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Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2014 Season Preview

By Jeff Risdon

2013: 4-12, last in NFC South

2014 Over/Under: +/- 7 wins

Why the over

One of the things that really stands out is how well this team addressed its weaknesses. They got a lot better at some key positions.

Foremost is head coach, where Lovie Smith takes over for Greg Schiano. It’s a prudent move, one that the players should immediately respond to positively. Smith is everything that Schiano was not: poised, experienced, NFL savvy, adaptable and patient.

Those qualities didn’t always play well in Lovie’s tenure in Chicago, but in the short term it promises to do wonders for Tampa Bay. His professional approach and the way he treats people with respect will go a long way towards erasing the stain on the franchise that was the tempestuous, arrogant Schiano.

Offensively, the biggest upgrade comes at receiver. For too long the Bucs have been just the Vincent Jackson show, with only sporadic contirubtions from the likes of now-departed Tiquan Underwood and Mike Williams. An aggressive approach by new GM Jason Licht should help quite a bit here.

The team drafted three pass-catchers, all of whom should be immediate contributors. The most prominent is first-round pick Mike Evans, who, like Jackson, is a sheer physical nightmare at 6’5” and 230+ pounds. They’re similarly skilled, which means they should be able to be used interchangeably. Both can attack the football in the air along the sidelines and in traffic, though Evans’ ability in that regard was badly overrated in the draft process.

Trotting out two 6’5” perimeter receivers commands a lot of attention, which means the underbelly could prove to be fertile ground for new QB Josh McCown. Tampa Bay got better here too, with 2nd round pick Austin Seferian-Jenkins and 6th rounder Robert Herron. The burly tight end from Washington excels at chipping and releasing into the intermediate range, and his soft hands and wide frame make him a valuable target. Herron is a shifty speedster in the slot who was largely uncoverable during Senior Bowl practices. His hands aren’t the most reliable but he consistently got open quickly in his Wyoming days, and he’s also a big-time threat to run after the catch.

With expected improvement from 2013 undrafted hybrid TE/WR Tim Wright, who was a revelation with 54 catches and 5 TDs, Tampa Bay finally has some legit weaponry beyond just chucking the ball up for Pro Bowler Jackson to work some magic. The team also signed Brandon Myers, who caught 79 passes in 2012, yet he might not make the team. That’s real progress.

Getting star RB Doug Martin back will help a lot, too. Martin can do everything as a back--run inside, bounce outside, catch and block--and does them all pretty well. He’s compactly built and naturally elusive, always dipping a shoulder here or flipping a hip there to keep defenders from getting a clean shot at him. He missed 10 games last year with a torn labrum in his shoulder, and the offense largely grinded to a halt in his absence.

The Bucs added depth here as well, as third-rounder Charles Sims is a better fit for new OC Jeff Tedford’s West Coast system than departed Brain Leonard. Sims has great hands out of the backfield and proved he could assimilate quickly when he transferred from Houston to West Virginia. He’s the explosive home-run hitter they sought, the one thing Martin is not. I like Mike James as a short-yardage guy and Lonnie Pryor at fullback is perfectly fine.

The offense can only get better. The defense added some pieces that should help, too.

I love the addition of pass rusher Michael Johnson, formerly of the Bengals. He got lost in the shuffle of depth a bit in Cincinnati last year, but the angular Johnson is eminently capable of putting up 10+ sacks and 25+ QB hits as he did in 2012. He’s not very good against the run, but the Bucs aren’t paying him $43M to make tackles four yards from the line. Keep in mind that the last Buccaneer to bag more than 10 sacks in a season was Simeon Rice…in2007. The Bucs only have a sprinkling of players on the entire roster who were even playing college ball at that time.

Johnson joins a defense that already has a legit stud at all three levels, an enviable proliferation of top-shelf talent. It starts up front with Gerald McCoy, the fifth-year tackle who is arguably the league’s best at his position. Some might prefer Ndamukong Suh, the player drafted one spot ahead of him, but McCoy is the more consistent pass rusher and play finisher.

