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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.


Quick NFL Hits For The Fourth of July

By Jeff Risdon

This is the NFL’s slow season. Minicamps and OTAs are done, and training camps don’t kick off for another couple of weeks.

That doesn’t mean America’s premiere sports league is shut down. Enough news continues to matriculate out to keep the NFL prominent even in the midst of the World Cup and the NBA draft and free agency in full swing.

Here are some of the latest news blurbs, and my snap reaction to them.

--Kiko Alonso out for the season

Buffalo’s top tackler as a rookie, Alonso will be missed in the heart of the Bills defense. He tore his ACL whole working out on his own.

This is a major blow to Buffalo. Alonso’s range and technical proficiency covered a lot of holes on their defense. Even though his tackle numbers were inflated by some generous scorekeeping, Alonso still shows up making plays everywhere on game film. He certainly belonged in strong consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Buffalo will try to replace him with rookie Preston Brown, a player I liked a lot more than most in the draft process. The Louisville product doesn’t have Alonso’s amazing lateral range, but he offers the same kind of versatility and ability to move in any direction.

In the debate in my mind about who will be missed more between Alonso and Cowboys LB Sean Lee, who will also miss 2014 with a torn ACL, I think it will be Lee. Even though the Cowboys have more experience playing without him, the relative talent around Lee is thinner. The Bills have a better front and don’t depend on Alonso to carry so much of the burden.

It’s still a critical loss, however. Don’t believe me? Ask the bookmakers, who dropped the Bills prospective season win over/under total a half-game within 12 hours of the injury, from 7 to 6.5. I’ll take the under.

--Dion Jordan suspended four games for PEDs

The Miami Dolphins defensive end has certainly not had the career many of us draftniks envisioned. Miami traded up to the third overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft to pick Jordan, a long, athletic, versatile hybrid end/linebacker talent from Oregon.

Jordan was a misfit in Miami’s defense. The Dolphins deployed him as a 4-3 end, which takes away from his best asset--his ranginess. He’s not a power rusher, and keeping him with his hand in the dirt and tight to the formation doesn’t allow him to use his great agility or litheness in space.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required for premium content), Jordan managed just 2 sacks and 24 total QB pressures in his rookie year despite playing over 200 snaps in a rushing capacity.

There were lots of trade rumors this offseason, some of which (to Arizona for the Cards’ 2nd & 4th round picks was a popular one during Combine time) made too much sense not to happen.

Maybe now we know why they didn’t happen. Jordan will miss the first four games, putting him even further behind and making a sophomore turnaround all that much more unlikely. Per the initial report from ESPN, Jordan claims the suspension is for a banned stimulant.

It’s always a shame to see a talent go to waste. It’s even worse when the squandered talent wastes his own opportunity. The Dolphins were close to being a legit threat in the AFC East a year ago, but swinging and missing on a top-5 pick really sets them back. Between Jordan’s failure and the offensive line saga, it’s hard to see Miami rising up past third place in 2014.

--Lavon Brazill suspended for the entire 2014 season

This one really hurts. Brazill, the shifty Colts wideout, is the most prominent Ohio University Bobcat in the NFL. As a fellow Bobcat, it gave me great pride to see someone from our meager program (Ohio won 9 games in my five falls in Athens) to succeed, although the team has found recent prominence under Frank Solich.

Brazill got the Jordan treatment a year ago, missing four games for a positive test. He apparently did not get the message, as another positive test has ended his 2014 season before it even began.

On the field, the Colts will miss him only a little. He caught just 12 passes last year, and he was projected by most to be the fifth wideout. The team has impressive rookie Donte Moncrief and free agent signing Hakeem Nicks, both of whom are much bigger and more dynamic options. While Nicks has some injury issues, Moncrief could very well be an instant star.

He’s the second Colt to get whacked for violating the NFL’s drug policy. Pass rusher Robert Mathis, a much more significant contributor, will miss the first four weeks for his sin. Considering the owner is facing a suspension for being caught with all sorts of illicit substances during a DUI, the Colts appear teetering on the precipice of some real character issues. It won’t help a team that is already held together largely by the miraculous comebacks of Andrew Luck.

--Jimmy Graham ruled a tight end

This ruling came in the wake of Graham protesting the Saints labeling him as a tight end for franchise tag purposes. Graham, with the support of the NFLPA, argued that because he played more than 2/3 of his snaps split from the formation he should be classified as a wide receiver.

