Examining Miami Dolphins' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin OnslowContributor IIJune 18, 2013

Examining Miami Dolphins' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

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    In the NFL, building a winning franchise starts with the draft and continues through several years of smart free-agent acquisitions and salary cap management.

    The Miami Dolphins have accelerated the process.

    Miami has done a good job adding some youthful talent through the draft in recent years, but what the team did in free agency this offseason goes far beyond any of those efforts. As a result, the Dolphins will be in much better position to make a run at the AFC East title in 2013.

    General manager Jeff Ireland wasn’t afraid to go after the players he wanted in free agency, starting with former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace.     

    Wallace, coming off four tremendous seasons with the Steelers, was arguably the biggest name on the free-agent market, and he cashed in on that status with a five-year, $60 million contract. While the 26-year-old didn’t live up to lofty expectations in 2012 (836 yards and eight touchdowns), he’s still one of the league’s best deep threats, always capable of blowing the top off opposing defenses.

    Along with the addition of Wallace, Ireland also struck a new five-year, $31 million deal with the team’s leading receiver in 2012, Brian Hartline. The 26-year-old had a career year with the Dolphins last season in tallying 74 receptions for 1,083 yards, but recorded just one touchdown on the season. With Wallace in the fold, Hartline should garner a lot less attention from opposing defenses and could see a significant increase in red-zone production this season.

    But the pair will have to share those targets with newly-acquired wide receiver Brandon Gibson and tight end Dustin Keller as well. Ireland brought in both players via free agency, adding to a receiving corps that is already a massive improvement over its 2012 incarnation. If second-year signal-caller Ryan Tannehill is to have a breakout season, those four players will be the biggest reason for it.

    Ireland also went to work on the defensive side of the ball. With the acquisitions of linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Brent Grimes, the Dolphins also significantly improved their defense heading into the 2013 season.

    We’ll delve a little deeper into additional free-agent dealings in the following slideshow, but suffice it to say the Dolphins added a lot more than they lost this offseason.

    In the draft, Miami made a surprising decision in moving up to the No. 3 spot for Oregon linebacker Dion Jordan—a player many considered the best front-seven defender in the 2013 class. Jordan has the versatility to play several positions in Miami’s front seven, and at the very least he gives defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle plenty of options.

    Let’s take a closer look at Miami’s draft class and various free-agent signings and departures, as well as a few positions to keep an eye on as the 2013 season draws near.

2013 NFL Draft

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    Round 1 (Pick 3): LB/DE Dion Jordan, Oregon

    Round 2 (Pick 54): CB Jamar Taylor, Boise State

    Round 3 (Pick 77): OT Dallas Thomas, Tennessee

    Round 3 (Pick 93): CB Will Davis, Utah State

    Round 4 (Pick 104): OLB Jelani Jenkins, Florida

    Round 4 (Pick 106): TE Dion Sims, Michigan State

    Round 5 (Pick 164): RB Mike Gillislee, Florida

    Round 5 (Pick 166): K Caleb Sturgis, Florida

    Round 7 (Pick 250): S Don Jones, Arkansas State

     

    Grade: A

     

    Jeff Ireland may not have earned the favor of Dolphins fans for some of his previous offseason dealings, but he did a tremendous job loading up on both sides of the ball this offseason.

    In the draft, the GM moved up nine spots to No. 3 and only surrendered the No. 12 and No. 42 selections in the process, selecting Dion Jordan in that spot.

    Jordan played defensive end, linebacker and some slot corner at Oregon, and it still remains to be seen where the Dolphins plan to use him going forward. Early indications point to the versatile defender starting out at defensive end as a primary pass-rusher in Miami’s 4-3 front—certainly not a bad spot for the explosive rusher.

    But given Jordan’s versatility and experience playing multiple positions in college, it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see him line up at outside linebacker at times this year as well. Whatever the case, the Dolphins nailed this pick and found a player who provides depth, athleticism and versatility to several defensive positions.

    Cornerback was a major concern for Miami this offseason, and Ireland did a terrific job filling in those holes both through free agency and the draft. In the second and third rounds, he selected Boise State corner Jamar Taylor and Utah State corner Will Davis, respectively. Each is capable of seeing a substantial role in the defensive secondary in the next few years.

