Miami Dolphins: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit at the Start of Camp

Andrew TornettaCorrespondent IIJuly 23, 2014

Miami Dolphins: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit at the Start of Camp

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    Like most NFL teams, the Miami Dolphins will open training camp this week with a number of unanswered questions along with clear strengths and weaknesses on their team.

    While the defensive line will continue to be the backbone of the squad, there are other positionslike linebacker, for examplethat won't be graded nearly as highly.

    While those two positional units represent the highest and lowest points of the grading scale, other positions are not quite as easy to judge.

    To come up with a grade, I used a combination of past production along with overall potential for this season.

    For example, even though the depth chart at cornerback will prominently feature three players who totaled less than 500 snaps in 2013, the unit still earns a decent grade because of the high potential of the two second-year players Jamar Taylor and Will Davis.

    With that said, let's take a position-by-position look at the Dolphins and give out grades for each unit as the team enters training camp.

Quarterback

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    As far as depth at the quarterback position goes, the Dolphins have one of the best backups in the league in Matt Moore. He is a quality backup that can be more than serviceable if he was thrust into a starting role.

    However, much like everything else this season, this grade comes down to Ryan Tannehill, because in the grand scheme of things, the talent of your backup quarterback means very little when it comes to wins and losses on Sundays.

    When looking at his performance last year, there's no doubt that Tannehill had an up-and-down season, but at the same time, he also showed quite a bit of improvement.

    In total, Tannehill 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.

    The Dolphins are expecting an even better and more consistent performance from him this year after they overhauled the offensive line, added more offensive weapons and brought in a new offensive coordinator.

    It's quite possible that Tannehill can make a Nick Foles-like leap this season under Bill Lazor and prove to the world that he is one of the best young quarterbacks in the league.

    There's no doubt that he has all the tools needed to succeed in the NFL, but it's just a matter of putting it all together on a more consistent basis.

    If he can do that, the Dolphins may have finally found themselves an A+ player at quarterback.

    Grade: B

Running Back

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    If I were to base this grade solely off the performance of last season, it would not be the type of report card you want to hang up on the refrigerator.

    With Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas splitting the workload, the Dolphins running backs averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, ranking 26th in the league.

    To help repair these struggles, the Dolphins added Knowshon Moreno in the offseason. Moreno is coming off a career year in which he set new highs in rushing yards (1,038), rushing touchdowns (10), receptions (60) and receiving yards (548).

    The addition of Moreno—combined with the possible emergence of Mike Gillislee—should give Miami a solid three-headed monster in the backfield along with Miller.

    However, that may change depending on the recovery of Moreno from the arthroscopic knee surgery he had at the end of June.

    Based on his initial four to five-week timetable, Moreno should be back within the next two weeks, but it remains to be seen how healthy he will truly be upon his return.

    The success of this unit though will likely come down to Miller and how well he can perform in Lazor's offensive system. The third-year running back seems to be a perfect fit in Lazor's uptempo, spread-it-out offense, and as a result, he seems primed for a breakout season.

    Providing Moreno can get healthy and Miller can return to his 2012 form—when he rushed for nearly five yards per carry—the Dolphins could boast a very potent and productive rushing offense.

    On the other hand, it's entirely possible that Moreno struggles with his injury throughout the year, Miller repeats his 2013 performance, Gillislee doesn't take a step forward and the Dolphins running game mirrors last season.

    For now, they grade out somewhere in the middle.

    Grade: C

Wide Receiver

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    With the addition of Jarvis Landry in the offseason, wide receiver has quickly become one of the deepest positions the Dolphins have.

    Mike Wallace will return as the team's top weapon, looking for an improved performance over the 73 catches, 930 yards and five touchdowns that he had in 2013. 

    That will likely come with another year playing with Tannehill, along with better usage in Lazor's offense compared to how he was used under Mike Sherman.

    Brian Hartline should also continue to be a steady and reliable weapon for Tannehill on the outside as the No. 2 receiver, looking to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the third straight season.

    Moving down the depth chart, we then get to what will be one of the key training camp battles this season between Landry and Brandon Gibson at slot receiver.

