As we inch closer to the inaugural game of the 2013 NFL season, you should be very familiar with the Miami Dolphins who are supposed to be good this year. Brent Grimes, Mike Wallace, Mike Pouncey, Brian Hartline, Cameron Wake—you generally expect good things from guys like this.
Then there are the guys who are expected to take substantial leaps this year and attain the coveted status of playmaker. This list would include Ryan Tannehill, Lamar Miller, Jared Odrick and rookies Dion Jordan and Jamar Taylor.
With a team like the Dolphins that's coming off of a string of mediocre seasons, it's understandable to have more prospective playmakers than sure things. That's why it's imperative for a handful of unknowns to step up and make their marks on this football team.
Based on an analysis of their production in the previous three preseason games, as well as their training camp performances, here are six Miami Dolphins potentially poised for breakout seasons in 2013.
With the recent revelation that rookie Dion Jordan might not be available for the season opener against Cleveland, per Marc Sessler of NFL.com, it becomes that much clearer how important defensive end Olivier Vernon's improvement has been.
As a rookie last year, Vernon was relatively quiet. He did rack up 32 tackles and 3.5 sacks, but as a rotational player, he didn't gain much attention. However, when the opportunity to grab a starting spot at defensive end presented itself at the start of camp, Vernon pounced.
He had a very impressive training camp, according to the Miami Herald's Armando Salguero. While he hasn't exactly lit it up in limited action against Jacksonville and Houston (Vernon did not play in the Hall of Fame game against Dallas), it certainly hasn't been enough to endanger his almost locked-up starting role.
As recently as a couple of days ago, the Sun Sentinel's Omar Kelly reports that Vernon has effectively claimed the starting spot as his own. And while, according to Kelly, head coach Joe Philbin is playing it safe in regards to predicting a breakout season for the former Hurricane, this writer isn't quite as cautious.
Based on what we've seen so far, there's no reason to assume Vernon won't join teammate Cameron Wake in terrorizing quarterbacks in 2013.
When the Dolphins drafted cornerback Jamar Taylor in the second round, it was assumed he would be the guy to come in and immediately challenge for the No. 2 corner role. A nagging shoulder injury has kept him sidelined for much of camp, making it difficult to get a read on the Boise State product.
Instead, it's been third-round selection Will Davis who has impressed in the secondary. The youngster established himself early in camp with a series of deflections and interceptions, earning him the reputation of ball hawk.
It hasn't been all good for Davis, though. According to the same article above, he's been beaten several times during camp as well. And while he performed well against Dallas and Jacksonville—he even recorded an interception against the Jags—the rookie didn't look great against Houston.
That said, Davis has done enough to show that he could be just what the turnover-seeking Dolphins need at corner. His early mistakes can be remedied, and his upside looks quite appealing. Don't expect the rookie to start, but look for him to make some plays in corner-heavy packages in 2013.
Linebacker Philip Wheeler signed a one-year deal with the Oakland Raiders prior to the 2012 season. He would go on to have a great year, finishing sixth among 4-3 outside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
His performance caught the Dolphins' attention, and he was signed to a five-year deal in an effort to revamp the team's linebackers. You might think a guy who performed so well last year wouldn't exactly be considered "unheralded," but how many fans do you think uttered a loud "who?!" when the signing was announced earlier this year?
A lot of attention will likely focus on middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, which will give Wheeler a chance to build on the successes of his 2012 campaign without the heat of the spotlight. Wheeler opened up camp in impressive fashion, per Lauren Moranor of Sports World Report, flying all over the field and disrupting plays consistently.
As has been the case with many of the Dolphins' starters, Wheeler's limited preseason performance hasn't been dominant. But that's no reason to panic. The talented linebacker still figures to add a bit of playmaking zest Miami's front seven has lacked in the past few years.
Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson were both brought in to bolster Miami's receiving corps this offseason. While both will likely have deeply felt impacts, undrafted rookie Chad Bumphis is already generating sizable waves with his impressive performance.
According to Chris Perkins of the Sun Sentinel (and various other reports), Bumphis' camp performance has been very strong. His coming-out party, however, was the Hall of Game. Bumphis led all receivers in the game with five catches for 85 yards. Since then, he's only played a total of 14 snaps, but he's still managed two catches for 26 yards.
Unlike other Dolphins receivers who have over-performed in the preseason only to disappear when it counts, fellow Dolphins writer Chris Kouffman believes Bumphis can live up to the hype. I'm inclined to agree. The rookie's speed, hands, and toughness indicate that he has what it takes to be a valuable addition to Miami's receiving group.
Bumphis could crack Miami's starting lineup as a slot receiver, a position from which he could be very deadly. With Davone Bess traded away to Cleveland, Bumphis could be the guy to fill the void left in Bess' wake. He's already a fan favorite, just as Bess was. Now, he just has to continue performing at a high level.
Jonas Gray's career was nearly terminated after a devastating ACL injury late in his senior season at Notre Dame. The Dolphins took a chance on him last year, keeping him around despite the fact that he spent most of the year on the Physically Unable to Perform list.
That chance may pay off for Miami. The now-healthy Gray is playing like a man on fire. More accurately, he's playing like a man trying to earn a roster spot on a team that's crowded with talented yet unproven halfbacks.
With Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas' spots secured, Gray finds himself in a battle with rookie Mike Gillislee and possibly Marcus Thigpen. While Thigpen is more of a return specialist, he can fit in at running back if needed.
Gillislee is a favorite to earn a roster spot due to his status as a fifth-round draft pick. That's not to say he hasn't looked good in camp and preseason. However, Gray has arguably looked better.
Gray had a huge game against Dallas, gaining 41 yards on seven carries. He followed that up with two touchdowns against Jacksonville the following week. He has also been superior to Gillislee in pass-blocking, posting a 0.6 grade versus the rookie's -0.4 (subscription required).
According to Andrew Abramson of the Palm Beach Post, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman would consider keeping Miller, Thomas, Gillislee and Gray on the roster, depending on the younger guys' special teams acuity.
An apparent battle may have emerged for the starting role in Miami's backfield, but the battle for No. 3 is no less interesting. While I'm nowhere near ready to begin doubting Gillislee, Gray so far appears to be ready to show off in 2013.
Rookie kicker Caleb Sturgis is responsible for one of the Dolphins' most exciting plays of the preseason. While nobody necessarily goes crazy over a field goal, Sturgis' massive 58-yard boot against Jacksonville is certainly something to get excited about.
It seemed clear that veteran Dan Carpenter's time was short in Miami when the Dolphins drafted Sturgis back in April. However, the two were allowed to engage in an open competition in camp. Unfortunately for Carpenter, Sturgis' 58-yarder was the final nail in the coffin.
Carpenter struggled last season, posting the second-lowest field-goal percentage of his career (81.5). He became less reliable, hitting only two of his five attempted field goals of more than 50 yards. Sturgis, meanwhile, was a perfect 3-of-3 on attempts of more than 50 yards in his senior season at Florida.
Sturgis' strong leg should give the Dolphins the kind of confidence at kicker that Carpenter used to provide. Look for him to have a big year.