AFC East: Tom Brady
Here are five additional notes and observations on the Dolphins:
- There will be plenty of speculation over the next two weeks about the future of Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin. Owner Stephen Ross was clear this summer that he wanted "improvement" after last year’s 8-8 season, and the Dolphins are currently 7-7. Philbin must win the final two games to make a case to return in 2015. An additional loss could spell the end of the Philbin era in Miami – and there is still a chance that Ross could make a change after a 9-7 finish. Philbin is 22-24 in three seasons and had plenty of time to implement his program. The past two Decembers could be enough proof that Philbin cannot get the Dolphins to the next level.
- I criticized quarterback Ryan Tannehill often for his lack of deep throws, so it’s only right that I complement his big plays against New England. Tannehill threw the deep ball as consistently as I’ve seen in his three seasons. He connected twice for 50 and 35 yards to Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace and drew a pass-interference penalty on Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner on another deep throw. Even two deep misses to receiver Brian Hartline and running back Damien Williams were not Tannehill's fault. It remains to be seen if this was an anomaly or a sign of things to come. The Dolphins should continue to try to take deep shots with Tannehill in the final two weeks to see if he can consistently execute.[+] EnlargeWinslow Townson/USA TODAY SportsDespite the lopsided score, Ryan Tannehill wracked up 346 passing yards and made strides in the deep passing game.
- Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s motivation of using Dolphins quotes after their Week 1 victory was more manufactured than anything. Miami is not a trash-talking team, and the players were very respectful of New England heading into this week. Belichick had to dig deep and go back to the first week of the season when Dolphins players explained their win – and most of those quotes weren't inflammatory. But credit Belichick for motivating his players. Several Patriots, including cornerback Darrelle Revis, referenced the Dolphins trash-talking even when it can be argued that wasn't the case.
- Dolphins rookie receiver Jarvis Landry continues to impress. It was somewhat surprising that Belichick opted to put Revis on Landry often on third downs. That is a sign of respect for what Landry has done this season. Landry made a couple of catches over Revis and finished with eight receptions for 99 yards. The 2014 second-round pick has a bright future and will continue to get better.
- Miami starting linebacker Philip Wheeler had two really poor plays that stood out Sunday. His first was the inability to catch Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during a 17-yard scramble that seemingly went in slow motion. Wheeler chased after Brady, stumbled and couldn’t keep his feet, which allowed Brady to get the big gain. The second play was Wheeler one-on-one against Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski for a 35-yard reception that later set up another touchdown. Wheeler was beaten badly on the play. It’s also partially the fault of the coaching staff to expect Wheeler to cover Gronkowski.
Here are some notes and observations:
- Cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Jamar Taylor practiced for the third straight day, which is an encouraging sign. Finnegan missed the past three games with an ankle injury, and Taylor missed the past two with a shoulder injury. Miami needs its cornerback depth against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
- Backup guard Nate Garner and rookie defensive back Walt Aikens were not present during Thursday’s portion of practice open to the media. Garner has an illness. Aikens had no reported injuries on Wednesday.
The Dolphins will release their final injury report with game designations on Friday. They will travel to Foxborough on Saturday in preparation for Sunday’s must-win game.
CHICAGO -- So this is what Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill looks like at his absolute best.
Miami's 27-14 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday finally showed what a consistent, dominant Tannehill looks like under center. Better yet for the Dolphins, it happened over four full quarters -- not the usual one good half or quarter Tannehill has provided this season.
How locked in was the third-year quarterback? On his second touchdown pass of the day, the Bears took away his first and second options. So Tannehill went to his third progression -- which he rarely does successfully -- to complete a 10-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace.
Wallace said after the game that the Dolphins (3-3) couldn't even hit that play in practice. But with Tannehill in the zone, they made it look easy when it mattered most, giving Miami a lead it never relinquished.
"I was the last read on the play," Wallace said. "On that play in practice, I've been working that [route] probably since I was in Pittsburgh and never got the ball, not one time, on that play. That was the first time.
There have been games when Tannehill was good, but never the best player on the field. That changed in Chicago. Afterward, backup quarterback Matt Moore got a chuckle out of Tannehill by telling him, "You inspire me."
Tannehill's day started with 14 straight completions, and he finished with 277 yards and two touchdown passes. He posted a career-high 123.6 passer rating and didn't have his first incompletion until 54 seconds left in the first half.
