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June 22, 2014

Concerns still linger for Dolphins as summer begins; Dolphins, Heat, Marlins chatter

SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN

Dolphins chatter, following Thursday's conclusion of the offseason program, and a month before training camp opens July 25:

### We’re trying to be optimistic. Really.

But it’s difficult to gloss over serious concerns about this roster and this team’s deficiencies --- from run defense (24th in the league in 2013) to chemistry between the quarterback and star receiver (Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace connected on 6 of 36 throws of 20-plus yards last season) to the offensive line (toasted for eight sacks in Thursday’s scrimmage, albeit without pads).

The defense has replaced perhaps its most stout run stopper (Paul Soliai) with Earl Mitchell, who ranked 57th of 69 tackles against the run last season, according to play-by-play analysis by ProFootballFocus.com. (Soliai was 16th.)

The only other major front seven personnel change: Koa Misi moving to middle linebacker, flip-flopping with Dannell Ellerbe.

“We’ve got to find a way to get Koa on the field more,” Cameron Wake said. “He runs around like his hair’s on fire. He’s strong at the point of attack and fearless.”

But is that enough to substantially improve a unit that allowed 1998 rushing yards (their most in six years), including 140 by a then-winless Tampa team? We’re skeptical.

As for the offensive line, left tackle Branden Albert assuredly will be an upgrade, but his two sacks allowed to Olivier Vernon Thursday were reminiscent of the swinging door we saw at the position last season.

Right tackle Ja’Wuan James, who also allowed a sack Thursday, hasn’t embarrassed himself in the offseason program but remains something of an unknown.

A former NFL general manager said he spoke to several current GMs and all believed the Dolphins reached for James at No. 19 and that he wasn’t worthy of being selected that high. We’ll see.

“We had James as a late-first rounder,” one NFC scout said. “He has first-round talent but you want more of a finisher, more production for a player with his size and skill level. He’s a quiet country kid. I’m not sure he wants to lead a unit.”

Shelley Smith? He’s an ascending player, but remember, he started just eight games in three seasons for the Rams.

And though Dallas Thomas’ improvement and weight loss are commendable, he couldn’t crack the lineup despite Miami’s dismal offensive line play in 2013. And he’s now being projected as a potential starter. 

The chemistry between Tannehill and Wallace also remains a question, with Wallace catching only one of four passes thrown to him by Tannehill on Thursday.

Last season, Wallace caught 53.3 percent of passes thrown to him --- 23rd-worst of 111 NFL receivers. Many were Tannehill’s fault, but Wallace’s 11 drops tied for fifth in the league.

Wallace said they have connected on “three or four” of six deep balls in offseason practices, but why have they attempted so few?

### Positives? Several. Among them: Jamar Taylor looks much improved. This group of defensive ends should be among the best in the AFC, from a pass rushing standpoint.

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s pre-snap motion and willingness to allow Wallace to vary where he lines up will confuse teams, or as Tannehill said, “We’re going to put people in positions they don’t want to be on defense, get the ball to our playmakers all over the field.”

And the Dolphins have probably eight or so NFL-caliber players at receiver, including second-round pick Jarvis Landry, who Tannehill says has the strongest hands he has ever seen.

“Landry is awesome,” quarterback Matt Moore said. “He came in with a veteran mindset. His catching skills are off the charts. He’s going to help us a lot.” One NFC scout predicted “Landry’s going to be a great No. 2 receiver” eventually. 

### Cornerback Cortland Finnegan, trying to rebound from two disappointing seasons, looked good this offseason before sitting out last week to rest his knees.

One NFC front office executive said Finnegan has a good chance to rejuvenate his career here partly because he wasn't properly used by former Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton, the ex-UM coordinator who was fired by the Rams after last season.

When I asked Finnegan about that last week, he said Walton’s defensive system was “atrocious. From the game plan to technique to fundamentals, they weren’t in line with a defensive coordinator who knew what he was doing. He was a great defensive backs coach, but when you're in over your head, it's kind of tough... Here coaches know to play guys to their strengths. I wish I had been here a long time ago. [Coordinator Kevin] Coyle is so good at dissecting offenses.”  

