The Miami Dolphins will square off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night in a game that will serve as a dress rehearsal for a regular season that begins in two weeks. Both first teams on each side of the ball are expected to play much of the game’s first three quarters.
We’ve gotten a glimpse at who the 2013 Dolphins will be in the first three preseason games, but Saturday night will be our most extensive sneak peek.
Here are the team’s three biggest reasons for optimism and concern on the offensive side of the ball as the regular season draws near. We’ll take a look at the defense on Friday.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM…
1. Ryan Tannehill’s development
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill no longer has an experienced seam-stretching tight end in the aftermath of Dustin Keller’s shredded right knee, but his weapons are still much improved from what he had to work with during a promising rookie campaign.
He has a deep threat and a go-to number one in Mike Wallace, a bigger slot receiver in Brandon Gibson and a 1,000-yard receiver from a year ago in Brian Hartline, who will play his ideal position as the number two.
But a full year of experience could be the biggest reason why Tannehill improves in 2013.
When he came into the league last year as a rookie, Tannehill only had 19 collegiate starts under his belt. Now, with 16 games of NFL starting experience, there’s no reason why he can’t take noticeable strides in his second season.
Significant improvement would make the Dolphins a contender.
2. Mike Wallace elevates entire unit
Besides providing the Dolphins with a legitimate deep threat and a receiver who is capable of being one of the league’s most productive, Mike Wallace will make every player on the offense better.
He improves Ryan Tannehill for obvious reasons. He improves the running game because safeties must respect the deep ball and won’t have the luxury of creeping up near the box as often. He improves Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson because coverages will be designed with the primary focus of stopping someone else.
The Dolphins were limited in what they could do offensively in 2012, essentially playing inside of a box with no receivers who could stretch the field. That won’t be the case this season, as they now have the ability to score on any play, from anywhere on the field.
3. Jonathan Martin’s improvement
This could easily be listed with the concerns, but Jonathan Martin has silenced many critics over the past two weeks.
After conceding frequent pressure to Oliver Vernon and Dion Jordan in practice and getting beaten for a near sack in the Hall of Fame Game, Martin’s play was outstanding against the Jaguars and Texans. In fact, Martin has been graded by Pro Football Focus as the second best left tackle in the entire league this preseason.
Now, it’s obviously just the preseason and Martin has yet to face an upper-echelon pass rusher, but he most certainly doesn’t appear to be the revolving door on Tannehill’s blindside many expected him to be.
Not to mention, he’s been impressing as a run blocker, and should — along with Richie Incognito at guard — provide Miami’s backs with plenty of push to work with on the left side of the line.
1. Ryan Tannehill’s indecisiveness
Ryan Tannehill has been solid this preseason, throwing for 227 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions. But he’ll never be great without becoming a more confident, decisive passer in the pocket — something he hasn’t been during the first three exhibitions.
Tannehill has missed open receivers on more than one occasion, and oftentimes prematurely scrambles when he has sufficient time to throw. To be an elite quarterback, cutting down on those mistakes will be essential.
Tannehill has the ability to be an above average quarterback on talent alone. But only a killer instinct and a true grasp for every nuance of playing the position will help him elevate his game to the heights that will be demanded.
2. Lamar Miller’s inability to secure starting running back role
When the Dolphins chose not to resign Reggie Bush in the offseason, they had making Lamar Miller the primary ball carrier in mind. The promise Miller showed as a rookie, most notably averaging near five yards per carry, is what made Bush expendable.
At least, that’s the only logical explanation.
Miami couldn’t have thought Daniel Thomas, who was outplayed by Bush during his first two seasons, was the upgrade the offense needed at running back. But so far this preseason, Miller hasn’t been able to outperform a player whose career yards-per-carry average is only 3.5.
I’m confident Miller would prove to be the more reliable back with a larger sample size, but he’s yet to earn the coaching staff’s trust. If that doesn’t happen before the opener and Daniel Thomas becomes the starter, one could argue that the Dolphins made a mistake when they let Bush walk in free agency.
3. Dustin Keller’s injury leaves void at tight end and in red zone
Ryan Tannehill was more comfortable and effective throwing outside the numbers as a rookie. During the first three preseason games, he was looking poised to develop the same level of comfort and success throwing over the middle of the field.
And that had an awful lot to do with tight end Dustin Keller. But Keller is now out for the season with three torn ligaments and a dislocated knee cap, and losing him is one big missed opportunity for the Dolphins’ offense.
With a speed demon like Wallace occupying the attention of safeties on the perimeter, Keller could have racked up reception after reception behind opposing linebackers this season. There’s hope new first-team tight end Charles Clay can be productive doing the same, but the former fullback/H-back is no Dustin Keller.
I also expected Keller to lead all Dolphins’ pass catchers in touchdowns this season. Miami has a relatively small set of receivers and was in need of a go-to target in the red zone. Keller wasn’t exactly a touchdown machine during his time in New York but I expected him to become one of Tannehill’s favorite options when operating deep in opponents’ territory.
If every Dolphins pass catcher who is expected to make the 53-man roster was able to reproduce his career high in receiving touchdowns this season, Ryan Tannehill would throw 22 touchdown passes. That would be a nice total for Tannehill but it’s a low ceiling. Miami’s receivers and tight ends must step up for the offense to become more efficient in the red area this season.