2011 team previews
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Despite adding Karlos Dansby and Brandon Marshall, and a defense that finished sixth in the league in its first year under coordinator Mike Nolan, the Dolphins stumbled down the stretch against mediocre competition. They finished 7-9 for the second season in a row, including a dismal 1-7 mark at Sun Life Stadium. The disappointing season led to a tumultuous January.
Owner Stephen Ross flew to California to court Jim Harbaugh, all while Tony Sparano was still under contract. Harbaugh joined the 49ers, and Sparano and GM Jeff Ireland received contract extensions.
It was a week to forget for a franchise that has yet to regain the success it had in the days of Dan Marino, and that goes hand-in-hand with his position. QB Chad Henne struggled in 2010, especially late in games, and the team made a well-publicized attempt to trade for Kyle Orton. When it failed, they settled for ex-Panther Matt Moore.
The positives lie on defense, where Cameron Wake, Vontae Davis and Paul Soliai are making their names known around the league in Nolan's attacking scheme. On offense, the backfield and interior offensive line received makeovers through the draft and free agency.
Ross wants this team to score more points, and considering what he was willing to do after the '10 season, the pressure is on Sparano and Ireland to make a run now. A much-improved offense could allow Miami to challenge the Jets and the Patriots in the AFC East. Maintaining the status quo from a season ago could result in a last-place finish.
Brian Daboll replaces veteran Dan Henning as the offensive coordinator in 2011. Curiously, Daboll's offense in Cleveland was one of only two teams that scored fewer points last season than the Dolphins. Tony Sparano maintained the team will continue to run the football, and look for Daboll to utilize the tight end more to open the middle of the field. Daboll will get a weapon Henning didn't have in Reggie Bush. Although the assistant who brought the "Wildcat" to Miami, David Lee, is not with the team anymore, it is expected to still be a part of the offense, as Daboll used it in Cleveland.
Quarterbacks: Chad Henne's first season as a full-time starter was filled with adversity. He was benched after Week Nine, regained his starting spot because of an injury to Chad Pennington, only to be benched again in the finale. Henne's decision-making skills continued to be a problem, as he threw nine fourth-quarter interceptions, the second most in the league. Henne had spurts where he looked good, especially when connecting on short routes, but he never developed good chemistry with Brandon Marshall and often missed on deep throws, which led to Henne looking to dump off too often. He needs to regain his confidence if he wants to hold on to the starting job. Former Panthers QB Matt Moore is Henne's main competition. Moore is a good decision maker with some arm strength, but accuracy is not his strong suit and he struggled last season. Undrafted rookie Pat Devlin is an intriguing prospect, and journeyman Kevin O'Connell also is in the mix at third-string QB.
Running backs: Second-round pick Daniel Thomas appears to be the starter with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams gone. Thomas handled a big workload at Kansas State and was very productive. He has good balance and great size for a No. 1 back. Expect to see a lot of Reggie Bush, though. The Dolphins took Bush off the Saints' hands and he adds speed and explosiveness that the offense lacked last season. Bush is very good in space and is a solid receiver, so look for him to be involved often in screen plays, while Thomas gets the bulk of the carries. Lex Hilliard is the backup. Hilliard spent 2010 on special teams. He's a big back but does not have enough speed. The team signed veteran Larry Johnson, who is a big back, but showed last season he doesn't have much left in the tank. FB Lousaka Polite is extremely reliable in short-yardage situations, but his blocking took a step back last season.
Receivers: Brandon Marshall had good numbers in his first season in Miami, but he didn't make the impact the team was hoping for with only three touchdowns. The big, physical receiver racked up the catches and yards but wasn't utilized enough in the red zone. He doesn't have breakaway speed but can catch balls even when heavily covered and is still one of the best wideouts in the game. Davone Bess has emerged as one of the league's top slot receivers after a career season, although he has the versatility to line up on the outside as well. He improved his ability to break tackles after the catch, allowing him to lead the team in TD catches (five). He is smart, good at route adjustments and even received double-teams by the end of the season. Brian Hartline is the speed receiver of the bunch, but a broken finger cut his season short. Marlon Moore and Roberto Wallace saw action as rookies, and Moore showed his upside with a 57-yard TD catch. Rookie Clyde Gates should get a chance to help upgrade team speed by working out of the slot and in the return game. TE Anthony Fasano had career highs in catches and yards in 2010, even though he was asked to stay in and block often. Fasano can break tackles, make first downs and is solid in the red zone, but he needs a more athletic complement. Last season, the team trotted out three rookies as the second tight end — Mickey Shuler, Dedrick Epps and Jeron Mastrud — and none of them made much of an impact, especially in the receiving game. Rookie TE/H-back Charles Clay could fit Brian Daboll's offense well in the short-to-intermediate passing game. He is versatile with good hands.
Offensive linemen: The O-line went from being the team's strength in 2009 to a glaring weakness in '10, and was a big reason the team had a paltry 3.7-yard rushing average. The team boasts arguably the league's best left tackle, Jake Long, who played through an injured shoulder last season. With his long arms, he consistently keeps pass rushers out of the backfield. Despite the separated shoulder, Long still made his third Pro Bowl. Vernon Carey missed his first game since '04, seeing his season end early because of a knee injury. At 6-5, 340 pounds, Carey has mammoth size and is taking that frame to right guard to shore up the team's biggest weakness from last season. Replacing Carey at right tackle is veteran Marc Colombo, who played for Tony Sparano in Dallas. He has good power but has been injury-prone and is coming off a season in which he gave up 9½ sacks in 15 games. Richie Incognito was the team's best interior blocker. He's aggressive, kept his temper in check and is set to remain as the starting left guard. The upgrade to the interior came in the form of first-round pick Mike Pouncey. He can play center or guard, and the team hopes he will have a rookie campaign similar to the one his twin brother, Maurkice, had last season in Pittsburgh. Mike Pouncey has a strong anchor to match some of the big defensive tackles he will face as the center. Joe Berger spent most of '10 at center and struggled getting blocks on the second level. John Jerry didn't live up to the billing in his rookie season, was overpowered and couldn't hang on to the starting ORG position consistently. Nate Garner is returning from another foot injury — this one cost him all of '10. He started eight games in '09 and was working at left guard when he broke his foot in camp. He's versatile enough to play any position on the line. OT Lydon Murtha is a solid backup.
