AFC East: Justin Smiley

Camp Confidential: Miami Dolphins

August, 19, 2011
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The one major question about the Miami Dolphins the entire offseason was never sufficiently answered.

So what is the deal at quarterback, anyway?

Chad Henne was the unequivocal choice of general manager Jeff Ireland and coach Tony Sparano at this time last year. There was boundless confidence that the team’s second-round pick in 2008 was ready to take the reins of an offense that was expected to be made more proficient by the addition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall.

The results were not pretty. On five occasions, all at home, Henne had the opportunity to win or tie a close game with a fourth-quarter scoring drive, and on all five he failed. Three of the subsequent losses were to also-rans Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland, leaving Miami with a second straight 7-9 finish.

The failures almost cost Sparano his job, as owner Stephen Ross took a run at Jim Harbaugh, and for a time it seemed Henne might be replaced when Ireland engaged in negotiations for Denver’s Kyle Orton that ultimately came up empty. When the dust settled, former Carolina Panthers QB Matt Moore had been brought in as a backup, but nothing had really changed. Henne was still the one.

The team around him does appear to have gotten better. Coordinator Mike Nolan’s defense, sixth in the league a year ago, has remarkable depth on the defensive line and is better at linebacker with the additions of Kevin Burnett and Jason Taylor. Ireland addressed a deficiency in speed at the skill positions with the acquisitions of Reggie Bush and fourth-round wideout Clyde Gates. First-round pick Mike Pouncey, a center, has brought stability to the offensive line.

But in the 12 years since Dan Marino retired, it has always come back to the quarterback. This year is no different.

Even Marshall, who at one point late last season said he was “not sure” he and Henne could coexist, had good things to say about his beleaguered quarterback, who was actually booed at one preseason practice at Sun Life Stadium.

“Chad has been amazing this summer, getting the guys together,” Marshall said. “He’s been the face of leadership.”

Sparano was even more forthcoming.

“I’ve seen more people going to Chad for answers,” he said. “You would have to envision when you’re at Indianapolis or a place like that people are going to Peyton [Manning] for the answers. Well, more people are going to Chad for the answers now, and that’s a direct reflection of what this young man has done.”

Henne and Peyton Manning in the same sentence … now that’s a stretch for even the most loyal Dolphins fan.

Five days after Sparano made those comments, Henne started the first preseason game at Atlanta and was intercepted twice in five throws while Moore, playing with and against second-teamers, was solid.

It may or may not happen, but certainly all the pieces for a year of quarterback controversy are in place.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireWill Reggie Bush be able to revitalize a stagnant running game?
1. Can Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas make people forget Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams? From 2005-10 either Brown or Williams led the Dolphins in rushing, and four of those six years they finished 1-2. Both are getting older -- Williams is 34, Brown 29 -- and the running game ranked 30th in yards per carry (3.7) and 21st in yards per game (102.7) last season. Ireland decided it was time to move on. Thomas, a second-round pick, led the Big 12 in rushing at Kansas State the past two seasons and at 6 feet and 230 pounds, he can pound the middle. Bush, who has missed 20 games to injury the past two seasons, expressed a desire to be the feature back upon his arrival but seems more likely to line up all over the field. “The lack of experience is definitely a concern,” admitted Sparano, whose stable of backs also includes unproven Kory Sheets and Lex Hilliard.

2. How will the season unfold for Marshall? The simple fact that Marshall was perceived to have a down year when he had 86 catches last season -- tied for second in franchise history behind O.J. McDuffie’s 90 in 1998 -- demonstrates how high the expectations are for the man known as “The Beast.” Marshall’s off-field problems, which included the arrest of his wife after Marshall was found stabbed at his home in April, culminated with him being diagnosed and treated for borderline personality disorder this offseason. In camp this summer, it seemed every time Marshall went out for a pass, Henne was the one throwing it. If Gates can be the home run threat Miami lacked after trading Ted Ginn Jr. last season, Marshall could benefit greatly.

3. Will new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll bring spice to a boring offense? Miami’s top two receivers last season, Marshall and Davone Bess, averaged 11.8 and 10.4 yards per catch, respectively. No wonder Henne came to be known as “Checkdown Chad.” But in the Dolphins’ first scrimmage this year, Daboll unveiled four-receiver sets and had Bush lined up everywhere from the backfield to wideout. Despite having Josh Cribbs, Daboll’s offense didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in Cleveland, finishing 29th in total offense and 25th in yards per play. Sparano prefers the ground-and-pound, but Henne and Daboll must demonstrate they can keep up with prolific offensive units, such as New England, San Diego and Houston -- which happen to be Miami’s first three opponents.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

