With NFL teams stuck in a state of limbo thanks to the lingering lockout, we are taking a tour around the league and looking at where teams stand as they await the opening of the 2011 league year. Today, we offer our take on where the Dolphins stand.
Top three story lines
1. Can Chad Henne finally be the quarterback the Dolphins drafted him to be? Or is he simply a disappointment? Henne never will conjure memories of Dan Marino, but the Dolphins appear to be sticking with him after not drafting a QB. They are expected to sign a veteran free agent to challenge Henne, but it likely won't be anyone good enough to unseat him. In 27 career starts, Henne has six more interceptions than touchdowns. His inability to put the team on his back cost the Dolphins opportunities in close games last season. This is probably Henne's last chance to be a starter in Miami. He has the weapons at wide receiver, and rookie C Mike Pouncey should bolster the line, but Henne needs to regain his confidence to be successful.
2. Is it playoffs or bust for head coach Tony Sparano and GM Jeff Ireland? Last year's 7-9 record was disappointing, but what likely pushed owner Stephen Ross to flirt with the idea of hiring Jim Harbaugh was the team's 1-7 record at Sun Life Stadium. Sparano and Ireland were both given contract extensions following the Harbaugh fiasco that earned Ross and the Dolphins national headlines for the wrong reasons. But many in Miami believe the two, who just finished their first draft without Bill Parcells, need to direct the team to the playoffs this year to save their jobs. Ross showed no problem going after a sexy name to improve his club, and another disappointing campaign could push him to make a changed.
3. Can Brian Daboll improve last year's 30th-ranked scoring offense, and who will be the running backs? Ross made it clear during the Harbaugh fiasco that the Dolphins need to score points. The team parted ways with veteran offensive coordinator Dan Henning and revamped the staff, bringing Daboll in from Cleveland [which finished 31st in scoring in 2010]. Daboll's top priority will be working with Henne, but he also has no idea who Henne will be handing the ball to. Veteran RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are set to be free agents and it's possible that neither returns. The team drafted Daniel Thomas and is expected to add a veteran back, as Sparano wants to continue running the football with multiple backs. Daboll also will be expected to get more out of WR Brandon Marshall. One-half of the team's big free-agent splurge last offseason, along with ILB Karlos Dansby, Marshall caught only three TD passes among his 86 receptions. His off-the-field concerns haven't gone away after allegedly being stabbed by his wife in April. Daboll will need to find a way to usher in a new backfield, improve the interior offensive line, get Marshall more involved and get Henne to live up to the potential the team has been hoping for, all during a lockout when the team can't study his playbook.
2011 free agency — whenever that happens
Unsigned players: TE Jared Bronson (1), RB Ronnie Brown (6), RB Patrick Cobbs (5), OL Nate Garner (3), TE Joey Haynos (3), RB Lex Hilliard (2), DT Tony McDaniel (5), OL Pat McQuistan (5), DE Quentin Moses (4), OL Lydon Murtha (2), QB Chad Pennington (11), OL Cory Procter (5), RB Kory Sheets (2), QB Tyler Thigpen (4), RB Ricky Williams (10). (Editor's note: The number after a players' name is his years of service in the league. If the NFL decides to go with free agency under the same rules as used in 2010, then a player would become a restricted free agent after three years and an unrestricted free agent after six years.)
Analysis: The big names here are Brown and Williams. It's expected that neither will return, but the most likely to stay in Miami would be Brown, who has spent his entire career in South Beach. Brown will be waiting for the highest bidder, and that might not be the Dolphins after Brown had a lackluster contract year in 2010. But if the price is right, Brown could stay with the Dolphins. Williams is not expected to return at all. Thigpen could be the team's backup QB should he return. He has intriguing athleticism but didn't prove himself when given the opportunity. Pennington tore his ACL this offseason playing basketball and is not expected to return. Garner could compete for a starting OG spot after missing all of 2010 with a foot injury. Garner and Thigpen each received restricted free-agent tenders. Sheets and Hilliard are the only two backs the Dolphins would have if the veterans depart, and neither has much experience. Following injuries to Phillip Merling and Jared Odrick, McDaniel got a chance to make a name for himself and he had a solid season. But he will want to start somewhere and that won't happen in Miami.
2011 rookie class
First-round OG-C Mike Pouncey (No. 15 overall) — Pouncey was the best interior lineman in the draft, and the success of his twin brother, Maurkice, as a rookie might have upped Mike's stock. He will get the chance to start at center for Miami to improve last year's biggest weakness — the interior O-line.
Second-round RB Daniel Thomas (No. 62 overall) — The Dolphins traded three picks to move up and take Thomas, who was a workhorse at Kansas State. Depending on which veteran is in the backfield with him, the big back could see more than 200 carries as a rookie.
Fourth-round WR Edmond Gates (No. 111 overall) — Gates brings sorely needed speed to the WR spot, where he can stretch the field to open things up for Brandon Marshall. He also could compete to play a role on kickoff returns.
Sixth-round TE Charles Clay (No. 174 overall) — Anthony Fasano is a solid tight end but needs an athletic complement. Clay played H-back, tight end and fullback in college and should find a niche in the Dolphins' offense.
Seventh-round NT Frank Kearse (No. 231 overall) — The Dolphins have had success developing nose tackles and Kearse could see time as a reserve behind Paul Soliai.
Seventh-round CB Jimmy Wilson (No. 235 overall) — Wilson has the physicality to match starting CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, but cornerback is a deep position for Miami. He might have to make his mark on special teams to see the field, at least initially.
Lockout fallout: How impacted will the Dolphins be by the work stoppage?
On scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most significantly impacted), the Dolphins rate a 7. The impact is solely on the offensive side of the ball, where most, if not all of the offseason changes are taking place. The defense is there. Mike Nolan's unit is all returning and finished sixth in the league last season. The players know their roles and there's little question about who's playing what. But the offensive situation makes the lockout precarious for Miami. The biggest impact comes in the form of Brian Daboll, the team's new offensive coordinator. The Dolphins haven't gotten a chance to work with him or learn his playbook. We don't know who the running backs will be, and there's still a question regarding who the second quarterback will be, and if he will be good enough to challenge Chad Henne for the job. Though Mike Pouncey will begin playing center, will he start there or at guard? Which veteran running back, Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams, will return? The personnel questions on offense are one thing, but combined with the fact that the personnel that is there can't even meet with the new coordinator makes the lockout very difficult for a Dolphins team that needs to win in 2011.