Lavonte David is outstanding at outside linebacker, patrolling the weak side better than anyone else. He could be even better in Smith’s defense, which is tailored to a playmaking WLB. David is a legit threat to lead the league in both tackles and turnovers created. He’s one of the most fun players to watch in the entire league, especially if you view the coach’s tape on NFL Game Rewind. Only then can you get a true appreciation for his awesomeness.

In the secondary, the Bucs have two impact talents. One of those is changed from a year ago, as the team swapped out elite corner Darrelle Revis before adding Alterraun Verner. The former Titan is not an island like Revis, but he’s comfortably in the next tier of top corner talents. He’s a solid #1 corner and a good schematic fit for Smith’s press-heavy coverage. Safety Dashon Goldson is a strong all-around talent with great range and playmaking ability. He struggled trying to do too much at times last year, but his attacking style makes life difficult for opposing passers.

The entire secondary should be pretty good. Johnthan Banks had some positive moments as a rookie, and at 6’2” he’s got disruptive length. Mike Jenkins and Leonard Johnson will fill the third and fourth corner spots in some order, and while neither is an ideal nickel there is some legit, proven NFL talent there with both. The other safety is Mark Barron, a menace to society between the tackles in run support. Just don’t ask him to cover…and the Bucs won’t very often. If you are a Bucs fan and have easy access to some wood, go ahead and knock on it, but this secondary could be very, very good.

The special teams are solid, and Lovie’s almost comedic dedication to those units will only make them stronger. Kicker Connor Barth is a good one, as is punter Michael Koenen. Return specialist Eric Page finished in the top 10 in both punt and kick return averages, something Devin Hester has not done in years. Think about that for a minute.

Why the under

For all the promise with the offense, the Bucs are depending on a career journeyman backup to quarterback them to the promised land. Josh McCown was indeed impressive in Chicago last year, it’s a reach to think he can replicate that performance in a new, more pressured environ. If the purpose here is to use McCown to buy Mike Glennon a much-needed year of development, it’s a great signing. But relying on McCown to elevate the offense with a cast of strangers is extremely optimistic. Remember, this unit finished dead last in passing yards and yards per pass, 31st in total yards per play and third down conversions, and 30th in points scored.

Some of that ineptitude had to deal with the offensive line. While the Bucs have made some changes, it remains to be seen how well the newcomers gel. Anthony Collins has been a swing tackle most of his career, but now he’s suddenly the savior at left tackle. Evan Dietrich-Smith was nothing more than an average center for Green Bay, and now he is expected to lead a line resurgence. Both newcomers do have skill, but expectations seem higher than reality would dictate.

It would be great if stud left guard Carl Nicks could return, but after missing almost all of the last two years with injuries and illness, he simply cannot be relied upon (note: the team reached an injury settlement with Nicks on July 25). The starting guards could very well be Patrick Omameh and either rookie 5th rounder Kevin Pamphile or practice squad refugee Jason Foster. That’s not good enough to handle the rigors of NFL defenses. At least McCown offers more escapability and pocket presence than the lumbering Glennon, who might still be trying to finish his 40 yard dash from the 2013 Combine.

Even though I am a believer in the upgraded receiving corps, there are legit questions there. For all the hubbub over Evans’ size and strength, 40% of his production came in just two games. Evans was visibly invisible in several games. His route running is nothing more than rudimentary and needs a lot of polish. Seferian-Jenkins was much better in 2012 than ’13, and it’s no given he rebounds at the higher level. If those guys don’t immediately contribute, Jackson will once again be burdened with carrying the load with marginal talents like Louis Murphy and Skye Dawson. A lot is riding on the rookies.