First-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is getting a better grasp of his quarterback's capabilities. The Dolphins used a well-devised game plan that highlighted Tannehill's strengths: throwing short and intermediate passes. His longest completion was for 26 yards to backup tight end Dion Sims. Tannehill also used his athleticism by rolling out of the pocket on passing plays, rushing for 48 yards on six carries.
Dolphins tight end Charles Clay said Tannehill's confidence was at an all-time high, especially after getting hot early.
"It's hard to pinpoint, but it was just something about him," said Clay, who had four receptions and caught Tannehill's first touchdown pass. "It gave me confidence, and I'm sure it gave everybody else in the huddle confidence."
Tannehill said he has never completed 14 straight passes to start a game at any level. He did complete 14 straight between the second and third quarters this season against the Oakland Raiders, but this performance was from the start and more dominant.
On this day, if you were open, Tannehill easily identified it and made the right decisions. He completed 78.1 percent of his passes, and eight Dolphins players had at least two receptions.
"Everyone was getting open," Tannehill said. "It's fun to be able to spread the ball around like that."
Was this a one-game performance or a potential career turning point? That remains to be seen.
One of the biggest critiques of Tannehill is he rarely strings together strong games in back-to-back weeks. This season alone he has struggled from half to half. That is one of the major reasons Tannehill is just 18-20 as a starter and still trying to prove he is Miami's long-term solution.
But Sunday's lights-out performance at least provided a one-game snapshot that Tannehill is capable of dominating a game. He has good athleticism and can make most of the throws needed to thrive in the NFL, with the exception of a consistent deep ball.
After six games, it's clear the Dolphins will go only as far as Tannehill takes them this season.
"We're definitely playoff-caliber, and if he's playing like [Sunday], we could be Super Bowl-caliber, honestly," Wallace said. "But we got to put in the work every day. We know it's not going to just come to us. We have to keep grinding and stay focused."
The Buffalo Bills' practice squad quarterback is tasked each week with simulating the opposing quarterback in practice. Part of that is mimicking the cadence and mannerisms at the line of scrimmage, but Tuel goes even deeper than that.
Tuel showed up at Thursday's practice in his full Tom Brady get-up, complete with a glove and a play-call wristband on his left hand, a towel tucked into his shorts and tape over his ankles just the way the New England Patriots' star quarterback does it.
All it takes each week, Tuel said, is a simple Google search of how each opposing quarterback dresses.
How fine is Tuel's attention to detail? On Thursday, he was still wearing a rubber band around his right wrist from practice last week, prior to the Bills' win over the Detroit Lions.
Search for photos of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and you'll find -- you guessed it -- a rubber band on his wrist.
Jeff Tuel in his full Tom Brady get-up. Says he Googles the opposing QB each week. Still has Stafford's rubber band. pic.twitter.com/M0xYRzbhq2— Mike Rodak (@mikerodak) October 9, 2014
The division was an impressive 3-1 last weekend to open the regular season. The Miami Dolphins (1-0), New York Jets (1-0) and Buffalo Bills (1-0) all picked up victories, while the reigning AFC East champion New England Patriots (0-1) suffered a loss to Miami.
That brings us to our latest poll question: Who will win the AFC East?
What about the New York Jets? Head coach Rex Ryan & Co. finished 8-8 last year but made some improvements via the draft and free agency. The Jets beat the Oakland Raiders last week and look to be a strong defensive team.
Can the Bills surprise the AFC East? Buffalo has the NFL’s longest playoff drought. The Bills haven’t made the postseason since the 1999 season. But Buffalo picked up a quality road win last week against the Chicago Bears in overtime and can make another statement by beating Miami in Week 2. Are the Bills a legitimate threat to win the division?
Finally, will the Patriots win the AFC East? Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have ruled the division for a decade. New England is the preseason favorite to win the division but didn’t show it last week in Miami. Will the Patriots get back on track and win the AFC East?
Using our SportsNation poll, vote on which team will win the AFC East. You can share your thoughts in the comment section below or send a message via Twitter @JamesWalkerNFL.
However, McCain returned to the team Thursday in good spirits and participated in his first practice of the week.
McCain expects to play despite missing practice Tuesday and Wednesday.
"I still need a little bit extra preparation, but I think I'll be ready for Sunday when that time comes," he said.
McCain has an interesting backstory. He was a long shot to make the Dolphins after numerous red flags that included getting kicked out of college at the University of California. In addition, McCain went undrafted with a long road to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. He also had to stay focused and out of trouble with the Dolphins.
