Looking back on the Miami Dolphins' recent history, I was surprised to learn that the team has suffered through just one losing season in the past 17 years. The Dave Wannstedt era doesn't hold up as well in my memory as it does in the record book. And that one losing season, perhaps, clouds the recent success of this franchise as it was just two years ago – 4-12 in 2004. Last season, Nick Saban quickly turned the losing ship around, raising eyebrows with six straight wins to close the season at 9-7. Now Saban's enlisting the help of Daunte Culpepper – he returns to his home state of Florida after Minnesota agreed to give him up for a second-round pick – in hopes of giving his team the extra push to take it back to the playoffs.
The Dolphins allowed just 26 sacks (4th-best in the NFL) and threw for 22 TD passes (11th in the NFL) a year ago. Offensively, this a unit that is making giant strides forward, jumping from 29th in the league in total yards in '04 to 14th overall in '05. And that improvement came with the limited tool set of veteran Gus Frerotte at the helm of the offense. With Culpepper set to assume the reigns behind center in '06, it's apparent that he has got some weapons to work with.
First and foremost, he inherits one of the most talented receivers in the league in Chris Chambers, a player that can make tough, acrobatic catches in traffic and has a knack for the goal line. His skills work well in a vertical passing game and he's never played with a QB that can throw the deep ball like Culpepper. Chambers had his best fantasy season in '05, but a healthy Culpepper would make him even better. Their connection could very well be reminiscent of the hay days of Culpepper and Randy Moss in Minnesota.
Culpepper also has one of the league's top pass-catching TEs in Randy McMichael, who has averaged 67 catches, 687 yards and 4.5 TDs in the past two seasons. Culpepper has a strong track record for finding his tight end, as he hooked up with Jermaine Wiggins 71 times in '04, Jim Kleinsasser 46 times in '03 and Byron Chamberlain 57 times in '01. McMichael is young (26) and his future remains bright with Culpepper distributing the pass load.
With the signing of OT L.J. Shelton and the likelihood that the team will further bolster its offensive line via the draft, the passing game should be in great shape.
What will help Culpepper and company reach their potential is a strong running game, and the team seems to be well on its way in that regard. Last season, using a platoon of rookie Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, the Dolphins ranked 12th in the league with an average 118.6 rushing yards per game.
Williams' future is in doubt while he awaits word on his appeal of his suspension for violating the terms of the league's substance abuse policy. If he doesn't return, Brown is likely to shoulder most of the running load. He held up fairly well in his inaugural campaign, although he suffered through ankle and knee injuries late in the year, forcing a DNP in Week 16 and limiting his workload in a few other late-season contests.
If Brown is a one-man show in '06, he may have the most to gain in fantasy value. In Culpepper's most recent full-season campaigns ('03 and '04), he completed more than 100 passes to his running backs. Brown is an adept receiver, although he caught just 32 passes last season. He's likely to push that number to the 50 range as the man behind Culpepper in the backfield.
In summary, this a great gamble on Miami's part. If Culpepper can come into the '06 season healthy (he's said to be on schedule), I'm moving all of the Dolphins' skill position players up on my draft board. Chambers becomes a solid top 10 pick among WRs (instead of borderline top 10), McMichael pushes the top five of fantasy tight ends, and Ronnie Brown, depending on how the Ricky Williams issue shakes out, could enter discussions of the top dozen fantasy backs. As for Culpepper – coming off major knee surgery – move him back into your QB top five as soon as his rehab reports satisfy those concerns about his knee.
It was only a couple years ago that this team was a barren fantasy wasteland. How quickly things can change.