If a former first-round pick can qualify as a surprise, second-year defensive end Jared Odrick has earned that distinction. Odrick was lost early in the opener against Buffalo last season with a broken leg. His comeback was then stopped six weeks later by a broken ankle, ending his season. Worse, it turned out his first injury was eerily similar to one he suffered as a sophomore at Penn State, raising questions as to whether he could remain healthy enough to be counted upon. But in the early weeks of camp, Odrick was a force, as he and partner Tony McDaniel moved ahead of last season’s starters, Randy Starks and Kendall Langford, in team drills. That quartet, as well as Phillip Merling and Ryan Baker, give Miami inordinate depth at defensive end.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

After losing Justin Smiley to chronic shoulder injuries, the Dolphins had a vacancy at right guard in 2010 and drafted John Jerry out of Mississippi in the third round. Jerry, the younger brother of Atlanta defensive tackle Peria Jerry, got 10 starts but struggled to beat out journeyman Pat McQuistan. When Miami selected Pouncey in the first round of this year's draft, Richie Incognito, who played both guard spots at times last season, was put on the left side and John Jerry was given the opportunity to win the right guard spot. After seeing unsatisfactory results in the first two weeks of camp, Sparano moved Vernon Carey over from right tackle and brought in free-agent Marc Colombo, who had been let go by Dallas.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeClyde Gates
    Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins hope that pick Clyde Gates will be able to stretch the field like Ted Ginn Jr. did.
    Two relatively obscure rookies provided two of the more intriguing storylines of training camp. Gates, of Abilene Christian, whose father was released from prison last fall after serving a lengthy sentence for first-degree murder, was one. Seventh-rounder Jimmy Wilson of Montana, who spent 26 months in jail before being acquitted of a first-degree murder charge, was the other. Gates, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 at the combine despite nursing a sore groin, provides needed speed at wide receiver, and Wilson is a big hitter and ball hawk in the secondary.
  • While first-round pick Pouncey was drawing favorable comparisons to his Steelers All-Pro twin brother, Maurkice, for his blocking and intelligence, his struggles snapping the ball were an ongoing concern as camp progressed. Mike Pouncey, who moved to center as a senior at Florida after his brother left early, had some nightmarish games on shotgun snaps with the Gators and clearly doesn’t have the technique down yet.
  • Marshall isn’t known for being shy around a microphone, but he wasn’t in a talkative mood the first three weeks of camp. He spoke only once, to reveal his diagnosis for borderline personality disorder, and took only a handful of questions. Of course, Marshall was in the middle of the Henne soap opera last season, so there was speculation he didn’t want to stir up the water this year as he continues to undergo treatment for his disorder.
  • The only real battle for a starting job in camp has been at free safety. Third-year man Chris Clemons, last season's starter, was trying to hold off Reshad Jones, who made a favorable impression in limited opportunities as a rookie in 2010. Jones had a sack and an interception against Tennessee in one of his two starts and seems to be more of a playmaker.
  • The biggest mystery in camp surrounded the status of Pro Bowl tackle Jake Long, who was put on the physically unable to perform list early and did not work at all the first three weeks. Sparano said Long’s injury did not involve his knee, which along with his shoulder required surgery after last season.

Long gets slight edge over Thomas here

June, 14, 2011
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Jake Long or Joe Thomas?

It's like deciding between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. They're both elite. You can't go wrong with either pick.

But when you belong to ESPN.com's prestigious Power Rankings syndicate, you have to make tough choices.

In this week's left tackle poll, Thomas edged Long by one point. Long was listed first or second on each of the eight division bloggers' ballots. Three of them, including me, placed Long on top. Thomas received one third-place vote, but amassed five first-place votes to come out ahead.

The ballot I submitted:
  1. Jake Long, Dolphins
  2. Joe Thomas, Browns
  3. Jordan Gross, Panthers
  4. Michael Roos, Titans
  5. D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Jets
  6. Ryan Clady, Broncos
  7. Chad Clifton, Packers
  8. Donald Penn, Buccaneers
  9. Doug Free, Cowboys
  10. Andrew Whitworth, Bengals

Choosing between Long and Thomas is splitting hairs. They've been selected for the Pro Bowl every season in the NFL and are the reigning first-team All-Pros. Thomas was the third overall draft pick in 2007, Long the top choice in 2008.

But I gave Long the edge because of the circumstances he has dealt with in Miami.

Thomas has benefited from playing alongside reliable and steady left guard Eric Steinbach all four years. Steinbach has started 62 of a possible 64 games. For the past two seasons, first-round pick Alex Mack has shined, going to a Pro Bowl last year.

Long has had no such luxuries. He has played next to five left guards in his three seasons: Justin Smiley, Andy Alleman, Nate Garner, Richie Incognito and Pat McQuistan.

The Dolphins have been just as dicey at center. They should have their fourth different opening day starter in four years after drafting Florida center Mike Pouncey. They've used five centers the past three seasons.

