Miami Dolphins 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More
The preseason was kind to the Miami Dolphins, as they achieved a 3-1 record and avoided major injuries to key players. Most importantly, the team was able to find players that can fill out the final 53-man roster and provide crucial depth throughout the upcoming season.
With the final cuts decided and the tape available for analysis, it’s time to break down the depth chart. The Dolphins have built a roster that will allow the team to be competitive with any team in the league, but one that is also young enough at key positions to stay viable in future seasons.
We’ll also take a look at the X-factors on the roster, key games on the schedule and predict the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the 2014 season.
Don’t forget to leave your predictions and thoughts below in the comments section.
Ryan Tannehill, Matt Moore
Incumbent starter Ryan Tannehill played well in the preseason, throwing for 291 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He completed 68.3 percent of his passes, which is a major boost from his 2013 mark of 60.3 percent. Tannehill also only took one sack in his 42 dropbacks.
Tannehill is prone to making head-scratching decisions once or twice a game, but no quarterback is fault-free. That’s not to excuse the third-year quarterback, but the position is not an all-or-nothing investment.
If Tannehill can continue growing as a decision-maker and show the ability to take control of the game, he will be on the cusp of the league's top 10 quarterbacks. He’s that physically talented, despite being surrounded by one of the worst supporting casts in his first two seasons.
Backup Matt Moore is quite possibly the top reserve quarterback in the league. He’s a true gunslinger, which means he’s able to rack up points in a hurry, but that can also lose the game just as quickly. If Tannehill gets hurt, Moore is capable of stepping in and keeping the team competitive against most teams. He’s not good enough to start 16 games, but if he had to play four, he’s capable of winning two or three.
Lamar Miller, Knowshon Moreno, Damien Williams, Orleans Darkwa
The Dolphins starting backfield from 2013 returns in 2014, but the depth behind Lamar Miller is much more impressive this year.
Starting running back Lamar Miller once again gets the nod, and the coaches are hoping he can put all of his physical talents together for a solid season.
It would be surprising if Miller reaches 1,000 yards rushing, as he’s unlikely to carry the ball much more than the 177 attempts he notched in 2013. His yards-per-carry average should increase because of the increased quality of linemen that he’ll play behind, plus the scheme should create more running lanes.
In Knowshon Moreno’s preseason debut, he showed more emotion and drive than any tailback in the Dolphins backfield in years. He’s not the athlete that Miller is, but his combination of vision and balance will complement the inside and outside zone runs that Bill Lazor loves to call.
Rookies Damien Williams and Orleans Darkwa might not receive many carries if Miller and Moreno stay healthy, but they’re capable of contributing if need be.
Williams is a solid runner with decent power and vision. He’s also a natural pass-catcher and able to create after he has the ball. Darkwa has great vision and is a smooth runner. He doesn’t have the big-play ability of Williams in the open field, but he was worthy of a roster spot.
Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Jarvis Landry, Rishard Matthews
The Dolphins’ deepest position on offense is easily receiver, where the team has adapted Green Bay’s philosophy of building a deep, versatile group that is mostly interchangeable.
Star receiver Mike Wallace is the least similar player among this group. His speed is unmatched on the roster, and he could be the NFL’s fastest player in pads. He forces the defense to commit a deep safety to his side of the field at all times, and this year he’s determined to connect more with Tannehill on deep routes.
Wallace’s biggest issue is that he’s not an alpha male, meaning he doesn’t fight for jump balls. His lack of aggressiveness at the point of contest is a major sticking point for this offense moving forward.
The rest of the receiver group brings forth toughness, good hands, route running and versatility. It’s likely that Hartline will once again line up as the “X” receiver, which is outside of the numbers, and face more physical cornerbacks than Wallace.
Rookie Jarvis Landry and veterans Brandon Gibson and Rishard Matthews will be slot extraordinaires for the Dolphins, as each is a solid athlete that creates mismatches with their size and quickness.
Charles Clay, Dion Sims, Harold "Gator" Hoskins
As deep as the wide receiver group is, the tight end group is one (more) injury away from being a position of major concern.