There are no rookies, or rather rookie draft picks, to help the defense. The Bucs did not use a single pick on a defensive player. If you consider the Revis/Verner swap as a wash, the only real reinforcements are Johnson at end and Clint McDonald as the fourth defensive tackle, along with Jenkins as the fourth corner. That’s putting a great deal of faith in a unit that finished in the bottom third.

Defensively, there still isn’t much functional depth. The reserve safeties are Keith Tandy and Major Wright, neither of whom belong on an active roster. Wright just might have been the worst NFL regular in the league last year with Chicago, an absolute train wreck. One tweaked knee to Goldson or concussion to head-hunting Barron and he’s the last line of defense.

At corner, Johnson and Danny Gorer are the options at slot. That’s not Johnson’s strong suit, as he lacks lateral quickness and the wide vision needed to play inside. Gorer will have his moments but he’s a reserve through and through. One to keep an eye on: Quinton Poynter, though he’s proven nothing yet.

Smith must also figure out what to do with his linebackers that aren’t named Lavonte David. Mason Foster is a quick, twitchy and instinctive backer, but he is ideally a Will just like David. They’ve tried him in the middle, but he’s not rangy enough and lacks the speed to chase the deeper middle in coverage in the manner that Lovie’s defenses have had in Brian Urlacher in Chicago and London Fletcher in St. Louis. He’s not stout enough to play on the strong side, but neither is Jonathan Casillas, who currently sits atop the depth chart there. Former Patriot Dane Fletcher factors in the mix, but when is the last time an ex-Patriot defender came close to living up to the expectations?

Then there is Lovie himself. His Chicago teams became predictable on defense, surviving almost exclusively on forcing turnovers and winning field position battles with outstanding special teams. He went through offensive coordinators like Derek Jeter does hotties, with considerably less payoff. He’s never worked with Jeff Tedford before, so how they blend together is a big unknown. Lovie’s in-game management and strategic adjustments were often puzzling, to be kind; Bears fans were stunned at how much that team improved in that regard in transitioning from Lovie to Marc Trestman, a rookie NFL coach.

Forecast

Tampa Bay is a team on the rise in a division with a notorious history for extreme volatility. It’s not unusual for the NFC South dregs one year to rule the roost the next. They were close to being good a year ago, but held back by inept coaching, losing Doug Martin and spotty QB play from a rookie who shouldn’t have been playing.

Though I am no Lovie Smith fan, he’s a huge upgrade over Greg Schiano and the players will absolutely respond to his user-friendly, respectful style. In Josh McCown, they have a professional QB who proved a year ago he can carry a team for a year. McCown won’t make the rookie mistakes that Mike Glennon did. With upgraded weaponry and a healthy return by Martin, the offense should finally be able to outscore some opponents.

The schedule is very favorable for a quick turnaround. They open with two winnable home games against Carolina and St. Louis. If they survive a three-game roadie (ATL, PIT and NO), they have a chance to go a big run afterwards; Tampa should be favored in every game from weeks 6-12, a trip to Chicago. The final four games are not easy--at Detroit, at Carolina, then home for Green Bay and New Orleans. Two wins there likely puts them in the playoffs.

Barring major injury, Tampa Bay should be a strong “over” bet at seven wins. I like them to finish at 10-6, with the winner of the Week 16 tilt against Green Bay getting the 6th seed in the NFC playoffs.

Special thanks to Sander Philipse of Bucs Nation for helping to color in the grey areas in some spots here.


Houston Texans 2014 Season Preview

By Jeff Risdon

2013: 2-14, last in AFC South

2014 Over/Under:  +/- 7.5 wins

Why the over

So much went wrong in the abysmal 2013 season. It’s hard to envision one franchise suffering so many negative twists of fate befalling one team once again.

The biggest positive is the removal of Gary Kubiak as coach. The players had grown stale and complacent under his tenure, tired of hearing the same old things and running the same old plays. Kubiak lacked adaptability, and the rest of the league figured out his Texans. New coach Bill O’Brien brings more outward enthusiasm and a more demanding nature. Veterans will be challenged and the entitlement is gone. That can only be considered a positive for Houston.