Long also played at an All-Pro level last season despite a shoulder injury that had some wondering if he should shut it down.

New England Patriots fans might be wondering why I didn't include Matt Light on my ballot. While he did go to the Pro Bowl as an alternate last year, Stats Inc. blamed him for 10 sacks for 78 yards in losses and four penalties -- all more than his previous two seasons combined.

Dolphins are malcontents on interior O-line

September, 9, 2010
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There's a commonly held belief the Miami Dolphins boast one of the NFL's best offensive lines.

They have one of the game's best left tackles in Jake Long. Right tackle Vernon Carey is effective.

But all the clutter between those bookends makes me wonder how the Dolphins can be considered elite. In the three years since Bill Parcells assumed control of football operations and hired offensive-line coach Tony Sparano to run the show, the Dolphins have turned over their interior with alarming frequency.

The Dolphins on Thursday released center Jake Grove. The Dolphins identified him as a critical upgrade last year and signed him to a four-year, $29 million contract.

Now Grove is gone, just like their big free-agent signing from 2008, left guard Justin Smiley. The Dolphins signed Smiley for five years and $25 million. He lasted two seasons.

They'll use their third center over the past three opening days and have constantly changed guards.

No other unit in football depends on chemistry as much as an offensive line, but the Dolphins have been malcontents with their centers and guards.

Let's take a look at O-line personnel the Dolphins have rototilled since Parcells, Sparano and general manager Jeff Ireland came aboard with emphasis on starters.

Assistant coach

Hired offensive line coach Mike Maser in January 2008, fired him in January 2009.

Hired offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo in January 2009.

Left guard

Smiley started 12 games in 2008, 12 games in 2009 (released).

Andy Alleman started five games, including postseason, in 2008 (traded).

Nate Garner started four games in 2009 (injured reserve).

Richie Incognito projected 2010 starter.

Center

Samson Satele started 16 games in 2008 (traded).

Al Johnson was 2008 backup (released).

Grove started 10 games in 2009 (released).

Joe Berger started six games in 2009, projected 2010 starter.

Right guard

Donald Thomas opened 2008 season with job, started 12 games in 2009 (released).

Ikechuku Ndukwe started 15 games in 2008 (traded).

Garner started four games in 2009 (injured reserve).

John Jerry projected 2010 starter.

Others

Guard Shawn Murphy, 2008 fourth-round draft pick deactivated all 22 games (released).

Center/guard Steve McKinney played zero games in 2008 (released).

Guard Evan Mathis played seven games in 2008 (released).

Guard Matt McChesney played one game in 2008 (injured reserve/released).

Guard Andrew Hartline played two games in 2009 (released, practice squad).

Guard Cory Procter signed, released last week and re-signed Thursday.

Tackle/guard Pat McQuistan acquired last week in a trade.

Left guard a vortex in AFC East

September, 9, 2010
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In cobbling together my 2010 preseason All-AFC East team, what struck me was how much left guard has changed in the division.

Two years ago, left guard looked like a loaded position. Every team had a notable player there.

The New England Patriots had budding star Logan Mankins in place. The New York Jets signed perennial Pro Bowler Alan Faneca. The Miami Dolphins identified Justin Smiley as critical to their rebuilding process, signing him minutes into the free-agency period. The Buffalo Bills had Derrick Dockery. He wasn't a bulldozer, but he meant enough to the Bills to give him a seven-year, $49 million contract in 2007.

Now look at AFC East left guards.

Bills sophomore Andy Levitre was my pick for the preseason All-AFC East roster. He was the 51st overall draft choice last year and started 16 games. Crazy as this might seem, that marginal exposure makes him the second-most experienced left guard in the division. He's the lone incumbent.

Who else is there?

Dolphins roughneck Richie Incognito has been a round and is a known quantity, but he was discharged by two of the NFL's worst teams. The St. Louis Rams, tired of his volatile antics, waived him. The Bills picked him up then declined to negotiate with the restricted free agent after the season.

The Jets' weakest link now is at left guard. They released Faneca and drafted Vladimir Ducasse in the second round. But Ducasse's transition into the NFL has been difficult. Matt Slauson, inactive for all but three games as a rookie last year, won the job by default.

The Patriots are down to third-stringer Dan Connolly. He is entering his sixth year as a pro and had four starts to his name. Mankins is an unsigned restricted free agent. His intended replacement, Nick Kaczur, has been sidelined with a back injury that required surgery.

More miraculous: '08 Dolphins or '10 Bills?

August, 5, 2010
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Some Buffalo Bills fans took umbrage with a remark I made in a Wednesday blog item about their team's playoff chances.

New coach Chan Gailey wondered out loud why the Bills couldn't get to the playoffs.