    At No. 54, Taylor represented both value and need for the Dolphins. Considered by some an early-second-round prospect, the Boise State product probably wouldn’t have been available by Miami’s first third-round selection.

    Miami was in need of secondary help even before the departure of Sean Smith in free agency, and Ireland made sure to address that need early in the draft. In adding Taylor and Davis (along with Brent Grimes in free agency), the Dolphins will enter the 2013 season with plenty of depth and potential at the cornerback position.

    Third-round offensive tackle Dallas Thomas was another smart selection on the part of the Dolphins. After allowing left tackle Jake Long to walk in free agency, Miami needed to add some depth and potential at the position, and Thomas was a strong choice at that point in the draft.

    While some question the Tennessee product’s ability to transition to the NFL left tackle position, he does give Miami some additional flexibility from a rotational standpoint. With right tackle Jonathan Martin likely to shift to the left side after the addition of Tyson Clabo in free agency, Thomas won’t be forced into a situation in which he has to start from Week 1; he's more likely to add depth at the guard positions in his rookie season.

    Jelani Jenkins, Dion Sims and Mike Gillislee will all add some much-needed depth for the Dolphins this year as well, and while the team has some intriguing options at running back, Gillislee could very well be more than that in 2013.

    In all, Miami put together one of the better drafts in the league this year. Paired with a strong free-agent period and some promising talent already in place, Dolphins fans should be more than a little optimistic about the future of the franchise.

A More-Than-Passable Pass Rush

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    With the additions of Dion Jordan, Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe, the Dolphins’ pass rush stands to be a much more formidable unit in 2013.

    Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett were released at the start of the free-agency period, but Miami didn’t waste any time in replacing them with youth and potential. In Wheeler and Ellerbe, Ireland found both.

    As previously noted, Jordan will likely start out at defensive end in Miami’s 4-3 base (provided he makes a full recovery from offseason shoulder surgery), meaning 2010 first-round pick Jared Odrick can move back into a rotational role along the defensive line, seeing action at both defensive tackle and defensive end.    

    Contrary to popular belief, Jordan is much more than just a pass-rusher. But at defensive end in a 4-3 front, that’s exactly what the Dolphins will use him as. He has the athleticism and first-step explosiveness to wreak havoc on opposing offensive tackles, and with one-gap responsibilities and little else to worry about in Year 1, he’ll add a new element to Miami’s improved pass rush.

    Paired with Cameron Wake (who notched 15 sacks last season), the Dolphins will field a pair of tremendous pass-rushers at defensive end and give AFC East rivals a lot more to worry about in 2013. And as Wake himself humorously pointed out, he’s arguably the best 4-3 defensive end in the league, as noted by Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus:

    "You look at Pro Football Focus, and I'm the best 4-3 defensive end." - Cameron Wake http://t.co/uvggPrkIfq #Dolphins

    — Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) June 18, 2013

    Wheeler and Ellerbe won’t be expected to provide a substantial pass rush in Miami’s one-gap scheme, but there’s certainly room for Kevin Coyle to add some new wrinkles with the pair in the fold. Wheeler and Ellerbe notched 7.5 sacks combined last season, and each has the ability to provide substantial pressure when called upon to get after opposing quarterbacks.

    Along with Odrick, outside linebacker Koa Misi and defensive tackle Randy Starks, Miami should have no shortage of capable rushers from every position in the defensive front. After finishing seventh in the league in sacks last season (42), the thought of Miami reloading this offseason should be a very troubling prospect for the rest of the division.

Cornerback Logjam

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    Miami’s pass defense ranked 27th in the league last season, and with a strong pass rush in front of it, there was no reason (short of lack of talent) for its secondary to play so poorly.

    No. 1 cornerback Sean Smith left in free agency, but as many Dolphins fans noted after his departure, it wasn’t a massive loss. The former second-round pick failed to live up to expectations in Miami, and Jeff Ireland wasn’t prepared to offer him another shot in 2013.

    To replace Smith, Ireland signed former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes in free agency to play opposite Richard Marshall. Marshall missed 12 games after signing with the Dolphins last season, but he should be healthy and ready to solidify a cornerback corps that needs some continuity this season.

