Training camp is just three short days away from commencing throughout the NFL, as the 2014 version of the Miami Dolphins are set to take the field bright and early Friday morning. With players and coaches returning from their month-long hiatus, final preparations are underway around the facility as the offseason has officially come to a close.
Monday on The Finsiders, the proverbial final offseason chapter was written as well, as the crew completed their final AFC East positional breakdown with the linebacker position, wrapping up the two week, eight part series. Looking back, it’s evident that the Dolphins, much like the rest of the division, have certain areas of strength and durability, and other areas where they’ll need to work harder at over the next six weeks.
First and foremost, the strength of this team, and more notably the offense, is at the wide receiver position. The Dolphins appear to hold a significant edge over the rest of the division in this area, and with guys like Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, and Brandon Gibson, they should. Those three were the nucleus of the offensive attack a season ago, and it doesn’t stop there, as third year man Rishard Matthews, and newcomer Jarvis Landry, give the Dolphins more depth at the position than any other team in the division. Fomer Dolphins wide receiver O.J. McDuffie expects an even bigger year out of this unit this season, especially with the change at offensive coordinator.
“As a whole, you have to look at the Miami Dolphins in the AFC East as having the best group of receivers,” McDuffie said. “If you can get [Mike] Wallace and [Brian] Hartline going in Bill Lazor’s new offense like it’s looking so far, it can literally be lights out the way they look out there.”
While the Dolphins do appear to be the team to beat when it comes to receivers, don’t overlook the Buffalo Bills, who opened camp on Sunday. The Bills drafted top receiver Sammy Watkins fourth overall in May’s draft, and, according to McDuffie, the pairing of Watkins with second year man Robert Woods can be a scary combination.
“I like Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins in Buffalo,” McDuffie said, “that’s the one you have to worry about… I think that one-two punch of two young guys can be really, really good together.”
Another area of strength for the Miami Dolphins comes down low, with one of the deepest defensive lines in the NFL. Beginning with the edges, and working towards the middle, it appears that, yet again, this unit will be the backbone of the Dolphins defense. Cameron Wake is widely regarded as one of the best defensive ends in the league. Opposite Wake is former University of Miami product Olivier Vernon, who’s coming off a career season with a team high 11.5 sacks. In the middle of the line expect the Dolphins to feature a revolving door of talent, with guys like Randy Starks, Jared Odrick, and newcomer Earl Mitchell all seeing plenty of playing time at defensive tackle. According to former Dolphins receiver Chris Chambers, the mix of size and speed on this line makes it one of the more feared units in the NFL.
“There’s good depth,” Chambers said, “it looks like they’re built really well. You have guys that can plug the middle, guys that can rush the outside, there are pro-bowlers all over the place. It’ll be very interesting to see how we shake up. We’re going to have to lean on these guys. They’re going to have to really step up this year, plug the holes, and make things happen.”
However, the Dolphins aren’t alone in featuring strong defensive lines. New England re-signed Vince Wilfork and already has an established pass rusher in Chandler Jones. The New York Jets have one of the youngest and most talented groups in the NFL, headlined by 2013 defensive rookie of the year Sheldon Richardson. And, like the wide receiver position, don’t forget about Buffalo, who, according to O.J. McDuffie, may feature the best line in the division.
“Those guys, they won games by themselves last year,” McDuffie said. “This is one of the defensive lines that gives you fits. Three of the four guys made the pro bowl. It’s going to be a problem.”
While the defensive line may be the Dolphins’ most solid unit, their biggest question mark appears to be the guys right across from them: The offensive line. This unit has undergone a major overhaul following a tumultuous 2013 season, and with center Mike Pouncey out until at least October, you’ll see five new starters line up against New England on September 7th. That’s not to say the Dolphins haven’t gotten better at the position, because, on the surface, they have. With the additions of left tackle Branden Albert and right guard Shelly Smith, along with rookie Ja’Wuan James, it appears the line has been upgraded from a year ago. However, according to Finsiders analyst John Congemi, it’s not the talent that concerns him, it’s the cohesiveness.
“How they play together is the biggest trademark of all,” Congemi said. “You can have terrific individual pieces, but if you don’t play well together you’re going to give up a lot of sacks. You have to watch for procedure penalties, not lining up correctly, motion fouls… They don’t have time to work into it, they have to start fast.”
The team the Dolphins play week one, the New England Patriots, appear to have the strongest line in the division for the exact reason the Dolphins don’t- experience. According to former receiver Sam Madison, the leadership and consistency of the Patriots offensive line sets them apart from everyone else.
“When you look at all of the offensive lines in the AFC East, and you look at the makeup of them, you have to go with the Patriots,” Madison said. “They’ve just been playing together for so long.”
Although the Dolphins have other areas of strength, like the secondary, and other areas where they’re a bit thin, like linebacker, the general consensus after the two week series was that the team is most competitive at the wide receiver and defensive line positions, while the front five have some catching up to do.
“All eyes are on the offensive line,” Congemi later said. “If this offense goes it’s because we’re not mentioning those names come September and October.”
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