I proposed if the Bills reached the postseason this year, then it might be considered a more miraculous feat than the Miami Dolphins rebounding from a 1-15 record to win the AFC East in 2008.

Allow me to explain my thinking and then feel free to share your opinion in the comments section below.

I understand the Bills weren't as bad last year as the abysmal '07 Dolphins were on the field.

Still, the Dolphins winning the AFC East is more plausible to me because (other than the fact they actually did it) the organizational cultures were significantly different for the Dolphins at this time in 2008 compared to where the Bills are today.

The main reason is Bill Parcells, who was given complete control over football operations. The Dolphins already had a few incumbent stars on their roster: running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams and outside linebacker Joey Porter. They drafted franchise left tackle Jake Long with the No. 1 pick.

Parcells drew proven coaches and free agents to the club. The Dolphins also made trades. They acquired quarterback Chad Pennington, tight end Anthony Fasano, guard Justin Smiley and nose tackle Jason Ferguson.

People wanted to be Dolphins.

Compare that to the Bills, who haven't been to the playoffs for a decade and have one winning season in that span. The Dolphins have four seasons of double-digit victories since the Bills last appeared in the playoffs.

I like what Gailey and general manager Buddy Nix are doing to rebuild the program, but they don't have the automatic credibility Parcells brings.

The Bills have little star power or drawing power. Their most-accomplished player, two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Schobel, apparently wanted out. They aren't entirely sure who their quarterback will be -- or their offensive tackles. Their top free-agent signings were defensive end Dwan Edwards and inside linebacker Andra Davis, nice players but not course-changers.

While the Dolphins had Long under contract before the draft, the Bills still haven't signed rookie running back C.J. Spiller, the ninth overall pick, a week into camp.

The competition is tougher for Buffalo this year than it was for Miami in 2008. Miami had an amazingly easy schedule, playing the soft AFC West and NFC West. Miami's combined opponents went 118-138 for a .461 win percentage that season. Aside from Bill Belichick, the AFC East coaches Tony Sparano had to match wits with were Eric Mangini and Dick Jauron.

The Bills' schedule strength is tied for 14th based on last year's records at 128-128. They will have to play the rugged AFC North and NFC North in cross-division games. Gailey has to face Belichick, Rex Ryan and Sparano in the division.

That's why I look at the Bills' chances to make the playoffs and think it can be debated their road ahead is tougher than what the Dolphins had in 2008.

AFC East training camp preview

July, 27, 2010
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Can the AFC East send three clubs to the playoffs?

Sure seems possible to me. The past two years have produced different division champs and a third team that reached the AFC Championship Game last season.

The journey will start in a matter of days. The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots blow the air horn on Thursday. The Miami Dolphins start Friday afternoon. The New York Jets open their "Hard Knocks" camp Monday morning.

All four teams have loose ends to tie up before camp. None has signed its first-round draft choice. Patriots left guard Logan Mankins remains unsigned and unhappy.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

Buffalo Bills: Who will be the quarterback?

[+] EnlargeEdwards
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireTrent Edwards played in just eight games for the Bills last season.
New head coach Chan Gailey has stressed there will be an open quarterback competition, but the first depth chart will be known when the Bills begin camp. The campaign would get off to a fascinating start if anybody other than Trent Edwards takes the initial first-team reps. Ryan Fitzpatrick finished last year as the starter, but offers the least amount of upside. He's a sixth-year journeyman backup. Brian Brohm, a 2008 Green Bay Packers second-round pick, provides the most intrigue, titillating Bills fans because he's the unknown quantity. The battle should be a slowly progressing storyline unlikely to be decided until preseason games have been played -- and maybe not until the week before the season opener.

Miami Dolphins: How quickly will receiver Brandon Marshall integrate into the offense?

The Dolphins' prized offseason acquisition missed voluntary workouts and minicamp because of hip surgery the Dolphins didn't anticipate when they traded for him in April. His absence delayed the Dolphins' ability to see how he could transform the offense, forcing any ideas to remain X's and O's on the dry-erase board until training camp. The injury also prevented quarterback Chad Henne from getting fully acquainted with Marshall, a player who can help expedite Henne's development. Henne must get used to Marshall's speed and route angles. How quickly they find their timing on intermediate and longer patterns such as deep outs and posts against a defense will be important to making sure they're totally on the same page when the season starts.

New England Patriots: Will the Patriots show noticeable improvement on defense?

