Camp Confidential: Miami Dolphins

July, 31, 2012
7/31/12
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DAVIE, Fla. -- Don't tell linebacker Karlos Dansby and defensive end Cameron Wake the Miami Dolphins aren't contenders in 2012.

"We can be great," Dansby said at the opening of training camp.

Added Wake, "We have the talent [to make a run]."

There is a feeling of newness in Miami. The Dolphins believe a revival is coming this year, sooner than most expect.

Dolphins rookie head coach Joe Philbin has instilled a calm, quiet confidence in this team, which finished 6-10 last season. The change also includes new offensive and defensive schemes. First-year defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle is switching Miami to a 4-3 defense, and new offensive coordinator Mike Sherman is implementing a West Coast offense.

Miami's practices are faster and better organized. Even owner Stephen Ross has been impressed with the way the new-look Dolphins have operated since the spring.

"[Changes] are pretty evident and you can feel it," Ross said. "People can talk the talk, but you can see that we’re walking the walk, and I think that’s what’s important. If fans feel that and see that, I think they’re going to be very excited about that."

There are plenty of new faces. With just three weeks of training camp, will Miami and its new coaching staff have enough time to sort everything out? It also adds an extra challenge that HBO's "Hard Knocks" is there to document Miami's every move until the start of the regular season.

Most outsiders project 2012 to be a rebuilding year for the Dolphins. But it's clear the Dolphins have higher expectations internally.

THREE HOT ISSUES

David Garrard
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireVeteran David Garrard looks to have the early lead to become the Dolphins' starting quarterback.
1. Which quarterback will prevail? Miami's quarterback competition among Matt Moore, David Garrard and rookie Ryan Tannehill is in full swing. Every play is watched closely by Dolphins coaches and the media.

But who is Miami’s best option? Grading the first several practices, I give the edge to Garrard.

The nine-year veteran, who missed all of 2011 with a back injury, looks the most poised and in control of the offense. Garrard played in a West Coast system before. He knows the reads, progressions and what's expected.

"I think my chances are pretty good," Garrard said of winning the starting job. "I don't think they would have me here or even say that it was open competition if my chances weren't good. I know I can still play. I've just got to continue to prove it on the field."

Moore is the incumbent, but you wouldn't know it from his early practices. Moore has not looked consistent dating to spring workouts. The tricky part is Moore has never been a great practice player. He performs best when the lights are on in an actual game. He proved that last year by going 6-3 in his final nine starts.

Moore's best chance to win this job is to outperform Garrard in preseason games. Tannehill arrived to camp two days late and is a long shot to get in the race.

2. What is the plan at receiver? Miami has a hodgepodge group of mostly unproven receivers who need to settle in. Miami has 12 receivers on its roster and zero defined roles at the position. The Dolphins do not know their No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 receiver after several practices.

Philbin, a former offensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers, said he doesn't believe in putting numbers on his receivers. But Philbin does need receivers who can get open and make tough catches. There have been tons of drops dating to organized team activities. In the first two training camp practices alone, I counted five drops.

For what it's worth, Miami began camp with Chad Johnson and Legedu Naanee as its two starting receivers and Davone Bess in the slot. Brian Hartline, Roberto Wallace, Julius Pruitt and Clyde Gates also are in the mix.

But Johnson has been particularly impressive. This is the first time in a while that expectations are not high for the 34-year-old receiver. Johnson was a bust for the New England Patriots, catching just 15 passes last season. But he is making some eye-opening plays in Miami's training camp.

"He's very serious. I think he's very passionate about what he does," Philbin said. "He’s been impressive. We like his work ethic, the energy, the enthusiasm that he brings. He wants to do well. He certainly wants to let the quarterback know when he’s open."

If Johnson turns out to be a No. 1 receiver again -- or close to it -- that would take a lot of pressure off the rest of the group. It would at least give Miami's quarterback someone reliable to throw to.

