Just before the 2013 NFL season, the Miami Dolphins fanbase is full of hope and optimism. While this feeling is nothing new for many Miami fans, who never give up, this year that feeling is supported by reality. The Dolphins are a much improved team that will contend for postseason play.
Miami has a budding star at quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, who has a valuable year of NFL experience under his belt.
At this time last year, fans were hopeful of Tannehill's future, but the rookie was not expected to beat out David Garrard and Matt Moore. Not only did he shed his "project" label, but he flashed glimpses of stardom in his first year as the Dolphins field general.
In contrast to last year, Miami's receiving corp is formidable with Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Dustin Keller and Brandon Gibson. Tannehill will make plenty of big plays with the aid of his speedy targets.
The Dolphins also brought in Tyson Clabo, Lance Louis and Dallas Thomas to enhance Tannehill's protection. Second-year tackle Jonathan Martin has added muscle and is expected to improve upon his difficult rookie campaign. Guard Richie Incognito and center Mike Pouncey are already regarded as standouts in their respective positions.
Defensive stars Cameron Wake, Paul Soliai, Randy Starks and Reshad Jones will be complemented by new impact players such as Dion Jordan, Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler, Brent Grimes and Jamar Taylor, making Miami's defense dangerously potent.
The good news doesn't end there. Let's look at some information that Miami fans may be overlooking.
There is a method to Jeff Ireland's madness. Yes, the Dolphins gave out a lot of guaranteed money in free agency, but they paid for young players heading into their prime.
Mike Wallace received $27 million guaranteed for potentially five years of service. Wallace turns 27 on August 1st, and his contract will run out when he is 31. In essence, Ireland and Stephen Ross paid a hefty price for Wallace but will receive his peak years in return.
Dannelle Ellerbe also signed a five-year contract with $14 million guaranteed. Ellerbe shined for the Ravens in their Super Bowl run and is also 27 years old. He replaced the 31-year-old Karlos Dansby.
Philip Wheeler received $13 million guaranteed in his five-year contract. Wheeler is 28 years old and replaced the 30-year-old Kevin Burnett.
The 26-year-old Brian Hartline received $12.5 guaranteed in his five-year deal, assuring that he will be Wallace's tag-team partner until 2018.
Brandon Gibson will turn 26 in August and signed a three-year deal with $3.75 guaranteed. Gibson could prove to be a steal if he continues to exhibit the sure-handedness he displayed in St. Louis.
Dustin Keller, Brent Grimes, Tyson Clabo and Chris Clemons all signed one-year deals.
Based on 2012 winning percentages, the Miami Dolphins are tied for the seventh most difficult 2013 schedule.
Week 1 at Cleveland Browns
Week 2 at Indianapolis Colts
Week 3 vs. Atlanta Falcons
Week 4 at New Orleans
Week 5 vs. Baltimore Ravens
Week 6 bye
Week 7 vs. Buffalo Bills
Week 8 at New England Patriots
Week 9 vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Week 10 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Week 11 vs. San Diego Chargers
Week 12 vs. Carolina Panthers
Week 13 at New York Jets
Week 14 at Pittsburgh Steelers
Week 15 vs. New England Patriots
Week 16 at Buffalo Bills
Week 17 vs. New York Jets
The Jets and Bills will be abysmal in 2013. While divisional games are always competitive, a four-game sweep of the AFC East's bottom-feeders is not out of the question.
The Patriots lost Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, while Rob Gronkowski is recovering from multiple surgeries. Though New England is still the top team in the division, the gap between the Patriots and the Dolphins is closing.
Miami also plays a weakened AFC North. The Ravens lost Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Anquan Boldin and potentially Vonta Leach. The Steelers lost Mike Wallace, James Harrison and Casey Hampton while only bringing in rookies to replace them.
Cincinnati could not defend its turf against the Dolphins last year, so the improved Miami roster has a solid victory opportunity at home against the Bengals in 2013. The Browns will only show a slight improvement and are already considered home underdogs in their opening game against the Dolphins.
Jamar Taylor is a supreme talent. Per NFL.com, Taylor was a "top performer" in the combine's 40-yard dash (4.39 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.06 seconds) and bench press (22 reps).
The Miami Dolphins were able to land Taylor late in the second round (No. 54 overall) because he had kidney issues, and every NFL team was advised of his condition before the draft.
A simple change in Taylor's blood pressure medication is expected to cure his kidney condition, and it appears that Jeff Ireland's gamble has paid off.
Richard Marshall and Taylor will compete to play opposite Brent Grimes, but in the end, Taylor's athleticism will push Marshall back to the slot.
Jamar Taylor will be a fan favorite in no time.
Lamar Miller was the steal of the 2012 draft, taken in the fourth round by the Miami Dolphins. NFL.com believed Miller was worthy of a first-round selection: "Miller has track speed and actually ran a few anchor legs for the Miami track team prior to his junior year."
Yes, Miller has speed, as he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.40 seconds at the NFL combine. Miller also possesses a stronger frame and more toughness than Reggie Bush: "He hardly ever gets stuck in the backfield and is reliable to get positive yardage on each carry."
In 2012, Miller rushed the ball 51 times for 250 yards, almost averaging five yards per carry.
The only thing holding Miller back was his pass protection. Apparently, Joe Philbin is comfortable enough with Miller's improvement in this facet of his game that Bush became expendable, and the ex-Hurricane is now on top of the depth chart.
There are two question marks in Miami's backfield: Who will garner the majority of the rushes after Miller, and who will pave the way for Miller?
Vonta Leach in front of Lamar Miller, carrying a football, will be a nightmare for opposing defenses.