[+] EnlargeDarius Butler
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDarius Butler will compete with Devin McCourty for the chance to start at left cornerback.
The old baseball adage claims championship teams are strong up the middle. The Patriots can say they're formidable in that regard. They have star nose tackle Vince Wilfork, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo and a solid group of safeties. But this ain't baseball. In football, especially with a 3-4 defense, teams need an outside presence. The Patriots are eager to see if they can improve their pass rush and be more consistent at cornerback. Those two areas depend on each other and contributed to the Patriots ranking 22nd in sacks per pass play last year. They'll have to sort through returning outside linebackers Tully Banta-Cain, Derrick Burgess, Rob Ninkovich and Shawn Crable and 53rd overall draft pick Jermaine Cunningham. At the all-important left cornerback spot, unproven sophomore Darius Butler will compete with first-round pick Devin McCourty.

New York Jets: Will quarterback Mark Sanchez take command in his second camp?

As a reckless rookie, Sanchez seemed hell-bent on squandering a team loaded in several key categories: No. 1 defense, No. 1 rushing attack, three Pro Bowlers on the offensive line. But late last season, Sanchez finally bought into what offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer had been preaching and closed the season with a deep playoff run. Knee surgery limited Sanchez's first full NFL offseason, but he participated in minicamp. He'll have two talented receivers, Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, who weren't around at this time last year. How their chemistry develops over the next two months will be crucial.

HOTTEST SEATS

Bills: Demetrius Bell. It's odd to imagine a player drafted in the seventh round as a long-term project being on the hot seat going into just his third season. But Bell plays left tackle, and the Bills can't afford to fool around at such an important position. Bell didn't play a snap in 2008, yet emerged as last year's opening-night starter. He struggled before a knee injury ended his season prematurely. Bell was one of the NFL's most penalized players, and Gailey abhors pre-snap penalties. In eight games, Bell committed six false starts and allowed five sacks.

[+] EnlargeWill Allen
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesHow Will Allen rebounds from a knee injury will be important.
Dolphins: Will Allen. The 10-year veteran started last season as the club's top cornerback, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the sixth game. The Dolphins played out the year with a pair of rookies, Sean Smith and Vontae Davis, at cornerback. While they were frequently broiled by opposing receivers, they are the future and there's something to be said for trial by fire. Allen's contract might doom him. He's scheduled to make base salaries of $5.2 million this year and $5.5 million next year.

Patriots: Laurence Maroney. He has been a polarizing player since the Patriots drafted him 21st overall in 2006. He has looked like a stud running back at times, but not nearly often enough. Maroney's entering his fifth season but has started only 14 games, hasn't cracked 900 rushing yards in a season and fumbles too much.

Jets: Nick Folk. Coaches don't have much patience for an erratic kicker. The Jets parted ways with a good one, letting Jay Feely leave via free agency. They signed Folk, a former Pro Bowler who was a disaster with the Dallas Cowboys last year. He was inconsistent in Jets voluntary workouts and minicamp, already drawing playful ridicule from coach Rex Ryan. If Folk continues to miss kicks, the Jets won't be laughing.

SECRET WEAPON

Patriots receiver Brandon Tate. When considering New England's top targets, the names Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Torry Holt and maybe Julian Edelman come to mind. Keep an eye out for Tate, a second-year pro with one reception. Tate still was recovering from knee surgery when the Patriots drafted him in the third round out of North Carolina. He made his debut in Week 7 and suffered another knee injury in Week 9. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has spoken highly of Tate during the offseason.

CHANGING OF THE GUARDS

The Bills boast one example of stability over the rest of the AFC East -- on the offensive line, no less.

[+] EnlargeAlan Faneca
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinThe Jets' release of Alan Faneca raised some eyebrows.
The Bills enter training camp with the lone left guard in place. Second-year pro Andy Levitre returns as the starter, while each of the other three clubs have uncertainties to address. The Jets and Dolphins are letting players compete for their left guard openings, while the Patriots have a two-time Pro Bowler who has demanded a trade.

In Jets camp, second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse and sophomore Matt Slauson are battling for the vacancy created by the controversial release of nine-time Pro Bowler Alan Faneca.

The Dolphins traded Justin Smiley, their left guard the past two seasons. Nate Garner started eight games, including four on the left side while Smiley was hurt last season. Donald Thomas started 12 games at right guard. Richie Incognito started at right guard for the St. Louis Rams and Bills. The Dolphins drafted guard John Jerry in the third round.

Mankins isn't expected to be at Patriots camp when it begins. He's an unsigned restricted free agent and last month went public with his desire to be traded. Right tackle Nick Kaczur has been working in Mankins' spot.

Guard battle coming in Dolphins camp

July, 19, 2010
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One of the most interesting position battles of training camp will be at guard for the Miami Dolphins.

Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson examines the upcoming competition for ESPN Insider. He writes "Miami has a chance to have the best offensive line in the league."

The Dolphins made some bold moves at guard over the offseason, signing the notorious Richie Incognito and trading Justin Smiley, who they signed minutes into the start of free agency just two years ago.

