Miami Dolphins: How the 'Fins Can Claim the AFC East Crown in 2011
At this time last year, the Dolphins were being hailed as a sleeper for the AFC East title. They had just recently signed Karlos Dansby, traded for Brandon Marshall and bolstered their defensive depth through the draft. Meanwhile, Miami had all but anointed Chad Henne the savior after a relatively promising 2009 season.
But after a 2-0 start, things plummeted really, really fast. In retrospect, the Dolphins failed to address a whole slew of shortcomings on the roster that may have been overlooked by the team's new additions. But history is the best teacher, and Miami won't (at least, hopefully won't) make the same mistakes twice.
Once free agency opens up, they will have the opportunity to reestablish themselves as an AFC East contender.
Acquire a Scat Back or Elite Running Back Through Free Agency
The Dolphins traded up into the second round in order to draft running back Daniel Thomas, but are they prepared to allot a feature workload his way? If so, Miami will be in the market for a "scat-back"--a running back whose primary responsibility would be catching passes in the flats and adding a speedy change of pace to the offense.
However, if the team is not fully confident in Thomas, they could pursue an elite running back like DeAngelo Williams, who has scat-back characteristics but can also shoulder a significant workload.
Either way, the Dolphins will absolutely pursue a running back in free agency. Two names that leap out are Darren Sproles and Williams. Sproles would be astronomically cheaper and provides some sorely needed speed to Miami's lethargic offense, so he is the preferable option; however, Williams is a Pro Bowl talent who could make Miami's rushing attack one of the league's best.
Add Depth at Outside Linebacker
Quarterback and running back are glamour positions, and they also happen to be two of Miami's most notable needs. Naturally, everybody wants to theorize about who might fill these positions. But in this discussion, another one of the team's most glaring needs has been lost in the shuffle.
The only outside linebackers currently under contract are Cameron Wake, Koa Misi, and Ikaika Alama-Francis. The Dolphins desperately need to fill up the depth chart with quality back ups. What if Wake or Misi breaks an ankle during camp? It would be an absolute catastrophe, especially if the team turns a blind eye to this issue.
There will be plenty of second-rate linebackers on the market this summer such as San Diego's Antwan Barnes, and Miami would be wise to pursue a few who can also contribute on special teams.
Overhaul Special Teams Coverage Units
Last season, Miami's special teams ranked 29th in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. This isn't a new problem, either. The Dolphins' coverage units have been a huge liability since Tony Sparano arrived in 2008.
For reasons unknown, these issues have been largely neglected, but after the Monday Night Football debacle against the Patriots last season, the problem has become public and Sparano will have to address it. Whether it's a personnel or scheme shortcoming, the Dolphins need to stress special teams this summer, or it will continue to cost them games.
Find a Dangerous Return-Man
Miami's recent special teams struggles are not only relegated to the coverage units—their return game is almost equally as porous. Some might cite Ted Ginn, Jr. as a great returner, but if you negate his famous two touchdown game against the Jets, he was mediocre.
Nolan Carroll did an admirable job with return duties last season, but he doesn't seem to possess the vision or breakaway speed to truly threaten opposing squads. Rookie Edmond Gates has the speed to be a return-man, but he has little experience with the art.
We've seen the difference a player like Devin Hester can make, and even though new NFL rules limit the importance of a returner, it shouldn't be overlooked. Miami has tinkered with great return-men in the past, but none have panned out. Darren Sproles makes for an extremely enticing option due to his value at running back.
Pursue a Veteran Quarterback to Compete with Chad Henne
Needless to say, quarterback is the biggest and most controversial topic surrounding the Dolphins right now. Virtually every available quarterback has been linked to Miami or discussed as a possible replacement for Chad Henne.
We can all dream about landing a Kyle Orton or Carson Palmer, but their price tags are hefty and Miami might not be willing to splurge. Also, Tony Sparano and Jeff Ireland might not be prepared to completely give up on Henne.
If the Dolphins don't pursue one of the bigger names, they should pursue somebody who can, at the very least, provide competition for Henne. Somebody like Tarvaris Jackson would come at a very cheap price. He might motivate Henne to upgrade his game, and if Jackson were to show superior skill, the Dolphins improve their outlook. It's a win-win.
Work Jared Odrick and Phillip Merling into the Rotation
Now that Paul Soliai has established himself as a top flight nose tackle, the Dolphins boast one of the league's deepest defensive lines. Miami has four starting caliber defensive ends between Kendall Langford, Randy Starks, Jared Odrick and Phillip Merling.
Langford and Starks will almost definitely retain starting spots heading into 2011, but Mike Nolan will want to work youngsters Odrick and Merling into the rotation.
Having this sheer depth will allow Miami to stuff the run and maybe even muster up a pass rush (though only Starks is a true pass rusher). Hopefully, Nolan can mastermind some schemes that will allow the Dolphins to utilize all four and improve the NFL's 6th ranked defense.
Develop A.J. Edds into an Immediate and Effective Contributor at Linebacker
One of the biggest disappointments stemming from Miami's 2010 season was the lack of production next to Karlos Dansby. When Dansby arrived, Channing Crowder and Tim Dobbins figured to reap the statistical benefits of playing alongside one of the game's greats. However, Crowder and Dobbins racked up just 39 and 47 tackles, respectively.
But there's another player who will get a shot at fulfilling that sidekick role next season—2010 fourth round pick A.J. Edds. After some promising hype, Edds tore his ACL at the very beginning of camp, sidelining him for the entirety of the 2010 season.
Edds possesses far superior athleticism to both Dobbins and Crowder, so he could immediately assume third down linebacker duties. The Dolphins should emphasize his growth as a whole and try to groom him into Crowder's eventual replacement.
Let Jonathan Amaya and Reshad Jones Compete for the Starting Safety Job
After whiffing on free agents Antrel Rolle and Ryan Clark last summer, Miami took a gamble and awarded 2009 fifth round pick Chris Clemons with the starting safety job. In only his second season, Clemons was visibly overwhelmed at times, but definitely showed glimpses of great skill and poise.
Still, opposing teams torched Miami down the middle of the field in 2010, particularly by utilizing tight ends (another huge, reoccurring problem that dates back to Sparano's arrival), and Clemons has to shoulder most of the blame there.
Clemons will likely retain his starting role, but he certainly doesn't have a choke hold on the job. Miami has two promising prospects in Reshad Jones and Jonathan Amaya who both have amazing athleticism and have played very well when given the opportunity. Competition can only produce positives, and both Jones and Amaya are big sleepers heading into training camp.