    Both players are versatile weapons and boast very good hands. Regardless of who wins the battle, it's likely that each player will get their share of playing time with the Dolphins likely to run plenty of four-receiver sets.

    Rounding out the roster after that will be a battle for two spots between Rishard Matthews, Armon Binns, Matt Hazel, Stephen Williams and Damian Williams.

    Among those five, expect Matthews and Binns to win the jobs, as they both boast the highest upside.

    If Wallace can return to his Pittsburgh Steelers form or one of the younger guys can put together a breakout campaign, Miami could have one of the most productive units in the league.

    Grade: B+

Tight End

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    After his breakout campaign last season, Charles Clay is a safe bet to put up another productive performance for the Dolphins this year.

    Clay was arguably the Dolphins top weapon last season, catching 69 passes for 759 yards and six touchdowns while earning the nickname "Big Play Clay" for some clutch performances late in games.

    However, after Clay, there are plenty of question marks.

    The Dolphins clearly didn't feel comfortable with what they had at the position, which is why the team drafted Arthur Lynch in the fifth round. 

    Lynch is a great blocker that should be a major boost to the running attack and in the passing game, but he won't likely be counted on much as a receiving weapon.

    We then get to Dion Sims and Michael Egnew, who will likely be battling for the final tight end job. I recently made the case that Egnew will surprise during training camp and thrive as a weapon in Lazor's offense, and if that happens, then Sims is likely gone.

    It remains to be seen how quickly Lynch can acclimate to the NFL level and whether or not Egnew can finally fulfill his potential, but regardless, the presence of Clay alone is enough to make this unit respectable either way.

    Grade: B

Offensive Line

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    The Dolphins front office made fixing the offensive line its top priority heading into the offseason, and they added a number of players hoping to improve it.

    After hiring John Benton to coach the offensive line, the Dolphins signed Branden Albert and Shelley Smith at the start of free agency before using two of their top three picks on Ja’Wuan James and Billy Turner in the draft. They also added more depth in free agency with veterans Jason Fox and Daryn Colledge.

    A month ago, there was no doubt that this was going to be a much-improved unit, and many fans were hoping it could develop into one of the better offensive lines in the league.

    However, that quickly changed with the injury to Mike Pouncey.

    Pouncey underwent hip surgery and could potentially miss the team's first six games if they decide to put him on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.

    There's no doubt that the loss of the Pro Bowl center is a major blow to the offensive line, and the team will likely turn to either Sam Brenner, Nate Garner or undrafted rookie Tyler Larsen as Pouncey's replacement.

    While Pouncey is gone, the overall performance of the offensive line will come down to the young guys.

    There's little doubt that Albert will be a force at left tackle and Smith will be solid at right guard, but it will be up to James at right tackle and either Turner or second-year player Dallas Thomas at left guard to carry the load while Pouncey is out.

    If they can do that, then the team can get by without Pouncey for the first couple months. If not, we may be looking at a repeat of last season.

    Grade: C+

Defensive Line

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    Even with Dion Jordan being suspended for the first four games, there's still no doubt that the Dolphins will have one of the best defensive lines in the entire league in 2014.

    When Jordan returns, the Dolphins will boast six different players that could potentially make the Pro Bowl this season.

    Scan through the defensive line depth chart and you see talent everywhere: 

    • Cameron Wake and Randy Starks have each made multiple trips to Hawaii already.
    • Olivier Vernon is just 23 years old and is coming off an 11.5-sack season.
    • Jared Odrick graded out as the 13th-best defensive tackle in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
    • Earl Mitchell played out of position last year and still anchored the Houston Texans run defense, allowing just 3.1 yards per carry when on the field compared to a 4.2 average when off it, via Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald.
    • Jordan was the No. 3 overall pick in 2012 and was one of the team's most productive pass-rushers last season despite playing in a limited role.

    Put simply, the Dolphins defensive line is absolutely loaded.

    Providing the players can stay healthy, the defensive line will continue to be the backbone of the Dolphins defense and be the best and most dominant unit on the team.

    Grade: A

Linebacker

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    As good as the Dolphins defensive line is, that's exactly how bad the linebackers were last season.

    Free-agent signings Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler proved to be the two biggest disappointments on the team, and as a result, the linebackers held the defense back all year like an anchor on a boat.

