5 Things to Watch in Dolphins Preseason Opener vs. Falcons
It will be our first in-game look at the team in 2014; its last regular-season game was December 29, 2013, against the New York Jets. A lot has changed in that time, and while the preseason is never a good time to make sweeping judgments about the future of the team, it is the canvas on which our original outline of the team will be sketched.
There are plenty of opportunities for the Dolphins to modify that outline before they begin coloring it in, and as such, there will be plenty of questions the Dolphins must answer along the way.
Here's a look at five key storylines, players and/or positions to keep an eye on.
Who Starts at Center?
The Dolphins have been without starting center Mike Pouncey in training camp, and based on the performance of their replacement options, they may be better off without a center at all. There were multiple fumbled snap exchanges from nearly everyone who was tried as the anchor in the middle of the offensive line.
The Dolphins could be without Pouncey until sometime in October, according to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, so they will have to do better than what they've seen in camp so far.
Their options include veteran guard Shelley Smith, backup guards Nate Garner and Sam Brenner and veteran center Samson Satele, recently reunited with Miami after five years away (three in Oakland, two in Indianapolis).
As the only one with any real experience at center, it was no surprise that he was immediately inserted as the starting center at practice. He provides some stability, despite his struggles with the Indianapolis Colts that led to him being a cap casualty earlier this offseason.
If Satele starts at center, though, who will be the backup? The most likely options appear to be Garner and Brenner, since Smith will most likely be part of the starting lineup.
Satele may provide stability, but if he gets injured, the Dolphins could be turning to an unknown commodity as a major contributor to their offense.
How Does Miami's New Offensive Line Look?
As Dolphins fans are well-aware, the question marks on Miami's offensive line run much deeper than simply center. Although that spot has been under an especially bright spotlight, there are four other spots that have been turned over from last season.
Dolphins free-agent acquisition Branden Albert is a lock to start at left tackle, and 2014 first-round pick Ja'Wuan James looks like the front-runner at right tackle. At the two guard spots and at center, it can only be described as something that rhymes with "buster duck."
The uncertainty at center has created some confusion. Shelley Smith was signed as a guard but had been tried (unsuccessfully) at center before returning to guard. He and Dallas Thomas have shared those reps. Young guards Billy Turner and Sam Brenner have also earned opportunities with the first-team offensive line.
Daryn Colledge has stepped in as the starting left guard in the meantime and is familiar with Joe Philbin's system from their time together with the Green Bay Packers.
The Dolphins are not locked in to start the same five guys in Week 1 who start Friday night, and this could be a proving ground that creates a shift in how the coaching staff views this group.
At some point this preseason, the Dolphins will have to peg their starting five and get them as many reps together as possible so that those five can begin to work as a group. That doesn't have to happen tonight, but it should happen soon.
Young Guns in the Secondary
Veteran cornerback Brent Grimes is a lock for the No. 1 cornerback role. According to Chris Perkins of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan is "running away" with the No. 2 spot opposite Grimes. The Dolphins paid Finnegan an exorbitant amount of money, given the level of his play prior to coming to Miami, but he has been earning—not given—the starting spot.
Behind Grimes and Finnegan, though, there are several young cornerbacks chomping at the bit for an opportunity.
Second-year cornerback Jamar Taylor had been competing with Grimes for the No. 2 spot, but given the Sun-Sentinel report, it would appear Taylor is fading into the background. The Dolphins' 2013 second-round pick could benefit from playing time to prove himself as the top option in the slot and for any snaps left unmanned by Finnegan.
Will Davis is in the same boat as Taylor; Davis was drafted in the third round last season and has been largely cast aside in favor of Finnegan. Davis has been making plays at camp, even intercepting Ryan Tannehill for a pick-six at one point. He has lined up all over the field but has not made enough of an impact to crack the starting rotation.
There are other cornerbacks vying for playing time as well. Rookie fourth-round pick Walt Aikens is intriguing for his 6'1", 210-pound frame, while undrafted rookies Steven Clarke and Kevin Fogg are battling for roster spots.
Linebackers Settling into New (and Old) Spots
The Miami Dolphins have had one of the league's deepest defensive lines for years and still boast a solid group despite losing Paul Soliai and adding Earl Mitchell.
Yet, last year, they were one of the league's worst defenses against the run (24th in total rushing yards, 18th in yards per rush). The blame shifted mostly to the linebackers—namely the new pairing of free-agent additions Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler.
Last year, Ellerbe moved to inside linebacker in the Dolphins' 4-3 defense, a position he hadn't played since college. This year, fifth-year linebacker Koa Misi will slide inside after spending his first four years on the outside, allowing Ellerbe to transition back to his normal position. That switch should bode well for both men, as Misi is the better tackler of the two, and Ellerbe is more effective on the edge.
Wheeler has to step up after last season; he created pressure when sent on the blitz but missed 18 tackles in 2013, tied for fourth-most among outside linebackers. His job appears safe for now, and he is listed at the top of the Dolphins' first depth chart, but Jelani Jenkins could make a push for his spot if and when he returns from a leg injury that's kept him out of practice.
Who Are the Primary Offensive Weapons?
We know that Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Charles Clay will be a big part of the Dolphins offense in 2014. Beyond that, there is some doubt.
Will rookie wide receiver Jarvis Landry get opportunities with the first team? Since being drafted in the second round in May, Landry has thoroughly impressed his teammates with his athleticism and intelligence.
"He's smart, he does a good job catching the football," said Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline, via CBS Miami. "On the mental platform he operates like a second- or third-year player, so he's definitely a smart guy."
Perhaps those reps will go to third-year wideout Rishard Matthews, who according to Joe Philbin is "without a doubt" having a good camp. Matthews showed up in a big way last year when Brandon Gibson went down, hauling in 41 receptions for 448 yards and two scores. With Gibson, Armon Binns and Damian Williams all vying for roster spots, though, Matthews should be looking over his shoulder at all times.
There's also a bit of uncertainty at running back. As mentioned earlier, we still don't know how Moreno will factor into the backfield, but what about Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas? The two backs struggled mightily for Miami in 2013, in both the running and passing game, yielding constant pressure on Tannehill and failing to capitalize on their (admittedly minimal) holes when running the ball.
As is always the case in the first preseason game, we won't get a full grasp of what's in store for the Dolphins offense tonight, but we could get a glimpse.