But McCain did all the right things since joining the team and let his natural athleticism shine. He was a standout in training camp and during the preseason, which set the table for his Week 1 showing against the Patriots.
The Dolphins are thin at linebacker with Dannell Ellerbe (hip) on season-ending injured reserve and the statuses of Koa Misi (ankle) and Philip Wheeler (thumb) up in the air. They could need a backup linebacker like McCain to step up for the second week in a row against Buffalo's talented backfield led by C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
"They're very dangerous," McCain said. "C.J. is a very speedy guy, very shifty. Fred is also good. We just have to be ready for the quickness. I believe with our front guys and our second-level guys we'll be able to hold on to whatever we come up against."
Tannehill’s most recent outing against Buffalo was arguably his worst game. He was 10-of-27 passing for 82 yards in a 19-0 loss to the Bills in Week 16.
Tannehill will get to meet his personal nemesis when the Dolphins (1-0) travel to face the Bills (1-0) on Sunday. Tannehill knows he wasn’t his best in Week 1 against the Patriots but still put together a winning performance. He completed 18-of-32 passes for 178 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
“We left a lot of plays out there. I left a lot of plays out there, personally,” Tannehill admitted. “Location of throws, missing throws, [I] had a couple of dropped passes. Details like that where we left a lot of yards and a lot of touchdowns out on the field. ... But you can’t leave that many plays on the field consistently and expect to win week-in and week-out. Definitely, we want to clean those details up this week.”
Tannehill will have to play better this week. Buffalo has found a way to batter Tannehill and force Miami's offense to be one-dimensional in the past. That was especially the case during last season's season sweep when the Bills' defense registered nine quarterback sacks on Tannehill in two games.
Those two contests helped convince Miami to do a major makeover of its offensive line via free agency and the draft. The Dolphins signed veteran left tackle Branden Albert to a $47 million contract, drafted rookie right tackle Ja’Wuan James in the first round and added center Samson Satele and veteran guards Daryn Colledge and Shelley Smith in free agency.
Miami had five new starting offensive linemen in Week 1, and the unit thrived against New England. The Dolphins had impressive balance with 191 rushing yards and 169 passing yards, which caught the attention of Bills head coach Doug Marrone.
“As far as just a unit, in general, they’re working extremely well together and I think that’s the most impressive thing,” Marrone said in a conference call with the Miami media. “They’re knocking people off the ball.”
Both teams enter this game with momentum. That sets up this interesting matchup of surprise undefeated teams where the winner will be 2-0 and in first place in the AFC East.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, 63 percent of teams that start 2-0 since 1990 have gone on to make the playoffs. Whoever wins Sunday will be well-positioned to end a lengthy postseason drought. The Dolphins haven’t made the playoffs since 2008, and the Bills have the NFL’s longest playoff drought dating back to the 1999 season.
“Very important just because we need to get this lead. We don’t need to be playing catch up,” Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace said. “We’ve been there before. We need to see how it feels to play as the division leaders the whole time. We can do that. We have the team to do it. We just have to continue to put in the work every single week, every single day."
The Minnesota Vikings are coming off their biggest road win in five seasons, while the New England Patriots are trying to avoid an 0-2 start after a 13-point defeat on the road last week. Just like everyone predicted, right?
In a matchup that pits Patriots coach Bill Belichick against a couple of his old foes from the AFC -- Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner -- the Vikings will try to build on their surprising start in their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday. Zimmer's game plan in Cincinnati last year forced Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into his worst game of the season, and Zimmer will hope to recreate the performance with a Vikings defense that isn't as experienced as what he had with the Bengals.
ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss this week's matchup.
Ben Goessling: Mike, the Vikings sacked Rams quarterbacks five times Sunday. After a pretty poor week for the Patriots' offensive line against the Dolphins -- a team whose defensive coordinator is a disciple of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer -- do you think protecting Brady is going to be a lingering issue this week?
Mike Reiss: Yes, Ben, there is no doubt about that. One thing I believe should help the Patriots is that while the Vikings' defensive line is solid, I don't believe it is at the same level as Miami's. Specifically, the Patriots won't be seeing the same type of speed rush from Cameron Wake off the defensive left side, which they just couldn't handle. There's only a few like Wake in the NFL. The Patriots are still figuring out their best combination up front, and that will be one of the most closely watched storylines from a New England perspective. One thing I'm sure Patriots followers would be interested to hear is how Matt Cassel, the New England backup from 2005-08, is performing.
