The Dolphins enter 2013 with high expectations.
Miami had perhaps the best offseason of any NFL team, landing big free-agent names such as Dannell Ellerbe, Mike Wallace, Brent Grimes and Dustin Keller.
Including re-signings, no team signed more big free agents than the Dolphins did, according to Pro Football Talk's Free Agent Hot 100.
The Dolphins made a conscious effort to get better during the offseason. One of the positions of focus was wide receiver, Miami's biggest weakness all throughout 2012. As Bleacher Report's own Featured Columnist Erik Frenz pointed out in his article about the Dolphins' offseason spending spree:
Unsurprisingly, it was the wide receiver spot that earned the highest spending from the Dolphins—in total and on a per-player basis. With $102.94 million on wide receivers Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson, those three players alone account for roughly 41.5 percent of the team's projected total spending this offseason.
This conscious effort to get better through free agency is not the only reason why the Dolphins have higher expectations entering this season than they did in 2012.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill enters his second season in the NFL, after having a decent rookie season which saw him lead the Dolphins to a 7-9 record despite one of the weakest receiving corps in all of the NFL.
The question is, are the Dolphins ready to take that next step? Will they be good enough to make it to the playoffs with a revamped roster and a second-year quarterback that looks to be primed for a breakout season?
The State of the Division
As it stands right now, the Dolphins are the second-best team in the division. They finished second in the division in 2012 and got better on paper during the offseason, while the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills—the two teams that finished below Miami in the AFC East—regressed during the offseason.
The AFC East is still ruled by the New England Patriots, who have won 10 of the past 12 division titles since 2001.
This is a positive for Miami because it plays six games against these teams. No win in the NFL is a lock, but it certainly helps when four of these six games are against teams that look to be bottom-feeders in 2013.
The thing about inter-divisional matchups—especially those in the AFC East—is that they are always closely contested.
However, it's still a hell of a lot better than playing in the AFC North.
The Patriots are still the kings of this division, but New England is getting older, and the window of opportunity is slowly closing. The Dolphins are a team on the rise, and although 2013 won't be the year Miami knocks off New England from its throne, the gap is closing between the two teams.
The AFC East is a weak division. The AFC may not be as weak as a conference, but it sure isn't as intimidating as it once was.
Entering 2013, there are three or four elite teams in the conference—the Denver Broncos, the Houston Texans, the Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens—with Baltimore possibly on the decline due to losing nine of its 22 starters from its Super Bowl-winning team of last year.
The rest of the conference's teams have as many, if not more weaknesses than the Dolphins do.
This is an important topic of focus because it leaves the window of opportunity open for teams hoping to break through—like the 2013 Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins will go as their quarterback goes. The old adage of "the team goes where their quarterback goes" couldn't be any more true than in today's NFL, where the passing game reigns supreme.
Tannehill had an OK season by rookie standards. He threw for 12 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and 3,294 yards while starting all 16 games for the Dolphins.
However, he was obviously overshadowed by his fellow quarterback draft class—Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck—all of whom lit up the stat sheet, while leading their teams to the playoffs.
With that being said, big things are expected of Tannehill in year two, due to the typical improvement by NFL players in their second seasons in comparison to their rookie campaigns.
Dolphins great Bob Griese echoed these sentiments recently, citing the comfort level for a second-year quarterback is completely different in comparison to his rookie season. Courtesy of Adam Beasley of the Sun Sentinel:
When you’re in the huddle and someone is talking, when you’re a rookie, you sort of look over and say, ‘Ah, Mr. Larry Little, could you please be quiet because I have to call this play?’The second year, you say, ‘Shut … [pause for effect] … your … [pause again, this time for an expletive] … mouth.’ There’s just something about going from the first year to the second year.
Tannehill entered the NFL after having started his collegiate career as a wide receiver at Texas A&M, before converting to quarterback where he made 19 starts in college.
The point is, compared to his fellow rookies Wilson, Luck and Griffin III, Tannehill was an extremely inexperienced quarterback.
The quarterback's biggest problem throughout the season was his inability to finish drives with touchdowns. The Dolphins threw just 13 touchdowns as a team—third worst in the league—with their percentage of touchdown passes when attempting to pass also ranking as the third worst in the league.
With Miami adding the biggest big-play receiver in the NFL in Mike Wallace, combined with the expected growth of Tannehill in his second year, there is no reason to believe why the Dolphins shouldn't improve upon their 27th-ranked offense (18.0 points per game) from 2012.
The Dolphins were a solid team in 2012 held back by the fact that they were starting a rookie quarterback and had a glaring weakness (wide receivers) that made life even more difficult for the rookie quarterback.
The Dolphins had actually entered Week 16 with a slim chance to still make the postseason. What cost Miami was its inability to win a number of close games. Winnable games versus the Jets and Arizona Cardinals in consecutive weeks in Week 3 and 4 were the most painful losses of the season.
It was a sign of a young team led by a young quarterback learning how to win in the NFL.
Now, the Dolphins enter 2013 with an experienced quarterback, an improved receiving corps with the same defense intact (No. 7 in the league in points allowed in 2012) and a younger running back (Lamar Miller) leading the ground game with Reggie Bush gone.
The question is, "Will it be enough?"
Is it enough?
The Dolphins were in playoff contention toward the end of the season despite a midseason slump that saw them go 1-5, while they were in the thick of the playoff race.
This was also in spite of the fact that they were starting a green, rookie quarterback with only 19 collegiate starts at quarterback under his belt, one of the worst receiving units in the NFL and a running game led by the inconsistent Bush that finished 17th in the league.
Don't expect a midseason slump of those proportions again in 2013.
The Dolphins will be better in 2013. Tannehill will be better. Miller will obviously not be the all-around threat that Bush was, but it will be negated by the fact that he is a far superior runner, combined with Miami's additions of Wallace and Gibson to open up the playbook.
The division will be worse than it was in 2012. The Jets have question marks all over the team, not just at quarterback. The Bills were a below-average team with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick leading the team. Now with EJ Manuel expected to battle Kevin Kolb for the starting job, you can't expect the Bills to finish any better than their 6-10 record of 2012.
The AFC as a whole is the weaker of the two conferences. With just a few "elite" teams, that leaves several playoff spots open for teams on the cusp such as the Miami Dolphins.
Do the Dolphins have enough to clinch a postseason spot in 2013?
Miami won't overthrow the Patriots atop the AFC East.
But it will clinch a playoff spot.