AFC East: Sam Bradford

Ryan TannehillRonald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins have surrounded young QB Ryan Tannehill with big-name talent this offseason.
The Miami Dolphins are the darlings of the offseason. They entered free agency with more than $40 million of cap room and cleaned up by signing the best receiver on the market (Mike Wallace), the top-rated linebacker (Dannell Ellerbe), a pass-catching tight end (Dustin Keller), another athletic linebacker (Philip Wheeler), and kept their own starting players (Brian Hartline, Randy Starks, Chris Clemons).

On paper, the Dolphins look like a clear playoff contender and the only legitimate challenger to the New England Patriots in the AFC East. The sky could be the limit for Miami this season and beyond.

But there is one catch for the Dolphins: None of this is possible unless second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill takes the next step.

The Dolphins proceeded this offseason with full confidence that Tannehill is a franchise quarterback. It’s a calculated risk after Tannehill had a promising rookie season where his stats didn't necessarily stand out. He threw for 3,294 yards, 12 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and made his share of rookie mistakes.

However, Miami believes Tannehill showed enough flashes of brilliance to go all-in with him. He played winning football most weeks, and led the Dolphins to a better-than-expected 7-9 record.

There is no time for Tannehill to be a one-hit wonder or have a sophomore slump in 2013. A majority of Miami’s moves in free agency were about making Tannehill a better quarterback.

“Ryan has got 35, 36 games under his belt as starting quarterback combined from a college and pro career, and you would normally like to have 35 games under your belt as a graduating senior,” Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said recently. “So I think that there is a bunch of upside left in Ryan’s potential, and I like what I see so far. I love his intangible makeup, I love his athletic skill set. We have a long way to go, he knows that, but he can get a lot better, I am very confident in that.”

The Dolphins committed $30 million guaranteed to get Tannehill a legitimate deep threat and No. 1 receiver in Wallace. Despite Tannehill's strong arm, Miami was limited with the deep ball last season because of a poor supporting cast. He completed only 14 passes of more than 20 yards last season. Wallace has elite speed and should be able to change that.

Miami also snagged Keller from the rival New York Jets, and former St. Louis Rams receiver Brandon Gibson. Keller is the safety valve Miami lacked at tight end, and Gibson brings another weapon to add to a strong group of receivers that already includes Wallace, Hartline and Davone Bess.

The Dolphins learned when you have a potential franchise quarterback, it's easier to recruit free agents. Gibson, Keller and Wallace all cited Tannehill as one of the key reasons they signed with Miami.

“I watch tons of film and I really think he’s going to be one of the better young quarterbacks in the NFL,” Gibson said. “He’s got a big arm, and he’s very intelligent and a very good athlete, and I think that can go a long ways.”

Keller played with embattled quarterback Mark Sanchez in New York for four seasons. Keller leaves the Jets for a quarterback in Miami with a much higher ceiling.

“I’m very impressed with him. I like his game a lot,” Keller said of Tannehill. “I think now you put a Mike Wallace on the team, re-sign Brian Hartline, I love Davone Bess in the slot. You’ve got Charles Clay there working at tight end, too. I think there’s a lot people that they’re going to help him thrive this year, and I’m just happy to be one of the pieces.”

Tannehill is significantly ahead of the curve. The Dolphins' initial plan last season was to let Tannehill sit while Matt Moore or David Garrard ran the team. Instead, Tannehill took advantage of injuries and opportunity and started all 16 games.

In fact, Tannehill’s Total Quarterback Rating, which measures a player's complete performance, was better last season than other big-name quarterbacks such as Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton and Sam Bradford. The Dolphins believe Tannehill is just getting started.

Tannehill also flew under the radar last season with a potentially special 2012 quarterback class. Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts, Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks all shared the spotlight while leading their teams to the playoffs. Tannehill was the only rookie of the four not to lead his team to the playoffs, but those expectations will rise for Miami next season.

"We're looking for improvement from him. There's no question about it," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said at the NFL’s owners meetings. “Part of it’s the decision-making that we think is so important. Part of it’s accuracy. Part of it’s play-making ability at critical times in the course of a game. While we think he made some really nice strides in his first year, there’s still a long way to go, and he’s well aware of that.”

The 2013 Dolphins will be Tannehill’s team, and certainly Tannehill’s offense.