Goessling: So far, Cassel has been solid, though he didn't have to take many chances in the Vikings' win against the Rams last week. He only attempted three passes of more than 10 yards, and he was able to hit a number of screen passes to running backs, receivers and even tight end Rhett Ellison. But Cassel hit Greg Jennings on a nice post play and threw a couple of touchdown passes off play-action. The hope is Cassel can be solid enough to keep the Vikings relevant and give them more time to develop Teddy Bridgewater; ultimately, he is the future of this team, but for now, Cassel is buying the Vikings time before they turn things over to Bridgewater. And if they're able to win enough games with Cassel, who knows? He could turn out to be the starter all season.
Belichick will get to face one of his old foes from the AFC in Turner on Sunday; how have the Patriots typically matched up against Turner teams, and how do you expect their defense will handle the Vikings on Sunday, after the Vikings showed off a number of weapons last week against the Rams?
Reiss: When the Patriots have faced a Turner-coordinated offense, Belichick has touched on the vertical nature of the passing game. He also said earlier this week that, "You have to be able to stop the running game and stop '12 personnel' [1 back, 2 tight ends]." The Patriots' biggest issues in the opener were poor fits in the run game (191 yards allowed). I wouldn't be surprised if we see Darrelle Revis shadow Cordarrelle Patterson after Revis almost exclusively played the left side in the opener.
In last year's draft, the Patriots traded the No. 29 pick to Minnesota for Patterson and received second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks in return. The Patriots turned those picks into linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Logan Ryan, receiver Josh Boyce and used the seventh to trade for running back LeGarrette Blount (now in Pittsburgh). One year later, how do you assess that deal from a Minnesota perspective?
Goessling: I can't imagine the Vikings have any regrets about it. As much as they could have used some of those picks to address their defensive depth issues, they've got a budding star in Patterson. He's not only filled the role vacated by Percy Harvin in the Vikings' offense, he's done it without any of the questions surrounding Harvin's durability and temperament. Patterson isn't quite as strong or shifty, but he's taller, a more natural outside receiver and his ability to hit holes is as good as you'll find anywhere. He's already become a focal point in the Vikings' offense, and I imagine that will only continue. The Vikings use him in enough different ways that I think it would be hard to completely shut him down with Revis, though I'm sure Belichick will come up with something to try and fence him in.
Speaking of defensive game plans, the Bengals' defense under Zimmer had a good one to frustrate Brady last season, and Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyne (a Zimmer disciple) had success against the Patriots last week, of course. We've talked a little bit about the pass rush already, but what else did Zimmer dial up in that game to force Brady into one of his worst days of the season, and do you think he can do it again this weekend?
Reiss: The main things I remember about Zimmer's plan last season was the ability to hurry Brady with the standard four rushers early (Geno Atkins was a beast inside), and then bringing out the different blitz packages on third down and more obvious passing situations. One thing, in particular, is the double A-gap blitz right up the middle. Even if you don't bring those extra two rushers on a blitz, by showing the look, it forces the offensive line to communicate and make sure they are all seeing the same thing in terms of who is coming, who isn't and who to block. The Patriots' offensive line crumbled in the third quarter against the Dolphins last week, and I'd imagine the Vikings watched that tape and are salivating at the possibilities of frustrating Brady. At the same time, I think the Patriots are better than they showed, and we could see some personnel changes in the middle with rookie center Bryan Stork in the mix.
Defensively for the Vikings, tell us more about where and how they put stress on the opposition.
Goessling: You touched on it a little bit: The big key to it is still the creativity Zimmer shows in his blitz packages. He doesn't bring extra pressure all that often, in the grand scheme of things (he only blitzed eight times last week), but he'll show enough blitz looks, and send pass-rushers from enough different spots, that he keeps you on your toes. You'll often see him show a seven- or eight-man front, only to have several players drop back into coverage. The problem is guessing which players it will be; the Vikings have some flexibility with their personnel, like linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen and safety Harrison Smith. The Vikings' secondary depth still concerns me, and we'll see whether Brady can exploit it this week, but this Vikings' defense won't be as big of a pushover as last season's unit was.
