Sunday, September 9, 2012

Miami Dolphins 2012 Season Preview

With Hard Knocks, we got to see a behind the scenes look of the Miami Dolphins as they prepare for their 2012 season under rookie head coach Joe Philbin and with rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill at the helm.

That being said, we didn't need any NFL Films' cameras to see the Dolphins' roster has issues right now and that could translate into a fairly ugly campaign in 2012.

Of course, while a lot of the players remain from the Dolphins' disastrous 0-7 start to the 2011 season, there are also still many pieces in place that helped the team finish 6-3. So which team will we see this season, if either?

Here is my preview of the Dolphins' 2012 roster and what I expect to see in 2012...


Offense

Scary as it is, the Dolphins' season and future rests on the shoulders of a rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill that played receiver his first two years of college. That being said, I like Tannehill and I've grown more comfortable with him starting as a rookie based on his preseason play and obvious grasp of Mike Sherman's offense from their time at Texas A&M.

The issue for Tannehill is weapons, and to say he's lacking many is an understatement. The Dolphins spent the entire camp and preseason working Legedu Naanee as a starter, despite his underwhelming five-year career and ugly preseason in which he was either invisible or dropping passes. Unless the team signs a clear-cut starter after Week 1 such a Jabar Gaffney, Naanee is probably here to stay in 2012 and is likely to be a weak option for Tannehill.

Davone Bess and Anthony Fasano are the obvious safety blankets for the rookie quarterback. The slot receiver and tight end will be the guys open short and over the middle, allowing Tannehill to perhaps gain some yardage when there's nothing else there. Meanwhile, Brian Hartline is returning from a calf injury and probably has the most upside of any receiver on the team, but his early impact in 2012 remains to be seen since hasn't had much time working with Tannehill.

All this talk of the passing game (or what there will be of one) isn't complete without talking about the offensive line. You don't really worry about Jake Long even when he isn't 100%, although his injury history isn't promising when he's already suffered a sprained MCL in 2012. The line gets even less reliable as it goes right, with right guard John Jerry a wildly inconsistent starter and poor scheme fit and rookie second-rounder Jonathan Martin coming off a disastrous preseason.

As for Tannehill's running game, I expect it to be better than expected. If Reggie Bush can continue to stay healthy, he could pick up where he left off in 2011 as the NFL's only 1,000-yard rusher to average five yards per carry. I also expect second-year man Daniel Thomas to mix in more than he did last year when he was hampered by injuries. The Dolphins will certainly need both guys to step up and get the ball moving on a regular basis so that Tannehill doesn't have to do it all himself.


Defense

As we saw in the preseason, this defense can be maddening with its deficits and has only a few pieces that are totally effective and reliable. A few of those pieces are in the middle of the defensive line, where Randy Starks and Paul Soliai easily create one of the best duos in the game. Both had strong preseasons and should continue to do well clogging things up the middle.

The starting defensive line has additional reliability with Jared Odrick at one end spot and Cameron Wake at the other. Odrick is a suitable starter there despite being an interior rusher and Wake looks poised to "rebound" after a misleading 8.5-sack season in 2011. The issue here is depth, where the Dolphins have no NFL experience and may once again be looking at a situation where Wake is the only guy that can get to the quarterback on a consistent basis. As good as Wake is, he can't do it all game and not having anyone else that can apply pressure makes things harder in the guys behind them.

The Dolphins' linebacker unit should be solid with veterans Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett returning, as well as Koa Misi in a pure non-passing-rushing role. I don't know how many big plays you'll get from this bunch, but reliable tackling should be there and teams shouldn't run all over the Dolphins when you have these guys lining up behind Starks and Soliai.

The secondary is where the real issue is, and it was already an issue before the Dolphins traded their most talented corner in Vontae Davis. The team believes Sean Smith is "putting it all together" but excelling in practice has never been his issue and it remains to be seen if he can translate that to the big stage. I also think the team overestimates the abilities of other starter Richard Marshall and anointed nickel back Nolan Carroll, who both had inconsistent preseasons and are not proven in their current roles.

The Dolphins once again have Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones starting at safety, and this duo is inconsistent at best. Jones has the most upside of the two but neither have excelled in coverage to date and the deep ball is going to be a big concern in 2012 if the preseason is any indication.

Combine a shaky secondary with no depth and one-man pass rush, and the Dolphins' defense may continue to be inconsistent like it was in 2011 despite a strong starting front seven.


Special Teams

Special teams is the place where the Dolphins' roster really shines, although unfortunately that's not going to win Miami many games this season.

Dan Carpenter and Brandon Fields should be extremely reliable as a placekicker/punter duo barring any totally unforeseen circumstances. If Shane Lechler didn't exist, Fields would easily be in the discussion as the best punter in the league.

The one unknown and the most interesting thing in this unit is the return game, which should finally see Bess off punt returns and a new fact at kick returns with the emergence of Marcus Thigpen. The former CFL speedster had a strong preseason and earned a roster spot as a return specialist, providing a home run threat the Dolphins haven't had since the departure of Ted Ginn, Jr. It will be interesting to see how Thigpen does with a full season to handle kicks for the Dolphins.


Conclusion

Believe it or not, there are plenty of Dolphins fans that truly believe the team will beat the Texans today in what is the first of at least 8-10 wins for Miami this season. Those fans are likely to be sorely disappointed given that a rookie quarterback with sub-par weapons is in place with a shaky defense that isn't going to shut down many teams' aerial attacks.

That's why fans of the Dolphins should temper their expectations for 2012 while simultaneously not jumping ship if the season does go badly. I'm expecting four or five wins from the team based on what I've seen and based on the glaring holes this roster has, but I'm also optimistic about the team long-term even if that happens.

The Dolphins' future is potentially bright if Tannehill can develop into the great NFL starter the team expects, while a bevvy of draft picks and cap room in the coming offseason will allow the Dolphins to really revamp their roster and add weapons for their quarterback.

I can't stress enough that fans shouldn't expect a .500 season in 2012, but I also can't stress enough that a losing season is not a reason to panic. All I want to see this year is promise from the Dolphins' younger players. I want Tannehill to show he belongs. I want Daniel Thomas to step up and show he can handle the load if Bush leaves in free agency. I want Brian Hartline and Sean Smith to show enough promise to earn new contracts. I want one or two guys to come out of nowhere and be productive pieces, as unlikely and random as that may be.

Quite simply, a bad 2012 for the Dolphins doesn't mean a bad 2013 and beyond, especially if Tannehill shows promise with a poor supporting cast. It's not always going to be fun this year and it's certainly not always going to be pretty, but look at the big picture and you'll see that it's potentially a good one.