Rookie Arthur Lynch was placed on injured reserve last week after missing time due to a mysterious back injury, forcing the team to rely on undrafted free agent Harold “Gator” Hoskins to line up as a mini-Charles Clay.
Now, Hoskins is an exciting talent. I praised his signing right after the draft because he has the unique ability to find the end zone often. But the Dolphins were wise to hold on to a fourth tight end in case Clay goes down to injury.
As for Clay, he was named the “league’s best secret weapon” by Bleacher Report’s AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. The praise is high, but fitting. Clay is a monster down the seam of defenses because of his speed and ability to catch difficult passes.
Second-year tight end Dion Sims has quietly shown improvement throughout his preseason action and has been a featured blocker on run plays and the motion man to force the defense to adjust. His development is crucial for this offense to become less predictable and more effective running the ball.
LT Branden Albert, LG Daryn Colledge, C Samson Satele, RG Shelley Smith, RT Ja’Wuan James, OT/G Billy Turner, OG Dallas Thomas, OG/T Nate Garner, OT Jason Fox, C Mike Pouncey
More than anything, the preseason was able to show who deserved to start among the revamped offensive line.
The Dolphins found that second-year guard Dallas Thomas is still woefully overmatched as a pass- and run-blocker, despite the constant praise from coach Joe Philbin throughout the offseason.
Luckily, newcomer Shelley Smith played better than Thomas and is deserving of the starting role. Smith struggles at times as a pass protector, but he’s much better than Thomas at clearing running lanes, and this offense is predicated on the threat of effective runs.
Starting left guard Daryn Colledge has managed to beat out rookie Billy Turner with his excellent pass protection throughout the preseason. The Dolphins have clearly emphasized pass protection this offseason, and the late addition of Colledge looks to pay off. He doesn’t offer much as a run-blocker, but for the short-term, he’s an improvement over anyone that started in 2013.
When Mike Pouncey returns from his groin injury, the line will be much improved. Pouncey isn’t a top-five center in my opinion, but he’s much better than Samson Satele. The Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson reported that Pouncey could return from injury early and avoid the PUP list.
DE Cam Wake, DE Olivier Vernon, DE Derrick Shelby, DE Dion Jordan (suspended), DE Terrence Fede, DT Randy Starks, DT Jared Odrick, DT Earl Mitchell, DT Anthony Johnson
If there is anything that former general manager Jeff Ireland got right, it was building a deep and talented defensive line. New general manager Dennis Hickey has continued to build the position with young talent.
All-world defensive end Cam Wake has looked as sharp as ever this preseason, showing the explosion that he lacked due to injuries in 2013. This defense is capable of being excellent if he’s at his best.
His surrounding cast is impressive, too. Olivier Vernon has locked down the right defensive end spot with his pass-rush ability. The defensive tackle trio of Randy Starks, Jared Odrick and Earl Mitchell is downright frightening for opposing quarterbacks.
Second-year defensive end Dion Jordan has also showed considerable improvement this preseason. He hasn’t logged the raw statistics that fans love to see, but his bull rush devastated Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith in Week 3. Jordan will return after his four-game suspension.
Rookies Terrence Fede and Anthony Johnson were excellent pickups by Hickey. Fede has been banged up with a knee injury, but has easily outplayed players selected before him and quieted the critics that questioned the unknown player from Marist. Johnson will provide depth for this talented line and had to be retained because he could’ve been claimed via waivers.
Dannell Ellerbe, Koa Misi, Philip Wheeler, Jelani Jenkins, Jordan Tripp, Jason Trusnik, Chris McCain, Jonathan Freeny
There is no position that is more worrisome than the Dolphins linebacker group. Starters Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler were ranked 48th out of 53 inside linebackers and dead last among all 4-3 outside linebackers by Pro Football Focus, respectively.
Ellerbe has been moved to the weak side, where Wheeler played in 2013, and Wheeler has moved to the strong side to better utilize his skills. The 2013 strong-side linebacker Koa Misi has moved to middle linebacker, and that transition has actually looked good so far.