An important part of Tannehill’s sophomore season is that he must take more of a leadership role. The Dolphins are a young team that lost a lot of leadership this offseason. Left tackle Jake Long and running back Reggie Bush bolted in free agency, and linebacker Karlos Dansby was released.

Tannehill will lead one of the youngest teams in the NFL next season. He doesn't get the publicity of fellow draft mates Luck, Wilson and RG III, but he will be just as important to the success of his team.
There has been a long silence from the Miami Dolphins regarding four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long. Miami apparently has no interest in paying top dollar to retain Long, who was the team's No. 1 overall pick in 2008.

Long
But there are at least two teams reportedly in the hunt for Long's services. USA Today reports the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams are most interested in the soon-to-be former Miami offensive tackle. Both Chicago and St. Louis have a need at offensive tackle to protect their starting quarterbacks: Jay Cutler and Sam Bradford.

As free agency nears, it is more and more evident that we've probably seen the last of Long in a Miami uniform. The Dolphins have the cap room to spend but haven’t shown any indication they will use it on the veteran left tackle.

The only chance of Long returning to Miami is if he doesn't get much interest elsewhere in free agency and is willing to take a team-friendly contract. But those chances appear slim.
Can a Rex Ryan defense stop a Brian Schottenheimer-led offense?

We will find out next season with the New York Jets travel in 2012 to face the St. Louis Rams. The AFC East will play the NFC West next season, and this is one of the intriguing angles that will come from this series.

Schottenheimer left the Jets under curious circumstances. He underachieved this past season in New York, which had the 25th-ranked offense. Quarterback Mark Sanchez failed to make major strides in his third season under Schottenheimer's leadership. Also, by the end of the season, players were unhappy with the system and fighting amongst each other.

The Jets officially said Schottenheimer resigned, but it appeared more like a mutual parting. New York quickly hired new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano and was ready to move on. Meanwhile, after several interviews with team, "Schotty" landed with new head coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams.

Schottenheimer knows New York's defense well after practicing against it everyday. Jets head coach Rex Ryan admitted he didn't know Schottenheimer's offense as well as he should have. But there are plenty of coaches on the Jets' staff who have a feel for it. So who has the advantage?

An underlying theme to watch with Schottenheimer and the Jets is the development of young, first-round quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Sanchez. If Bradford thrives in Schottenheimer's system, that would say a lot about Sanchez. But if Sanchez plays better in Sparano's system and Bradford struggles, that it telling for Schottenheimer.
Here are the most interesting stories Sunday morning in the AFC East:
  • The time for talk is over. The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens look to seize this opportunity to go to the Super Bowl.
Morning take: Both teams have been respectful and cordial all week in the media. But expect championship-level play and intensity in what should be a competitive AFC title game.
Morning take: This is often the case and good for Philbin. I sense there will be a clear delineation in Miami of who coaches (Philbin) and who picks the players (Jeff Ireland). Early hints are there won't be a lot of overlap.
  • Former New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will take the same post with the St. Louis Rams.
Morning take: Schottenheimer failed to develop Mark Sanchez in New York. Can he develop another young quarterback -- Sam Bradford -- in St. Louis?
Morning take: I liked Williams coming out of the draft and he proved me correct by showing flashes as a rookie. Williams, a second-round pick, could be a starter at some point next season.
Guess what, Miami Dolphins fans? You may want to stop being so mean to new St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher in the coming months.

Yes, the veteran coach kept the Dolphins waiting, only to spurn them and take the same job with the Rams. Fisher is not very popular in South Florida for that. But there’s another way he could make an impact in Miami.

Fisher has a lot of power in St. Louis -- something he couldn’t get in Miami -- and most likely will get final say in what the Rams do with the No. 2 overall pick. The Dolphins desperately need that pick if they want to draft Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Miami currently has the No. 8 or No. 9 pick and would be open to trading up to land a potential franchise quarterback.

Meanwhile, the Rams are not drafting a quarterback. They are going forward with 2010 No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford. Expect St. Louis to field offers from various quarterback-needy team, including Miami.

Fisher is the biggest offseason story so far for the Dolphins. But Fisher possibly helping Miami land "RGIII" in April would be just as big.

The waiting game is over, and the Miami Dolphins came up on the short end.

Jeff Fisher, the biggest name on the 2012 coaching market, spurned the Miami Dolphins on Friday for the St. Louis Rams. It ends a lengthy saga of back-and-forth speculation and leverage by the former Tennessee Titans coach.

