I'm waking up in less than seven hours to go downtown and tailgate for the Miami Dolphins' season opener in Atlanta, so I don't quite have much time to do an in-depth preview of this year's team. Of course, this will probably still have much more depth than any of you would prefer!
Here's my assessment, position by position, of the 2009 Miami Dolphins:
Chad Pennington is no Manning or Brady, and we know that. His lack of arm strength does show at times, and if you were down big late in a game, he wouldn't be your first choice to lead a comeback.
That being said, Pennington is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL and does as good a job as anyone protecting the football. He might not get you out of a big hole late into a game, but he's unlikely to cause one of those huge deficits in the first place.
Quarterbacks far less talented than Pennington have gone on to playoff success, and there's no reason he can't do the same if the team around him does its part. He's not the long-term answer and he's not an elite passer, but he's someone fans should be confident in each and every game, because he's always going to protect the ball and give the team a chance.
Backup Chad Henne had his ups and downs in the preseason, but I like what I've seen of his development overall. He's the future of the franchise (possibly as soon as 2010 with Pennington's expiring contract) and I'm confident in his ability to be the No. 2 guy in 2009 if he were forced into action.
Rookie third-stringer Pat White presents some intriguing new options on offense, but he doesn't look ready to run an NFL offense full-time. I don't expect much him in 2009, and we all better pray both Chads don't go down.
The Dolphins' deepest position on offense, Miami has nothing to worry about here as long as the offensive line does their part. I believe Ronnie Brown is poised for a breakout season after the Dolphins eased him back into things in 2008 while he recovered from a torn ACL the year before. Ronnie has a terrific blend of size, speed and strength and can be dominant if he gets help up front.
A lot of people think Ricky Williams has lost a step, but the guy's much faster than people think and he still has some thump in him as well. He's a quality backup that rivals any other team's No. 2 back and is easily capable of carrying the load if he has to.
Patrick Cobbs isn't feature-back material, but he's the kind of football player teams love to have because of his work ethic and versatility. He's a good special teams player, a good receiver out of the backfield and runs hard.
Fullback Lousaka Polite isn't a big name and was kind of a journeyman before landing in Miami last season. However, he did a good job blocking for the tailbacks in 2008 and also proved quite useful as a ball-carrier in short-yardage situations.
I'm a bigger fan of Ted Ginn's than most, and I'm happy with his progression to date. Wide receivers always take a few years to develop, and after a solid sophomore campaign in 2008, I think Ginn could be in for his first 1,000-yard season in 2009. He has all the speed and athleticism you could ask for, and his hands and route-running is getting better all the time.
Beyond Ginn, there are a few "solid" guys but nobody really special or with a very high ceiling. Greg Camarillo and Davone Bess are both good possession men, but will never be more than slot receivers and probably wouldn't have roles nearly this big on a team with a better receiving corps.
Rooke Brian Hartline looks promising, but I don't expect much from him as a rookie and he probably won't be more than the fourth receiver. Meanwhile, fellow first-year Patrick Turner has been unimpressive so far, and I'm already concerned he might be what Ernest Wilford was in Miami, rather than what Wilford was supposed to be.
After a few seasons backing up Jason Witten in Dallas, Anthony Fasano got his chance to be the leading man in Miami and didn't disappoint. Fasano isn't an elite tight end on the level of an Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez, but he's certainly the notch below them. He does everything well and is just a reliable and solid all-around tight end.
The Dolphin are lacking a veteran presence beyond Fasano after David Martin was placed on injured reserve, but I'm not too worried. Joey Haynos stepping into Martin's role in 2009 is one of the things I'm most excited about seeing this season, and I think he has the talent to thrive.
The line had their struggles in the preseason, and when it didn't get better as time went on, it started to become a bit of a concern for me. Jake Long and Jake Grove in particular seemed to have their problems, but both are very talented players that should get things straightened out.
A big key for the Dolphins on the offensive line is right guard Donald Thomas. He was a monster at times during the 2009 preseason, and the team really struggled to fill the right guard spot all of 2008 when Thomas was lost in the season opener. If he can perform nearly as well as most seem to think he can, he'll be a huge asset up front.
The Dolphins' line isn't quite "there yet," but it is solid and I do expect they'll get better as they play together more and the season progresses. I think there's enough young talent in the unit to eventually be one of the best lines in all of football.
I've consistently said that defensive end is possibly the Dolphins' deepest position, and I certainly still believe it. Kendall Langford was extremely impressive as a rookie, while Randy Starks and Phillip Merling both came along quite nicely as well. Tony McDaniel and Lionel Dotson both look like solid backup material and could be worthy of spots in the line rotation before season's end.