Incognito, Donald Thomas, Nate Garner, Joe Berger -- all of whom started games somewhere last year -- and third-round pick John Jerry are in the mix.

Garner started at both left and right guard for the Dolphins. Thomas was the first-stringer for the first dozen games at right guard. Incognito started for the St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills. Berger's time came at center for Miami.

Williamson breaks down the pluses and minuses of each player in the run game, pass blocking, character and upside. In general, he likes what he sees lining up inside tackles Jake Long and Vernon Carey.

Williamson writes:
I expect Miami to have an elite offensive line. The Dolphins routinely kept extra pass-blockers in for added protection last season. That trend should begin to change drastically, which should help the passing game. This is a young group collectively, and Miami should be set for years to come. It has clearly been a major priority of this regime to rebuild the front wall after it took over a hapless Dolphins' team several years ago.

Big Question: Top AFC East move?

July, 6, 2010
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NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What was the top offseason move in the AFC East?

We've hit a rare dead period in the NFL, when all the teams have sent their players home to enjoy the summer for a few weeks. Offseason programs are complete. Training camps will begin at the end of the month.

[+] EnlargeMarshall
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireBrandon Marshall's trade to Miami was one of the biggest offseason moves in the AFC East.
Perfect time to review all of the offseason moves. With activity slowed to a crawl, we can safely evaluate the ones that should have the most impact on the upcoming season.

I've taken five decisions from each AFC East club and ranked them based on how important they'll prove to be in 2010.

But this list merely is to provide a reminder of what has happened the past few months. I'd like to see your list in the comments section below. Nominate your favorite move, give me your top five or rank them all.

NOTE: I was remiss in leaving out one of the bigger moves, but thanks to some friendly reminders in the comments section, I have corrected the list by inserting the Dolphins' switch at defensive coordinator at No. 4.

1. Dolphins trade two second-round draft picks for receiver Brandon Marshall.

2. Jets trade a third-round pick for cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

3. Patriots use franchise tag to ensure nose tackle Vince Wilfork's return.

4. Dolphins fire defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni and hire Mike Nolan.

5. Dolphins sign inside linebacker Karlos Dansby.

6. Bills name Buddy Nix general manager and hire head coach Chan Gailey.

7. Jets trade a fifth-round pick for receiver Santonio Holmes.

8. Bills switch to 3-4 defense.

9. Jets pass on re-signing kicker Jay Feely and sign pass-rusher Jason Taylor.

10. Bills draft Clemson running back C.J. Spiller ninth overall.

11. Patriots clean house at tight end, sign Alge Crumpler, draft Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

12. Dolphins move Randy Starks from defensive end to nose tackle.

13. Patriots sign defensive end Gerard Warren.

14. Jets sign safety Brodney Pool, trade Kerry Rhodes.

15. Patriots release outside linebacker Adalius Thomas.

16. Dolphins release outside linebacker Joey Porter.

17. Bills sign defensive end Dwan Edwards.

18. Jets replace running back Thomas Jones with LaDainian Tomlinson.

19. Bills sign inside linebacker Andra Davis.

20. Patriots sign receiver Torry Holt.

To splurge or to scrimp? Take a position

June, 15, 2010
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In an analysis for ESPN Insider subscribers, Football Outsiders managing editor Bill Barnwell broke down the bingers and the penny-pinchers by position Insider to answer a few questions.
Do owners that spend more at a given spot actually see a return on their investment, though? And do the relative cheapskates breeze through, saving money without sacrificing performance? It depends on the position.

Not surprisingly, Barnwell's piece shows the Buffalo Bills spent the least at quarterback last year, while the Miami Dolphins splurged the most on the offensive line and the New York Jets paid the most at linebacker.

Barnwell determines the Bills got what they paid for at quarterback ($3.46 million), with Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick having awful seasons.

The Dolphins committed 33 percent of their payroll ($41.65 million) on their offensive line, with left tackle Jake Long the biggest reason. They also forked over big bucks for free agents Justin Smiley and Jake Grove. No other team spent more than $27.7 million. The Dolphins spent more than four times as much as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Jets sank $30.5 million at linebacker, both inside and outside. They signed free agent Bart Scott last year and Calvin Pace the offseason before. Flop-so-far Vernon Gholston also factors into the sum. But, overall, the money was well-spent. The Jets finished No. 1 in several major defensive categories last year.

What AFC East teams had most keepers?

June, 7, 2010
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In the past two seasons, three AFC East teams have gone to the playoffs. The New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins won a division crown, and the New York Jets held a third-quarter lead in the conference championship.

One would think those front offices would want to keep those teams as intact as possible.

That's not the case across the board.

NFC West crony Mike Sando crafted an interesting post that charted how many holdovers each team kept from last year's season-ending rosters.

