AFC East: Earl Mitchell

The Miami Dolphins (5-3) will travel Sunday to play the Detroit Lions (6-2) in a big game for both teams.

Here is a look at Miami’s final injury report:

Out: TE Dion Sims (toe)

Doubtful: G Daryn Colledge (back)

Questionable: RB Lamar Miller (shoulder), LB Koa Misi (ankle), DT Earl Mitchell (abdomen), S Jimmy Wilson (hamstring), LB Kelvin Sheppard (hip/groin)

Probable: TE Charles Clay (knee), G Mike Pouncey (hip), LB Jordan Tripp (ankle), DT Anthony Johnson (back), LB Chris McCain (foot),

Analysis: The Dolphins had good participation in practice this week, and most are expected to play. The biggest concern is Miller, who has been limited throughout the week with a shoulder injury. Miller is a big part of Miami’s offense, and backups Daniel Thomas and Damien Williams would share the load if Miller cannot play Sunday. Colledge most likely will miss his second straight game, and backup Dallas Thomas expects to start at left guard. The Dolphins will have two games in four days, which will be taxing physically and mentally for the team. Miami will play its next game Thursday against the Buffalo Bills.

The San Diego Chargers (5-3) will travel to face the Miami Dolphins (4-3) in an important game with early playoff implications. Both teams could be fighting for a wild card in the AFC, which would make owning the head-to-head tiebreaker important.

Who will prevail in this matchup? ESPN Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker discuss:

Walker: Miami has won two in a row and San Diego has lost two in a row, so momentum may be a factor in this matchup. Where are the Chargers in terms of confidence and ending their losing streak?

Williams: The Chargers are a veteran-led group that understands the ebb and flow of an NFL season, so confidence will not be an issue traveling on the road to face the Dolphins. Two of San Diego's three losses have come on the road, against teams that have one loss apiece (Denver and Arizona). San Diego's other loss was a three-point setback to AFC West rival Kansas City at home.

The Chargers don't make a lot of mistakes and generally force opponents to beat them. Coach Mike McCoy is meticulous in his game-day preparation and his staff is skilled in making in-game adjustments. I expect San Diego will be ready for whatever the Dolphins plan to do scheme-wise on both sides of the ball.

The Dolphins are doing a nice job of running, ranked No. 6 by averaging 138 rushing yards per game. How has new coordinator Bill Lazor turned things around on offense?

Walker: Most people expected Lazor to come in and quickly fix the passing game, but he has made his biggest contribution with the running game. Miami's ground game has been consistent, whether it was Knowshon Moreno early, Lamar Miller lately or even quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has three runs of 30 yards or more in the past three games. Lazor has done a good job of spreading out defenses and calling run plays at the right time. His read-option with Tannehill and Miller has been a huge success. Miami's passing game still needs work, but there is progress.

West Coast teams often don't look the same in Miami; San Diego hasn't won here since the 1981 season. How are the Chargers combating that and will the 10-day layoff help?

Williams: Although West Coast teams traditionally struggle in early games traveling east, the Chargers have been relatively successful of late, posting a 7-5 record in 10 a.m. PT games since 2012. The extra days off have given this banged-up team a chance to get some players healthy, and with Philip Rivers controlling the offense, the Chargers are competitive more times than not. One of the keys for San Diego will be the possible return of running back Ryan Mathews. Out for the past six games with an MCL sprain, the Fresno State product could help provide some much-needed balance to San Diego's offense if healthy and cleared to play on Sunday.

After starting 1-2, the Dolphins have won three of their past four games to get back into the AFC playoff race. What has been the difference?

Walker: Part of it is the schedule. The Dolphins cannot hide from that fact. All three of Miami's victories during this stretch have been against the struggling Jacksonville Jaguars (1-7), Oakland Raiders (0-7) and Chicago Bears (3-5). Those are bad teams the Dolphins must beat if they want to be considered playoff contenders, and to their credit they took care of business.

The Dolphins are 1-3 against teams with winning records. That is why this game against San Diego is such a good measuring stick of where the Dolphins stand. Miami's next four opponents have a combined record of 22-9 (.709 winning percentage), so we are going to find out quickly whether the Dolphins are contenders or pretenders.

San Diego was banged up before its previous game against the Broncos. Where are the Chargers injury-wise heading into Sunday's game?

