot to maximize his skill set.
The almost-locks are wide receivers Brian Hartline and Julius Pruitt.
A calf injury has kept Hartline out of action for the entirety of camp, but he has slowly been worked into the mix. He and Naanee should challenge one another for starting duties, but being that the Dolphins will be running a West Coast offense, there should be plenty of room for both to get serious playing time.
Pruitt has been a productive receiver during training camp, catching the attention of his teammates with his play (per The Palm Beach Post). His ability to contribute on special teams puts him even closer to a lock. Fans should be closely watching his performance against a Falcons secondary that is loaded with talent.
Beyond those four, though, the competition is wide open for the final two spots.
Chris Hogan, Marlon Moore, Clyde Gates and Roberto Wallace (in no particular order) are all considered in the running. If any of those four have an impressive game on Friday, it could go a long way in assuring them a spot on the final 53-man roster.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained first-hand.
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