3. Defense wants to be elite. There has been so much talk about Miami's quarterbacks and offense during the offseason that it's easy to forget about the defense. This is a physical group that wants to be elite. Miami finished No. 15 in total defense last year, but its ranking was a bit skewed because of the Dolphins' 0-7 start. Miami's defense played like a top-10 unit in the second half of last season.

Miami's run defense is one of the best in the league, although you wonder if the adjustment to the 4-3 defense will hurt continuity. Miami returns many of the same players in the front seven, but switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 will force some players into different roles.

Miami's secondary is the biggest question defensively. The team has a pair of young corners in Vontae Davis and Sean Smith looking to make a jump, while the safety position is in flux. Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons began camp as the starting safeties, but versatile defensive back Jimmy Wilson also worked with the first team.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Joe Philbin
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireFirst-year coach Joe Philbin has seemed unfazed by several curveballs already thrown his way.
Philbin has his head on straight. He has a good demeanor for a rookie head coach, and you have the sense things won't be too big for him in his first year.

Philbin already faced several challenges. Miami agreed to do "Hard Knocks," which can be a coach's nightmare because it allows an outsider all-access. Philbin also has a three-way quarterback competition, and the front office added a colorful personality to the locker room in Johnson. But Philbin has taken each challenge in stride and even has a good sense of humor about things.

I have no idea if Philbin can match wits with Bill Belichick on Sundays or properly manage the final five minutes of a game. We will have those answers soon enough. But I like what I've seen from Philbin so far.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

I don't see this team scoring a lot, a huge problem.

Miami's plan is to run an up-tempo passing offense with questions at quarterback and unproven receivers. In theory, this is a strategy that is doomed to fail.

The Dolphins' offensive strength is their running backs. But a West Coast offense is, by nature, pass-heavy. If Philbin thinks he can run his Green Bay-style offense in Miami with Garrard or Moore at quarterback instead of Aaron Rodgers, he is sadly mistaken.

I expect plenty of growing pains for Miami's offense and the team losing plenty of low-scoring games. The defense will keep the scoring down most weeks, which is good because Miami's offense won't be lighting it up.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Speaking of Miami's running backs, the group looks solid. Starting tailback Reggie Bush looks in the best shape of his career and is coming off his first 1,000-yard rushing season. Bush said his goal is to lead the NFL in rushing. That seems like a long shot, but another 1,000-yard season would be great for Bush. Backups Daniel Thomas and rookie Lamar Miller also have run hard early in camp and have plenty of potential.
  • Dansby enters this season in tremendous shape. He checked in at a trim 247 pounds. Last year Dansby was a victim of the lockout. He began last season around 270 pounds and didn't get down to his usual playing weight until midseason. Not coincidentally, Dansby played his best football in the final eight games of 2011. "You live and you learn," Dansby said.
  • I like what I'm seeing in the daily corner-receiver battles between Smith and Johnson. Both are competitive and want to push each other. Smith, 25, has made it a point to line up against Johnson, a six-time Pro Bowler, every chance he gets. Sometimes Johnson wins and sometimes Smith wins, but both players are getting better.
  • I predict a breakout season for third-year defensive lineman Jared Odrick. He gathered some momentum at the end of last season and looks ready to put it all together this year. Odrick, a 2010 first-round pick, will be a full-time starter for the first time in his career. He has a good combination of size and quickness and has been tough to block in camp.
  • Miami's tight ends have yet to flash this offseason. The position was huge in Green Bay, where Jermichael Finley developed into a star under Philbin. Dolphins veteran Anthony Fasano and rookie third-round pick Michael Egnew are trying to fill that role. Fasano has the experience and Egnew has the edge in athleticism, but neither is making many plays.
  • It's early, but Hartline has fallen down the depth chart. Many projected Hartline to be the No. 1 receiver in Miami’s offense, but he missed most of the spring with a leg injury and began training camp on the second team. The injury is not helping him.
  • The Dolphins have worked rookie right tackle and second-round pick Jonathan Martin exclusively with the first team in training camp. He's a virtual lock to start in Week 1. Martin played in a pro-style offense at Stanford and was Andrew Luck's left tackle. Martin is switching to the right side this year to pair with left tackle Jake Long.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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