    2013 draft picks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis join R.J. Stanford and Nolan Carroll at the position, all of whom will be battling for the No. 3 and No. 4 spots on the depth chart. With plenty of inexperience among the group, offseason camps will play a big factor in deciding on the nickel and sub-package corners in Miami’s secondary.

    Adding Taylor and Davis was necessary given the injury concerns for both Grimes and Marshall. Grimes is coming off an Achilles injury that derailed his 2012 season and Marshall isn’t exactly a sure thing coming off his season-ending back injury.  

    The depth chart is likely to shift several times prior to the start of the season, but as long as Marshall and Grimes are healthy enough to play, the pair should be in line to lock down the outside corner spots and allow Taylor and Davis to ease their way into the transition to the NFL level.

    But given the lack of continuity at the position, it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see either rookie work his way into a starting role this season. Miami didn’t use Day 2 picks on the pair to sit on the bench in their formative years, and each has the athleticism, physicality and ball skills to leave a strong impression on Kevin Coyle this offseason.

Tannehill’s Targets

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    No one was probably happier than Ryan Tannehill following Miami’s offseason spending spree. The signal-caller pieced together a promising rookie campaign with an average receiving corps in 2012, and there’s reason to believe he’ll go well beyond those marks this season with Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson and Dustin Keller now in the fold.

    Wallace gives Tannehill a true deep threat who can take the top of opposing defenses, and with Hartline working underneath, Wallace won’t be asked to step outside his comfort zone. He’s getting paid as a No. 1 receiver, and he’ll be expected to produce like one—or at least continue hauling in receptions at a 16-plus-yards-per-catch rate as he did in his first three seasons in Pittsburgh.

    Chemistry will be key for Wallace and Tannehill, though, as the season approaches, and it may take some time for the two to work on their timing. But given the signal-caller’s big arm and Wallace’s wheels, that shouldn’t be a major setback. Look for Wallace’s production to mirror what he did in 2010 and 2011 with the Steelers, topping the 1,000-yard and eight-touchdown marks both seasons.

    Hartline may not eclipse 1,000 yards this year as he did in 2012, but look for his touchdown total to increase significantly with opposing defenses keying in on Wallace. Safeties won’t have the option to sit on intermediate patterns and risk allowing Wallace to get behind coverage, meaning Hartline could easily surpass his 74-catch total of a year ago.

    With Davone Bess joining the Cleveland Browns following a draft-day trade, Gibson becomes the clear-cut No. 3 option behind Wallace and Hartline. The former St. Louis Rams receiver hauled in 51 catches for 691 yards and five touchdowns last season, and the Dolphins would have to be pleased with similar production from their No. 3 wideout this season.

    With the trio already in place, the Dolphins weren’t forced to a use a draft pick on another receiving target. And given the presence of Rishard Matthews and Armon Binns, that was probably a good decision.

    Matthews, a 2012 seventh-round pick, saw limited action last season, but he has the size and speed to be a productive member of Miami’s receiving corps this season. The Dolphins seem intent on finding out what he can provide, and if he isn’t expected to take on a major role in 2013, he should be able to provide plenty as the team’s No. 4 receiver.

    Binns rounds out the team’s top five at the receiver position. While there’s no guarantee he won’t usurp Matthews at some point this season, he’ll also be battling with Jeff Fuller and Chad Bumphis for the spot. But provided Matthews does win the No. 4 role, the battle for the fifth receiver spot probably won’t be all that substantial. Any of the three could potentially fill the position by the start of the regular season without significantly affecting the offense.

    Keller won’t be facing a battle for the starting tight end position, though.

    With only rookie Dion Sims and second-year role player Michael Egnew behind him, Keller is in position to see a lot of targets this season, lined up both on the line and flexed out in the slot. He struggled to stay healthy with the New York Jets, but he enters the 2013 season facing a much more stable situation in Miami. Provided he stays healthy, Keller could be primed for a true breakout season.

Bye-Bye Bush

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    Reggie Bush revitalized his career as a tailback in Miami, but with Ireland unwilling to pay the oft-injured speedster enough money to warrant a return, Bush left for Detroit and a new four-year contract.

