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The five preseason games are finally finished. And I mean finally. The Dolphins can now turn all of their thoughts to the Cleveland Browns. While there is still much uncertainty in several key areas, one thing in my mind is certain: This football team has taken some major steps in the right direction.
Last night’s preseason finale against New Orleans was basically a throwaway game. The starters, except for guard John Jerry, never saw the field. The lineup was filled with back-ups, roster hopefuls and a long list of players who will not be employed by the end of the day Saturday. The game, as you can imagine, was sloppy. Penalties. Turnovers. Missed tackles. Things you would expect with the starters comfortably on the sideline.
So it is time for the entire team to turn the page, to forget about the long, hot summer and instead focus on the games that really count. The mission over the next 10 days is clear: Finish trimming down the roster. Game plan for the Browns. Build a level of confidence heading into the season. Work on the areas of concern that surfaced over the past couple of months. Carefully evaluate what’s there on the waiver wire.
As I said, it is clear to me that this will be a vastly improved team over a season ago. How much improved will determine how far this team travels. The young quarterback passed all of the summer tests. The new receivers are clearly an upgrade. The defense is formidable to say the least.
Look up and down this roster and you see upgrades. You see playmakers. You see potential. But you don’t see a finished product. There are issues that need to be addressed, shortcomings that demand our attention.
So with the opener now clearly in sight, here’s a look at how I assess each area of the team:
• Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill’s final preseason numbers speak plenty: 36 of 54, 377 yards, 3 TDs, no interceptions and an impressive quarterback rating of 98.6, which means he doesn’t have a fever. I now have a comfort level with Tannehill that I didn’t have when the summer began. His passes are more accurate, his leadership more evident. There is every reason to believe that he will make a quantum leap this season. I believe it will all come down to his decision-making.
• Running back: Though it hasn’t been officially announced, Lamar Miller is your starter, but I expect Daniel Thomas to get a fair share of the carries. I wish I could tell I have a real feel for this position, but I don’t. I can tell you this: Unless the Dolphins can scare people with the run, it will put far too heavy a burden on the passing game.
• Receivers: This is the best trio of receivers the Dolphins have had in a long time: Mike Wallace will make a difference, Brandon Gibson will produce first downs and Brian Hartline will benefit from the presence of both Wallace and Gibson. I expect all three players to catch at least 60 passes this season. That’s an upgrade.
• Tight end: Clearly the biggest uncertainty on the team after Dustin Keller went down with a season-ending knee injury. I fully expect that the Dolphins will explore claiming a tight end off waivers. I also expect rookie Dion Sims to quickly mature into a solid contributor, evidenced by his touchdown catch Thursday night against the Saints.
• Offensive line: The starters are now healthy and set: Center Mike Pouncey, left tackle Jonathan Martin, left guard Richie Incognito, right tackle Tyson Clabo and right guard John Jerry. Martin remains the key because he must protect Tannehill’s blind side. I don’t see this line dominating as much as I do being efficient and consistent. There is enough talent there. How well they play together will be the most crucial test. Depth is also a concern.
• Defensive line: The deepest and strongest area of the team. The Dolphins can go two-deep and not lose a thing. Nobody will run with any consistency against this group. The real upside remains No. 1 pick Dion Jordan. If he can contribute at some point soon, this group could be scary good.
• Linebacker: I now understand why the Dolphins released Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett and replaced them with Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. They are faster, more diversified and filled with far better big-play potential. Ellerbe has the look of an All-Pro.
• Secondary: Far better at cornerback than a season ago with Brent Grimes and Dimitri Patterson as the starters and Nolan Carroll, Will Davis and Jamar Taylor offering valuable depth. I’m a little wary at nickel back where someone must seize that role. Safety has one potential all-star in Reshad Jones and a very capable player in Chris Clemons. I’d be shocked if this group doesn’t solve the takeaway problem of 2012.
• Special teams: Rookie placekicker Caleb Sturgis did everything asked of him during the preseason. He clearly has both the accuracy and leg strength you are looking for. The return game could be a huge factor if Marcus Thigpen can build on what he did last season.
So the preseason ends with a losing record. You can take a big eraser and wipe that out of your memory. It is now meaningless. What really matters, in truth, is what happens from this day on.
On Monday, A.C. in the A.M. will evaluate the cut down to 53 players.
The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed by The Finsiders Blog represent those of individual writers, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions, policies or desires of the Miami Dolphins organization, front office, coaches and executives. Writers' views are formulated independently from any inside information and/or conversation with Dolphins officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.