Wheeler is clearly the issue among this group, however, as he is undisciplined and is rarely in the right place. That led to Miami drafting Jordan Tripp in the fifth round of the draft and signing undrafted free agent Chris McCain.
Tripp has flashed the ability to diagnose plays and track ball-carriers throughout the preseason, but his impact is more likely to come in 2015.
McCain, however, has shown the ability to be at least Wheeler’s equal. He has played well in every preseason game, with Week 4 against the St. Louis Rams as his showcase game. McCain isn’t an elite athlete, but he does his job well. He has violent hands and an aggressive approach to defending the run.
Don’t be surprised if McCain unseats Wheeler as the starter around the bye week if Wheeler continues to struggle finishing plays.
CB Brent Grimes, CB Cortland Finnegan, CB Jamar Taylor, CB Will Davis, CB Sammy Seamster, S Walt Aikens, S Reshad Jones (suspended), S Louis Delmas, S Jimmy Wilson, S Brandian Ross, S Michael Thomas
Despite the ire of some fans at the time of his signing, veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan has looked solid in his live-game action so far. He’s allowed just four receptions and a quarterback rating of 77.1, which is a good mark for a starting cornerback.
His teammate Brent Grimes has drawn extremely difficult matchups in Dez Bryant, Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones and Roddy White. But the regular season won’t be as brutal, and he’s expected to continue his 2013 dominance. He’s one of the top five cornerbacks in the league today.
The young cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis have had to grow up quickly after the Dolphins didn’t bring in any competition over the offseason. Taylor has looked solid as a slot and boundary cornerback, showing good footwork and positioning on almost every target. He gave up one touchdown against the Cowboys, but that was a perfectly placed pass and great catch. Sometimes the defender just cannot stop great plays.
Will Davis had a very impressive preseason, showing much improved ball awareness and discipline. He needs to continue his growth to become more reliable, as he can still be caught with his feet out of control in coverage.
The safety position has been disappointing so far. Reshad Jones’ suspension forced the Dolphins to move Jimmy Wilson from slot cornerback to free safety, and he’s been caught out of position too often throughout the preseason. His eye discipline and anticipation haven’t been developed full-time for safety, so it’s likely Louis Delmas moves back to the high safety role when Jones returns.
Delmas has also played poorly, often missing on tackles and giving up too many yards after the catch. He has always been a high-risk, high-reward player, so Miami knew they were rolling the dice on him, but Delmas needs to find a balance and make the fundamental plays first.
All in all, the safety group has the talent to become a force for offenses to play against, but they could also be the cause of coverage breakdowns. That uncertainty in the secondary is a major concern entering the season.
P Brandon Fields, K Caleb Sturgis, LS John Denney
Special teams often swing the momentum of games, or they can decide in the final seconds which team takes the victory.
For Miami, they’re hoping that second-year kicker Caleb Sturgis has more success than his rookie campaign. Sturgis returned to practice at full strength last week, alleviating the stress of finding a new kicker—for now.
Punter Brandon Fields remains one of the best punters in the league. His ability to pin punts near the goal line is a valuable weapon for the team, and he also led the NFL in average yards per punt in 2013.
Week 1 vs. New England Patriots
Winning the division is the Dolphins’ first goal, and winning against the Patriots at home would be a statement to the league. It’s not an all-or-nothing game, but winning the first home game is a major benefit for confidence and team morale.
Week 7 at Chicago Bears
The Bears offer a difficult challenge to the Dolphins, but this is a winnable game. The Bears have an explosive offense but a vulnerable defense, and if Miami can utilize a balanced offensive approach and create pressure on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, Miami can take this swing game.
Week 9 vs. San Diego Chargers
Just two weeks after another swing game, the Chargers are a potential playoff foe. The Dolphins match up well because the Chargers are a below-average defensive team and they get to play them at home. Don’t forget, the Dolphins beat the Chargers on the road in 2013.