Getting star RB Arian Foster back to full speed will do a lot to help fix the offense. Foster averaged over 90 yards per game and hit double figures in TDs every year from 2010-12, remarkably consistent and productive. He also averaged over 50 catches per year in that span, providing a viable threat out of the backfield that further stressed defenses. He was the central focus of the opponent’s entire linebacking corps every week.

Yet last year he struggled with nagging injuries before going on the shelf halfway through the season. While he’ll always be nursing one minor bruise or muscle soreness--he’s perennially limited in practice--he should get back to his customary 1,800 yards from scrimmage and 12-15 TDs. Fantasy owners, trust in Foster.

The Texans finally found a worthy second banana to Andre Johnson at wideout in DeAndre Hopkins. “Nuke” was impressive as a first-round rookie, pulling down 52 catches with just one drop. What impressed me is that he appeared to his a rookie wall midway through the year but then emerged from it as a more complete receiver; his blocking and intermediate route running both improved at the end of the year. Playing across from Johnson afforded him lots of isolated coverage, and he gradually figured out how to take advantage of that.

The Texans have the core of a strong offensive line. A return to 100% by Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown would help a lot. He’s one of the best blindside protectors in the league, and he’s also quite adept at getting out in front of Foster on edge runs and screens. A toe injury really limited Brown last year, but he is reportedly in prime shape as camp opens.

Center Chris Myers and right guard Brandon Brooks are both good starters. Myers is the consummate savvy veteran. He’s also a great run blocker on the move and is pretty consistent in picking up DL twists and interior blitzes. Brooks is more of a sledgehammer, but a devastatingly effective run blocker in tight quarters. He’s one of the most functionally strong players in the entire league. Pass protection is not his strength, but he surrendered just one or two sacks, depending on which stat service you believe.

Rookie Xavier Su’a-Filo should solidify the left guard spot, though he’s probably the best right tackle on the roster too. He and Brooks should quickly form one of the best run-blocking guard tandems in the NFL.

In Garrett Graham and rookie C.J. Fiedorowicz, the Texans have talent at tight end to replace Owen Daniels. OD was a beloved icon but the wear and tear was clearly getting to him, and his pass protection as an inline blocker was often scary. Graham isn’t as lithe, but his hands are reliable and he runs strong routes. He should top last year’s 49 receptions and 5 TDs. Fieodorowicz is a big target with soft hands and sneaky quickness in the open field, and he’s ready-made as a replacement for Daniels. Second-year talent Ryan Griffin finished his rookie campaign with a big outing and is the most athletic TE on the roster. Expect to see lots of multiple TE sets, and the Texans have the talent to make it very effective.

Defensively, J.J. Watt. Does any more really need to be said about the best defensive player in the NFL today? He’s the face of the franchise and remained wildly effective even as the team crumbled around him.

Adding #1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney puts a real fire-breathing rusher outside Watt. With Whitney Mercilus also showing some pass rushing sizzle last year, the Texans should have no trouble getting pressure on opposing QBs. Try and help too much on Watt, and now the Texans have the help at outside linebacker to make him pay. The only other time they’ve really had that was Connor Barwin’s one good year (out of four).

A healthy return by Brian Cushing inside would help matters. When he’s patrolling the middle of the field, the Texans defense raises to another level. Not only is he an intimidating presence between the tackles against the run, he’s also surprisingly lithe in coverage. Cushing can also bring the heat on the blitz too. He was sorely missed last year.

The secondary should be better. Johnathan Joseph is a solid top corner. 2013 was not his best year but he is generally reliable in coverage and can get his hands on many balls. Moreover, his veteran savvy plays well and sets the tone for the youngsters around him.

