The Miami Dolphins enter 2013 full of new hope.
An offseason spending frenzy that netted them top free agents such as Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler combined with Ryan Tannehill entering his sophomore campaign after a solid rookie season has brought expectations to a team that went just 7-9 in 2012.
The New England Patriots' offseason, which included the departures of Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead and Deion Branch, has only increased the expectation that the Dolphins can be a playoff team in 2013.
The Dolphins have all of the ingredients of a playoff team.
They have a top-tier defense that ranked No. 7 in the NFL in points allowed per game despite an inconsistent offense that frequently placed the defense in bad field position. That should change in 2013 as Tannehill grows as a quarterback.
The Dolphins have a young running back in Lamar Miller. Despite carrying the ball just 51 times for 250 yards in his rookie season last year, he has all of the tools to be a top-tier running back in the league.
Bucky Brooks of NFL.com can't stop raving about Miller. Brooks picked Miller to be the "Most Improved Running Back for 2013." On why Miller should have a breakout 2013 season:
Miami's decision to upgrade its passing attack this offseason also will help Miller become a highly productive back in 2013. Last season, opponents crowded the line of scrimmage with eight defenders and dared the Dolphins to win with the pass. Without a legitimate deep threat on the outside or a credible playmaker between the hashes, the running lanes were clogged between the tackles. This should change with Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller and Brandon Gibson coming onboard.
The receiving core has been upgraded. It isn't far-fetched to say that Miami had the worst receiving core in all of the NFL last year. Brian Hartline was the lone bright spot of the group, as Miami started Davone Bess opposite of Hartline and the tight ends struggled to make an impact.
Entering 2013, the season looks bright for Miami. A top-tier defense with one of the top pass rushers in Cameron Wake. An offense that features a plethora of young players in Mike Wallace, Lamar Miller and second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
But what does Miami need in order to take that next step? What do they need to ensure that they clinch a playoff spot for the first time in five seasons?
The Dolphins will go as Ryan Tannehill leads them.
In a league where teams are dependent upon their quarterbacks more than ever, a team wins only if its quarterback brings it victories.
All seven quarterbacks are top-tier quarterbacks to this day, and with the exception of Flacco, all of them look to be on their way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Dolphins had a solid nucleus in 2012. Although the running game took a step backwards, the defense was good enough to keep the team in a lot of games. Unfortunately, Tannehill went through growing pains in his rookie season—as expected—and the team lost a couple of games that it should have won.
This, combined with a 1-5 midseason stretch in between Weeks 8 and 13, cost the Dolphins a playoff spot.
This midseason slump coincided with Tannehill's worst stretch of play—the definition of a rookie slump. From Weeks 9 through 14, Tannehill threw for four touchdowns and six interceptions. His quarterback rating dipped below 70 three times during that stretch.
The bottom fell out during a 37-3 loss to the Titans in Miami which saw the Dolphins favored entering the game. Tannehill threw three interceptions with no touchdowns while accumulating a 42.4 quarterback rating.
In order for the Dolphins to be a playoff contender in 2013, they need Tannehill to avoid a slump like this during his second season.
What can the second-year quarterback's supporting cast do to help him avoid such a slump?
Lamar Miller's Impact
Miller's impact on Tannehill is twofold—if Miller helps Tannehill, then Tannehill helps Miller.
Let's say with Wallace in the picture, Miami opens up its vertical passing game—an element that was absent from the 2012 team. The Dolphins ranked just 22nd in yards per attempt at just a shade under six yards an attempt.
If Miller shows he is a "Clinton Portis clone," as Bucky Brooks puts it, then it opens up the play-action passing game, which is obviously a strength of the young Tannehill. According to James Walker of ESPN, the Texas A&M product ranked as the best quarterback outside of the pocket in the AFC East.
Statistically, Tannehill was better then every AFC East quarterback last season when rolling out the pocket, according to ESPN Stats and Information. While on the run in 2012, Tannehill led the division in completion percentage (58), passer rating (83) and touchdowns (three). Yes, this is the one category where Tannehill even dominates over future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.
