Year in and year out, the Miami Dolphins always seem to fall right around the same area—right around .500 and finishing just a win or two away from making the playoffs.
Despite that, hopes continue to be high down in Davie, Florida.
After falling apart in the final two games of the 2013 season, the Dolphins fired both Jeff Ireland and Mike Sherman and replaced them with Dennis Hickey and Bill Lazor.
Hickey quickly went to work, making a big splash in free agency by signing Branden Albert to protect Ryan Tannehill's blind side while also adding three other players to rebuild the offensive line.
He also brought in a few new offensive weapons with receiver Jarvis Landry, running back Knowshon Moreno and tight end Arthur Lynch.
On the defensive side of the ball, Hickey made a few additions as well with safety Louis Delmas, cornerback Cortland Finnegan, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and linebacker Jordan Tripp.
Combine the roster upgrades with the addition of Lazor as the offensive coordinator and the Dolphins appear well on their way to their first playoff berth since 2008.
However, this is the Dolphins we are talking about, which means we must always prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.
So with all that said, let's take a look at both the worst- and best-case scenarios for the Dolphins in 2014.
There are really two different ways you can look at the floor for the Dolphins—with or without injuries.
Obviously, injuries always play some part in how a team fares each year, but the reality is that any team's season can quickly go down the drain if they get devastated with injuries.
Just look at the 2007 Dolphins, for example.
They were a team that finished with a 1-15 record and by the end of the season were playing with their No. 3 quarterback after having already lost their top running back, receiver and tight end as well.
If the 2014 Dolphins—or any team for that matter—were to suffer similar injuries, it's safe to say that they wouldn't be winning many games either.
So instead, let's look at a possible floor for a Dolphins team that remains relatively healthy and how things might go horribly wrong.
There's no doubt that everyone is counting on Tannehill to take that next step in his development with a crucial third year approaching.
The ultimate success or failure of the Dolphins this season relies on it.
Admittedly, it does appear that everything is lining up for him to break out in 2014.
The offensive line was rebuilt, he has new weapons to throw to and he has a new and innovative offensive coordinator.
But the question that nobody wants to ask—or maybe is afraid to—is what if he just isn't that good.
In what would be a nightmare season for Miami, that could potentially be the final truth when it comes to Tannehill.
Just as we eventually realized with Chad Henne, John Beck and every other quarterback that came before them over the last 15 years, it's possible that Tannehill just simply isn't good enough.
Question marks turn to weaknesses
As I wrote about in the Dolphins' state of the union, there are three units that are filled with question marks.
The offensive line is already going to be without Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey, who underwent hip surgery on Monday, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
It's a tough task to ask an offensive line that's playing with five new starters to jell and develop into a strong unit right away—especially when it's missing a player the caliber of Pouncey.
So while it may not be quite as bad as last year, it's possible the offensive line is still a problem that consistently limits the offense's production.
Along those same lines, if the offensive line struggles again this year, it's a near certainty that the running game will go with it.
Moreno is already getting off to a bad start, coming into OTAs overweight and now needing to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery that will keep him out of action for four to five weeks, via Adam Schefter.
If he has any setbacks with that injury, then the backfield rotation may once again turn into Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas, and we all know how that worked out last season—with the running backs averaging just 3.8 yards per carry, ranking 26th in the league.
All these problems and we haven't even gotten to what's likely the biggest question mark on the team—the linebackers.
Despite being the weakest unit on the Dolphins defense last season, not much has changed at the linebacker position over the offseason.
Dannell Ellerbe, a player that graded out 53rd out of 55 inside linebackers last season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and Philip Wheeler, who rated dead last among 35 outside linebackers, are both expected to start opening day.
Even with Koa Misi sliding to the middle linebacker position, if the linebacker play is anywhere close to as bad as it was in 2013, then there is no way to save the defense.
Coaching staff implodes
Whether it be the blatant misuse of players, terrible play-calling, a complete lack of in-game adjustments or atrocious clock management, there is simply no way around it—the Dolphins coaches were terrible in 2013.
As much as Sherman deserved to go, just as strong an argument could have been made for the firing of Joe Philbin and Kevin Coyle as well.
Instead, Stephen Ross decided to keep them both on and give them a final make-or-break season in 2014.
Well, in this rock-bottom scenario, history continues to repeat itself with the coaching staff.
While I won't go as far to say that Lazor will fail as offensive coordinator, it's entirely possible that Philbin and Coyle continue to be unable to get out of their own way.
If that happens, you can expect a number of close games fail to go the Dolphins' way.
Season outcome: 5-11
It may be tough for most Dolphins fans to envision what a best-case scenario season might look like.
After all, the team hasn't had a winning record in over five seasons and year after year they continue to fall short of expectations.
However, there is no better way to describe a team reaching its ceiling than the 2008 Dolphins.
Coming off a 1-15 season, Miami had little to no expectations and put together a Cinderella season that saw nearly everything go its way.
There's no question that they maxed out their potential with 11 wins and an AFC East title.
With that said, if things can go right for the 2014 Dolphins, they may be able to push their ceiling even higher than that.
Offensive line improves
Even with Pouncey expected to miss the first month of the season, the offensive line should still show plenty of improvements from last year on the simple fact that they can't really get much worse.
