By Matty, The Phinsider
The Miami Dolphins head into year three of the "Bill Parcells era" looking to take that next step in the rebuilding process - a process that got off to a quick start in 2008 thanks to a favorable schedule, an unexpected offensive formation, and an unlikely villain-turned-hero under center. A new culture in Miami, the ‘Wildcat' formation, and Chad Pennington were the three major pieces that led to the greatest single-season turnaround in NFL history and an AFC East title in '08. But last year was a trip back to reality for the Dolphins and their fans. Age and injuries took their toll as the Dolphins lost their final three games to end 2009 under .500.
Their disappointing finish in '09 has not dampened expectations for 2010, though. Owner Stephen Ross made headlines when he said that he expected the Dolphins to reach the Super Bowl. Head coach Tony Sparano didn't back down when he was asked in training camp about his owner's bold statement. And just like that, the bar has been set. A younger and far more talented team than they've had in recent memory will take the field September 12 in Buffalo and begin a long journey that fans hope will culminate in February.
Significant Offseason Additions/Subtractions
This Miami Dolphins roster has seen some big changes this past offseason. Gone is South Florida legend Jason Taylor, off to dress in the colors of a hated rival. Gone is Joey Porter, who has led the team in sacks in each of the past two seasons. Ineffective starting free safety Gibril Wilson was released. Starting inside linebacker Akin Ayodele was shown the door. Starting nose tackle Jason Ferguson abruptly retired. And defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni was handed his much-deserved pink slip.
But the holes were plugged with younger and more talented players. First round pick Jared Odrick and second round pick Koa Misi will step in right away and contribute. Karlos Dansby was handed a huge contract by Bill Parcells and GM Jeff Ireland to come in and be the centerpiece of this defense - one that will be run by new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Nolan might be the biggest offseason addition by this team, too.
Just don't tell that to wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who the Dolphins acquired in a trade from Denver for two second-round picks. Don't get me wrong - adding Marshall was a giant move by this team and one that is going to make a gigantic impact on the field. But Nolan's expertise and experience is just as important to this team's success in 2010.
This offense has been defined in recent years by their running game - and for good reason. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams helped the Dolphins run for over 2,200 yards last year, finishing fourth in the league. The ‘Wildcat' still remains a factor and is something opponents must prepare for when they start game-planning to face this team. Tony Sparano is an offensive coach at heart who will always look to pound the ball with his talented running backs. Let's just face it - running the football is just in this team's DNA. It's that simple.
Ronnie and Ricky have said publicly that they both hope to top the 1,000 yard mark in 2010, a feat only achieved by a handful of running back duos in league history. Both are physically talented enough to do it. Both are healthy enough to do it (yes, Ronnie is pretty much 100% after having his '09 season cut short with a Lis Franc fracture). They have the best fullback in the game lead-blocking for them - and yes, Lousaka Polite is the best. Don't believe me? Just turn on some game film of him.
And yet, with all that working in the duo's favor, I don't think they will achieve their dual 1,000 yard goal. Why? I have a sneaky suspicion that we're going to see this offense grow and take to the air far more often than we have since Tony Sparano has been here. After all, when you invest in a receiver like the Dolphins did this offseason, it only makes sense to put the new toy to good use.
The acquisition of Brandon Marshall does many things for the Dolphins. We've already seen in the preseason how his ability to block downfield is going to be a huge asset to this offense. And we know that Brandon can simply dominate when necessary as a receiver - just ask the Colts. But Brandon's effect on this offense goes beyond that. No longer will opponents be able to stack the box to stop the run and take away the underneath routes. That means more rushing lanes and, more importantly, more room for guys like Davone Bess, Brian Hartline, and the tight ends to work over the middle.
Most importantly, though, is what Marshall's acquisition means to quarterback Chad Henne. There's no question that the success of this offense will depend on how much Henne has improved from his first year as a starter in 2009 to now. Henne has elite arm strength and can make any throw asked of him. The two questions about Henne revolve around his ability to make the touch throws quarterbacks have to make as well as his ability to react to what the defense is giving him and go through is progressions. He's shown this preseason that he's improved in both areas.
Henne has some weapons at his disposal. Marshall gives Henne that "alpha receiver" this offense has lacked for years. Davone Bess is an elite slot receiver who is only entering his third year in the league. Brian Hartline, the expected starter on the other side of Marshall, showed excellent hands and the ability to make plays during his rookie year last year and should only get better. And we'd be crazy not to mention the reliable Greg Camarillo, a guy who people always want to count out but who possesses perhaps the best pair of hands on the team.
Most people will talk about Ronnie, Ricky, and the ground game when they discuss Miami's offense. But it's Henne and the Dolphins' passing attack that will make or break this offense in 2010.
