NFL Nation: Mike Maser

 
  Steve Mitchell/US Presswire
  Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano wants his team to stay hungry.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

DAVIE, Fla. -- As long as Tom Brady stays healthy and Bill Belichick is in charge, the New England Patriots will be considered a Super Bowl contender.

Stands to reason they also are prohibitive favorites to take the AFC East crown.

Camp Confidential: AFC East
Bills: Thurs., July 30
Jets: Sat., Aug. 1
Patriots: Wed., Aug. 5
Dolphins: Sun., Aug. 16
Training camp index
Understandably, some of the Miami Dolphins are upset. Outside linebacker Joey Porter publicly expressed indignation that the defending division champs are being disregarded. Inside linebacker Channing Crowder got into a sniping match with New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, who declared his team's objective was to win it all.

But don't expect Dolphins coach Tony Sparano to cause a ruckus over a perceived oversight. He's quietly embracing it. Sparano doesn't want his team to act as if it has accomplished anything.

"What I don't want to do is to think we are good by any stretch of the imagination," Sparano said this past week during a break at training camp. "I think that we need to make sure this team stays hungry and continues to want to do the hunting out there."

Key Questions

Who will emerge as Chad Pennington's top target?

Analysts listed receiver as an area of grave need. The Dolphins' front office obviously didn't agree. They didn't sign any free-agent help and waited until the second day of the draft to select any receivers.

Miami wide receivers caught only five touchdown passes last year and managed only 11 receptions of 25 yards or more. The top three averaged 11.9 yards per catch.

Greg Camarillo was Pennington's obvious go-to guy last year, grabbing 55 passes through the first 11 games. But a torn knee ligament sidelined him for the final five games and puts a dubious spin on his projected role.

Davone Bess, who possesses a similar skill-set to Camarillo's, had 54 receptions last year. Ted Ginn finished with a team-high 56 catches for 790 yards, uninspiring numbers for the ninth overall pick of the 2007 draft.

Seven of tight end Anthony Fasano's 34 receptions were touchdowns.

But when the Dolphins need to convert a critical third-and-8 play, whom will defenses worry about?

Third-round draft picks Patrick Turner and Brian Hartline have had decent camps so far. Turner is tall and catches anything he gets his hands on, while Hartline is more of a possession receiver. Maybe one of them can emerge, but it's too soon to count on either of them.

Can a rookie win the starting right cornerback job?

 
  Joel Auerbach/US Presswire
  Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis is expected to compete for the starting spot.
The Dolphins drafted Vontae Davis 25th overall, making him the first pure cornerback off the board. They took Sean Smith with the 61st pick.

Both were expected to compete with veteran free agent Eric Green for the starting spot opposite Will Allen. But a week into training camp, Smith was taking Green's first-team reps.

Earning a coach's trust is difficult for a rookie, especially at a position as pressure-drenched as cornerback. Smith has been convincing.

He's 6-foot-4, and the Dolphins drafted him to compete with the likes of Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Andre Johnson and the other big receivers they'll face this year. But to overtake a higher draft pick and a veteran so early in camp is an encouraging development.

Will new center Jake Grove and new assistant Dave DeGuglielmo transform the offensive line's personality?

Dolphins football operations boss Bill Parcells and Sparano didn't like what they saw out of their offensive line last year. One of the first offseason moves was to fire veteran O-line coach Mike Maser and hire DeGuglielmo, a New York Giants assistant.

One of their chief personnel priorities -- maybe the biggest -- was to find a run-blocking center.

The Dolphins wanted better success between the tackles. It didn't help that both of their opening-day starting guards were lost along the way. But they identified the main problem was second-year center Samson Satele, who started all 32 games of his career.

They signed Grove, an Oakland Raiders free agent, and then traded Satele to the Raiders for a sixth-round draft pick and a swap of fourth-round picks.

Newcomer to watch

Taylor
Jason Taylor looks familiar in his uniform, but don't expect him to be the same player he was before the Dolphins traded him to the Washington Redskins last summer.

Sure, Taylor still can be an impact pass-rusher. But he will be playing a new role and a different position from the one where he amassed almost all of his 120.5 career sacks.