    Miami could afford to let Bush go, however.

    Second-year back Lamar Miller is primed for a breakout campaign in 2013 after showing flashes of brilliance last season. He has all the tools to be a productive three-down back at the NFL level, but he still needs to refine his pass-blocking ability if he is to secure the starting job.

    Still, Daniel Thomas has been mostly disappointing in his two seasons with the Dolphins, tallying just 3.5 yards per tote on 256 carries. Paired with injury concerns, there’s little reason to expect much from Thomas going forward.

    That leaves the door wide open for rookie rusher Mike Gillislee to earn the No. 2 role in the Dolphins’ backfield. He certainly has the speed and quickness to be the lightning to Miller’s thunder, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gillislee penciled in as the team’s second back by the start of the season.

    At 5’9” and 225 pounds, Jonas Gray will also garner some consideration as a short-yardage option and potential backup to Miller. He probably won’t challenge for the starting role this season, but he does give head coach Joe Philbin some flexibility at the position, especially in goal-line situations.

    As it stands, Miller has shown enough potential to enter the season as the leading candidate for the starting role. And while it may seem premature to count out Thomas, he just hasn’t lived up to expectations. Unless he shows massive improvement this offseason, he could end up at the bottom of the depth chart with little hope of seeing substantial playing time in 2013.

2013 Schedule

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    2013 Miami Dolphins Schedule
    Week Date Opponent Time TV
    1 Sept. 8
     @ Cleveland Browns 1 p.m. CBS
    2 Sept. 15
     @ Indianapolis Colts 1 p.m. CBS
    3 Sept. 22
     vs. Atlanta Falcons 4:05 p.m. FOX
    4 Sept. 30  @ New Orleans Saints 8:40 p.m. ESPN
    5 Oct. 6  vs. Baltimore Ravens 1 p.m. CBS
    6 Oct. 13  BYE N/A N/A
    7 Oct. 20  vs. Buffalo Bills 1 p.m. CBS
    8 Oct. 27  @ New England Patriots 1 p.m. CBS
    9 Oct. 31  vs. Cincinnati Bengals 8:25 p.m. NFLN
    10 Nov. 11  @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers  8:45 p.m. ESPN
    11 Nov. 17  vs. San Diego Chargers 1 p.m. CBS
    12 Nov. 24  vs. Carolina Panthers 1 p.m. FOX
    13 Dec. 1  @ New York Jets 1 p.m. CBS
    14 Dec. 8  @ Pittsburgh Steelers  1 p.m. CBS
    15 Dec. 15  vs. New England Patriots 1 p.m. CBS
    16 Dec. 22
     @ Buffalo Bills 1 p.m. CBS
    17 Dec. 29
     vs. New York Jets 1 p.m. CBS

     

    *For a complete look at Miami's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.

Season Outlook

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    The AFC East may be in a bit of transitional phase, but the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets still aren’t teams to overlook this season. Paired with the New England Patriots’ dominance in the division, Miami isn’t guaranteed a finish near the top of the standings.

    That said, the Dolphins got exponentially better this offseason as a result of some terrific signings and a strong draft class. While the AFC East can’t be overlooked, Miami also shouldn’t be counted out of title discussion.

    But perhaps the biggest obstacle the Dolphins face this season is a tremendously difficult non-divisional schedule that includes the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. Apart from matchups with the Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers, there won’t be many games in which Miami will be a significant favorite.

    A massive Miami turnaround wouldn’t be a surprise, however. Any team can win on any given Sunday, and the Dolphins certainly have the pieces in place to do more winning than losing in 2013.

     

    Prediction: 9-7, Second in AFC East

    Expectations are high for the Dolphins this year, but it’s important to factor in strength of schedule when predicting future success. There simply aren’t many easily winnable games on the 2013 slate.

    That’s not to suggest Miami can’t surprise some people this year with a 10-plus-win campaign, but realistically, somewhere between eight and 11 wins should be the expectation. It won’t be easy traversing the 2013 slate without at least six losses.

    Look for Miami to make huge strides this year en route to a second-place finish in the AFC East.