Thursday, August 16, 2012

Five things to watch for in the Dolphins-Panthers game

The Miami Dolphins travel to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers on Friday in their second of four preseason games in 2012.

A lot has happened in the past week, including injuries a dramatic arrest and release, some new players earning time in the media spotlight and others seeing their on-field image take a big hit.

Here are five things I'm focusing on on tomorrow's game against the Panthers...

1. The performances of Matt Moore and Ryan Tannehill

Head coach Joe Philbin hasn't officially said who will start the game on Friday, but there's a lot of belief that rookie first-rounder Ryan Tannehill will get the call. If that's the case, it means that he and Matt Moore, who started the preseason opener in David Garrard's absence, are in a dead heat for the starting job if Garrard doesn't return by the season opener.

How Tannehill performs with the first team will be key in this game, because it'll be the best indication to the staff whether or not the supposedly raw rookie might be ready to start earlier than expected. It's very likely that whoever players better in this game will start the third game of the preseason, which is essentially the "dress rehearsal" for the regular season and thus will feature the projected starter in the regular season.

Right now, this battle is too close to call, but Tannehill is certainly in the running more than many of us thought before training camp began. Moore has never really seemed to have the coaching staff's favor, and if Tannehill starts Friday, Moore is probably going to be ready to move on.

2. Any clarity for the final wide receiver spots

The Dolphins' top three receivers for the season are set, assuming training camp starter Legedu Naanee holds onto a job and Brian Hartline (calf) returns to the field, with Davone Bess manning the slot. The questions remaining are how many more receivers will the team keep (likely two or three) and who will they be.

Roberto Wallace, or "Ankle Weights" as the coaching staff so lovingly dubbed him in this week's episode of Hard Knocks, still seems to have a good shot considering his size and special-teams ability. He and Julius Pruitt both shined in the preseason opener (despite Wallace's dropped touchdown in the second quarter) and would seem to be the favorites for the fourth and fifth spots. Another good game at Carolina would only cement that further.

If Wallace or Pruitt are to be supplanted (or supplemented with a sixth receiver on the roster), somebody is going to have to step up. Will new media darling Chris Hogan get a chance to show what he can do with an extended look, or is he still behind Marlon Moore, draft picks B. J. Cunningham and Rishard Matthews, and undrafted free agent Jeff Fuller?

3. Stability on the offensive line

Everyone's excited about rookie tackle Jonathan Martin's potential, but he had an extremely rough first showing. The same can be said for 33-year-old Artis Hicks, who is apparently the uncontested starting right guard despite being a mediocre journeyman for much of his career.

If these two are going to be an upgrade over the mess that was Vernon Carey and Marc Colombo from 2011, they'll need to be a lot better than they were last week against the Buccaneers. In particular I'm concerned about the rushing game, which averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in the preseason opener.

4. Longshots seeing action

The problem with being anywhere from the 80th to 90th man on a 90-man offseason roster is that you hardly even get any looks in the preseason to show what you can do. That means all the coaches know about you is what you do on the practice field and you never get a chance to put additional game action to tape for the staff to analyze.

As we saw on Hard Knocks this week, guys like tight end Les Brown and wide receiver Chris Hogan barely played last week against the Buccaneers, meaning the staff values compiling video of other guys at their positions. Whether or not that changes Friday against Carolina, especially considering the third preseason game is largely dominated by true starters, will go a long way in showing just how much the Dolphins value them as well as the chances of sticking on the practice squad.

5. Emergence from the doghouse

Former first-round pick and starting cornerback Vontae Davis continues to work with the second team in practice, two weeks after he was initially having problems in training camp with conditioning and effort. I will be interesting to see if Davis can finagle any time with the starters against Carolina in an attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of the staff.

The same can be said for other players that have drawn the ire of coaches recently. Rookie third-rounder Michael Egnew and second-year man Charles Clay were both blasted by Mike Sherman on Hard Knocks this week. Clay at least responded with some nice grabs and a touchdown against Tampa Bay, but Egnew predominantly struggled with his blocking and receiving in the game aside from one circus catch.

Egnew doesn't look anything close to NFL ready, unable to contribute as a blocker and clearly not having the faith of the staff to be a big part of the passing game. While most third-round picks are in no danger of being cut, it does happen occasionally and Egnew has unfortunately placed himself in a position where he is not entirely safe. He needs to turn things around quickly if he wants his stay in Miami to extend beyond the next 12 months.

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