    Despite this, not much has changed at the linebacker position over the offseason, as the roster is exactly the same aside from the addition of rookie Jordan Tripp.

    The main difference is the depth chart, with Koa Misi moving over to middle linebacker and Ellerbe sliding to the weak side.

    Jelani Jenkins is also expected to get a much larger role, taking playing time away from Wheeler on the strong side.

    On one hand, it's possible that moving Misi to the middle will be exactly what this unit needed, allowing Ellerbe to thrive in his more natural position on the weak side and Jenkins, Wheeler and Tripp to form a productive rotation on the strong side.

    However, considering how bad this unit was last season, I'm much more inclined to take a wait-and-see approach over giving out a better grade on the hopes of improvement.

    Grade: D+

Cornerback

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    Brent Grimes is the anchor of this unit, coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he re-established himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the league.

    Grimes put up a dominant performance in 2013, holding opposing quarterbacks to just a 66.3 rating when throwing at him.

    Of the 61 cornerbacks in the league that were targeted at least 70 times, Grimes was the only one to not allow a touchdown pass, as Pro Football Focus ranked him as the second-best cornerback in the league behind only Darrelle Revis.

    After Grimes though, there is nothing but potential and question marks.

    Cortland Finnegan appears to be the current favorite to win the No. 2 cornerback job and is as big of a boom-or-bust player as anyone on the team this year.

    His ceiling is the type of performances he put up with the Tennessee Titans when he was one of the best cornerbacks in the league. However, his floor is what he did last year when he ranked 109th out of 110 cornerbacks in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Then you get to two very talented players in Jamar Taylor and Will Davis that combined to play 110 snaps in 2013 thanks to a pair of nagging injuries.

    Providing they can stay healthy, both players have the potential to put together breakout seasons in 2014.

    Fourth-round pick Walt Aikens rounds out the depth chart and represents another young player that has plenty of potential but still has yet to play at the NFL level.

    Overall, it's nearly impossible to predict how good this unit will be this season, as there are so many different variables and unknowns. With that said though, I'm still willing to bet and take my chances on the talent the cornerbacks have and hope the production will follow.

    Grade: B

Safety

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    Along with cornerback, safety may be the biggest boom-or-bust positional unit on the team this season.

    On one hand, the unit has three extremely talented players in Reshad Jones, Louis Delmas and Jimmy Wilson that are all capable of putting up big seasons.

    However, each player also comes with his own set of question marks.

    Coming off his breakout performance in 2012, Jones took a major step backward last year and put together a nightmare season in which quarterbacks boasted a passer rating of 123.5 when targeting him in coverage, a massive drop-off from the 38 rating he had the year prior.

    Delmas has also had his own problems with injuries in the past, with last year being the first time in his five-year career that he played a full 16-game season.

    Wilson, meanwhile, has continued to grow and get better with each passing year but still needs to take that next step forward if he wants to earn consistent playing time.

    If Jones can return to his 2012 form and either Delmas can stay healthy or Wilson can take that next step, this has the potential to be one of the best units on the team.

    For now though, there are too many question marks to give them too high a grade.

    Grade: B-

Special Teams

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    On special teams, the Dolphins will return both 2013 Pro Bowler Brandon Fields and 2013 fifth-round pick Caleb Sturgis.

    Fields continued to be one of the best punters in the league last season, boasting an average of over 48 yards per punt.

    Sturgis had an up-and-down season last year, starting off strong and making his first 10 field-goal attempts, but he then made just 16 of his next 24.

    He finished the year making just 76.5 percent of his kicks, a number that needs to improve if he is going to remain the kicker this season.

    Meanwhile, Marcus Thigpen is currently penciled in as the return man, despite mightily struggling there last season.

    Overall, Thigpen lacks the explosiveness and playmaking ability to be a great returner, and as a result, he has very little upside there, as evident by the fact that he failed to return a single punt or kickoff back for a touchdown last season.

    There's no doubt that Fields will continue to be one of the most productive players on the entire roster, but until Sturgis can be more consistent and the team finds an upgrade from Thigpen in the return game, this will be an average unit overall.

    Grade: C