But in this scenario, the offensive line doesn't just show slight improvement, it quickly becomes one of the more consistently solid units in the league.
Albert is able to stay healthy and dominate throughout the season, Ja'Wuan James slides into the right side and thrives from Day 1 and the interior of the line holds up fine until Pouncey returns, from which point on they are able to excel.
Especially while Pouncey is gone, you can expect Lazor to do everything in his power to attempt to mask the weaknesses of the line.
This means plenty of quick passes, designed screens and rollouts intended to keep the defense off-balance and unable to exploit the interior of the line.
The designed rollout was something that was very rarely called last season, despite Tannehill excelling with it in limited snaps.
|Ryan Tannehill 2013 Dropbacks: Standard vs. Rollouts|
|Dropback||Amount||Sacks||Atts||Comps||Yds||TDs||INTs||Time to Throw|
|Pro Football Focus|
Among his 661 dropbacks, just 28 were rollouts. However, in those 28 plays Tannehill completed 63 percent of his passes for 253 yards, four touchdowns and one interception, per Pro Football Focus.
His average time to throw before getting hit also jumped from 2.48 seconds in a standard dropback to 3.31 seconds in the rollouts.
Sherman never took advantage of this, but you can bet Lazor will.
Defense becomes elite
In my Dolphins' state of the union article, I mentioned how talented the defensive line is.
Provided Cameron Wake, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick can maintain their productivity, Mitchell can find his role and Dion Jordan and Olivier Vernon can continue to develop, this could turn into the most dominant defensive line in the NFL.
We also already know how good the secondary can be as well.
Last season, the Dolphins secondary allowed just 17 touchdown passes—third-best in the league—and held quarterbacks to just a 77.3 rating—fifth-best in the league.
They also did this with their two rookie cornerbacks, Jamar Taylor and Will Davis, contributing virtually nothing all season.
With both players back healthy along with the addition of a seemingly rejuvenated Finnegan, a hard-hitting Delmas and Reshad Jones likely due for a bounce-back season, it's possible the secondary gets even better.
That means the Dolphins will simply need average play from their linebackers and they will have an elite defense.
Well, in this rainbows-and-sunshine scenario, the linebacking play not only improves, but it becomes a productive unit that can be counted on throughout the season.
The decision to move Misi to the middle linebacker position and Ellerbe outside proves to do wonders for both players. Ellerbe thrives in his more natural role on the weak side and Misi provides a consistent and reliable hand at a critical position on the defense.
Meanwhile, Wheeler eventually turns into the player he should have been all along—a rotational pass-rushing specialist.
As atrocious as Wheeler's 2013 season was, he still excelled in rushing the passer, ranking behind only Von Miller among 4-3 outside linebackers with 23 hurries.
He registered pressure on opposing quarterbacks once every 4.5 pass plays, which was the best on the team, according to Pro Football Focus.
But the problem was that he only rushed the passer on 12 percent of his snaps.
His total snap number should drop significantly and that percentage should spike considerably as well, with Wheeler rotating with Jelani Jenkins and Jordan Tripp, who both provide much better skills in coverage and against the run.
In the end, combining Miami's dominant defensive line with its shutdown secondary and improved linebackers results in the team boasting one of the top five defenses in the entire league.
Tannehill turns potential into production
The most important aspect of the Dolphins season is unquestionably whether or not Tannehill can take the next step in his development.
Tannehill had an up-and-down season in 2013 but still improved greatly from where he was in 2012.
In total, he was able to raise his completion percentage by 2.1 percent (60.4 percent), throw for over 600 more yards (3,913) and double his touchdown total (24), while registering an 81.7 quarterback rating.
Bleacher Report's Cian Fahey wrote a phenomenal piece analyzing why Tannehill is the best franchise quarterback that nobody is talking about.
In his piece he examined four key traits of Tannehill—arm talent, pocket presence, reading/manipulating coverage and athleticism—and showed why he has elite-level talent and is ready to thrive in 2014.
Not only does he finally have the weapons to throw to and an improved offensive line and running game, but the addition of Lazor should allow him to showcase his talents and mask his weaknesses.
I fully expect Tannehill to be able to take that next step, but how big of a step it turns out to be will go a long way in deciding how far the Dolphins ultimately go this season.
Over the last 15 years, the lack of a top-end quarterback has been the No. 1 thing stopping the Dolphins from achieving success, and now that they have one, they are going to put a major run together in 2014.
Season outcome: 12-4, win two playoff games
As is the case most of the time, the truth will end up lying somewhere in the middle.
I do believe the Dolphins are much closer to reaching their ceiling potential than they are at bottoming out completely, but I still see them as a year away from truly competing in the AFC.
With that said, I fully expect Tannehill to take that next step, the offense to put up plenty of points and the defense to be very close to being a top unit.
However, I still don't believe that Philbin is the right man to coach this team, and the injuries to Pouncey and Moreno are a bit concerning this early.
In the end though, it will be Tannehill leading his team to their first playoff berth since 2008, and how far they go will ultimately depend on their first-round matchup.
Season prediction: 10-6, AFC Wild Card team
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