Here is the final injury report for both teams:
Out: C Mike Pouncey (hip), LB Jordan Tripp (chest), DE Terrence Fede (knee), LB Philip Wheeler (thumb)
Doubtful: G Billy Turner (foot)
Probable: S Walt Aikens (hand), LB Koa Misi (shoulder), CB Jamar Taylor (hip), LB Chris McCain (hip)
Out: DL Michael Buchanan (ankle), DT Chris Jones (ankle)
Questionable: QB Tom Brady (calf), TE Rob Gronkowski (knee), DT Sealver Siliga (hand)
Injury analysis: Miami has a sizable injury report for Week 1. The biggest absence is for Wheeler, a starting outside linebacker. He practiced some during the week but was ruled out Friday. The Dolphins, who already have issues at linebacker, will have to look at backup options such as Jason Trusnik, McCain or Jelani Jenkins. Pouncey, Tripp and Fede hadn’t practiced all week and were expected to miss this game. For the Patriots, Brady and Gronkowski are the biggest names. But both are expected to play.
But opportunity knocks once again for Tannehill. He has a chance to make a huge statement Sunday if he can beat future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots at Sun Life Stadium. Some feel New England is a Super Bowl contender and a favorite to come out of the AFC. Not much is expected of the Dolphins from a national perspective.
“I think that I am at the point in my career now where progression has to be made fast and you have to be consistent and there are no more rookie mistakes or second-year mistakes,” Tannehill admitted. “We are at the point where you have got to make the plays when it comes down to it in the fourth quarter on third down. You have to be able to make a play, find a way and that’s football.
“You are going to have those tough situations where someone is going to have to step up and make a play. I want that to be me. I want that to be the guys with me on offense and if we do that we will win a lot of games.”
Tannehill must produce and play smart Sunday for the Dolphins to have a chance to upset the reigning AFC East champions. Brady historically has given Miami’s defense trouble. It will be Tannehill’s job to put up enough points against New England’s defense to keep Miami in the game.
Tannehill split the season series with the Patriots last year, which included a big win over New England in Miami.
“I thought he played well, did a good job,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He does a good job taking care of the ball, played well, obviously, in the two-minute drive. He’s excellent in those situations and that’s probably really what beat us last year down there was their ability to execute at the end of the game.”
Tannehill said he’s excited about the game plan and how Miami’s offense plans to attack New England. Sunday will mark the regular-season debut of first-year Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
The Dolphins and Tannehill have worked hard for months in order to prepare for this game. Tannehill will carry a lot on his shoulders for the Dolphins this weekend and this season.
“You can’t play quarterback and have excuses,” Tannehill said. “It’s your fault a lot of times, whether it looks like it is or whether it actually is -- that is part of playing the position. You take on the responsibility and take ownership for the mistakes that the offense makes.”
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.
Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.
Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?
Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.
Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.
James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.
Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?
Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.
Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.
Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.
Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.
@mikerodak running backs look to be more interesting than I expected, and even though there isn't competition QB growth is #1- Bob rieth (@Bob_rieth) June 16, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.
Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.
Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.
Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.
@JamesWalkerNFL Dion Jordan. Can't hold him back anymore. He will get 10 sacks and will be on the field 40 plays per game- Tom Ernisse (@ternisse13) June 4, 2014
How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?
Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.
Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.
Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.
Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.
@MikeReiss Two. (hoping he goes out with a ring (a la John Elway)- Because i think he has less than 3 - I'm watching the back up QB battle.- Elizabeth (@capesquad) June 18, 2014
In Week 15, Thomas was claimed off waivers on a Tuesday and made a game-saving interception off future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady five days later in a 24-20 victory over the rival New England Patriots. The interception garnered national headlines in what turned out to be the final victory for the Dolphins last season.
"I'm really starting to realize how much it meant to everybody in Dolphin Nation," Thomas said after Monday's practice. "I hear it almost daily. I love it, but I want to build from it."
Seven months later, Thomas is out to prove that his late-season heroics were not a fluke. Thomas is aiming to make a lasting impression with the Dolphins during organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp.
Thomas arrived in mid-December last year while the Dolphins attempted to make a playoff push. He spent only two-and-a-half weeks with the team and there wasn’t much time to teach Thomas the nuances of Miami's defense that other teammates learned in training camp.
This is Thomas' first offseason with the Dolphins, which has helped him play faster and make more plays in practice.
“Finally, I'm getting a chance to understand the scheme a little better," Thomas explained. "I understand what the coaches want me to do instead of freelancing. Now, I'm playing off technique."
Thomas will enter training camp on the roster bubble, but he likes his chances to make the 53-man roster. Miami’s coaching staff strongly values positional flexibility, which is one of Thomas' strengths. He is competing for roles at safety, nickel cornerback and various spots on special teams.
