Miami Dolphins: The 6 Biggest Stories Heading into Training Camp
Ladies and gentlemen, the Miami Dolphins are approximately one week away from training camp. If this were another, more automobile-focused sport, this would be the perfect time to start your engines.
As it were, the dreaded offseason is almost behind us and we're left faced with a beautiful landscape of nothing but cleats, helmets and pigskin for the next six months.
For the Dolphins, this has been an offseason of excitement and wonder, one that has left fans with a general sense of shining optimism. But the impending opening of training camp signals that the time for speculation is nearly over.
It's time to see just how kind the offseason really was to the Miami Dolphins. With that in mind, here are the six biggest stories surrounding the Fins as they head into training camp.
Will the Dolphins Land Vonta Leach?
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The Dolphins have already stolen one talented player away from the Baltimore Ravens in linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. And although Vonta Leach isn't technically a Raven anymore, he would still prove a valuable addition to Miami's backfield.
But will the Dolphins be able to land the fullback?
Just a few weeks ago in June, Leach's agent, Ralph Vitolo, told the Miami Herald he believes Miami is "the right place to be." Indeed, the Dolphins certainly could use the Pro Bowler's skills. Charles Clay, Javorskie Lane and Evan Rodriguez currently fill out Miami's fullback spots, but none of those players has convincingly claimed the position.
Clay, for one, is more of an H-back type player who is best used as a tight end. Rodriguez is similar to Clay, although the troubled youngster has a lot to prove after being claimed on waivers following a run-in with the law for DUI. Lane is more of a true fullback, but he didn't impress much in his rookie season.
The fact that Miami is openly pursuing Leach shows that the team is unsatisfied with the current state of its fullbacks. Leach, one of the best remaining players at an almost completely extinct position, would be a huge boon to Miami's backfield. He's the kind of devastating lead blocker that Lamar Miller could use in his first year as a starter, and he'd provide an excellent safety valve on passing downs.
But for now, negotiations are at a stand-still. There has been no talk between Leach and the Dolphins while GM Jeff Ireland has been on vacation, although that is expected to change once Ireland returns to business. Leach reportedly wants a multi-year deal with the Fins because he sees their future as very bright.
Ireland certainly deserves a vacation after the offseason he has put together for Miami, but there's no doubt fans will be eager for him to return so that negotiations with the very talented Leach can continue. For now though, get used to the waiting game.
Is Lamar Miller Ready to Carry the Load?
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When the Dolphins let Reggie Bush walk a few months ago, it became clear just how much confidence the team had in the young Lamar Miller. The rookie posted some nice stats in limited action (250 yards, 4.9 yards per carry) and displayed good vision and a nice burst.
Fast forward to July and it seems many folks, not just the Dolphins, are expecting big things from Miller. He made NFL.com's Making the Leap list, with writer Chris Wesseling expecting Miller to outpace Reggie Bush's two-year average of 1,330 yards.
Most recently, Miller's training sessions with fellow ex-Hurricane Frank Gore have caused more than a few people to praise the second-year runner. Running back guru Pete Bommarito, who has trained dozens of the NFL's top halfbacks, including Maurice Jones-Drew, says Miller is the fastest running back he's seen.
Gore's training has given Miller renewed confidence in his abilities. He believes he's gotten more lateral speed and that his legs are more explosive. Combined with reports that he's greatly improved as a pass-blocker, this news makes it sound like Miller is a star waiting to burst.
But will he be ready to carry the load? Miller was the primary back during his final season at the University of Miami, so he has the experience. But being a starting running back in the NFL is a whole new game. He will benefit from reprieve from rookie Mike Gillislee and third-year Daniel Thomas, whose big body makes him an ideal short yardage player.
We'll get a better idea of how much Miller is improved and how prepared he is to be a focal point in Miami's retooled offense when training camp opens.
Will Ryan Tannehill Gel with His New Receivers?
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Ryan Tannehill played well as a rookie and showed continuous growth throughout the 16-game schedule. ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski was one of Tannehill's biggest supporters, claiming that the rookie "showed a lot of positive traits despite having very few weapons at his disposal."
That last bit of Jaws' quote is generally believed to be one of the primary reasons why Tannehill was overshadowed by his rookie peers (with no disrespect meant to Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, or Russell Wilson, who all had excellent seasons). Tannehill simply did not have a suite of effective weapons.
Reggie Bush was a fine running back, of course, but he was inconsistent. Brian Hartline put up career-best numbers, yes, but once defenses keyed on in him, Miami's receiving options quickly dwindled. Anthony Fasano caught five touchdowns last season, but he was nowhere near the dynamic athlete Miami wanted at the position.
That's why the primary goal of the offseason was to outfit this offense with weapons galore. In that respect, the offseason was a rousing success, seeing the additions of Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson, and Dustin Keller.
While those three players have experienced varying degrees of success elsewhere, how well will they all gel together with a new quarterback in Miami? That's perhaps one of the biggest questions that needs answering, because so much of Miami's success depends on their cohesion.
