Summer may still be in full swing, but football season officially returns in South Florida on Thursday when the Miami Dolphins begin their 2014 campaign. The team is set to report to training camp Thursday and should be at almost full strength to start the season.
The only notable absence from the Dolphins roster will be center Mike Pouncey. The Pro Bowl center is the only holdover from last year’s offensive line and was expected to be the glue the held together the all-new line tasked with protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
But, Pouncey had to have surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip last month and will not be back until September or possibly October at the earliest.
So, the Dolphins will have five new starters across the offensive line to start the 2014 season. It’s almost unheard for a team to completely revamp the offensive line, but after giving up more than 50 sacks last year; the team decided on the complete rebuild.
The Dolphins signed free agent Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert to anchor the line. If he stays healthy, he should solidify the left tackle position for the first time since 2009-2010 when Jake Long was outside.
The Dolphins then drafted right tackle Ja’Wuan James in the first round and guard Billy Turner. The Fins also signed free agent guard Shelley Smith and hope last year’s third-round pick, guard Dallas Thomas, can lock down a spot on the line.
The Fins projected line could look something like this (with Pouncey healthy): Left tackle – Branden Albert, Left Guard – Dallas Thomas/Billy Turner, Center – Mike Pouncey, Right Guard – Shelley Smith, Right Tackle – Ja’Wuan James.
The line will be expected to give Tannehill time to connect with a talented group of receivers. Wideouts Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, and Brandon Gibson return from last season’s squad. The Fins also have high hopes for Rishard Matthews and expect good things for receiver Jarvis Landry, a rookie out of LSU.
If Tannehill can connect with Wallace, Hartline, and Gibson returns from an injury last season in good shape; and Jarvis Landry plays as expected; the Dolphins could have one of the most talented groups of receivers in the league.
The running back position will also be closely watched as the team hopes Lamar Miller can finally put his potential into production on the field. When he gets healthy, the Fins hope Knowshon Moreno can also help produce in the running game to take the pressure off Tannehill.
The offense will live and die with Tannehill’s improvement. The third year quarterback showed some progress last season, but still took 58 sacks and threw 17 interceptions. Tannehill completed 60 percent of his passes and threw 24 touchdown passes in 2013.
Still, when the Dolphins needed Tannehill to produce the most in the final two weeks of the season, the entire offense disappeared. In the final two games, which the Dolphins needed to win just one to get into the playoffs; Tannehill was 30-67 (45 percent completion rate) for 292 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions.
On the other side of the ball, the Dolphins should be loaded on the defensive line. The Fins return Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake along with defensive tackles Randy Starks and Jared Odrick. The Fins also have Olivier Vernon opposite Wake coming off an 11 sack season last year.
In addition, the Fins hope to get a return on their investment in defensive end Dion Jordan. The former number three overall pick struggled last year with an injury and had a hard time getting on the field. He’s bulked up ahead of this season and said he hasn’t lost any of the speed the Dolphins saw in him when they drafted him.
The Dolphins also hope free agent addition Earl Mitchell can continue to push the pocket backwards like he did in Houston the last few seasons. Altogether, the Fins’ defensive line should once again be one of the strengths of the team.
Behind the line, the linebacker corp will have a different look as the team hopes moving Koa Misi to middle linebacker will help firm up the linebacker play. Misi played last season at outside linebacker, but the Fins will move Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler outside this year as both are playing to stay on the team.
In the defensive secondary, if the unit stays healthy, it should also be a strength of the team. Cornerback Brent Grimes got a contract extension and played like a Pro Bowler last season. The Fins hope a similar reclamation project will happen with fellow cornerback Cortland Finnegan. The Dolphins also have Jamar Taylor, a promising second-year player that may get on the field at times this year.
At safety, the Dolphins return Reshad Jones who struggled last year after securing a large contract extension from the previous regime. Jones had 84 solo tackles and one interception on the season, but the Fins still want more from Jones in 2014.
Strong safety may have the biggest question mark in the secondary. The Fins signed a big hitter in Louis Delmas, a South Florida native, to take the position. The key for the Dolphins with Delmas will be keeping him on the field. The sixth-year player has missed 13 games over the last three years.
Last season, Delmas had 64 tackles, two sacks, and three interceptions on the year. A repeat performance by Delmas, who had spent his entire career with the Detroit Lions, will help the Fins’ secondary in a big way.
The Dolphins fell apart in the final two games of the 2013 season and missed the playoffs. The team hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2008 when Chad Pennington quarterbacked the Fins to a 10-6 record when Tom Brady of the New England Patriots was out for the season and the Dolphins rode the Wildcat to several wins.
Can the team take the next step into the playoffs and become a consistent contender? The team will start anew Thursday when training camp officially opens at the team’s facility in Davie.