The Miami Dolphins kick off their preseason slate Saturday night in Tampa Bay against the Buccaneers. It will be Mike McDaniel’s inaugural in-game action as head coach, as he officially becomes the 11th (14th including interims) coach in franchise history.
While this is his 16th season as a coach in this league, McDaniel is a rookie as head coach and enters 2022 with a Dolphins team on a two-year winning record streak, despite missing the postseason both years. The Dolphins are looking for their first appearance in the playoffs since 2016 and seeking a victory in the tournament for the first time since the 2000 season.
In the 10 seasons Miami has played under a new coach, the franchise is 75-81 with four coaches leading the Dolphins to the playoffs in their first season – Don Shula in 1970, Dave Wannstedt in 2000, Tony Sparano in 2008 and Adam Gase in 2016.
McDaniel and the Dolphins will face a Buccaneers team just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl victory, and while they may be without Tom Brady because of personal reasons, this is still a strong litmus test for this Miami – a team that enters 2022 with their highest expectations in nearly two decades.
Here are a few things to be focused on during the contest.
Wide receiver showcase
There’s no question that the Dolphins’ wide receiver room will have cuts or even trades in the coming weeks. Rookie draft pick Erik Ezukanma and undrafted upstart Braylon Sanders have caused a good problem of an influx of talent in the room.
Veterans Preston Williams and Lynn Bowden Jr. have a steep hill to climb with next to zero room for error in a few regards. Not only are they making a last-ditch effort to remain Dolphins, but they do also have an opportunity to put solid reps on film to enhance their trade value.
While each possesses a unique skill set, and potential to boot, injuries and inconsistency have plagued them both. Veteran Mohamed Sanu being signed this summer didn’t help their cause, as well as the additions of Trent Sherfield and River Cracraft.
Ironically, it was a 2019 preseason game where Williams wowed Miami fans in the team’s first summer contest with a number of highlight-reel catches. Just three years later, it’s Sanders who could steal the show on Saturday.
Throwing to the receivers for the majority of the game could be 2022 seventh-round pick Skylar Thompson. Thompson will make a push to make this roster as the third quarterback, and a tremendous preseason could even close the gap between him and backup Teddy Bridgewater. Tua Tagovailoa could see very limited action, perhaps a series.
Offensive line configurations
The issues with the Dolphins’ offense over the last few seasons started with inconsistency from the offensive line. No need to rehash the rankings, but the 2022 season brings two new veterans and progression from Miami’s draft picks.
Premier free agent left tackle Terron Armstead joins the team to lead and anchor a line with five players that Miami has selected in the top three rounds since 2019. Throw in another free agent acquisition in Connor Williams, and Miami’s line has the ability to make a quantum leap in performance as a whole.
The issues at the moment are two-fold. Williams has performed admirably as a left guard in his four seasons as a Dallas Cowboy. Miami will be using him at center, and through training camp, he’s been solid despite some snapping yips.
Behind Williams (and not so far) is Michael Deiter, Miami’s 2019 third-round pick from Wisconsin. Deiter was in a walking boot for most of camp so far but looks to be available against the Buccaneers.
Deiter played guard as a rookie and NFL sophomore, but when getting the nod at center in 2021, Miami was 5-3 while he snapped. His injury knocked him out following Week 3, but after his return, Miami was 4-1 to finish the season while he was under center.
At the moment, the former Badger is the line’s sixth-man and will be a backup center and swing guard in a pinch. Depth is something Miami should highlight Saturday with guys like Robert Jones and 2022 undrafted free agents Blaise Andries and Kellen Diesch.
The safest starters to assume would be Armstead at left tackle and 2020 second-rounder Robert Hunt at right guard. Liam Eichenberg, a 2021 second-rounder, and Austin Jackson will each be in the mix to be among the starting five. Solomon Kindley, another 2020 second-round pick, will be a depth player who could see quality snaps Saturday.
Other candidates to watch under center Saturday would be veteran Adam Pankey and Cole Banwart.
New holder in the house
Simply put, the snap-to-hold-to-kick battery is a fascinating aspect of football that’s often overlooked. A vital component of the place-kicking game is a kicker’s confidence and comfort in the hold of the ball.
Jason Sanders, an All-Pro in 2020, was “off” last season, and it’s been speculated that a glaring reason was a difference in the holder.
2020 saw punter Matt Haack hold for Sanders, who was a remarkable 36-of-39 in his field goals attempts and perfect on 36 point-after-tries. Sanders recently had the longest active PAT streak in the NFL, making 69 consecutive extra points. Beginning on Dec. 15, 2019, and ending on Nov. 28, 2021, Sanders had 31 games of perfect point-afters.
2021 saw a new punter and holder in Michael Palardy, and while there was a noticeable difference in holding technique and fundamentals, the statistics showed proof it matters.
Sanders made 92.3% of attempts in 2020 and just 74.2% last season. Distance is rarely, if ever, a problem, and shanks are few and far between. It’s the holding nuance to the game that new punter/holder Thomas Morstead could help right Sanders’ right foot.
As per a conversation last season with Sanders’ former kicking coach, even during his college days at New Mexico, the kicking percentages were inconsistent. Despite a near-perfect 111/112 PAT collegiate track record, field goals fluctuated.
During his college career, he went 25 of 35 in his field goal attempts. His junior year was notably different than his senior year at 92.3% and 66.7%, respectively.
Sanders, drafted in 2018 by Miami in the seventh round, caught the eye of then-Dolphins special teams coach Darren Rizzi. He saw leg and accuracy potential in Sanders, as well as putrid holding during his senior season. You’d be hard-pressed finding a kicker who put up a 66% field goal percentage his senior year that got his name called in an NFL draft.
Look for Morstead to make life easier for Sanders, and the proof could start tonight on way to a bounce-back year.