Miami interviewed Fisher last week and he was Miami’s top target from the start. But Fisher also had his eyes on the St. Louis job, and spent most of last week interviewing with the Rams twice and visiting their facilities.

Fisher
Fisher
In the meantime, there were various reports that Fisher couldn’t make up his mind. Eventually, he chose the Rams.

St. Louis has an opening at general manager and a potential franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford. Miami could not compete with those two factors. The Dolphins still have general manager Jeff Ireland in place, and are still searching for their long-term quarterback.

Miami owner Stephen Ross lost out on his chance to make a splashy coaching hire. Now he has to go to Plan B, which most likely involves hiring a lesser-known NFL assistant.

Miami already interviewed assistant coaches Dave Toub of the Chicago Bears, Joe Philbin of the Green Bay Packers, Mike Zimmer of the Cincinnati Bengals, and Dolphins interim coach Todd Bowles.
To no surprise, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady tops the final Total Quarterback Ratings for the 2011 season in the AFC East. Brady posted a stellar score of 74.2, which was third-highest in the NFL.

Brady
The rest of the division quarterbacks didn't do so well this past season.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore, this season's winner of the "Sanchez-Fitz-Moore Watch," was the second-best quarterback in the AFC East. He posted a QBR of 54.0, which was 17th in the NFL.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was third with a QBR of 51.2, which was 18th in the NFL. New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was last in the division with a QBR of 33.6. Sanchez was 30th out of a possible 34 quarterbacks graded.

The only quarterbacks who scored lower than Sanchez this season were Sam Bradford (27.3), Tim Tebow (27.2), Curtis Painter (23.4) and Blaine Gabbert (20.5).
Former Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher is interviewing Thursday with the St. Louis Rams, just 48 hours after the Dolphins wined and dined Fisher in Miami. It now looks like a two-way race for Fisher's services next season.

ESPN's Adam Schefter is reporting that St. Louis has the inside track, and we're getting e-mails and tweets asking what St. Louis has over Miami? The Rams (2-14) were tied for the worst record in the league and the Dolphins (6-10) appear closer to contending, right?

But Fisher is looking much deeper than six wins versus two wins. Here are some advantages the Rams' organization has over Miami's:
  • The Rams cleaned house and don't have a general manager in place. This is huge for St. Louis. Miami owner Stephen Ross says he wants change, but hasn't done much other than fire former head coach Tony Sparano. General manager Jeff Ireland is still in place and so is most of the coaching staff. Fisher would much rather hire is own general manager in St. Louis than work under Ireland and have him call the shots in Miami. Control is always big for head coaches, and Fisher would have more say in St. Louis than he would in Miami.
  • St. Louis has its franchise quarterback. Sam Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. Despite injuries this season, most believe he's a legitimate, starting NFL quarterback. That's one big problem Fisher won't have to worry about this offseason in St. Louis. The Dolphins are still searching for their long-term solution at quarterback. Matt Moore is a great backup and a decent starter. But he can't take Miami to a championship. In addition, the team won't be able to draft a top quarterback prospect barring a significant trade to move up.
  • Speaking of the draft, the Rams have a higher draft pick. St. Louis picks No. 2 and Miami picks No. 8 or No. 9, which will be determined by a coin flip with the Carolina Panthers. This is an underrated, but important, advantage for the Rams. Both teams are rebuilding. St. Louis has the higher currency of draft picks in each round.

Fisher will consider all these factors when making his decision. Ross says the Dolphins will not be outbid for Fisher. But outside of money, the Rams might have more enticing advantages for Fisher.

Why Dolphins should root for Colts Sunday

December, 29, 2011
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Want to know how the Miami Dolphins can suddenly get back in the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes? It would take just one more win Sunday by the Indianapolis Colts (2-13) against the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-12).

If the Colts win their third game in a row to finish the season, they could be saying adios to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. The St. Louis Rams (2-13) currently hold the No. 2 overall pick and are expected to lose Sunday to the San Francisco 49ers (12-3). A Colts victory and a loss by St. Louis would give the Rams the No. 1 overall pick next April.

Although it's not a 100-percent certainty, the Rams would be much more likely to pass on Luck. St Louis has a franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford, who is the 2010 No. 1 overall pick with a $78 million contract. The Rams probably have little interest in drafting two quarterbacks in three years with the top overall pick.