If Miller can prove to be an effective runner, utilizing his ability to switch between running with finesse and power, it would open up the Dolphins' playbook so they can get Tannehill outside of the pocket more—where he is at his best.
The quarterback began his career at Texas A&M at wide receiver as a freshman and ran a 4.58 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day.
Tannehill is one of the more athletic quarterbacks in the league, and getting him outside of the pocket where he can run around and improvise will only work in Miami's favor.
Mike Wallace's Impact
The Dolphins signed Wallace—the top free agent wide receiver on the market—hoping he will be Miami's go-to-receiver for the next half-decade, easing Tannehill's transition from his rookie to his sophomore campaign.
Wallace is considered the fastest receiver in the NFL. He finished second overall in the 40-yard dash at 2009 NFL Scouting Combine with an official 4.33-second time.
His career average of 17.2 yards per reception ranks fourth in the league, while his 27 receptions of 40-plus yards since entering the NFL in 2009 are the best in the league.
The fifth-year receiver made the go route his trademark with Ben Roethlisberger by repeatedly burning opposing defensive backs by simply outrunning them.
This has led to the popular opinion that Wallace is a one-trick pony. But that's not the case.
Via Chris Wesseling of NFL.com:
The Pittsburgh Steelers frequently used Wallace on quick screens and slants. With one missed tackle, he's a threat to hit paydirt. According to ESPN.com's KC Joyner, Wallace led the NFL two years ago in average yards per target on throws of 10 yards or less.
Due to Wallace's speed, the Dolphins can utilize the former Steeler in a variety of ways—not just on go routes, but on screens and slants that can get Wallace out in the open field, where he is at his best.
This is in direct contrast to what the Dolphins had last year in Davone Bess—who at 5'10" was best suited to be a slot receiver that moves the chains, rather than a No. 1 option in an offense. Due to the Dolphins' lack of receiving weapons, that's exactly what role Bess was playing over the last couple of years in Miami.
Now the Dolphins have a true No. 1 option in the offense.
An example of Wallace's versatility as a receiver is seen in this highlight from a few years back when the Steelers played the Raiders:
On this play, Wallace runs a simple crossing route over the middle of the field no more than five yards from the line of scrimmage. He makes the catch a few yards ahead of the line of scrimmage and for the remaining 50 yards simply outruns the defense.
This helps out a young quarterback such as Tannehill because simple reads on short-yard, low-risk throws improve the confidence of a young passer.
Because of his speed, one can use the fifth-year receiver on a variety of routes—which in turn, opens up opportunities for the rest of Miami's weapons on offense.
You can't teach speed.
The Dolphins brought in Dustin Keller to start at tight end, along with Brandon Gibson to fill in as the slot receiver.
Brian Hartline returns as the other starting receiver. He proved to be a vertical threat capable of filling the No. 2 role after he had his first 1,000-yard season.
There is no doubt the Dolphins have talent on offense. The question becomes, "With all of these new pieces, will the Dolphins be able to utilize all of this talent?"
It's one thing when you have all of these guys playing in the same offense for a number of years together—it's a whole different story when three of your top four weapons are veterans who are learning new systems for their second pro football team in their careers.
Gibson is learning the slot position for the first time in his NFL career. After starting in St. Louis last season, Gibson must now learn the inside slot.
Tannehill said to Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel:
He's a good player, but he's still adjusting to all the nuances of the offense. It is one thing to sit in the meeting room and learn it on paper, but all the adjustments, and hot throws are stuff you kind of pick up over time.
Gibson, along with Keller and Wallace are all adjusting in some shape or form as they begin their careers in South Florida.
How they adjust will dictate whether the Dolphins can become a playoff team.
The Dolphins start a new chapter in 2013.
With three new receiving targets, and a new starting running back, Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins face a period of adjustment and change.
They have the right pieces in place—all of Tannehill's main offensive weapons are no older than 26 years old with the exception of Keller—to build an offensive nucleus for the next few years.
The success of this team will hinge on Tannehill's progress in 2013—which will hinge on the chemistry his new receivers develop with him.