Kareem Jackson has progressed from being a major liability to being an okay corner. He’s learned how to better use his size. At safety, D.J. Swearinger should progress in his second season. The hard-hitting presence still needs some maturity and refinement. Adding veteran Kendrick Lewis from Kansas City represents an upgrade over Shiloh Keo, whose stiffness was a major liability.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Shane Lechler, the best punter in NFL history. His first year in Houston was not his best, but it was still among the tops in the league. Even though he’ll be 38 when the season kicks off, there is no reason to expect anything less than greatness from Lechler as he continues to build his case for the Hall of Fame.

Why the under

The most important position on a football team is the quarterback. And while Matt Schaub needed to go, the Texans are kidding themselves if they think Ryan Fitzpatrick is the man to lead them back to the AFC South title.

Fitzpatrick is smart and mobile, and he is coming off his best statistical year. In 11 games, 9 of them starts for the Titans, the Harvard grad completed 62% of his passes at 7.0 yards per attempt. Both represent career highs. Yet he went just 3-6, and no small part of that was his 14/12 TD/INT ratio and 9 fumbles. Plain and simple, he makes too many mistakes and is careless with the football.

The uncertainty surrounding Andre Johnson doesn’t help. Johnson remains a top 10 overall wideout, but he’s aging and understandably doesn’t want to stomach a rebuild. There have been trade rumors and talk that he won’t report for training camp, perhaps even holding out into the season. Remember, he’s given back money on his contract several times and should feel like the franchise owes him.

If Johnson departs, or even if he continues to succumb ever so gradually to Father Time and loses his fighting spirit playing with a subpar quarterback and little hope of a return to the playoffs, the Houston offense is really going to suffer. I like Nuke Hopkins a lot, but he’s not capable of replacing Johnson yet. And then who would replace Hopkins?

The receiving corps is thin, as prospects like Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey just haven’t progressed into anything other than eminently replaceable parts. The team signed Mike Thomas, who wasn’t good enough to beat out a rotting collection of practice squad wannabes in Detroit last year, yet he’s got a very good chance to be the 4th wideout this fall. 

Running back depth took a hit with Ben Tate’s departure. Primary backup Andre Brown simply cannot stay healthy, making the perennially gimpy Tate seem like Iron Man. Alfred Blue and Dennis Johnson don’t inspire much confidence for the 2-3 cumulative games--at minimum--Foster will miss with his various nicks and bruises. There isn’t much depth along the OL either.

The quarterbacks behind Fitzpatrick are Case Keenum and Tom Savage. Some Houston sycophants will harp on Keenum’s great game against the Colts last year, but that was literally the only time he did anything positive in his eight starts. They all ended in losses. He’s gritty and smart but erratic and weak-armed. Savage has more than enough arm strength, and he flashed starting potential at Pittsburgh. However, he’s a 25-year old rookie who bounced around three colleges and has the mobility and internal clock of a 1982 Pontiac Parisienne. If he doesn’t have time and a clean throwing lane, it’s ugly.

Then there is the up-the-gut defense. It’s less of an issue when Cushing is in the game, but he’s missed 20 games in the last two years and has had a litany of soft tissue injuries going back to his early USC days. Even when he plays, Cushing can only do so much.

Brooks Reed is not an inside backer. He’s not much of an outside backer either, but he’s really not cut out to play solely between the tackles.

The depth all over the back eight is weak. Castoffs like Akeem Dent and Elbert Mack are likely the top reserves at inside backer and outside corner, unless late-round or UDFA rookies like Max Bullough and Andre Hal beat them out. I do hold some optimism for Mr. Irrelevant Lonnie Ballatine, a hard-hitting safety from Memphis, but he needs one year on the practice squad. Then again, if Shiloh Keo makes the team over him and practice squadder Eddie Pleasant, it’s not likely to ever happen for him…or Houston.

The lack of depth took its toll last year, and this group appears even thinner across the board. It’s an ugly truth when a new coaching staff comes in and gets rid of many veterans that are not perceived as worthy fits anymore. There will be a heavy reliance on unproven talents with limited ceilings to handle important reserve roles. Veteran defenders like Antonio “Ninja” Smith, Earl Mitchell and Brice McCain are replaced with greenhorns like Jason Ankrah, Marcus Williams and Ricardo Mathews.