The Saints won the case. Graham did himself no favors by calling himself a tight end on his Twitter profile, however trite that might seem. As a result, the dynamic pass catcher will lose about $5M in 2014.

Other players have struggled to win similar cases. It calls to the forefront the need for the franchise and transitional tag concepts to adapt to today’s changing NFL.

Players like Graham, Vernon Davis in San Francisco and rookie Eric Ebron in Detroit are all hybrid tight end/wide receivers. Call them what you want, a hybrid or a joker or a flex, they all play a role that is defined by their ability to catch passes deeper down the field than the traditional tight ends. While they all do have blocking responsibilities, that’s not why they’re making millions.

The same is true on the defensive side of the ball, where not all defensive ends or linebackers are the same. Some are exclusively pass rushers, while others are run-stuffing forces. Lumping them all together is like saying every cheese is cheddar. The league needs to adapt. The NFLPA needs to push them more firmly but also without the acrimony that predominates their interactions with Commissioner Goodell.

It’s important to note the two sides are working to try and hammer out a long-term deal before it comes to Graham playing under the tag. My guess is they will meet somewhere in the middle, rewarding Graham for being the third-most prolific target in the league over the last three years. Tight end or wide receiver doesn’t matter to Drew Brees and New Orleans’ record-setting offense.

--Johnathan Franklin forced to retire

One of the bigger downers in being a NFL talent evaluator is when a player you like fails to pan out due to injury. Such is the case with Green Bay Packers RB Johnathan Franklin, who was forced to retire because of a neck injury.

Franklin played just one season for the Packers after being their 4th round pick in 2013. He’s 24 and his promising career is over. His final stat line is 19 carries for 107 yards and Franklin scored exactly one touchdown.

On one hand, it’s great that the medical evaluations caught the neck injury, which he likely suffered in Week 12 last year. It’s better to be overly cautious with a neck injury than to let Franklin continue playing and possibly suffer an even worse, life-altering casualty.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see a young man’s legit NFL dreams go away in an instant. Franklin was my 2nd-rated running back in the 2013 draft, and I loved the fit or the former UCLA Bruin in Green Bay. His niftiness out of the backfield and ability to cut hard off the crease were natural skills that fit the Packers offense perfectly. Paired with 2nd round pick Eddie Lacy, they were poised to be an effective thunder and lightning package for years.

Now Franklin is like Jahvid Best, the Lions RB who was forced from the game by 25 due to a series of concussions. He’s also like former Packer Sterling Sharpe, who was forced to retire far too early because of a neck injury. Franklin never came close to their level of accomplishment, and that’s sad. Here’s hoping his post-football life is a promising, productive, and healthy one.


$.05 On OTAs

By Jeff Risdon

The first session of Official Team Activities, or OTAs, are now in the books for every team. There will be many, many more significant things going on as the offseason progresses, but there are some things that stood out around the league.

$.01--The Dallas Cowboys lost the best player on its historically inept defense when middle linebacker Sean Lee tore his ACL on the very first day of OTAs. This is a devastating loss for a unit that is trying to overcome already losing Pro Bowl pass rusher DeMarcus Ware to free agency.

This is not Lee’s first rodeo with major injury. He’s missed significant time throughout his career with neck, knee, wrist and toe issues. He fell in the 2010 draft because of his propensity for getting hurt at Penn State, too.

The Cowboys gambled that he could get healthy, and now it’s blown up in their face. Rod Marinelli’s vanilla 4-3 defense desperately relies on talented players making plays within the scheme, and Lee was the playmaker in the middle. Now they’ve lost him for the year. They don’t have anyone who can replace him at all. I like second-year backer Devonte Holloman a lot, but he’s an outside cover backer, not an inside thumping presence.

Here’s how desperate things are: rumors of Brian Urlacher coming out of retirement are generally viewed as the best option to replace Lee. That’s the same Brian Urlacher who had visibly lost at least a full step in his last season in Chicago back in 2012. Dallas does have some time to find a replacement, be it a trade or a preseason cut (Kelvin Sheppard?), but there’s no denying they are going to sorely miss Lee in the middle of the defense.

$.02--The New York Giants released bad boy safety Will Hill after his latest drug-related suspension. It’s his third since entering the league in 2012 after a career at Florida that might have taken years off then-coach Urban Meyer’s life. For a great look at his dubious history as a human being, check out this fine timeline from Jordan Raanan of NJ.com.

It’s always a shame to see talent wasted; it’s one of the biggest frustrations of covering sports. But when a guy cannot stop smoking pot after at least three failed tests, there is zero sympathy.