Mike Nolan's aggressive 3-4 defense shined in 2010. Defenders have the freedom to fly around on "D" to make plays and be on the attack to force offenses to adjust to them. The defense kept the team in games and was a big reason for the seven wins. The Dolphins boast plenty of skill and depth in the front seven and have a budding young secondary.
Defensive linemen: Despite losing Jason Ferguson to retirement and first-round DE Jared Odrick to injury in the season opener, the D-line was outstanding in 2010. With Odrick's injury, Randy Starks moved back to his normal DE spot. He has the versatility to play on the nose and is a consistent player setting the edge. He has missed only four games in his career. DE Kendall Langford's production doesn't show up on the stats sheet, but he is great at using his size and power to plug holes. NT Paul Soliai, though, was the star of the line, earning the franchise tag this offseason. He has great size and is a perfect fit at the most important position in the 3-4, over the center. He moved well and didn't need to be spelled. Free-agent acquisition Ronald Fields, a solid run stuffer, will be Soliai's backup. If Odrick gets healthy, he could accumulate 6-7 sacks. He is strong, physical and will be able to give Starks and Langford a rest. Phillip Merling showed some flashes before being dogged by injuries. He played in only five games, but he has good size and brings a good motor to the field. The team re-signed Tony McDaniel, who had a solid season and showed the versatility to play end or nose. Ryan Baker is a reserve who filled in at times on passing downs. Rookie Frank Kearse is a massive developmental prospect at the nose.
Linebackers: The LB corps is one of the deepest in the league. It begins with Karlos Dansby, last offseason's big free-agent acquisition. Dansby had to make up for Channing Crowder's absence early on, which led to his production decreasing. But Dansby is very good in coverage and always is around the ball. He should be even more productive with a year of Mike Nolan's defense under his belt and some consistency at the other ILB position. Replacing Crowder on the inside is Kevin Burnett, who made six sacks last season with San Diego. He will be a big upgrade in coverage over Crowder, and the team hopes Burnett will better complement Dansby. The breakout player of the unit was Cameron Wake, who finished third in the league with 14 sacks. He has good leverage and stays low to the ground. Wake is quick to the ball with a relentless motor and never gives up going after the QB but could do better against the run. Opposite Wake is Koa Misi, last year's second-rounder. The team was pleased with Misi's production (4½ sacks), considering he had to learn on the job. Jason Taylor returns after one season with the Jets. He is one of the best pass rushers of his era but will be 37 when the season begins. He had five sacks last season and likely will be limited to passing downs. LB A.J. Edds, who missed all of '10 with a torn ACL, is smart and shows good effort, and he will be key in the nickel against opposing tight ends.
Defensive backs: CB Vontae Davis continues to improve, to the point where quarterbacks rarely throw in his direction. He is extremely athletic, physical and excels in man coverage. His CB partner, Sean Smith, had to wait for the team to cut Jason Allen before regaining his starting spot after a poor training camp a year ago. Smith has great size at 6-3 and 214 pounds but needs to make more plays. He dropped five interceptions, but many people believe Smith has Pro Bowl potential. He showed good instincts and also helps against the run. Benny Sapp took over the nickel role with Will Allen on injured reserve and played well, but Sapp will be challenged by Allen and Nolan Carroll for the spot. Allen is a veteran with tons of experience who plays the ball well, but he is undersized. Carroll showed his speed as a rookie on kickoff returns but still needs more time to develop. Jimmy Wilson brings good physicality and his training-camp performance made him an essential lock to make the roster. SS Yeremiah Bell is very consistent, laying the lumber last season while staying healthy. Bell plays with a chip on his shoulder and keeps everyone on the defense lined up. There is a position battle next to him at free safety. Chris Clemons had an up-and-down season. He is speedy but not as much of a playmaker as the Dolphins would like. Reshad Jones made big plays when given a chance vs. Tennessee in Week 10 but struggled after that. He is athletic and has upside but will need to show he can be more consistent than Clemons to win a starting job.
The coverage was a disaster leading to the in-season firing of special-teams coach John Bonamego and the promotion of Darren Rizzi. It improved a bit as the season went on with help from Tyrone Culver and Roberto Wallace, but it was still a weakness. The strength on special teams comes in the form of two big legs. Brandon Fields continues to be one of the league's top punters. He is athletically built at 6-5, 245 pounds with a booming leg. PK Dan Carpenter looked like a Pro Bowler early on, hitting long field goals in clutch situations, but he struggled thereafter, missing four FG attempts against the Bills in Week Five. Davone Bess served as the punt returner and improved at breaking tackles. Rookie Clyde Gates could take over kickoff and punt returns. Nolan Carroll returned kickoffs last season.
This could be a make-or-break season for Tony Sparano, Jeff Ireland and Chad Henne, and all of their fates, fairly or unfairly, rest on the arm of Henne. The defense is the strength of this team, but the Dolphins used the draft and free agency to improve the personnel around Henne. With a foundation laid on a defense that should be even better, a comeback year for the offense could propel Miami into AFC East contention. But if the changes on offense aren't enough to make Henne better, there might be a lot of turnover heading into 2012.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.