Training camp practices begin Friday. So how strong a team are the Miami Dolphins today? Are they playoff-strong or are they still languishing amongst the NFL's weak sisters?
No one will actually know until we get some regular-season games behind us, but as it looks right now the Miami roster still looks like it needs improvement, tweaking, in a word some strengthening, compared to other teams. Pundits, you should note, are not exactly picking the Dolphins to finish first or second in the AFC East.
Fact is, most experts are claiming the Bills have passed the Dolphins -- which, if true, would make Miami the worst team in the AFC East.
I'm not so sure that is true. The Bill still have their problems. And the Jets don't scare anyone.
I see the Dolphins as a 7-9 or 8-8 team. Don't hold me to that. I have yet to see them practice. I have yet to see them play a preseason game. I have yet to see the new coaching staff in action. Injuries here and around the league can rehape matters.
I'm simply measuring the team's relative strengths and weaknesses compared to other teams on paper. And I'm doing that today -- before camp even opens. So this isn't gospel, OK?
I'm simply comparing Miami's offensive line to others around the NFL. I'm comparing quarterback talent, wide receiver talent, etc ... to other NFL teams. A 10 is as strong as a team can get. A one is as weak as it can be at any position.
Miami's defense, by the way, seems more talented than the offense right now. For our purposes I'm going to break down the strength of both units by position with the offense featured in this post.
Running back: I really like where Miami sits here. Reggie Bush is coming off a career season but because the Dolphins have not rewarded him with a new contract (neither has he asked, by the way) it can be argued Bush will still have something to prove this year. That's good work from the front office. Let him prove himself again by staying healthy and playing well. If he does it again, he deserves to be re-signed. If he doesn't, then we'll understand 2011 was an mirage. It must be said that last year's coaching staff ultimately had a good vision for Bush in that he carried the ball 216 times, stayed healthy, gained 5 yards per carry and was, in my opinion, the best offensive player on the team. I don't know that this staff shares the same philosophy for Bush. I think they want to get him out in space more, particularly on short passes out of the backfield or in the slot. Daniel Thomas was something of a disappointment to me last year. He averaged only 3.5 yards per carry and ran soft early in the season and again late in the season. He simply was not consistent. If he gets 150 rushes this year and raises that average to 4-4.2 yards per carry, the Dolphins will have a viable Plan B behind Bush. Rookie Lamar Miller was my favorite draft pick by Miami. If he can stay healthy, he can bring speed to the RB spot that not even Bush offers. If he doesn't get it right away, he can compete for kickoff return and perhaps even punt return work. And his future is bright. Steve Slaton, meanwhile, would be a great fit as a kick returner. He got only three returns last year and showed great promise but the coaching staff decided that alone could not keep him active on game days. Making the team will be a fight for Slaton. OVERALL STRENGTH: 7.
Quarterback: Reports I'm reading from the time I was away are speculating that Ryan Tannehill is already out of the running for an opportunity to start. Really? That's not what a team source suggested to me today. The source told me the club very much wants Tannehill signed and in camp as soon as possible so that he won't be behind in the competition with the veterans. The club wants Tannehill to compete and compete hard for the chance to start. No, he might not win the competition, but to suggest he's already lost it is not accurate. Saying that, it will be hard for Tannehill to beat out both David Garrard and Matt Moore in training camp. They have the experience advantage and simply know how to be professionals. Tannehill has to learn that. But make no mistake, Tannehill is the future while Garrard and Moore are caretaker QBs for the present. If Garrard and Moore are at their best in camp, the decision between them will be interesting in that they are opposites. Garrard at his best doesn't beat you. He won't throw the interception but neither will he throw the 75-yard pass. Moore is more a down-the-field guy. At his best, he might throw a costly pick but will find two improbable throws for a TD. Neither has been exceedingly consistent during their careers. Can either be consistent enough during camp to be the clear choice as the starter? We'll see. Either way, the Dolphins will again enter the season searching for their starter. That, friends, is not the place to be for an NFL team that if it plans to compete for a postseason spot. OVERALL STRENGTH: 5.
Offensive line: The Miami line should be better this year in that it will be more athletic. But the improvement could be muted initially by a lack of experience. You must remember that while the right tackle spot was a big swinging gate to the QB last year, Marc Colombo was at least experienced. He knew the tricks. No one Miami puts at that position this year, least of which rookie second-round pick Jonathan Martin, will have the experience that Colombo had. Any of the candidates may be more mobile and athletic, but not more experienced. It will be up to the coaches and the candidates to do quick work to get up to speed. By the way, Lydon Murtha, who was supposed to compete for the job last year, still might do so this year. But he is seemingly always injured and isn't much more experienced than Martin who is a rookie. That's not good. I expect a signifant jump in ability from center Mike Pouncey. I believe he can be a Pro Bowl player if he takes another step and stays healthy. I know Jake Long has been working hard to be as healthy as he's been since 2009. I think Richie Incognito is solid. Right guard? Still a mystery. OVERALL STRENGTH: 6 with a chance of being an 8 if everything goes right.
Tight ends: Anthony Fasano is good. He is not great. His hands seemed to improve last season and so did his redzone presence. He continues to come up with big plays and that's why his average yards per catch increased to a career high 14.1 last year. Having said that, the Dolphins see Charles Clay as a more promising downfield threat. Clay averaged 14.6 yards per catch as a rookie and seemed much more comfortable the latter part of last season, probably a product of getting his rookie legs under him. If the Dolphins are going to have a breakout tight end this year, Clay will be that guy. The club will use double tights a good deal so there will be plenty of opportunities. Rookie Micheal Egnew? Prospect. Project. Egnew is a hope for the future but hardly someone that can be counted on immediately. OVERALL STRENGTH: 6.
Wide receivers: Chad Johnson was the most impressive wide receiver in the late OTAs sessions. That's great for Chad Johnson but what does it say for a group when the 34-year-old guy whose stats have been on the decline and just got cut in New England is the most impressive guy? Truth be told, the Dolphins need someone to surprise. They need a fantastic bounce-back season from Johnson. Or they need Clyde Gates, Marlon Moore or Roberto Wallace to finally develop. Or perhaps Julius Pruitt, B.J. Cunningham or Jeff Fuller surprise from out of nowhere. Failing that, the same production from the same group of the past couple of seasons simply isn't going to be good enough. That kind of production got the Dolphins to three consecutive losing seasons. The Dolphins need someone special to emerge out of this group. Right now, no one can identify that player. OVERALL STRENGTH: 4.
Tomorrow: The defense.