One of the bigger arguments I hear from marijuana advocates is that “it’s not addictive” like cocaine or even caffeine. Okay. Try going one single month without smoking it and see what it does to your body, your brain, your attitude. Will Hill apparently cannot, or will not, accept that challenge.

It’s too bad, because his former Gator pothead teammate Janoris Jenkins was able to overcome his chronic abuse of the chronic. One person with knowledge of a failed drug test at Florida told me before Jenkins was drafted that the levels of pot measurable (THC) in his system was that of someone “who is habitually stoned beyond any sense of general sobriety”. Jenkins has kept himself clean in his two seasons with the St. Louis Rams. Maybe St. Louis should take a flier on Hill and hope that Jenkins can lead him into the world of the clear-headed. Of course, the opposite could happen too, so perhaps it’s better that Hill’s NFL dreams go up in smoke.

$03--In previous years, one of the bigger issues at this time on the calendar was getting all the first-round draft picks signed. It wasn’t uncommon to have no more than a handful signed in the first month following the draft, and there were typically at least that many who remained unsigned into training camp.

That has changed with the latest CBA, as the rookie contracts are no longer the mega-deals that crippled many a salary cap. Sam Bradford, the first pick in the 2011 draft, made $50M guaranteed in his rookie deal. Last year’s top pick, Eric Fisher of the Chiefs (remember him?) got a smidge over $22M guaranteed.

For many years, the last team to sign its first-round pick was a lock to miss the playoffs. This year’s candidates for that distinction are few: San Diego, Detroit and Kansas City all have cap issues that could cause a delay in signing their picks. Detroit’s situation is the most acute; the Lions have just $1.1M in cap room but will have to count a little more than double that when they sign top pick Eric Ebron. Yet even that is expected to be wrapped up before training camp begins in July.

The new CBA has its significant detractions, but getting rookies signed and into camp is one of the more underpublicized positives.

$.04--Longtime readers know my disdain for Dan Marino, who I find one of the most overrated athletes of my lifetime. Marino put more fodder in my cannon this week by apparently joining the concussion lawsuit against the NFL by accident.

Much fanfare celebrated such a prominent name joining the long list of plaintiffs suing the NFL for head trauma suffered while playing in the league. Marino never had a documented concussion even though he played for almost two decades, which raised some eyebrows. He has later said he believes he suffered two concussions.

But just as he did when he accepted a front office job with his beloved Dolphins, Marino couldn’t handle any of the negatives that went along with the positives and quickly bailed. His statement on the issue, that he didn’t know his name would be attached to the existing suit, ironically proves that he probably did suffer irreparable brain damage. How could he not understand that? He either needs new advisors around him or to listen to the ones he already has, because the ignorance here is staggering.

There are rumors that Marino quickly withdrew when he realized that his involvement might hinder his ability to work in a front office. Not that there are teams beating down his door after his abortive experience in Miami, where Marino is still revered by fans who like to overlook his lousy playoff record. If he were a politician, opposing candidates would throw flip flops at him.

It’s a shame, really, because if Marino is indeed one of the multitude of former players suffering, he deserves to be part of the massive lawsuit. Adding his name certainly lends more sizzle and credibility to the cause. He’s a prominent figure with a platform, from being a living legend to working for CBS. Casual fans know and respect Dan Marino, and that means something here. If suddenly being thrust out as the face of the lawsuit spooked Marino, that’s simultaneously understandable and unfortunate.

$.05--The first week of June is a tough time to be at the bottom of the roster. This is a very active time for roster churning, and that can make it a very aggravating time for agents whose clients reside in spots 87-90 on the current 90-man roster limits.

The maddening process of trying to secure a tryout with another team is tedious and often humiliating for agents, who are employed in part because they have to believe in the dream too. Often those tryouts consist of one sole practice session in front of a position coach with far more important decisions to make than who is the 7th cornerback on his roster. It’s a longshot of a longshot, but it requires several phone calls and very little chance of financial reward for the agents. Many of these guys don’t have a big “meal ticket” client to lean on.

For folks like me who spend countless hours breaking down draft prospects and fits, it can be very frustrating as well. Lots of these guys are seeing their dreams die. They might not get signed by another team, and unlike the other pro sports, there is no minor league or overseas options to continue playing. Names like Luke Marquadt or Spencer Hadley might not ring a bell for most people, but it’s tough to see their NFL aspirations end when I’ve seen legit glimpses of viable NFL talent in watching their college tape.



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