New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan brings to Miami the kind of aggressive, attacking defensive scheme that many Dolphin fans have long been wanting. Paul Pasqualoni's defense was based more on reacting to what the offense was doing. Nolan believes in making the offense react to what he wants to do - a big difference in philosophies. Considering Miami's defense ranked 20th in the league a year ago, it's a change that was much needed.
New inside linebacker Karlos Dansby will be the centerpiece of Nolan's versatile defense. The Dolphins are expected to be getting away from the traditional 3-4 defense they've been running and use more of a hybrid 3-4 that will throw many different looks at opposing quarterbacks. Dansby's versatility to rush the passer or drop back into coverage epitomizes what Nolan believes in. And GM Jeff Ireland made sure he got Nolan the kinds of pieces he needs to make this kind of defense work.
First round pick Jared Odrick is a big, strong defense end who can play in both a 3-4 and a 4-3. Second round pick Koa Misi fits exactly what Nolan is looking for at strong side linebacker - a player who has good speed and athleticism and can play the run, rush the passer, or drop back into coverage. Linebacker Cameron Wake will take over for Joey Porter on the weakside. Wake, the CFL transplant, brings elite pass-rushing ability to the position. He's very fast but is also strong enough to give offensive tackles fits. But how Wake improves against the run as well as in coverage will go a long way towards the success of this defense.
Adding to the versatility of this defense is new nose tackle Randy Starks. Starks had a career year a season ago as an end in Miami's 3-4 defense, picking up seven sacks and being a disruptive force in every game. Now Starks will shift to nose tackle. Playing inside isn't new - he was a defensive tackle in Tennessee to start his career. Starks is just another in a long line of "new age" nose tackles - guys who are smaller than the 330 pound giants but quicker and simply more athletic (think Dallas' Jay Ratliff). Starks gives Mike Nolan yet another versatile piece to his defensive puzzle.
The success of the defense, though, will come down to how well this very young secondary plays. Outside of Pro Bowl strong safety Yeremiah Bell, the starting secondary is made up of second-year players. Cornerbacks Sean Smith and Vontae Davis have a ton of talent and showed glimpses of greatness last year. But they also made those rookie mistakes that were to be expected. Hopefully the experience they gained in 2009 can help these two kids progress quicker as they enter year two as the unchallenged starters.
Second-year free safety Chris Clemons steps in after seeing limited action in his rookie year. The Dolphins sniffed around free agent safeties Antrel Rolle and Ryan Clark. But those guys got more money elsewhere, leaving the Dolphins to address the position in-house. Clemons has the speed to play the position - especially in Nolan's defense where the free safety is more of a centerfielder than anything else. But Clemons needs to become a better tackler and needs to demonstrate that he can handle the mental aspects of the position.
With three-fourths of the starting secondary is in their second year, veteran Will Allen was expected to man the slot as the nickelback in 2010. But he suffered a set-back in his recovery from last year's torn ACL and may not be ready for the regular season, meaning rookie Nolan Carroll will step in as the nickel corner until Allen is healthy. Carroll has a lot of speed and natural ability. But he's had a rough time in the preseason playing against the opposing starters after despite playing well during camp against Miami's second-team offense.
This secondary will be the key to Miami's defense this year. They are very talented but very inexperienced - which means we should expect to see many ups and downs in 2010.
The Dolphins are set at kicker and punter. Dan Carpenter is entering his third season and coming off of a Pro Bowl year. He's proven to be an accurate kicker from inside 50 yards and is perfect in his career in game-winning field goals in the fourth quarter. Punter Brandon Fields has a booming leg and has the ability to punt the ball 50+ yards consistently. But he may need to get his punts off quicker - especially with the blocking (or lack thereof) he has in front of him.
Fields has had two punts blocked already in the preseason. Both times, defenders came in virtually unblocked to get to Fields. And there's no doubt that this is a concern heading into the regular season. Kick and punt coverage has also been a problem so far in the preseason. Some of it can be attributed to the coaching staff mixing and matching to get looks at as many players as possible in different roles. But it's still a big concern regardless.
Davone Bess is likely to be the team's punt returner in 2010. He's a safe, reliable return man who will rarely make mistakes. But he'll also rarely make a big play. He has good acceleration but lacks the speed necessary to break one. Rookie Nolan Carroll looks to be in the driver's seat for the kick returner job. He has shown good vision and burst this year in the preseason and could bring some big-play ability. But he's not likely to match the kind of game-breaking potential that Ted Ginn had when he was back there.
Prediction for 2010
When you look at Miami's schedule, it's clear that their first eight games will make or break this team's season. Six of their first eight are against teams that reached the postseason a year ago and include trips to Minnesota, Green Bay, Cincinnati, and Baltimore. Should the Dolphins come out of these eight games .500 or better, then at least 10 wins and a playoff berth are very much attainable. I could see the Dolphins winning as many as 12 games or as few as 8 in 2010. So I'll take the middle ground and say the Dolphins go 10-6 and earn a Wildcard berth.