Sando explains:
The chart shows how many Week 17 starters, backups and players from injured reserve remain with their 2009 teams. The retention rate divides those totals by the sum of 53 plus all players who were on IR lists in Week 17. The starter totals can be somewhat misleading for teams that rested key players before the playoffs, but the retention rates apply equally. Every team had 53 players on its roster in Week 17.

As you would predict, the Patriots and Dolphins ranked among the top 10 in players retained.

The Patriots kept 86.4 percent of their players, fifth highest in the NFL and second to the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC.

The Dolphins dropped some big-name players in guard Justin Smiley, outside linebackers Joey Porter and Jason Taylor and safety Gibril Wilson. But they've kept 83.6 percent of their year-end roster, which is ninth.

Interestingly, the Dolphins have brought back 17 starters. Just three teams have held onto fewer: Carolina Panthers (15), New Orleans Saints (16), Detroit Lions (16).

The Jets, meanwhile, have tinkered enough to be ranked 23rd. They've retained only 75.4 percent of the players who helped them make their deep postseason run.

On one hand, you realize the Jets are being aggressive in assembling a team for the Super Bowl. On the other hand, you wonder how much they're violating the ain't-broke-don't-fix theory and whether it will negatively affect the team's chemistry.

The Buffalo Bills unsurprisingly have undergone a high turnover rate under new general manager Buddy Nix and new head coach Chan Gailey, who is switching to a 3-4 defense.

The Bills have retained 71.2 percent of the season-ending roster. Four teams have undergone greater upheaval. The Bills were ravaged by injuries last year, as illustrated by the fact they've kept 10 players who finished the season on IR. The Lions are the only team to bring back more IR players, with 11.

Dolphins sign Procter, trade Smiley

May, 24, 2010
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The Miami Dolphins have swapped out guards, signing free agent Cory Procter and trading Justin Smiley to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Procter
Procter
Smiley
Smiley
Procter started 11 games at left guard for the Dallas Cowboys in 2008 but finished last season as their backup right guard. He was a coveted free agent after his release last week, making the rounds with several teams, including the New England Patriots.

Terms of the Smiley deal aren't yet known, and he must pass a physical before it's official.

Smiley represents another misfire by the Dolphins' front office. Football operations boss Bill Parcells and general manager Jeff Ireland made Smiley their first acquisition when unrestricted free agency opened in 2008, signing him to a five-year, $25 million contract practically at the stroke of midnight.

Smiley was a quality player when healthy but missed significant time with shoulder injuries and a busted up lower leg.

The Dolphins have made their share of mistakes in free agency, but they're not afraid to unload a player quickly when they don't think it's working out.

Under Parcells, the Dolphins previously obtained and unloaded safeties Gibril Wilson and Chris Crocker, receiver Ernest Wilford and quarterback Josh McCown.

How I See It: AFC East Stock Watch

March, 25, 2010
3/25/10
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Falling

Justin Smiley, Dolphins left guard: In this space last week, I selected Dolphins right guard Donald Thomas, who lost his starting job late last season and seemed even more on the spot with the signing of free agent Richie Incognito. But it now appears the Dolphins have identified Smiley as the player they can live without. The Dolphins signed him to a five-year, $25 million contract one minute into the 2008 free-agency period. Over the weekend, the Dolphins told Smiley not to show up for the offseason conditioning program because they were trying to trade him.

Rising

Rex Ryan, Jets head coach: He's getting ready for his closeup. Less than two weeks after undergoing lap-band surgery to control his obesity, Ryan said he already had shed 30 pounds, a difference that was obvious at this week's NFL owners meetings. But be prepared to see more of a lesser Ryan. He'll almost certainly be the leading man on "Hard Knocks" this year. HBO has selected the Jets to be the next subject for its behind-the-scenes training camp series, and I have a feeling Ryan will dominate the scenes.

Fins owner lets Parcells spend whatever

March, 22, 2010
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins have had their share of spending misadventures since Bill Parcells took over football operations nearly 2 1/2 years ago.

We learned Monday morning they're trying to trade left guard Justin Smiley, the player they signed to a five-year, $25 million contract one minute into 2008 free agency. They've already unloaded notable free agents such as safeties Gibril Wilson and Chris Crocker, receiver Ernest Wilford and quarterback Josh McCown.

But when it comes to running football operations, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross trusts Parcells implicitly.

So completely, in fact, that Ross said Monday he doesn't get involved in even the biggest decisions about his cash.

"I'm putting my money with Bill Parcells and our organization," Ross told a small gathering of reporters during a break in the NFL owners meetings. "Nobody bats 1.000. I just look at the bottom line and end results and where we are and what we're spending. The results are in the won-loss record."

Ross suggested he stood aside two weeks ago, when the Dolphins made Karlos Dansby the NFL's highest-paid inside linebacker with a five-year, $43 million deal.