Unlike Peyton Manning (35) in Indianapolis, Bradford (24) and Luck (22) are both younger players. Having both quarterbacks in St. Louis wouldn't make much sense.

This means the Rams would be willing to listen to trade offers from the Dolphins or anyone else for Luck and the No. 1 overall pick. Would St. Louis be interested in Miami left tackle Jake Long and the No. 8 overall pick, for example? What about Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall and the No. 8 pick? Imagine the possibilities.

The Dolphins received bad news last week when USC quarterback Matt Barkley chose to stay in school for his senior season. But if the Colts win Sunday and give the No. 1 pick to the Rams, that will certainly make up for it.
The Miami Dolphins are 0-4 and their starting quarterback -- Chad Henne -- is done for the year with a shoulder injury.

Enter Andrew Luck in 2012? It's very possible.

But if you look deeper, Miami's biggest competition may not be competition at all. Miami is one of four winless teams. The other three have some level of stability at quarterback.

Count the St Louis Rams (0-4) out of the "Luck Sweepstakes." The Rams just drafted franchise quarterback Sam Bradford with the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. St. Louis signed Bradford to a contract worth a maximum of $86 million and is sticking with him, regardless if it lands the top pick.

The Indianapolis Colts (0-4) are in the race because of the neck injury to Peyton Manning. But the Colts expect Manning to return. Otherwise, they would not have reached a five-year extension reportedly worth up to $90 million. Yes, Indianapolis could draft Luck No. 1 overall. But it wouldn't be a wise use of resources. Luck could rot on the bench behind Manning for the next 3-4 years once Manning is healthy.

The Minnesota Vikings (0-4) are the trickiest of the group. Minnesota signed struggling veteran Donovan McNabb in the offseason. He probably won't be on the team next year. But the Vikings also are high on 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder. Many felt Minnesota reached on Ponder by taking him No. 12 overall. The Vikings disagree. But that theory could be tested if they're eligible to draft Luck, who is viewed as one of the top quarterback prospects in years. Would Minnesota draft first-round quarterbacks in back-to-back years? Or would they stick with Ponder over Luck?

This all opens the door for the Dolphins. Other one-win teams like Seattle (1-3), Denver (1-3) and Kansas City (1-3) are competition, as well. But Miami has the inside track. The Dolphins are playing the rest of the year with a backup quarterback (Matt Moore) and a coach (Tony Sparano) on the hot seat.

Mel Kiper identifies AFC East shortcomings

June, 2, 2011
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Draft industrialist Mel Kiper began a series of "Summer Audits" for ESPN Insider. Kiper takes a look at the infusion of talent from the draft, remaining questions and the hypothetical best fit for next year's draft.

The AFC East is in the leadoff spot Thursday. Although the article is for subscribers, I can share some snippets from each club.

Buffalo Bills

Kiper likes the Bills' draft, especially Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus with the third overall selection. Problem areas continue to be the pass rush and the offensive line. Kiper writes the "Bills simply believe they have more at O-line than the results seem to bear out." He still sees quarterback as a concern, but notes Ryan Fitzpatrick might be the most stable quarterback for any team that drafted among the top 10.

Miami Dolphins

Kiper already is targeting quarterback as the Dolphins' biggest draft need for 2012, pairing them up with Oklahoma's Landry Jones. That coincides with Kiper's biggest remaining question, Chad Henne, who ranked 26th in passing efficiency despite the addition of Brandon Marshall. "To put that in context from a developmental standpoint," Kiper writes, "Sam Bradford was ranked just ahead of Henne, with a total absence of viable targets."

New England Patriots

The draft wasn't enthralling, but it was solid in Kiper's eyes. But he's unsettled that "New England didn't have a greater sense of immediacy" when it came to adding immediate impact players to a 14-2 team. The Patriots went more with longer-range talent, leading Kiper to believe they will be active in free agency when it comes to bolstering an unsatisfactory pass rush.

New York Jets

Kiper loves the Jets' first-round pick, Temple defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson. Outside linebacker should be a free-agency priority, and with the Jets becoming a popular consideration for seemingly all unattached veterans, they shouldn't have trouble getting one interested.

Can Dolphins, Bills be turnaround teams?

May, 31, 2011
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Parity isn't collectively bargained anymore. Whenever the NFL resumes, we can expect the competition level to remain relatively balanced -- even if the performances are sloppy because of missed workouts.

With parity in mind, ESPN analysts Tedy Bruschi and Herm Edwards mulled over the top candidates to go from a losing record last season to the playoffs in 2011.

