Ryan Tannehill should be surrounded with much better weapons in 2012. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
If the NFL’s championship was decided by which team makes the biggest free-agent acquisitions, Miami would be the clear-cut frontrunner for 2013. After missing the playoffs for the 10th time in the last 11 seasons, general manager Jeff Ireland gave every indication the Dolphins are “all-in” this season, signing big-name free-agents left and right and splashing plenty of cash along the way, all in an effort to put this team in a position to challenge the New England Patriots for a division title.
The price tags some of Miami’s new signings commanded -- Mike Wallace (5-years, $60 million) and Dannell Ellerbe (5-years, $35 million) in particular -- are questionable, but Ireland didn’t really have a choice. He had come under intense scrutiny in recent years for misguided personnel decisions, and there’s a growing sense he needs to push the Dolphins into the playoff picture this season to save his job.
There’s little doubt the Dolphins should be better. From top to bottom, there’s more talent and depth at almost every position, and if quarterback Ryan Tannehill can take the proverbial sophomore “leap,” a playoff berth is well within reach.
With New England enduring one of the most tumultuous offseasons of any team in the league, the Bills in rebuilding mode and the Jets struggling to find an identity and a starting quarterback, the door to an AFC East crown -- long considered New England's to lose -- appears to have been cracked open.
Miami might well be able to take advantage.
- Biggest storyline: The development of Ryan Tannehill.
The near-instant success of three rookie quarterbacks (Washington’s Robert Griffin III, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck) was one of the biggest and most thrilling storylines of 2012. Tannehill was drafted right along with those three, but never reached the same level of performance (or corresponding celebrity) at any point last season. He was mostly overlooked -- in part because his team, unlike the Redskins, Colts and Seahawks, was never really in contention to make the playoffs.
Tannehill also didn’t play nearly as well as his contemporaries, and his supporting cast didn’t exactly help matters (no receiver caught more than one touchdown pass). Furnishing Tannehill with some legitimate perimeter firepower was one of Ireland’s biggest goals this offseason, one he appears to have accomplished. Wallace is one of the most explosive deep threats in the league, and slot receiver Brandon Gibson was productive in spurts for Saint Louis last season. Former Jets tight end Dustin Keller would have added to Miami’s retooled passing attack, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in a preseason loss to Houston.
A year of experience in Joe Philbin’s West Coast offense will benefit Tannehill as he looks to develop a rapport with the batch of new skill players surrounding him. He may not have gotten RGIII-, Wilson- or Luck-type media love last season, but if Tannehill and his new receiving targets are on the same wavelength, the 2012 draft QB class will soon identify with four, not three, rising star signal-callers.
- Most intriguing position battle: Running back.
Entering training camp, it seemed Miller, a fourth-round pick out of Miami in 2012, would win the starting running back job with relative ease. Bruising third-year back Daniel Thomas has made up ground quickly and the current situation -- based both on comments from Philbin and the division of first team repetitions in training camp -- implies the race is nowhere close to being settled.
Miller is the faster, more elusive back, and many believe his versatility and explosiveness make him the best possible replacement for Reggie Bush, but his resume (at least compared to Thomas, who has compiled 265 carries over two seasons) is short on NFL experience and long on unfulfilled college hype. If Miller lives up to his billing, or even comes close to his goal of rushing for 1,500 yards, Miami will have made the right choice. Thomas is the safer option, although his 3.5 yards-per-carry average doesn’t inspire confidence he can give Miami any sort of big-play potential. In the end, Philbin could wind up employing a two-headed attack, with Thomas handling short-yardage situations and Miller being used on first and second down.
Make no mistake: this is a good problem to have. Neither Miller nor Thomas are proven entities, but the combination of the two should help Miami fill the void left by Bush’s departure and bring balance to an offense expected to feature a more prominent vertical passing component this season.
- New face, new place: Mike Wallace, WR.
Maybe the most encouraging takeaway from Miami's preseason games so far is the way Tannehill and Wallace have looked comfortable moving the ball down the field and stretching opposing defenses. Wallace had missed much of training camp with a groin injury, and it was important that he and Tannehill get enough reps in game situations before the season opener at Cleveland. They have connected on several occasions this preseason -- most notably during Wallace's impressive 3-catch, 58-yard performance in a loss to Houston -- and their mutual comfort in the offense should only improve going forward.
There are few players in the league with better straightline speed and big-play ability than Wallace. He truly possesses the capability to, as scouts like to say, “take the top off the defense.” Wallace provides exactly what Miami desperately lacked last season: a viable deep threat. Tannehill is not known as an accurate deep-ball thrower, but As SI’s Don Banks noted in a recent column, Miami completed just 42 pass plays of 20-plus-yards last season. Simply put: Tannehill hasn’t had much practice throwing the ball deep.
With Wallace in the fold, Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman should introduce more deep passing plays into Miami’s previously bland aerial attack. Wallace has a good shot at broaching the 1,000-yard receiving threshold for the third time in four years (he finished with 1,257 yards and 1,193 yards with Pittsburgh in 2010 and '11, respectively), and his ability to stretch the field will open up opportunities underneath for Miami’s intermediate targets.
- Impact rookie: Caleb Sturgis, K.
Two weeks ago, Miami cut veteran kicker Dan Carpenter, slashing $2.675 million in payroll and vaulting Sturgis, a fifth-round pick out of Florida, into the starting role. Sturgis tallied 106 total points in 2012 (the 11th most in SEC history), converted eight field goals of 50-or-more yards over three seasons and finished with a career 79.5 make rate, the second best mark of any UF kicker.
It also helps that Sturgis’ four-year salary amounts to less than what Carpenter would have received this season, but -- salary concerns aside -- the rookie might have beaten Carpenter out, anyway. He has looked sharp throughout training camp, flashing impressive leg strength and accuracy, and converted a 58-yard field goal in a preseason win over the Jaguars. He also connected on a 43-yard try with just over two minutes remaining in the Houston loss.
Going with Sturgis over Carpenter was a perfectly reasonable move. The competition between the two was close enough whereby salary considerations -- namely, dumping Carpenter’s hefty sum -- overrode whatever uncertainty remained about discarding a sturdy veteran and tabbing a rookie as the starter.
- Looking at the schedule: Playoff-friendly.
Three prime-time games highlight Miami’s schedule, which ranks as the fifth hardest in the league as measured by opponent win percentage. One of those games, a Week 3 Monday night trip to New Orleans, concludes a rigorous opening month featuring three road games and home date with Atlanta.
An early Week 6 bye should allow Miami to regroup after a brutal five-week opening stretch, and the rest of the schedule doesn’t seem nearly as challenging. Trips to New England, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh are daunting, but the Dolphins get most of their difficult post-bye games at home: Cincinnati (Week 9), San Diego (Week 11), New England (Week 15).
This schedule doesn’t lack for intrigue, nor will it be “easy,” per say. But there are enough opportunities, particularly after Halloween, for Miami to be confident in its ability to not only eclipse last season’s seven-win total, but push New England at the top of the AFC East and challenge for a playoff spot.