Williams: The Chargers should be in a better place health-wise. Four weeks ago against Jacksonville, the Chargers barely had enough healthy bodies to fill 46 spots on the active roster. Along with Mathews, cornerback Brandon Flowers and running back Donald Brown are possibilities to return from concussions. Pass rushers Jeremiah Attaochu (hamstring) and Cordarro Law (ankle) also should have a chance to make it back on the field on Sunday. Offensive linemen D.J. Fluker (ankle) and Rich Ohrnberger (back) have been playing with injuries, so the extra time should work in their favor as well.

The Dolphins are No. 3 in passing defense, holding teams to just 212 passing yards a game. How does the front seven set the tone?

Walker: Miami's front four are the strength of the entire team. The Dolphins have waves of good players, starting with defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon and defensive tackles Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell and Randy Starks. Miami also is getting contributions off the bench from Derrick Shelby, Chris McCain and Dion Jordan, who recorded a couple of tackles in his first game off suspension. This group sets the tone for the defense. The Dolphins' linebackers have been inconsistent with the exception of Jelani Jenkins, who leads Miami in tackles (53) by a wide margin.

Miami Dolphins' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
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Examining the Miami Dolphins’ roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)


The only question here is whether Devlin can hold off undrafted rookie Brock Jensen for the No. 3 quarterback job. Neither quarterback stood out in the offseason, but Devlin has the slight edge because of experience.

RUNNING BACKS (3)

The Dolphins would like to have someone step up and challenge Thomas. Undrafted rookie Damien Williams from Oklahoma could be a sleeper to watch. But it's too premature to put Williams on the 53-man roster over the veteran Thomas before the pads come on.

RECEIVERS (6)

This is a deep group with a lot of competition. Williams will be pushed for the final spot by Armon Binns and rookie Matt Hazel, who is practice-squad-eligible.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

New Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor uses some two-tight-end sets. So there might be room for a fourth player such as Dion Sims. But we are sticking with three for now.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (10)
Pouncey’s hip injury puts a major dent in this much-maligned group to start the season. Miami will have five new starters in Week 1.

DEFENSIVE LINE (8)

This is the strongest area of the team. The Dolphins can come at opponents in waves in the trenches.

LINEBACKERS (7)

This group must improve its play from 2013. The Misi experiment at middle linebacker is particularly important to watch.

CORNERBACKS (6)

This is a solid mix of youth and experience. As long as second-year players Taylor and Davis come of age and Finnegan stays healthy, the depth will be improved from a year ago.

SAFETIES (4)

This group is all about position flexibility. All four players must be able to play back in coverage and closer to the line of scrimmage in defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle’s scheme.

SPECIALISTS (3)

This trio will remain the same for the second straight year.
DAVIE, Fla. -- To a man, there is still doubt within the Miami Dolphins' locker room that the high-profile scandal involving former offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito was a result of poor leadership. The NFL's investigation detailed in the Ted Wells report only furthered that national view of the team.

That has put leadership as one of the top items that will help make the Dolphins successful in 2014. The roster has talent. But last year's scandal and late-season collapse cost Miami a playoff berth.

According to Dolphins Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake, lack of leadership isn't an issue.

"Obviously, it's unfortunate what happened [last season] and we're not going to dive too deep into that," Wake said. "But, as a whole, you look around this team [and] there are guys that may be vocal or guys that maybe do it by example. We have leaders all over the place."

Wake is part of a defensive line that must provide leadership on and off the field. In addition to Wake, arguably the team's best player, Miami's defensive line also has 2013 sack leader Olivier Vernon, dynamic second-year player Dion Jordan and veteran defensive tackles Randy Starks, Jared Odrick and Earl Mitchell.

On paper, defensive line is the deepest area of the team and will be expected to set the tone on a weekly basis.

"When it comes down to it, the D-line's the heart and soul of the defense and, if we're not doing what we have to do, then things start falling apart," Vernon said. "That's just one thing we're trying to focus on now and make sure it goes into the season."

Many in South Florida and around the country will be monitoring the Dolphins' locker-room leadership this upcoming season. It will still take the team coming together and leadership if Miami wants to end its five-season playoff drought.

"I was never of the impression that [leadership] was lacking. But, just like I don't feel like my strength is lacking or my conditioning is lacking, I'm going to work on that as well," Wake said. "Working on leadership, making it a more prominent part of our organization, I don't see anything wrong with that."
The Miami Dolphins are sixth in the NFL thus far with 10 new players in free agency. First-year general manager Dennis Hickey continues to make over the roster following last year’s disappointing 8-8 season.

The Dolphins still have flexibility to make a move in free agency. Miami is currently $16.46 million under the salary cap, according to NFLPA records. The Dolphins have 62 players under contract.