Nose tackle is a bit of a long-term concern because of Jason Ferguson's age, but that's not an issue in 2009 because the guy can still clog up the middle as well as most. He's a good anchor when he's in there, and Paul Soliai is a quality backup nose tackle to have despite his disappointments thus far.
Outsiders seem to think Jason Taylor is washed up and over-the-hill because of an injury-plagued 2008 in Washington, but everything we've seen since his return to Miami has been positive. The guy's leadership cannot be overstated, but that's secondary to his play on the field, which is still excellent. Not only is Taylor still a quality pass-rusher, but he's also better against the run that people give him credit for.
Joey Porter should continue to thrive as a pass-rusher in Miami, especially now playing opposite Taylor. One thing he must get better at is his run defense, which was nothing short of horrendous in 2008. Matt Roth, whose strange preseason absence has been well-documented, was Miami's best run-stopping outside linebacker, so it's time for Porter to step up.
The Dolphins are pretty solid up the middle with Channing Crowder and Akin Ayodele, though both miss a few too many tackles for my liking and I'd prefer to see them clamp down on that sort of thing. The defensive line is doing its job in occupying the blockers—now it's time for Crowder and Ayodele to do their part.
Depth across the linebacker positions is solid, and at times, quite intriguing. Charlie Anderson has already established himself as a good situational rusher, while CFL import Cameron Wake could be a real sleeper prospect for the Dolphins. Reggie Torbor, while overpaid, is a solid third inside linebacker, while Erik Walden and Quentin Moses are both decent, young backups outside.
Will Allen is a better corner than most around the league give him credit for and is a viable No. 1 option. He should continue to play at a high level for the Dolphins and is an excellent veteran under which the Dolphins' rookies can learn.
Speaking of those rookies, Sean Smith and Vontae Davis have big shoes to fill in trying to replace departed free agent Andre' Goodman. Smith has been outstanding in camp and Davis is a great prospect as well, but they're playing probably the most difficult position in the entire game to play as a rookie and are going to make their share of mistakes.
Beyond that, Nathan Jones is a solid dime back, but not much more, while first-round bust Jason Allen is really nothing more than a special-teamer and probably never will be. The Dolphins inexperience and lack of depth could be problematic, especially if injuries were to occur.
There are things to like about each of Miami's starting safeties. The problem is, it's the same thing. Both Gibril Wilson and Yeremiah Bell are terrific tacklers that play the run very well. They're both your ideal, "eight man, in-the-box" safety.
The problem is, both can be shaky in pass coverage, and its somewhat curious the team gave Gibril Wilson such a big contract and moved him to free safety given his style of play. I worry this unit could be exploited because of the players' common weaknesses. A strong pass-rush will help, but these guys are going to get beat at times and give up their share of big plays.
There is decent depth here, as Tyrone Culver proved to be a quality backup in 2008 and rookie Chris Clemons has some upside as well. Clemons won't be asked to do much more than special teams as a rookie.
The Dolphins don't have an elite kicker or an elite punter. Both Dan Carpenter and Brandon Fields are just solid. Hopefully, Carpenter continues to progress after a strong rookie season, though some struggles in camp have be a little worried. I'd also like to see a little more from Fields, who had a leg capable of booming them, but is a little inconsistent.
As for John Denney...well, he's a long snapper. How do you rate long snappers. He's been fine for Miami, outside of a few bad snaps against the New York Jets in the regular season finale in 2008. But I'm sure he'll be fine. He's not going to make or break the season.
Conclusion and prediction
This sort of thing is a thin wire on which to balance for me. If I predict the Dolphins to do too well, I'm biased and a homer. If I predict them to do to poorly, I'm a traitor and an idiot in the eyes of Dolphins fans everywhere.
Of course, I can only give my honest opinion, and that is I think the Dolphins will probably hover around .500 this season and likely miss out on a wild card spot.
I know, I know. The Dolphins won the AFC East last season and are now in their second year of the Parcells-Ireland-Sparano era, so they should be even better. Unfortunately, things are a little more complicated than that.
Yes, the Dolphins improved from 2007 to 2008, in part, because of the arrival of Bill Parcells. But such a drastic improvement was not just the result of one man's presence. It was a lot of a luck, and that includes the season-ending injury to Tom Brady, great fortunate when it came to the Dolphins' own health, and a seriously easy schedule down the stretch.
Let's face it: The Dolphins beat a lot of bad team in 2008, and a lot of the time they barely beat them. Then, when they got the playoffs, they were completely handled by the Baltimore Ravens and a rookie quarterback.
The way I see it, with such a difficult schedule in 2009, the Dolphins could be much better than they were in 2008, and come away with a worse record. I think .500 is about right for a team that's on the rise, but is still missing some pieces and probably can't count on being as lucky again as they were last season.
Final prediction: 8-8 (Sorry guys. I hope I'm wrong!)