After two disappointing seasons, does Finnegan, at 30, still have the same skill set he showed as a Pro Bowler for Tennessee six years ago? “It’s still there,” he said. “But until I prove it, we’ll never know.”

### Lazor is being very demanding with his quarterbacks, but his tight ends are getting no slack, either.

"We have the second hardest job next to the quarterback," Dion Sims, who's holding down the No. 2 tight end job, said last week. "It's our job to know every position [H-back, etc]. It's tough on us."

Michael Egnew was scolded by Lazor after forgetting one play, but Egnew has been a generally reliable pass catching target in the 10-to-20 yard range throughout the offseason program.

### We're still concerned about the linebackers in pass coverage. Philip Wheeler has been poor in that area the past two years (2012 in Oakland, 2013 here) but made some decent plays in coverage during OTAs and mini-camp practices open to the media.

Ellerbe, in pass coverage, was beaten several times by running backs and tight ends in the off-season program during the open media sessions. Perhaps Jelani Jenkins, who has impressed the coaches, will fill this void. 

### With their stadium deal approved, the Dolphins won’t ever again need to worry about Norman Braman, with whom they met previously to try to persuade him to stop speaking out against Stephen Ross’ 2013 bid for public funding. And no, Braman doesn’t approve of this agreement, either; Ross will finance renovations but will be paid by the county for luring big events.

“Why are we spending so much time coming up with ideas to help a guy worth $6 billion?” Braman asked. “I’d like as much ingenious thought given to improving the quality of life in our community, coming up with ways to keep libraries open. It’s still welfare for billionaires.”

CHATTER

### Former NBA All-Star Gary Payton said he will work with Norris Cole this summer because “I like him a lot. I like his game. He needs to develop a floater in the middle.”

Cole said last week: “I believe I’m starter-caliber.” But certainly not yet.

### Besides its one salary cap exception (either $2.7 million or $3.1 million or $5.5 million depending on multiple variables), Pat Riley noted the Heat has another vehicle to improve: a $2.2 million trade exception from the Joel Anthony deal.

That cannot be combined with the less helpful $900,000 trade exception that Miami possesses from the Toney Douglas deal.

### Among the 307 players who have shot at least 1000 three-pointers, Dwyane Wade has the second-worst career percentage (28.9), ahead of only Charles Barkley. Indiana coach Tom Crean, Wade’s friend and coach at Marquette, said it’s important for Wade to improve his three-point game as he gets older.

“The mechanism of how you shoot the ball has to change,” Riley said. “Will he be a high percentage James Jones, Mike Miller type of three-point shooter? He will make one when it counts. He is not going to be spotted up standing in the corner. He’s going to be slashing to the basket, posting guys up, getting out on the break. That’s been his game for 11 years.”

### Magic Johnson, tweeting on Riley's passionate sermon/speech/news conference Thursday: "He had me so fired up and motivated, I wish I could play for him again!"

### So Rafael Furcal (earning $3 million) is hurt again --- no surprise there.

But the good news is that  defensively erratic Derek Dietrich had been hitting well at Triple A New Orleans --- .368 over his last 10 games, and six homers in his first 13 games there since being demoted. He had one error over that period, and defense remains a concern.

Furcal, who now has a calf and hamstring injury, was hitting .171 in 11 games.

### Jarrod Saltalamacchia returned from a concussion Thursday with pressure to validate the Marlins' three-year, $21 million investment.

He has handled the pitching staff well but he returned to the lineup ranked second-worst among starting catchers in errors (eight) and percentage of base-stealers thrown out (16.7 --- 7 of 42). And his .245 (.177 since May 1, before his return a couple days ago) ranks in the bottom third.

"I should be at or better than what I hit in Boston last year [.273]," he said last week.

Twitter: @flasportsbuzz