The NFL season is approaching and Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams, counting down our power rankings with one team a day until No. 1 is unveiled on Aug. 4, when the preseason kicks off with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton. Go to our Facebook page after you read the preview for all airing of grievances; we’ll have a daily discussion there to go with each preview.
The Miami Dolphins' first season under head coach Joe Philbin should be considered a success. The Dolphins survived having HBO and NFL Films document their training camp for "Hard Knocks" and remained in playoff contention entering November before losing five of six games during a tough, middle portion of their schedule.
On the field, Miami's defense was solid, particularly against the run, but the pass rush was inconsistent and the unit failed to create turnovers. The Dolphins' offense was limited by a lack of weapons in the passing game and the inexperience of first-round quarterback Ryan Tannehill. In 16 starts, a figure that nearly matched his college totals, Tannehill completed nearly 60 percent of 484 pass attempts for 3,294 yards with 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. For a prospect as inexperienced as Tannehill, he demonstrated excellent poise and appears to have all the tools to become a franchise quarterback.
Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland needs Tannehill to take the next step in 2013. Ireland is entering the final year of his contract and likely needs a playoff appearance to get an extension from owner Stephen Ross. To make the postseason, the Dolphins will need new veteran leaders to emerge (the leadership committee of Jake Long, Reggie Bush and Karlos Dansby from last season are all ex-Dolphins now) and for Ireland's draft picks and free agent additions to pay off.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Overall, Jeff Ireland & Co. (a group that includes Brian Gaine, a future NFL GM) have upgraded the Dolphins' roster. The Dolphins have provided Tannehill with more weapons in the passing game, signing wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson and tight end Dustin Keller in free agency and using a fourth-round pick tight end Dion Sims. On defense, the loss of Sean Smith will hurt (6-foot-3 corners do not grow on trees), but could be mitigated if first-round defensive end Dion Jordan helps improve the pass rush. Jordan has outstanding measurables, but his college production wasn't always there. The Dolphins added cornerback Brent Grimes in free agency and used Top 100 picks on cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis, who could be pressed into starting duty as early as 2014. The Dolphins also spent big to revamp their linebacker corps, parting ways with aging veterans Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett and signing slightly younger veterans Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler to five-year deals totaling $61 million with $30 million in guaranteed money.
Best offseason acquisition: Miami's interest in Wallace was one of the worst-kept secrets in the days leading up to the start of the 2013 league year. On the opening day of free agency, the Dolphins signed the former Pittsburgh Steelers wideout to a five-year, $60 million contract with $30 million in guaranteed money. Wallace caught 235 passes for 4,042 yards and 32 touchdowns during his four seasons in the league. According to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, Wallace ranked in the Top 20 among NFL receivers in DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) during his first three seasons in the league and was first with 458 DYAR and 49.0% DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) in 2010. Wallace adds a sorely-needed deep threat element to the Dolphins offense, but he's equally as dangerous on short and intermediate routes and should help improve a passing offense that ranked 26th in the NFL last season.
Biggest hole on the roster: : If there is a weak spot on the Dolphins' roster, it's at running back. Lamar Miller played very little as a rookie and is expected to take on a much larger role in 2013. At 6-foot and 233 pounds, Daniel Thomas has the size to be an outstanding short-yardage and goal-line back, but the 2011 second-round pick is more of a finesse runner. The Dolphins draft Mike Gillislee in the fifth-round of the 2013 NFL draft. Gillislee had 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns in one season as the primary back at the University of Florida and will likely be a special teams player as a rookie. Even at fullback, the Dolphins are not content with standing pat with Jorvorskie Lane, who played well at times as a rookie, but has battled weight issues. Miami is aggressively pursuing three-time Pro Bowler Vonta Leach, who played for Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman with the Green Bay Packers and was released for financial reasons by the Baltimore Ravens.
Position in flux: : Two seasons ago, it would have been unthinkable to suggest that the Dolphins would let perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long test the free agent market. Long, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 NFL draft, was an iron man who made annual appearances in the Pro Bowl during his first three seasons in the league. Back, biceps and triceps injuries kept Long out of six games over the next two seasons, each of which ending with the Dolphins placing Long on injured reserve with arm injuries. Long also played through knee and shoulder issues, and those medical issues prevented the Dolphins from making long-term financial commitment. Long left for greener pastures and a fresh start with the St. Louis Rams.
With Long out of the pictures, the Dolphins plan to move 2012 second-round pick Jonathan Martin to left tackle and signed veteran Tyson Clabo, a "cap casualty" of the Atlanta Falcons, to play right tackle. Martin struggled at right tackle as a rookie and will have even greater responsibilities protecting Tannehill's blind side this season. Clabo got a one-year deal (worth $3.5 million) and is the definition of a stop-gap signing. The long-term plan is for Martin and 2013 third-round pick Dallas Thomas to become the bookend tackles. Thomas is coming off shoulder surgery, but could man the left tackle position in 2014 with Martin moving back to the right side.
Player you may not have heard of yet, but will soon: : According to official NFL playing-time documents, running back Lamar Miller only played 13.8 percent of the Dolphins' offense snaps (and 8.71 percent of the special teams snaps) last season. Miller was inactive twice, was active, but did not play once, and had four games where he had zero carries. So if you haven't heard of Miller yet, you're excused. You also won't have to wait too long to see him in 2013. Miller's combination of size (5-foot-11, 218 pounds) and speed (4.34 in the 40-yard dash at the 2012 combine) made Reggie Bush expendable and has him ahead of the more highly-drafted Thomas on the depth chart entering training camp. If Miller improves on his blocking to where he can be used on all three downs, the Dolphins will have a star in the backfield.
Stat fact: In 2012, the Dolphins were one of five teams with just three pass plays of 40+ yards. Wallace had four catches of 40+ yards in 2012, which was actually a career low for him. Between 2009 and 2011, Wallace had 23 catches of 40+ yards, including 10 in 2010.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Tannehill and Wallace develop a strong rapport, the offensive line provides adequate pass protection and open holes for Miller. First-round pick Dion Jordan improves the pass rush and the secondary comes down with more than the nine interceptions it produced in 2012. The Dolphins make the playoffs and Ireland receives an extension.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: Tannehill has a sophomore slump, or falls victim to a weak offensive line, Wallace is a bust and the short-term free agent additions (Grimes, Clabo, tight end Dustin Keller) don't pan out. The Dolphins miss the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season and owner Stephen Ross makes major changes to the front office.
The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: The NFL is and has been a quarterback-driven league, but Wallace is the difference-maker the Dolphins' offense has lacked for a number of seasons. If Wallace performs at a $12 million per year level, the Dolphins will put more points on the scoreboard. For a 7-9 team that struggled to put 20 points on the board lat season, and lost four games by five points or less, a few more points per game could be the difference between football in January and a search for a new general manager.
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32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles