So... how was your 2013? Most likely, it wasn't weird in the same way the Miami Dolphins' 2013 was weird. Unless you were involved in a very public bullying scandal that demolished two-fifths of your offensive line and put you in the crosshairs of the Commissioner's office, and the personification of organizational dysfunction. Now that both Richie Incognito (unemployed) and Jonathan Martin (San Francisco 49ers) are off the roster, it's up to general manager Dennis Hickey and head coach Joe Philbin to not only turn things around, but to somehow prove that a Dolphins franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 2008, and hasn't won a playoff game since 2000 is on the right track.
The good news is that there does appear to be a level of consistency in the talent acquisition department that was never there when former GM Jeff Ireland was in charge. Hickey moved decisively to shore up the team's offensive line, signed running back Knowshon Moreno from the Broncos, and is trying his best to reverse the course.
“Joe (Philbin) and I are working together on this," Hickey said at the scouting combine in February, when asked about the much-publicized culture change. "Leading up to this, we met with each department and laid out, restated and reinforced our vision of who we want to be, a culture of respect, communication and laying out that foundation and being intentional about communication throughout the building. Those are some of the steps that we have taken and will continue to take. We take this serious in our culture and who we want to be, and we want to set the standard around the league.”
Easier said than done. But on paper, at least, the Dolphins are off to a much better start this year than last. A low bar to be sure, but you've got to start somewhere.
Best acquisition: OT Branden Albert
Even if Martin had stayed with the Dolphins instead of becoming Incognito's victim, there would have been issues... Martin wasn't a top-level left tackle at Stanford, so putting him in that position at the NFL level was problematic at best. Hickey didn't create that problem, but he inherited it. He also solved it in the offseason by acquiring Albert, the 2013 Pro Bowler who started 83 games for the Chief over six seasons. In 2013, Martin gave up seven sacks in just 298 snaps, one season after allowing six sacks (but 47 quarterback hurries). Meanwhile, Albert allowed just four sacks in 883 snaps last season, and one sack in 722 snaps in 2012. Given that no quarterback faced more pressure than Ryan Tannehill last year -- especially on the blind side -- the five-year, $46 million deal Miami have Albert in free agency could be a relative bargain if he stays at his current level and avoids injury. Nobody will appreciate his presence more than the Dolphins' quarterback.
Biggest loss: DT Paul Soliai
The Dolphins lost Soliai to the Falcons, who outbid everyone in an attempt to get bigger and stronger on their defensive line. Playing left and right defensive tackle for Miami since 2007, Soliai proved that while he isn't an elite pass-rusher, he's a load to block at 6-4 and 344 pounds, and he's quite difficult to consistently stop when he's shutting down the run game. The plan is to replace Soliai with former Texans tackle Earl Mitchell, though Mitchell is a very different type of player. For one thing, Mitchell plays about 50 pounds lighter.
Underrated draft pick: OL Billy Turner, North Dakota State (third round, 67th overall pick)
The Dolphins selected Tennessee tackle JuWuan James in the first round, and James is projected to replace Tyson Clabo at right tackle. But watch out for Turner in the long term as a possible sleeper starter, perhaps moving inside to guard. The 6-5, 315-pound Turner, who starred for the three-time FCS champions and gained more national acclaim after the Bison upset Kansas State last August. Turner will need to develop strength in his lower body, and a position switch could take time, but he plays with surprisingly good technique and a ferocious temperament.
Looming question for training camp: Can Ryan Tannehill take the next step?
Considering that he was under siege all season, Tannehill's total of 24 touchdowns to 17 interceptions in 2013 was fairly impressive. Coming into his third season, and with a dramatically redefined offensive line, it's time for Tannehill to add to his game, and that's something he clearly understands.
" I have to make a big jump, I'm aware of that," Tannehill said in April. "I’m putting in the work, putting in the time to get myself physically ready, mentally ready and learn this new offense that we’re going with this year. So there is still work to be done. But I look for a big jump in myself, both in production and wins. That’s what we ultimately play for is wins. So, I’m excited to see what this team does."
The new offense is in the hands of first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who replaces Mike Sherman and will reportedly feature a more high-volume passing game with a quicker tempo. Tannehill needs to become more consistent with his mechanics, which will lead to better accuracy, especially downfield -- last season, he completed just 16 passes in 64 attempts in which the ball went 20 or more yards in the air. And he'll need to be better with multiple-read concepts, though a speed offense could mitigate that issue to a degree. In any case, the Dolphins -- despite their turbulent last year -- are actually set up to make a decent amount of noise in the AFC East, and they'll go about as far as Tannehill can take them.