Bill O’Brien is a rookie, and that will make for some growing pains. Even though he has some NFL experience with the Patriots, he’s been working with college kids recently and there is a difference. What worked in State College is not guaranteed to work at the beautiful Reliant complex. The change of culture was absolutely necessary, but getting all the veterans in line with the starkly new regime will not happen overnight.

Forecast

Houston will be better. The 14-game losing streak will be snapped rather quickly. If Foster and Cushing stay healthy and Clowney makes the immediate impact expected of the #1 overall pick, these Texans have a chance to bounce right back into playoff contention. Watt and Clowney together offers amazing defensive potential.

Yet there are deep issues here that will hold back the Texans from rebounding into playoff contender. The overall depth has taken a hit over the past couple of seasons, particularly on defense. There’s just not a lot of NFL middle class on this roster, and that’s where strong organizations thrive.

The bottom line here is that when the division rival Colts bottomed out from Super Bowl contender to 2-14, they picked up Andrew Luck and got right back on the higher horse. Houston is trying to do that with Ryan Fitzpatrick or Tom Savage. To quote the late, great game show host Jim Perry, “Oooh, no sale!”

Houston finishes 6-10, but I wouldn’t advise putting much on the under in a division with so many unknowns. The potential is there for Fitzpatrick to hit a hot streak and the defense to carry the way to 8 or 9 wins. That’s an even longer bet than the under, however.


Miami Dolphins 2014 Season Preview

By Jeff Risdon

2013: 8-8, t-2nd in AFC East

2014 Over/Under: +/- 8 wins

Why the over

If the Miami Dolphins are going to top last year’s eight wins, it’s going to come from the defense. There is strong talent at all three levels--potentially. Turning all that potential into consistently effective play is the trick.

The pass rush is in great shape. Cameron Wake is a dynamo as the left end, producing 46 sacks in the last four years. He’s got great burst off the line but can also win with his impressive ability to transfer speed into power.

Miami found a strong complement to him in Olivier Vernon, who bagged 11.5 sacks off the right side last year. The local product took a major leap forward in his second season, and he should push double-digit sacks again. In fact, the duo could net 25 combined sacks with a little luck.

The Dolphins are also in good shape inside up front with Jared Odrick and Randy Starks. They’re both solid all-around tackles. Odrick has some consistency issues and takes himself out of too many plays, but he can also make life very difficult for opposing offenses. They even have depth up front with Derrick Shelby and Earl Mitchell. It’s a deep and functional front.

Linebacker Koa Misi has developed nicely. He’s a reliable tackler with solid range, and he offers some juice as a blitzer too. There is stability with fellow backers Phillip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe, both of whom can also bring some heat on the blitz. Of course they are shuffling the deck a bit, moving Misi inside to try and spark a rebound from Ellerbe.

The secondary offers some promise. Brent Grimes was quietly great in his first season in Miami. Grimes was strong in coverage but just as importantly, when he ceded receptions he immediately cleaned them up with sure tackling.

I was a big fan of Jamar Taylor out of Boise State, the team’s second-round pick in 2013. He was never 100% and struggled as a rookie, but I really like his potential to step up and emerge as a quality starter in his second season. The team did bring in some insurance with Cortland Finnegan, though that’s more of a longshot gamble than anything to rely upon.

Adding safety Louis Delmas could be a boon, if he can stay healthy. He’s a hard-hitting playmaker with infectious confidence and brings a real presence to the back end of the defense. He proved more durable in his last year in Detroit, though that came at the expense of not practicing. He and Reshad Jones are big variables. Both are Pro Bowl-potential safeties if they click together and bring the consistency.

