A dividend of having a young team, as the Dolphins inarguably have, is that players can take significant leaps from their rookie or second seasons, thus helping to raise the team to a much higher level almost overnight.
Sure, some players fail to take that big step or they don't meet the expectations and potential their gifts suggest. (Such players get traded to the San Francisco 49'ers for a fifth-round pick.)
But many up-and-comers make their biggest move in their second or third years.
I was discussing this in part with former wide receiver Nat Moore on our recent day-trip to Haiti when he recounted the story of Mark Duper and Mark Clayton. Moore told of how as a rookie year, Clayton often benefitted from the fact defenses typically doubled Mark Duper on the outside or himself on the inside. Clayton was still learning and really didn't contribute much as a rookie -- six catches for 114 yards.
"But the next year when the light bulb went on for him, there was no stopping him," Moore said of Clayton. "He beat single coverage and then he figured out the game so well, he could beat double-coverage. With his talent, he just took off."
Took off like a rocket, actually. Clayton caught 73 passes for 1,389 yards and a whopping 18 touchdowns in 1984. Duper, who didn't catch a pass as a rookie in 1982, climbed to 51 in 1983 and 71 for 1,36 yards in 1984. Apparently things clicked for him as well.
Well, we should expect the 2010 Miami Dolphins to sound like a field of crickets because I expect there to be a lot of clicking going on for that young roster.
The Dolphins have players that everyone in the organization hopes are on the cusp of being big-time contributors if not outright stars.
Chief on that list is quarterback Chad Henne.
In his third season and second as the starter, Henne must have a breakthrough season for the Dolphins to make a legitimate run at the playoffs. This is the year he has to solve the accuracy and timing issues he had at times in 2009 as a first-year starter. Those were understandable then. There's a next step to take now.
I think Henne will take that step. He's too gifted, too confident, and too hard-working not to take the step. I'm not expecting him to lead the league in passing. That's not what Miami's system is initially going to ask of him.
But 24-25 touchdowns? Why not?
And as long as he keeps the mistakes to maybe 10-12 interceptions, things will be very, very good in Miami.
Of course, Henne will need help. And there's a good chance he'll get it. Here is a list of other players I believe can have a breakout year in 2010. You'll notice some folks are missing. I'm being conservative here. I'm sure you will add the missing names in the comments section.
This is my list:
Brian Hartline: I predict he will win the starting job opposite Brandon Marshall. He is bigger than Davone Bess, faster than Greg Camarillo and he can play all three WR positions. He's a smart guy. He's mature. He gets it. He has shown reliable hands. No, he is not a burner. But he did run track in high school and I believe he's fast enough to hurt defenses when their focus is on Marshall.
Vontae Davis: It took him a while to find his NFL niche. He was raw and a little wide-eyed at first. But he is tough, he is as athletic as they come, he's fearless and there's no quit in him -- as evidence by that TD-saving tackle from behind on a kickoff last year. Davis suffered something of a setback with a wrist injury earlier this offseason. But there has been no mention of that lately and if he continues to rise at the rate he did after the midpoint of 2009, he'll be the second-best cornerback in the AFC East by the end of 2010.
I wanted to include Cameron Wake. I even had his paragraph written up. But I just need to see more. The fact is he was very explosive as a pass-rusher, but still had only one sack the final four games of the season when he was getting his most playing time. Wake might bust out with 14 sacks in 2010 and that would surprise no one. But he also might have six sacks in 2010 and, well, that would surprise no one. It will all depend on whether things clicked for him.