Friday, May 24, 2013

Are the Miami Dolphins legitimate AFC East contenders?

This offseason, the Miami Dolphins have been given a lot of attention for being one of the most aggressive teams in both free agency and the NFL Draft. Despite the loss of some veteran players such as Jake Long, the additions of potential difference makers on both sides of the ball have led some to believe that the Dolphins may be set for a break out year.

In the NFL, a quarterback-driven league, a large amount of a team’s success depends on the play of their quarterback. Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins’ 2012 first-round draft pick, came in and played fairly well at quarterback last season; he threw for 3,294 yards, twelve touchdowns and thirteen interceptions. Tannehill seemed to improve every week and led the Dolphins to a 7-9 record, which was an improvement on the team’s 6-10 record in 2011. Tannehill was no RG3, Andrew Luck, or Russell Wilson, but he was solid.

This offseason, the Dolphins’ front-office added offensive weapons Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson to their receiving corps in order to aid Tannehill’s development, as well as re-signing of Brian Hartline. Wallace is one of the best downfield threats in the NFL today and is a true speedster. His ability to take the top off a defence should enable the Dolphins’ run-game to flourish, whilst giving Tannehill a legitimate number one receiver. The addition of Brandon Gibson gives Tannehill another reliable receiver, despite the fact that he’s not a “big name”, unlike Wallace. Gibson had his best season for the St. Louis Rams in 2012, with 691 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Moreover, Miami also retained the services of Brian Hartline, their best receiver in 2012, who recorded a team-high 1,083 receiving yards. Clearly, their receiving corps is in good shape, thanks to some good offseason work by the Dolphins’ front office. With the help of these receivers, Tannehill’s play should continue to improve, which could result in the Dolphins being an aerial force in the AFC East.

Despite the fact that the Dolphins failed to retain the services of Reggie Bush, their top rusher in 2012, they may well be set at running back. Both Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller remain on the roster, and the addition of Mike Gillislee in the fifth-round of the 2013 NFL Draft should provide competition in training camp. I’m quite a fan of Gillislee, who seems to be an all-around solid back. If one or two of these running backs can step up this season, the Dolphins should achieve good balance on offense. Don’t be surprised if Gillislee emerges as Miami’s first-choice running back during training camp.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Dolphins have also managed to improve. The addition of ex-Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan gives the Dolphins another explosive pass-rusher, capable of making big plays. Along with Cameron Wake, Jordan’s addition gives Miami one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the NFL, and should result in Wake’s productivity increasing, as offensive coordinators will also have to account for Jordan in their game plans. Dannell Ellerbe’s addition gives the Dolphins a quality linebacker with a winning pedigree who should come in and contribute right away. Moreover, the addition of cornerbacks Brent Grimes, via free agency, and Jamar Taylor in the second-round of the 2013 NFL Draft fill a huge need for the Dolphins after the loss of Sean Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs. Grimes is recovering from a season-ending Achilles injury, however, if he returns to his pre-injury form, he may well be one of the steals of free agency. Taylor has all the skills to become an effective NFL cornerback: he has good size, he’s quick, and he can cover and make tackles well. I expect him to emerge behind Grimes as the Dolphins’ number two cornerback.

So, what should we expect from the 2013 Miami Dolphins? The Dolphins have winnable games on their schedule, particularly against division rivals Buffalo and the New York. In week one, the Dolphins travel to Ohio to play the Cleveland Browns, which is another winnable game. There are, however, plenty of games on Miami’s schedule that I could see going either way, such as against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers in weeks ten, eleven and twelve respectively, along with a trip to Indianapolis to face the Colts in week two. Moreover, Miami has to play the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons, the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, in what will be five very difficult games. On top of this are two games against division rivals the New England Patriots, who are still one of the best teams in the NFL. I feel the Dolphins – along with many other NFL teams – will find it very difficult to beat any of these six teams.

Despite improvements on both sides of the ball, the Dolphins have a very difficult schedule. I’m not saying it’s impossible for the Dolphins to reach the playoffs, but realistically, I don’t expect them to. I expect the Dolphins to finish second in the AFC East behind the Patriots, with a record of around .500.

This article was written by Rhys Norman. You can follow him on Twitter @RhysNorman1
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