Shutdown Corner's Brian McIntyre named Wallace the make-or-break player on the Dolphins' roster, while fellow B/R writer BJ Kissel believes Tannehill and Wallace will flourish together. Gibson should provide a nice No. 3 option behind Hartline, while Keller figures to be the tight end threat Miami hasn't had in a long time.
There's certainly reason to believe these players will gel to create a flashy, potent offense that hasn't been seen in South Florida since the days of Dan Marino. But we won't know for sure until training camp and the preseason.
Will Jonathan Martin Show Improvement at Left Tackle?
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One of the most overrated moves (or lack thereof) for the Dolphins this offseason was their inability to re-sign left tackle Jake Long. The former Pro Bowler was the best in the league for a few years, but injuries slowed him down over the last two seasons. His play suffered, and as a result, Miami didn't believe he was worth his elite price tag anymore.
That means the position now belongs to Jonathan Martin. Martin was serviceable as a rookie on the right side, shining in some moments and floundering in others. But when Long went down for good, Martin was suddenly thrown back to the left side; the position he played at Stanford. His time away from the position showed as he was dominated by the 49ers in his first game.
He rebounded against Jacksonville and Buffalo in the next two weeks, but closed out with another disappointing performance against New England. Certainly his two poor games gave cause for concern regarding Miami's future at left tackle.
Martin has a great chance in 2013 to alleviate that concern by showing marked improvement. A full offseason spent relearning the left side and adding muscle to his already bulky frame is absolutely a step in the right direction. But we still need to see that Martin can handle facing opponents' best pass-rusher every week before making a full judgment either way.
It's important to bear in mind that the Dolphins don't need an elite left tackle to succeed. They just need one who is good. Martin has the potential to provide that, but if he falters, the Dolphins could find themselves in trouble.
How Improved Will the Secondary Be?
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Miami enjoyed a relatively strong run defense in 2012 (even if it did slack off as the season carried on), but its secondary was a much maligned unit. Anchored by the flighty Sean Smith, Miami's secondary was nothing short of atrocious.
Giving up nearly 250 yards per game and coming up with only 76 deflections and 10 interceptions, the Dolphins' secondary was in the bottom six of the NFL in 2012. The only bright spots were safeties Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones, the latter of whom went a long way towards solidifying himself as one of the best strong safeties in the NFL despite being relatively unknown.
It's good news both Clemons and Jones are returning, but how improved will the rest of Miami's reworked secondary be? Smith has been replaced by former Pro Bowler Brent Grimes who, despite coming off a year-long absence due to a torn Achilles tendon, appears not to have lost any of his athleticism.
Grimes is pretty much a lock to be the No. 1 corner in Miami, and depending on how he recovers from his injury, he could reclaim his status as a Pro Bowler, making him the best corner the Fins have had in years.
But who will fill in behind him? Richard Marshall, acquired prior to last season but sidelined all year due to back issues, looks to currently be the No. 2 man. But he'll have to fight off rookies Jamar Taylor and Will Davis.
The Dolphins hope these two rooks can be young cornerstones for the secondary. If Grimes performs well, he could be looking at a multi-year extension, solidifying the Dolphins' secondary for years. Marshall is a competent corner who could provide solid play from anywhere on the field.
That leaves Dimitri Patterson as the odd man out. Acquired off waivers late last season, Patterson is due $4.5 million this year. Considering his cheaper competition, the likelihood of Patterson making the team seems low.
As with many of Miami's other retooled positions, the secondary is overflowing with potential. We'll get our first glimpse of how much of that potential will translate to success on the field in training camp.
How Will the Dolphins Use Dion Jordan?
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Arguably Jeff Ireland's shrewdest moment of the offseason came on night one of the draft. He traded his first-round pick (12th overall) and a mid-second round pick to Oakland for its third pick, allowing the Fins to snatch Dion Jordan, one of the most hotly pursued defensive players in the draft.
With a tall, muscular frame and freakish athletic abilities, Jordan figures to be a nightmare for quarterbacks in the NFL. The only question is how Miami will use its newest defensive weapon.
Well, we already sort of have an answer. The Dolphins are reportedly not expecting Jordan to start right away. Instead, he is expected to be used primarily on passing downs where his strengths can be used to pressure the quarterback while he learns the rest of the defense. As the season progresses, Jordan will rotate in on more rushing downs as an outside linebacker.
This makes the most sense for Jordan. Coming from Oregon where he was used as somewhat of an everyman utility player thanks to his insane abilities, there will be a natural transition period to a more structured role in the 4-3 defense. That doesn't mean Miami won't move Jordan around a lot—it just means they'll let him get a little more comfortable before thrusting him into that role.
There's still the possibility Jordan could blow away the coaches and show that he needs to start right away once he puts on pads in training camp. However, all signs seem to point to Jordan taking on a situational role during the early stages of his rookie season.