Offensively, it’s hard to imagine the line being any worse. At least four new starters will play, perhaps five if center Mike Pouncey isn’t healthy. The bigger issue here is that Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin are both mercifully gone. That’s the best example of addition by subtraction in the NFL.

There is some skill position talent on the roster. I like Ryan Tannehill as a quarterback, though he must take better care of the ball than his 30 INTs in the last two seasons indicates. Some of that was a function of being under constant duress from a truly awful offensive line, too. Tannehill was the most-sacked QB in the league last year--by double digits--and that comes on top of finishing second in throwaways. When he had time, he showed he could find the correct option and deliver a strong-armed strike. Matt Moore is a solid veteran backup who doesn’t get enough credit for how well he played during his periodic starts over his career.

Mike Wallace offers high-end potential. He and Brian Hartline could be a decent tandem. Wallace must live up to his lofty free agent contract, something he did not do in his first season with Miami. They even added a couple of rookies I like in Jarvis Landry and Matt Hazel, so there is some youthful potential. Charles Clay is a useful tight end/h-back with some giddyup. The receiving cast has the makings of a group that can emerge as better than the sum of its parts, yet has a couple of very nice parts too.

The Dolphins are entering camp with about 10 running backs competing for spots. I like the addition of Knowshon Moreno, although he could begin on PUP and miss several games. Lamar Miller does a solid job of eking out yards after contact and has some open-field elusiveness. He projects as a better fit in the new offense. Daniel Thomas is an effective short-yardage back who can break some tackles. If that troika is all healthy, Miami has a very strong, versatile backfield with some playmaking dynamics. That’s a great thing to have when the receiving corps is questionable.

The specialists are top notch. Caleb Sturgis finished his rookie campaign poorly but should rebound. Meanwhile, Brandon Fields is one of the better punters in the league.

Why the under

Before even getting to the players, just browse the above “positives” section. Notice how many of those have conditionals attached.

Tannehill “should” improve. Wallace and Hartline “could be” a solid wide receiver duo. Knowshon Moreno could begin on PUP. Lamar Miller “projects” better. Louis Delmas “could be” a boon if he’s healthy. Jamar Taylor has “potential” to step up.

There is very little positive certainty other than the defensive front, half the secondary and the punter. Uncertainty is opportunity for gamblers, but it’s a real tough way to approach a NFL season.

The biggest variable is Tannehill, now entering his third season. It’s just his fifth season playing quarterback, and that inexperience often rears its ugly head. He has very good mobility but doesn’t use it with discretion, appearing to scramble without an end game in mind. He throws a pretty deep ball but often aims it instead of throwing it. At times he creates pressure on plays where his offensive line is holding up well.

Ah yes, the O-line. Some of the new additions are major upgrades, notably left tackle Branden Albert. I was a Dallas Thomas fan in his draft class and he could be a solid left guard. Yet the line will need time to develop chemistry and cohesion. They’re starting an overdrafted rookie in Ja’Wuan James at right tackle and a career backup in Shelley Smith at right guard. I do like James’ potential but it would look a lot better if he had a more reliable presence flanking him.

Pouncey at center is a mixed blessing. No doubt he’s a skilled player, but he was more than casually involved in last year’s ugliness and continues to make ponderous off-field choices. It’s hard to envision him as the anchor and leader of this eclectic young group. It’s even harder since he’ll miss a few weeks with a torn labrum. There is not one snap of proven depth anywhere on the interior of the line, and oft-injured Jason Fox represents the depth at tackle.

Mike Wallace has to become the player he was in Pittsburgh. In his first year in Miami his catch rate, yards per catch, YAC and touchdowns all fell off. Some of that is attributable to working with a developmental QB in Tannehill, but Wallace just didn’t look as dynamic or strident. He’s a player at his best when loaded with swagger, but that effusiveness was missing for prolonged stretches. Without him blazing down the field on deeper sideline routes or creating havoc after a quick slant or bubble screen, the passing offense lacks a real difference-making threat.