Week 14 vs. Baltimore Ravens
Like the Chargers, the Dolphins face a familiar opponent from 2013. The Dolphins should’ve won their matchup with the Ravens last season, but they made too many mental mistakes throughout the game. Playing the Ravens at home is an advantage Miami cannot squash this season.
The Dolphins’ offensive X-factors should come as no surprise, but they’re highly important. As important as the offensive line is, the playmakers must take advantage of the opportunities they have to move the ball downfield and convert scoring opportunities.
The former Chip Kelly understudy has shown bits and pieces of his offensive scheme so far, and the results have been much better than the predictable play-calling of Mike Sherman. Lazor will need to show situational awareness and that he can utilize the talent on the roster. If he does, the offense will be good enough to lead the Dolphins to the playoffs.
It’s hard to be a quarterback because of the scrutiny that comes with every play. Whether right or wrong, Tannehill will face tremendous pressure to thrive in Lazor’s offense. The early results have been good, but for Tannehill to cement himself as the franchise quarterback, he will have to cut down on the mental errors.
The expensive free-agent prize was disappointed with his 2013 season and is likely to improve upon the statistics he accumulated. Wallace needs to account for more touchdowns and explosive plays to earn his roster spot for 2015.
For as much talent as the Dolphins defense features, there are a lot of unknowns. The Dolphins must get major contributions from the following players to help ease the burden on the offense.
As mentioned earlier, Wake looks as explosive as ever. If he can stay healthy, no one on the defense will match his impact. Wake opens up opportunities for everyone else.
It’s a blessing and a potential curse to play across from Brent Grimes. Finnegan, whether lining up outside or in the slot, will be targeted often because of his poor play in 2012 and 2013. He looks rejuvenated, but has to prove it for 16 games.
Jones played terribly in the first half of 2013, and the Dolphins defense suffered dearly. His coverage skills are still poor, so when he returns from his suspension, he has to impact the game near the line of scrimmage.
The combination of Bill Lazor and Ryan Tannehill prove to be a tremendous fit and the Dolphins offensive line open the running lanes to help supplement the passing game. Tannehill thrives with his deep receiver core, completing over 63 percent of his passes and increasing his touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The defense also sees a surge, increasing their sack total to 40 as a unit and force 30 turnovers, which is six more than 2013. Young players Dion Jordan and Olivier Vernon flash dominance throughout the season, giving hope for when Cam Wake is eventually past his prime.
With the offense and defense clicking smoothly, the Dolphins are a better overall team than the New England Patriots and win the AFC East.
The offense sputters, whether it be an injury to Tannehill, ineffectiveness of the weekly game plans or the offensive line crumbling, and allows another 58-sack season.
Since the offense cannot sustain drives to rest the defense, the team crumbles. The defense blows coverage assignments regularly and the linebackers miss tackles nearly every possession.
This situation would likely cause the entire front office to be cleansed, bringing in a new coaching staff, set of players and possibly a new general manager.
Most likely, the Dolphins will fall somewhere in between the best-case and worst-case scenarios. There are concerns on this roster, but overall it is a solid collection of talent and the assistant coaches have been impressive thus far in their careers.
The key games listed earlier are swing games for the Dolphins. Realistically, this team must go at least 9-7 to have a chance at winning the Wild Card. That should happen. Remember, the team was 8-6 with two games left despite a horrible offensive line and the bullying scandal.
The offense has improved since 2013, where the offensive line surrendered 58 sacks and couldn’t create a running lane in most games. That won’t be the case in 2014 barring significant injuries. The goal for the offense is to average 25 points a game, which is nearly six more than 2013.
The defense could be a bend-don't-break unit once again, but it was a good enough defense to make the playoffs in 2013. Now healthy, the defensive line is explosive and should cover up the poor linebacker play more than they did last season.
Prediction: 9-7 with Wild Card berth
Ian Wharton is a NFL featured columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting and analyst for FinDepth. You can follow and interact with Ian Wharton on Twitter @NFLFilmStudy.