Which Miami Dolphins Positional Units Have Most to Prove in the Preseason?

Scott AltmanCorrespondent IAugust 8, 2012

July 27 2012; Davie, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline (82) during practice at the Dolphins training facility. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE
Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Every thing we've deduced about the Miami Dolphins, thus far, are mere assumptions. The judgement we've passed on the team's trio of quarterbacks, positional battles and coaching changes are only estimations. Until this team takes the field against an opposing team, we can't definitively gauge how much progress it's made. 

But, that's exactly what the Phins will do on Friday night against the Tampa Bay Bucs and three more times before the regular season commences. 

One of the most pertinent things we can take away from Miami's preseason action is how its most questionable positional units are shaping up. There's no doubt the Dolphins have some playoff-caliber units; others, unfortunately, are slacking far behind. 

So, which positional units have the most to prove in the preseason?

Wide Receiver: 

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This unit's outlook grew depressingly bleak when the Phins bid adieu to Brandon Marshall back in March; however, things have gradually improved since. True, no wide receiver on the roster—or on most NFL rosters for that matter—can replicate Marshall's presence and production, but Joe Philbin's offense doesn't need a traditional No. 1 wideout to succeed. 

In 2011, for example, no Green Bay Packers wideout received more than 19 percent of the team's total passing targets. Greg Jennings placed first with 18.3 percent, followed by Jordy Nelson with 17.4 percent and Jermichael Finley with 16.9 percent. 

By comparison, Brandon Marshall accounted for a whopping 30.9 percent of Miami's total passing targets last season. If you're still wondering why the Dolphins traded Marshall so willingly, then consider that he just didn't fit with the offense's newfound approach. 

Philbin is bringing his communal contribution philosophy to Miami, and players are buying into it. Third-year wide receiver Marlon Moore told Brian Biggane of the Palm Beach Post in May:

There's always in the past been a go-to target on every play. But, in this offense, you can have Hartline lined up as the No. 3 receiver on one play and No. 1 on the next play. And it can be the same play. So you're not pigeon-holed into anything on any certain play...You can go full-field progressions and there's no pressure to get the ball to any one specific guy. So you can just go back there and wing it.

Still, the Dolphins are taking a huge risk by relying on Davone Bess, Chad Johnson, Legedu Naanee, Brian Hartline and Roberto Wallace to carry the passing game.

Bess is the only player we know will deliver—everyone else is a wild card. However, Johnson looks rejuvenated, according to the Miami Herald's Armando Salguero after a dreadful season with the Pats. Naanee is making a strong case for a starting job, according to Omar Kelly of the Sun-Sentinel, and Wallace has been a standout throughout the summer , according to Peter King of Sports Illustrated.  

Take all of these preseason reports with a grain of salt, but it is somewhat comforting to see the wide receivers show signs of life. 

Offensive Line:

Jake Long and Mike Pouncey are both top-flight players at their respective positions, but, uh, what about everybody else? Poor offensive-line play has undermined the Dolphins for years, and it will do so again in 2012 unless they develop cohesiveness in the next few weeks. 

Let's start at right guard. 

In March, the Dolphins signed veteran journeyman Artis Hicks, who initially projected as little more than an experienced, versatile backup. After all, this is his fourth team in four years, and he's started only 16 games in the last three years combined. 

The Phins plugged him in at right guard in minicamp, and surprisingly, he's yet to relinquish his starting role. Miami brought in veteran Eric Steinbach a few weeks back, but he hasn't been able to supplant Hicks. 

Does Hicks have one more solid season left in the tank?

He better.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Martin looks like a shoo-in to start at right tackle. The second-round pick has run with the first-team offense since the outset of OTAs, and he'll remain there barring awful performance or injury. 

Martin might project as a franchise offensive tackle down the road, but he's still a rookie, and there's no telling how he'll fare against the league's best pass-rushers. 

Cornerback: 

So, are the Dolphins unhappy with Vontae Davis' performance?

It depends on who you ask. 

Davis was listed as a second-team cornerback on Miami's first depth chart, which sparked some panic around the web. Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel reports that Davis hasn't been benched; rather, team is merely giving him reps at nickelback. But, Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post tells a different story, one that says free-agent acquisition Richard Marshall is pushing Davis for a starting job. 

Let's hope Kelly is on the right track (for the record, I give equal credence to both reporters). Entering his fourth NFL season, Davis should be establishing himself as an elite player—not struggling to sustain his role. 

Also entering his fourth NFL season is Sean Smith, who's in a whole different league when it comes to inconsistency. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith played at an elite level in 2010, but played at a pedestrian level (if that) in 2011.

Perhaps, he'll be further motivated to regain 2010 form as he enters the final year of his contract. He has the tools to become one of the league's best, and there's no more room for excuses. 

But, say Davis, Smith or Marshall struggle—or worse, suffer a severe injury this season.

Can we rely on Nolan Carroll or Jimmy Wilson (who would probably step down from safety to help out at cornerback unless he wins a starting job) to fill the void?

We simply don't know. And, that's a huge problem. One injury could devastate the secondary, which could devastate the defense, which could devastate the team as a whole. 

There is good news, though: I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico. 

In all seriousness, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle helped turn Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall into premier cornerbacks, and his scheme allowed others like Pacman Jones, Deltha O'Neal and others to thrive.

Let's hope he brings that midas touch to Miami.  

Safety:

Never mind that Reshad Jones was one of the most inefficient tackling safeties (Pro Football Focus) in the NFL last season. And never mind that he was on the wrong end of some big plays, including Wes Welker's Week 1, 99-yard touchdown reception

The Dolphins believe he's a starting-caliber safety. 

Jones has certainly earned a starting job this offseason, don't get me wrong. He was outstanding at minicamp and has carried that momentum into training camp, but I still don't understand why the Dolphins didn't even bring in some legitimate competition. 

Sure, they brought in Tyrell Johnson, but it was evident early on that he wasn't going to provide any kind of upgrade. 

Jones won't be the only safety fighting for viability, though.  

Whichever player earns the starting strong safety role will as well. 

Fourth-year veteran Chris Clemons has run predominantly with the first-team defense this offseason, but converted cornerback Jimmy Wilson and Tyrone Culver are still in contention.

If Clemons can stay healthy, then he should win the job. His consistent, conservative nature makes him an ideal complement to Jones, who plays a very aggressive brand of football. But, here's the catch: Clemons can't stay healthy.

He should've started last season, but a groin injury that later required surgery hindered him throughout it. Clemons also suffered a leg injury last week, opening the door for Wilson to take some first-team reps. 

Regardless of which players enter the season as starters, the safety corps is the weakest unit on Miami's defense.