"Bill tells me beforehand," Ross said. "We have salary caps -- this year we don't, but we still have to live in a financial world today -- and I say 'Hey, what counts is on the field.' That's what he's looking to do: deliver winners.

"I don't try to micromanage him. You can't look at every dollar you spend. One thing I found out: Sports is different than business. From a businessman, when it comes to what you do for paying players, you have to have a little different discipline than you'd otherwise have."

Ross can refrain from meddling because Forbes recently ranked the Manhattan real-estate developer the 277th wealthiest man on the planet with an estimated net worth of $3.4 billion.

Report: Fins trying to trade Smiley

March, 22, 2010
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In March 2008, the new Miami Dolphins administration made Justin Smiley their first big free-agent acquisition, waiting one whole minute after the market opened at midnight to sign the San Francisco 49ers guard to a five-year, $25 million contract.

Smiley
Smiley
Two years later, Smiley reportedly is no longer welcome.

Edgar Thompson of the Palm Beach Post, citing an unnamed source close to the team, reports the Dolphins told Smiley on Saturday he wasn't welcome at the training facility for offseason workouts because they're trying to trade him.

The Dolphins signed free-agent guard Richie Incognito last week. The belief at the time was that Incognito would compete for the right guard opening with Donald Thomas, who lost his job in Week 14 to Nate Garner.

Both guard spots apparently are up for grabs. Smiley was the Dolphins' best guard when healthy, but he missed four games in 2008 and one game (plus four starts) last year because of leg and shoulder injuries.

Incognito gives Dolphins mixed message

March, 18, 2010
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There's no questioning the Miami Dolphins have added some nastiness to their offensive line with Wednesday's signing of guard Richie Incognito.

They've also injected a healthy dose of confusion into the locker room.


Jerome Davis/Icon SMICertain Dolphins players are confused why the team brought in a player with penalty issues like guard Richie Incognito.
Three Dolphins players I've spoken with since the team signed Incognito to a one-year contract expressed intrigue over the move. In general, they like his ability and versatility. But the players claim Incognito's arrival undercuts what football operations boss Bill Parcells and head coach Tony Sparano have preached about character since they took over the team.

"I think he'll make our line better," one Dolphins player said. "But I don't get it. What he represents goes against everything they've been telling us."

Not acting like a buffoon long has been a hallmark of a Parcells organization. Sparano doesn't put up with on-the-field shenanigans either. Players who can't control themselves are asked to turn in their playbooks.

Yet the Dolphins are introducing a player onto their roster whose career is infamously based on personal fouls, blowups and fines.

Incognito committed 11 personal fouls in less than four seasons with the St. Louis Rams. They waived him in December after a game in which he committed two personal fouls and got into a sideline confrontation with head coach Steve Spagnuolo.

The NFL fined Incognito $50,000 for his actions in that game. League disciplinarian Ray Anderson sent a letter to Incognito to inform him the next transgression could lead to a suspension.

Remember how Buffalo Bills linebacker Kawika Mitchell reacted via Twitter when they claimed Incognito off waivers in December?
"BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT THIS YR. THE GUYS A BUM. DIRTY AND ALWAYS WILL BE. REALLY WISH I WAS PLAYIN RITE NOW. SERIOUSLY... I KNO WE'RE N NEED OF OLINE BUT THIS GUY ..."

The reaction of Dolphins players I spoke with wasn't nearly that strong, but it was in the zip code.

The Dolphins have prided themselves on being a clean team. The Dolphins committed 68 accepted penalties for 640 yards last year. Only three teams had fewer accepted penalties and were assessed fewer penalty yards.

Incognito was whistled for 10 accepted penalties for 115 yards. His accumulated transgressions would be 18 percent of the Dolphins' entire team.

The Dolphins need help on their interior line. They've been on the lookout for depth at guard for two years.

Left guard Justin Smiley is a clear-cut starter when healthy, but he has missed 13 games over the past three seasons with leg and shoulder injuries. Right guard Donald Thomas has immense potential but lost his starting job to Nate Garner with the season on the line in Week 14, days before the Dolphins put in the waiver claim for Incognito but lost him to the Bills.

Incognito didn't ingratiate himself to the Bills in his short time with them. Their new front office declined to tender a qualifying offer, forfeiting their restricted free agency rights to him.

The Dolphins must believe they can keep Incognito in check.

Personnel men and coaches routinely are convinced, even though others failed previously, that they can fix a problem player. Parcells and Sparano have a better shot than most. Parcells has a track record, and Sparano's roots are as an O-line coach.

Incognito has been apologetic about his past misdeeds and has professed a desire to keep his emotions under control.

In the locker room, however, players are skeptical about the decision and wonder about the mixed message.

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