NFL: 5 Miami Dolphins to Watch in Week 1

Thomas GaliciaContributor IISeptember 7, 2012

NFL: 5 Miami Dolphins to Watch in Week 1

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    The Dolphins are a team with a plethora of questions marks surrounding it. However, I don't think I have to tell you that. Google "Miami Dolphins" and you will see that the majority of the search results are other writers asking those questions, while some try to answer them the best way possible.

    Week 1 will give us the answer to some of those questions. Miami couldn't have asked for a better (or worse) opponent to start off the season against: a Houston Texans team that is favored to win its division, and potentially represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

    This game will be a good gauge of where Miami is. If the Dolphins get destroyed by the Texans, it will tell us that there is plenty of work left to be done. If they manage to keep it close (or even pull out the victory), it will tell us that this team is ready for just about anything.

    Yesterday we looked at some of the key matchups in Sunday's Week 1 Showdown between the Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans (1 pm ET CBS). Today we look at five Dolphins players to keep an eye on.

Jake Long

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    Miami's best player along its much-maligned offensive line is Jake Long, who's probably the best left tackle in the game today.

    Since spraining his MCL two weeks ago, Long has had limited involvement in Dolphins practice all week. He's expected to play on Sunday; however he could be limited by his injury.

    While 85 percent of Jake Long is still better than 100 percent of any of his likely replacements (moving right tackle Jonathan Martin to the left tackle position, or Long's potential backups Will Yeatman and Nate Garner), it will still be a concern.

    The Dolphins offensive line is going to be tested by Houston's relentless pass rush, and Long is needed out there to be as effective as he can possibly be. While his injury may not be serious, how he plays with it will be a barometer of Miami's chances to pull out a potential upset.

Brian Hartline

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    We can't really grade Brian Hartline's preseason performance because, well, there wasn't one to grade.

    Hartline missed the entire preseason with a left calf injury, thus missing out on a chance to develop chemistry with new quarterback Ryan Tannehill and integrate himself as a part of this offense. If there's one thing he should be thankful for, it's been the poor play of every other receiver not named Davone Bess. Had any of the since-released wideouts been effective (and had Chad Johnson not headbutted his wife), Hartline might have found himself having a hard time making this roster.

    Hartline will likely be worked slowly into the Miami offense, which in theory is a smart idea but with the lack of talent at the position could hurt Miami. While he is on the field he will have to show himself to be the dependable route-runner with the hands and speed that has made him one of Miami's better receivers since being drafted.

    It will be tough against a Texans secondary that always seems to be in the right place at the right time, but it will be interesting to watch Hartline's first time in the new West Coast offense.

Sean Smith

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    Yes, it will be Richard Marshall's job to stop Andre Johnson; however, Sean Smith will be the player to watch on Sunday.

    He's the new leader of this secondary. Marshall is the more experienced of the two, but as Smith goes, so does the secondary.

    He knows what's around him now. No Vontae Davis, no Yeremiah Bell. The secondary is Miami's weakest position (yes, even weaker than the receivers). Sean Smith has to become what Miami doesn't have in the backfield: a playmaker.

    If an errant Matt Schaub pass is around his hands, he's going to have to hold on to the ball, which he's had problems with in the past (remember that Jets game in 2010 when he could've picked off Mark Sanchez at least four times). He's going to have to be stuck to his receiver (Kevin Walter, Keshawn Martin and at times Andre Johnson) like white on rice on a paper plate during a snowstorm. He's going to have to be the leader.

    It's Sean Smith's secondary now, and as he goes, so goes the unit.

Daniel Thomas

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    Episode four of Hard Knocks started off with coach Joe Philbin calling Daniel Thomas into his office to discuss some of Thomas' bad habits.

    Among them was his tardiness. Thomas had shown up late to the team's flight to Charlotte in Week 2 of the preseason, then a few days later he was late to a team workout.

    Philbin handled his meeting with Thomas as professionally as you would want it to be handled. He called Thomas into a meeting instead of berating him for his tardiness in front of teammates, and Thomas handled it professionally as well, vowing to not make those mistakes again.

    What followed was two tremendous efforts in the final two preseason games against Atlanta and Dallas. Against Atlanta Thomas was Miami's best running back, then against Dallas while he was on the field his running helped open up the offense for Ryan Tannehill's most efficient game of the preseason.

    Thomas won't be the starting running back against Houston, as again this will go to Reggie Bush. However, keep in mind that Thomas was one of only two running backs to rush for 100 yards (18 attempts for 107 yards) against Houston's tough run defense. The other player to accomplish this challenging feat: Ray Rice. This game also happened to be the first game of his NFL career.

    Based off the high level of play shown in the final two games of the preseason as well as his performance last season against the Texans, you might see Thomas have a few carries (though not as many as he had last season) on Sunday. His effectiveness with those carries will make a huge difference in the outcome of this game.

Ryan Tannehill

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    Well, Mr. Tannehill, here it is. Your first NFL start. No pressure, it's on the road, against a presumable Super Bowl contender with one of the toughest pass rushes in the NFL. It's going to be tough, but if there's any consolation, it is in your home state, about 450 miles east of your hometown of Big Spring, Texas. Hopefully you will have plenty of family and friends on hand.

    It's also the same building where you played the final game of your college football career.

    Texas A&M won the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas 33-22 over Northwestern. Ryan Tannehill was named MVP after going 27-of-40 for 329 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

    Now a performance like that in Week 1 will get Dolphins fans excited to be sure, but it would be tough to ask for that type of performance from the rookie. Tannehill has to be efficient, but it will be tough.

    More important for Tannehill than his performance in the game itself is how he handles it afterwards. If he has a good game, the hope is that he doesn't get too high off of it and gets ready for Oakland at home in Week 2. If he delivers a bad performance, the hope is that he's able to move past it and focus on the Raiders the next week.

    He has shown improvement every week of the preseason, and has shown the ability to handle the pressure.

    Houston's head coach Gary Kubiak has coached two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in his career (Steve Young while he was QB coach with the 49ers, and John Elway while he was the Broncos' offensive coordinator. Kubiak had this to say about Tannehill via the Miami Herald: “I think he’s going to be a great player, I’ve been very impressed. There’s no doubt in my mind you’re talking about a franchise player.”

    High praise, but it also shows that the Texans will not be taking it easy on the rookie.

    How Tannehill plays, and how he handles the pressure, will be on display not just on Sunday, but all season long.

    Sunday is just our first glance at it.


    Have questions about the Dolphins or anything pertaining to Miami and their sports teams? Be sure to tweet it to me using the hashtag #MiamiMailbag for inclusion into my new weekly Miami Mailbag series, which will be starting next week.