The Miami Dolphins kick off training camp on Friday at the teams practice facility in Davie. 2014 is a big season for the Dolphins, especially head coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill who are both entering their third year with the team.
Coming off of a season in which Miami had to overcome numerous issues both on and off the field, there are several question marks hovering over multiple areas of the franchise.
Before the team can strap on the pads and start making its final preparations for the upcoming season I thought we could take a look at some of the bigger questions being asked about the Dolphins and their quest to end the playoff drought that has lasted the past five seasons.
Will the offensive line be able to protect Ryan Tannehill?
The biggest issue that the Dolphins had in 2013 was their inability to protect Tannehill. The offensive line gave up a franchise-record 58 sacks. Anything close to a repeat performance would spell disaster for Miami as the team needs to protect Tannehill and give him time to find his receivers and show how much he has truly improved over the past year-plus.
New general manager Dennis Hickey knew that he needed to retool the offensive line more than anything else and acted accordingly through free agency and the NFL Draft. Miami signed free-agent left tackle Brandon Albert to a five-year, $47 million contract to protect Tannehill's blind side.
They also added Shelley Smith and Jason Fox through free agency before drafting Ja'Wuan James and Billy Turner in the first and third rounds, respectively. The Dolphins also brought back Sam Brenner and Nate Garner from a season ago, both of whom played well in the midst of the o-line disaster of 2013.
The only returning offensive line starter from a season ago, Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey, will likely miss the first four games of the season recovering from hip surgery. To help fill the void, Miami signed veteran lineman Daryn Colledge to a one-year deal. Colledge has started 97 consecutive games with Green Bay and Arizona dating back to the 2007 season, though we won't know until camp starts who Philbin and new offensive line coach John Benton plan on plugging in at center in Pouncey's absence.
Can the Dolphins linebackers show improvement with the same personnel from a season ago?
The Dolphins spent a lot of money during the summer of 2013 on improving the linebacking corps but the on-field results were less than encouraging. Now coming off of an offseason in which Miami addressed several areas of need, the Dolphins are heading into training camp with the same group of linebackers that struggled equally against the pass and the run a year ago.
Miami is hoping that the answer to these problems lie within and thus have moved Dannell Ellerbe to outside linebacker (his natural position) and shifted Koa Misi to middle linebacker. Giving Ellerbe the freedom to make plays on the outside is something that Dolphins coaches feel will come naturally to him the way that it did during his years in Baltimore.
Misi is a great athlete and it's thought that his natural ability will better suit him in the middle. The problem is that Misi hasn't played any middle linebacker with the Dolphins or during his college years at the University of Utah. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to being the play-caller on defense and having the added responsibility of making sure players are lining up where they should be.
Will the Dolphins offense improve under new coordinator Bill Lazor?
Last season the Dolphins offense under former coordinator Mike Sherman became more and more frustrating as the games went by. The lack of originality was only rivaled by the harsh predictability of the play calls. Oh, and let's not forget the whole "Go" and "Go-Go" snap cadence on pass and run plays, respectively, that had Dolphins fans angry and confused as to how something so completely obvious and noticeable could be used for almost every play, game in and game out.
In the wake of a season in which Miami's offense was ranked 27th in the league and cracked 30 points just once, the team fired Sherman and replaced him with Bill Lazor. Lazor had most recently been the quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and was courted by several teams before deciding to join the Dolphins.
Lazor brings with him an up-tempo offense that will be very different from what fans have seen out of the Dolphins in recent years. Through organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp, Dolphins players haven't been shy about voicing their approval for Lazor's scheme. How much the offense can grasp that scheme and put it to work during training camp and the preseason will be the telling factor.
What's going on in the Dolphins backfield?
A year ago at this time there was a lot of excitement surrounding the Dolphins backfield. Lamar Miller was the starting running back and many expected a breakout season from the former University of Miami standout. Unfortunately that's not how things went down as Miller struggled behind a porous offensive line and didn't show much ability to create things on his own. He finished the season with 709 yards and only two touchdowns for a Miami rushing attack that ranked 26th in the league, averaging 90.0 yards per game.
To help improve in this area the Dolphins signed free-agent tailback Knowshon Moreno who was coming off of a career season with the AFC champion Denver Broncos. At the time it looked like Moreno was being brought in to take over the starting job from Miller. That hasn't been the case as of yet.
Moreno arrived at Dolphins camp somewhat out of shape and was outplayed by Miller, who received the majority of the first-team reps during OTAs and minicamp. It was later revealed that Moreno was battling a knee injury that required minor surgery, though he's expected to be ready in time for training camp. The Dolphins will need to see more out of Moreno if he wants to get more reps in Lazor's new offense, and it doesn't help his cause that Miller has looked much better working in the new scheme.
Is this the year that Ryan Tannehill distinguishes himself as an elite quarterback?
There have been a lot of peaks and valleys for Tannehill in the two years since he was selected with the eighth pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. He's shown some flashes of greatness that would justify his high draft selection but the lack of consistency in those moments has kept Tannehill viewed as an average quarterback with a high upside.
It's time to take the training wheels off and see what Tannehill can do. Under Sherman the offense was very one-dimensional and aimed to simplify things for the young quarterback. Now Tannehill is entering his third season in the league and should be able to handle whatever Lazor's new offense demands of him, especially if he's going to prove to be the Dolphins quarterback for years to come.
Tannehill spent the offseason working with his receivers and trying to learn as much as he could about the new offense. That work seemed to pay off during OTAs and minicamp. Though there were still some issues with his accuracy, mostly on the deep passes that have plagued him throughout his time in Miami, the overall result thus far has been encouraging.
Now that training camp has (almost) arrived and Tannehill has a new offensive line to work behind, hopes are high that between the new scheme and better protection the third-year quarterback will flourish. This is definitely going to be a make-or-break year for Tannehill and while there are plenty of different opinions on how good he can or will be, the one constant is that those questions will be answered by the end of the upcoming season.
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