“He’s having a solid camp so far,” Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin said. “Again, the more versatility that some of these guys have and can bring to the football team, the better they’re going to be (and) we’re going to be as a football team. Michael is doing a good job in special teams. He’s doing a good job in defense. I’m happy with his development so far.”
Thomas hopes to finds a permanent home with the Dolphins. The second-year player spent his rookie season on the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad before being claimed by Miami last December.
The Dolphins hope they've found a versatile gem in Thomas, who has the potential to help in several areas.
“It’s about the more you can do,” Thomas said. “You think about a guy like Jimmy Wilson, he does everything for the team. That’s why he’s a baller right now. So I’m really trying to tailor my game after him and every other player who is doing a lot of things.”
“We were moving in the pocket and throwing off-schedule throws. That’s not necessarily a strength of our quarterbacks in general, and I think that’s something we’ve identified that could have helped us – a time here, a time there – and we’re adamant about trying to make it better,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels explained afterwards.
After the practice, McDaniels and other assistant coaches answered questions from reporters.
Here were a few soundbites of note from McDaniels:
What he’s seen from Brady this offseason: “The same thing that I’m used to seeing. He’s in great shape, great condition. Early in the building. He’s working really hard. He’s been accurate. He’s definitely the leader of our group on offense. He’s competing hard and that’s really a great example for the rest of our guys on offense.”
If he thinks Brady is still improving: “Yup, I do. It’s hard for me to ever feel like that wouldn’t be the case. Any time you have a guy that is really focused on working on all of the weaknesses in his game, when there really aren’t that many, you can see where there would be room for growth. He listens as well or better than he ever has in terms of taking coaching and working on things that we’re trying to get better at. I think that’s a great example for the rest of the guys.”
Tight end position: “We have a couple young guys that are a little raw but we’re intrigued by some of the things they’re doing. Brian Daboll is doing an exceptional job of working with the position and trying to get some of those young guys caught up to what we’re doing. We have confidence in what we have.”
On patience with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo: “It’s pretty similar to most every other rookie quarterback I’ve had a chance to work with. It takes a while before you can truly see them feel comfortable, because their mind is going so fast. They have so many things to think about and there are so many things they are not 100 percent on top of yet. So sometimes if you’re too quick to judge a younger player like that, you can make a mistake. You have to give it some time.”
On receiver Jeremy Gallon: “Good kid. He’s ready to work, excited to be here. It’s a couple days in, but we’re excited to see how he fits with the rest of our group. He has some flexibility to himself and I know he’ll work hard, coming from the program he’s coming from. We’ll see how far it goes.”
On Julian Edelman: “He’s certainly a guy that’s a leader for us, on and off the field. He’s a tireless worker and a guy we can do a lot of things with. He’s very unselfish, doesn’t care what we ask of him. He’s willing to do whatever helps the team. Just his presence, the way he works, his ethic, how he studies and prepares for OTAs, for games, for practices and the way he keeps his body in great condition, I think it’s a great example for all of our players, on offense and defense, to look to and model themselves after.”
"The odds are in his favor," Evans said on the set. "You look at the consistency of the organization, it's Bill Belichick and him tied at the hip. We know they lacked offensive weapons in some of the last couple years. He finds a way to make magic out of nothing. Every year they're sitting in that AFC Championship, battling it out with Peyton Manning or Joe Flacco. So I'm going to give him a nod in the next three years."
Dukes then pointed out Evans' remarks about Brady's ability to "make magic out of nothing" in questioning the team's selection of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round (62nd overall). With Manning having the weapons to put up 35 points per game regularly, Dukes doesn't see the same weaponry in New England. Thus, he doesn't see another Super Bowl championship in his future.
One area that wasn't touched upon was the potential improvement of the Patriots' defense, which has added cornerback Darrelle Revis this offseason.
Could that help Brady the most?
Fun debate, and one we'd lean toward the "yes" category if taking part.
35. TE Rob Gronkowski (third at position)
58. RB Shane Vereen (26th at position)
61. WR Julian Edelman (24th at position)
66. RB Stevan Ridley (28th at position)
97. WR Danny Amendola (42nd at position)
111. QB Tom Brady (12th at position)
136. WR Aaron Dobson (51st at position)
148. Patriots defense/special teams (ninth as a unit)
152. K Stephen Gostkowski (second at position)
170. WR Brandon LaFell (57th at position)
As the piece notes, these rankings are based on a 10-team ESPN standard league with 16-player rosters, starting one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one flex (RB/WR/TE), a team defense and a kicker.