The shuffling of the linebackers has to work. Ellerbe and Wheeler were major downgrades from the men they replaced, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. That 2013 offseason exchange turned out to be a Gob Bluth-like huge mistake. One of them should bounce back and have a decent 2014, but the odds that both play at an above-average level are about as good as Kentucky winning the Sugar Bowl. There is nothing but later-round rookies and street free agents behind them, though Jordan Tripp could turn out to be a great 5th round find.

I’m not crazy about the addition of Cortland Finnegan, who has been absolutely wretched on the field in two of the last three years.

Then there’s the complete waste of a top 3 pick that is Dion Jordan. He is a 3-4 OLB being used incorrectly by the Dolphins, who are trying to turn him into a rush end. That takes away from his best attribute, his ability to cover ground in space. After a miserable rookie season, he now will miss the first month of 2014 under suspension for PEDs. I have credible sources who advised me the team couldn’t even bring back a 2nd round pick as they begged other teams for a Jordan trade during draft weekend.

Organizational discord is another problem, albeit an abstract one. It starts at the very top with majority owner Stephen Ross, who has a unique way of running his team. Axing controversial GM Jeff Ireland is a positive, but failing to dump meh coach Joe Philbin with him is a major mistake. In order to move forward from chaos, all vestiges of said chaos need to be purged. Philbin will (rightly) be seen as a lame duck under new GM Dennis Hickey, and the change of coordinators is mere temporary plugging of serious cracks in the dam with duct tape and bubble gum. Hickey was a great hire but keeping Philbin undermines his authority. You’d better believe players know that.

Dumping offensive coordinator Mike Sherman could be a real negative in Tannehill’s development. Sherman was his coach at Texas A&M, his biggest advocate and his trusted mentor and support system. Did he perform well as coordinator? Absolutely not, but there is some major risk involved here.

Forecast

Miami is a scary betting proposition. They finished 8-8 last year and in the middle third of the league in many statistical metrics, so the target 8 wins seems logical. They have many key questions, but so does the entire AFC East.

I’m leaning strongly towards the under here. It’s just hard for me to envision all those variables coming up roses. I’m legitimately worried about Tannehill’s progress at this critical juncture, and the offensive line chaos and him learning a new system exacerbate those fears. There is so much uncertainty around him, too.

The schedule doesn’t help. There’s a good chance this team opens 0-2, facing the Patriots and then travelling to Buffalo. The non-divisional slate features the tough NFC North and brutal AFC West, which put three teams in the playoffs last year. Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers et al represent serious passing attacks that will take aim at the Miami defense. Outscoring all those potent offenses will be a challenge.

I don’t think this unit is up for that challenge. It’s going to get worse before it gets better in Miami. These Dolphins finish 6-10 in 2014.



Green Bay Packers 2014 Season Preview

Even with both Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews playing full seasons at MVP-caliber levels, there are enough holes on this roster that double-digit wins against their schedule would be a pleasant surprise.


Quick NFL Hits For The Fourth of July

This is the NFL's slow season. Minicamps and OTAs are done, and training camps don't kick off for another couple of weeks. But there's still a lot of news worthy of analyzing.


Brian Hoyer Reality Check

Johnny Manziel might not be the answer either, but at least he has the potential to be something that Brian Hoyer can never achieve: greatness. If Browns fans cannot accept that, the factory of sadness will only continue to get into a deeper depression.


Happy Father’s Day

So for you dads out there, incorporate your love of sports into Father's Day. And for you sons out there, treat dad to something related to his big love.


Grading The Deal: Kaepernick Signs Record-Breaking Deal With 49ers

Playoff Kaepernick is how he should be judged relative to this contract, and he's been the best player on the field during every single one of his playoff games, which includes the two wins against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.


$.05 On OTAs

On the desperate situation for the Cowboys after losing Sean Lee, troubles for Will Hill, first round picks signing under the new CBA, Dan Marino and the bottom of teams' rosters.