Only six teams have more cap space than Miami. The Cleveland Browns ($30.8 million) and New York Jets ($26.2 million) lead the way in salary-cap room. The Dolphins are second in the AFC East with money left available to spend.

What does this mean for Miami? Don’t expect the team to go on another spending spree. The Dolphins made their choice to spend big on players this offseason such as left tackle Branden Albert ($47 million) and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell ($18 million). The remainder of free agency will be spent bargain hunting.

Miami still has several well-defined needs, such as guard and right tackle. The Dolphins also could use depth at several positions such as safety and linebacker.

They also need to keep space available for this year’s rookie class. Miami has seven selections in next month’s NFL draft, including the No. 19 overall pick.

Free-agency review: Dolphins

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[+] EnlargeBranden Albert
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesBranden Albert should help stabilize Miami's porous offensive line.
Most significant signing: Left tackle Branden Albert is clearly the biggest free-agent addition to the Miami Dolphins' roster this offseason. Miami paid handsomely. Albert is making $47 million over the next five seasons. However, it was a signing the Dolphins needed to make after allowing a franchise-record 58 sacks in 2013. Miami needs to know if young quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the long-term solution, and the Dolphins can't determine that if Tannehill spends too much time getting hit and laying on his back. Albert, who made the Pro Bowl last year, should buy Tannehill more time next season protecting the blindside.

Most significant loss: The Dolphins' haven't suffered any debilitating losses in free agency. But if I had to pick the biggest loss to this point, it would be starting defensive tackle Paul Soliai. He was a homegrown talent as a former fourth-round pick. Soliai worked hard to become a one-time Pro Bowler, but the Dolphins didn't want to spend too much to keep him. He signed a $33 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons. The Dolphins lessened the loss by signing Earl Mitchell ($16 million) and bringing back Randy Starks ($12 million) at more affordable rates.

Biggest surprise: It was the worst-kept secret in sports that Jonathan Martin could not return to the Dolphins following last year's high-profile bullying scandal. But what was a surprise was how quickly the Dolphins were able to ship Martin to another team and at least get some value in return. Miami traded Martin to the San Francisco 49ers on the first night of free agency for a conditional late-round pick. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, who coached and recruited Martin at Stanford, felt he could make the most out of the former second-round pick. The list of suitors was not long, and the Dolphins were fortunate to get something instead of an outright release.

What's next: The Dolphins did most of their big spending on positions such as left tackle (Albert), defensive tackle (Mitchell, Starks) and cornerback (Cortland Finnegan). Now, look for Miami to bargain hunt to see if it can fill any remaining needs on its roster. The Dolphins still have two starting jobs available on the offensive line at right tackle and guard. They could also use another threat at running back to boost their 26th-ranked rushing attack from last season.
The Miami Dolphins made an under-the-radar acquisition this week when they signed free-agent Earl Mitchell to a four-year, $16 million contract. The former Houston Texans defensive tackle is not a household name to many NFL fans. But it was evident the Dolphins had Mitchell high on their wish list.

Another person who is high on Mitchell is former Indianapolis Colts general manager and ESPN NFL analyst Bill Polian. Mitchell was one of just six free agents who received an "A" grade from the veteran talent evaluator.

Here was Polian’s take on Mitchell:
"Mitchell has become a real inside force and one of the most productive penetrators in the NFL at generating consistent inside pressure. He is a much better athlete than most guys who play his position, and his effort is outstanding. He is a one-gap penetrator with good quickness and really works to finish the play. He is young and will only get better."

Mitchell explained Wednesday that he is happy to come to Miami and play in a 4-3 defense. He was a 3-4 nose tackle with the Texans, where he didn’t get an opportunity to rush the passer. Mitchell had just 1.5 sacks in 2013.

Mitchell believes he is capable of putting up bigger numbers in 2014. He will get more opportunities to be disruptive, collapse the pocket and get to the quarterback in Miami’s system under defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle.
The Miami Dolphins are just getting started one day into NFL free agency. But let’s take an early look at what Miami and new general manager Dennis Hickey have done so far to the roster:

In
Out

Hickey is clearly putting his stamp on the roster. Longtime Dolphins such as Soliai, and free agents Randy Starks and Chris Clemons did not have the same value to the new GM as they did with former general manager Jeff Ireland. Meanwhile, Martin had to go.

The Dolphins are just getting started in free agency. But you can start to see the plan taking shape for Miami this offseason.

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