Shutdown Countdown: Miami Dolphins hoping for quieter season this year

Frank Schwab
Shutdown Corner
(Yahoo Sports)
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(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

The Miami Dolphins went 8-8 last season. That's rarely a cause for celebration in the NFL, but the Dolphins didn't get nearly enough credit for it.

Last year was a mess because of the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito bullying scandal that happened in the middle of the season. It the NFL's biggest story  how did that team ever have a chance to concentrate on football? and it decimated Miami's offensive line. When the Dolphins were outplayed and beaten by an 0-8 Tampa Bay team on a Monday night in early November, they fell to 4-5. If any team had an excuse to quit, this was it.

But the Dolphins then won four of their next five, with the victories against San Diego, the Jets, Pittsburgh and New England. Not a bad stretch. The only loss was to a 13-3 Panthers team. Miami, needing one more win to make the playoffs, lost to Buffalo and then the Jets at home to finish the season. It was an unfortunate finish, but that team had to be out of gas mentally and physically by the end. All told, 8-8 was a nice accomplishment for the Dolphins.

Ryan Tannehill (USA Today Sports Images)
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Ryan Tannehill (USA Today Sports Images)

The Dolphins could be better this year. Ryan Tannehill is the young star quarterback nobody talks about. He has some good weapons around him, and with the addition of former Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert, he might not take another beating this season. The defense is solid. Keeping cornerback Brent Grimes from hitting free agency was a smart move.

There are still some holes on the roster, but one would assume there's no way this season is as chaotic as 2013. Maybe when we talk about the Dolphins this year, it'll be for what they're doing on the field.

2013 review in less than 25 words: A Week 17 upset loss to the Jets kept the Dolphins from the playoffs, as Miami finished 8-8.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: It's better because the Dolphins addressed their biggest weakness. The Dolphins not only signed Albert, one of the top-end left tackles in free agency, they drafted Tennessee offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James in the first round.

Tackle Jason Fox and guard Shelley Smith were signed as well. Guard Daryn Colledge was added in June. Sense a theme? Center Mike Pouncey had hip surgery in June and might miss a few games, which is a huge blow, but the line has improved as a whole. Other additions, like running back Knowshon Moreno, safety Louis Delmas and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, might help too.

Best offseason acquisition: Albert got a five-year deal for $47 million with $25 million guaranteed. That's how much the Dolphins thought of him, and that's how important it was for Miami to solidify a left tackle situation that threatened to set back the development of Tannehill. Albert isn't a Joe Thomas/Joe Staley-level elite left tackle, but he's good, and he's a massive upgrade for Miami.

Achilles heel: The offseason buzz about running back Lamar Miller is positive, but we heard the same things this time last year. The Dolphins have shown over and over and over and over that they don't trust Miller all that much, despite his talent. That's why the team signed former Broncos starter Moreno, but Moreno was out of shape this offseason and then had arthroscopic knee surgery.

The Dolphins rushed for just 90 yards per game last year, 26th most in the NFL, and they'd probably like the run game to take some pressure off Tannehill. For that to happen, one or both of their top backs will have to earn the trust of the coaches.

Mike Pouncey (AP)
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Mike Pouncey (AP)

Position in flux: Center might be a mess until Pouncey, one of the best in the NFL, returns. The Dolphins could sign a veteran (Andre Gurode is a name that has popped up) but if a veteran is still unsigned in mid-July, there's a reason. Sam Brenner, an undrafted rookie last year who spent about half of the season on the practice squad, could fill in. Shelley Smith could move over from guard. No matter what the quick-fix solution is, the Dolphins need Pouncey back fast. 

Ready to break out: Since nobody seems to mention Tannehill when discussing up-and-coming quarterbacks, we're putting him in this category. In Tannehill's second season he threw for 3,913 yards and 24 touchdowns (up from 3,294 and 12 his rookie year), all while absorbing a league-high 58 sacks behind a horrendous offensive line. His 17 interceptions were too high, but again, horrible line play was a factor. By any reasonable measure Tannehill has done just fine his first two seasons, and showed improvement in year two. He should take another step forward this season, and then maybe some people will start talking about him.

Stat fact:The Dolphins had 20 sacks from their starting defensive ends, Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake, last season. Getting 8.5 sacks out of Wake might actually be considered a down year, because he had 15 the year before. The fact that Vernon emerged makes the Dion Jordan situation easier to swallow. Jordan, last year's third overall pick, did very little as a rookie, then was suspended four games for a PED violation. He's showing some telltale signs of being a bust, but at least the Dolphins weren't counting on him.

Schedule degree of difficulty: The Dolphins have a reasonably tough schedule, but it's favorable late. Miami plays three of its last four at home, winnable games against Baltimore, Minnesota and the Jets. A Week 15 trip to New England might be a big one.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: Is there a reason to believe the Dolphins can't be in playoff contention? They were a home win against the Jets from a playoff spot last year, there won't be anywhere near the amount of distractions this year (they hope), they had a decent offseason and their quarterback might have a third-year breakout. They're being chronically undervalued in preseason power rankings, perhaps even in this one.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: While the Dolphins' battle to 8-8 was impressive, it was still just 8-8 and six of their wins came by less than a touchdown. It was far from a dominant team. The offensive line is better but still not great. The defense is good but not great. In fact, the Dolphins don't do anything at a truly elite level, so their best hope might be to keep grinding out close wins. And if the luck changes a bit, the record will too. 

The crystal ball says: The Dolphins have some good pieces to build around, and they're probably the second-best team in the AFC East. Yet, unless Tannehill takes a mega-leap, this is probably a good team that's not good enough to make the playoffs. 

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!