The AFC East had two losing teams last season, but neither the Miami Dolphins nor Buffalo Bills made the conversation.

Bruschi brushed aside the easiest answers, the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans, and made a compelling case for the St. Louis Rams. Bruschi pointed out quarterback Sam Bradford is on the rise, and the Rams came one victory away from winning the flaccid NFC West last season.

Edwards went in a similar direction and picked the San Francisco 49ers, saying it will pivot on whether Jim Harbaugh can prop up quarterback Alex Smith.

Back to the Dolphins and Bills, I don't see either team making the playoffs next season. The Dolphins have the possibility to field a playoff-caliber team, and what I mean by that is a squad that would be competitive if they made the tournament. But the odds are stacked against them.

The Dolphins would need to conjure up quarterback play they didn't have last season in addition to the New England Patriots and New York Jets falling off in addition to enough contenders from other divisions not winning enough games.

The AFC seems too deep for the Dolphins until they get high-quality and consistent performances from their quarterback, whether it's Chad Henne or somebody not yet on the team. Then again, Chad Pennington showed what one reliable veteran could do in 2008.

The Bills still are a rebuilding team. They have the same competitive issues in the AFC East as the Dolphins, but lack the overall roster talent.

NFL's 'The Top 100' a nice distraction

May, 16, 2011
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The NFL Network is filling some of the lockout downtime with a countdown of the top 100 players, revealing 10 at a time every Sunday night.

The first AFC East players were mentioned in the most recent group, Nos. 71 through 80, as voted on by their league peers.

New York Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson came in at No. 79. Jets receiver Santonio Holmes was No. 76.

Sunday night's recap show featured analysis from former New England Patriots outside linebacker Willie McGinest and reporter Jay Glazer. During the show, host Lindsay Soto mentioned 12 quarterbacks are among the top 100 and asked the experts to give their rankings.

McGinest's list:
  1. Tom Brady, Patriots
  2. Peyton Manning, Colts
  3. Drew Brees, Saints
  4. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  5. Philip Rivers, Chargers
  6. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
  7. Michael Vick, Eagles
  8. Eli Manning, Giants
  9. Matt Schaub, Texans
  10. Matt Ryan, Falcons
  11. Tony Romo, Cowboys
  12. Donovan McNabb, Redskins

Glazer's list (with a tie for 12th):
  1. Tom Brady, Patriots
  2. Peyton Manning, Colts
  3. Drew Brees, Saints
  4. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  5. Philip Rivers, Chargers
  6. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
  7. Michael Vick, Eagles
  8. Matt Ryan, Falcons
  9. Eli Manning, Giants
  10. Tony Romo, Cowboys
  11. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers
  12. Matt Schaub, Texans, and Sam Bradford, Rams

What do you think?

Video: What if QBs go 1-2 ahead of Bills?

April, 27, 2011
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With the NFL draft one day away, Scouts Inc. analysts Kevin Weidl and Steve Muench tap into the latest buzz.

They discuss the possibility quarterbacks come off the board with the first two picks. That would leave the Buffalo Bills with virtually no choice but to draft a defender at No. 3, but they'd get the best one in the entire draft class.

Also discussed is Florida center Mike Pouncey to the Miami Dolphins at No. 15 or to the New England Patriots at No. 17.

Kiper: Buffalo best fit for Cam Newton

April, 11, 2011
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ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper takes a look at some of the sexier offensive prospects in this year's draft class and tries to play matchmaker.

Rather than predict which team will draft them, Kiper explains where these players would have the best career fits.

He claimed Auburn quarterback Cam Newton would be ideal for the Buffalo Bills.

"We've talked about Cam Newton needing some time, coming out of Auburn, that simplistic offense, that one year at the major-college level as a starting quarterback," Kiper said. "He needs to settle in and evolve into an NFL quarterback.

"They have Ryan Fitzpatrick in Buffalo, who Chan Gailey has a very high opinion of. That would allow Newton to be the heir apparent to Ryan Fitzpatrick in Buffalo, and not since Jim Kelly have they had that kind of juice at the quarterback position. They need that excitement, that electric personality that Cam Newton brings to the Buffalo Bills."

Kiper also analyzes Alabama running back Mark Ingram, a popular choice among mock draftniks to land with the Miami Dolphins. Kiper disagrees, saying there's an NFL team that could utilize Ingram better.

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