Porter is the weakside outside linebacker. Taylor, a fixture all those years with his hand on the ground as Miami's right defensive end, will be the strongside outside linebacker. That means Taylor usually will line up on the left side in a two-point stance.

The Dolphins brought him back to be more of a situational pass-rusher, not to play every down. He should split snaps with incumbent Matt Roth (a run-stopper with limited coverage skills) and Cameron Wake (a Canadian Football League phenom who recorded 39 sacks in two seasons).

A mysterious situation has kept Roth sidelined through the first two weeks of camp. His agent claimed he had a groin injury. The Dolphins claimed he was ill and out of shape. Either way, that has allowed Taylor to get more reps so far.

Market watch

Ginn
Dolfans have been waiting for Ginn to live up to his billing and can only hope this is the season he finally puts it together. The club showed confidence in the speedster by declining to go after any veteran receiver help.

"Teddy is going into his third year, and I think it's time for him to really show what he was drafted here to do," Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said prior to the draft.

Observation deck

Ronnie Brown, who got off to a slow start in training camp last year because he was coming off knee surgery and a wrist injury, has looked sharp. His quickness and maneuverability stands out next to the other backs, including Ricky Williams, who doesn't look as explosive as he did a year ago. ... Williams is 32 years old and starting to show it. ... Rookie quarterback Pat White better be able to contribute from the Wildcat formation because he has been lousy as a quarterback. What makes White a threat is his ability to pass and run out of the formation, but his arm has been scattershot since he arrived. Defenses should force him to throw it. ... Kickers always have been expendable on a Parcells team. The Dolphins unearthed a gem last year with undrafted rookie Dan Carpenter, allowing them to save money by cutting Jay Feely. But Carpenter might have lost his footing. The club signed free agent Connor Barth to push him. Carpenter hasn't responded as well to the competition as the front office hoped. ... Rookie receivers Turner and Hartline, both third-round draft choices, have looked impressive. Turner is a tall target with soft hands who could turn into a third-down and red zone weapon. ... Sparano seems to be gaining confidence in third-year defensive tackle Paul Soliai, a fourth-round draft pick in 2007. Soliai is listed at 6-foot-4, 355 pounds. He twice was suspended for one game last year for weight issues. "A year ago I questioned how important this whole thing was maybe to Paul. ... From a professional standpoint, I think this guy is starting to get it. He is starting to figure out that this isn't only a hobby," Sparano said.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

DAVIE, Fla. -- Two weeks into the season, Miami Dolphins ridicule had resumed. The wait-and-see grace period was over.

New football operations department, new general manager, new head coach, half a new roster ... the Dolphins didn't look any different than the version that went 1-15 last year.

 
  Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
 Rookie tackle Jake Long and the rest of the Dolphins O-line showed a new side against the Patriots in Week 3.

Derision was spread thickly and impartially. But the place it stung most of all in the Dolphins locker room was among the offensive linemen. Their running attack was nil. Sacks were plentiful.

"People were ragging on the O-line pretty bad," rookie left tackle Jake Long said.

Rags to rushes was the line's theme last week. The Dolphins exploded in Week 3 with a 38-13 frolic over the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium.

Most of the attention was trained on the captivating single-wing Wildcat offense the Dolphins unveiled. But the offensive line controlled the game regardless of the formation.

"They had something to prove in the game, no doubt about it," said Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano, a long-time offensive line assistant. "You take criticism for a couple weeks about not running the ball, offensive linemen take that personally, offensive line coaches take that personally. And they should."

In one afternoon's work, against one of the NFL's best front sevens and arguably the most fearsome defensive line, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams each tripled his rushing yardage output for the season.

Brown ran 17 times for 113 yards and four touchdowns. Williams ran 16 times for 98 yards.

"Did anybody give us any chance, really, to play like that?" left guard Justin Smiley said. "Everybody in our room did. We know what we're capable of doing and how we're capable of playing, but the first two weeks we didn't execute. Last week we went into the game hitting on all cylinders, and we dominated."

Domination isn't a word Dolfans are used to hearing in their favor, but their revamped offensive line was in total command against the Patriots.

The Dolphins linemen don't view their performance as one good afternoon but as a coming-of-age performance for a group still learning to play together. They'll have a chance to back up their performance Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, who rank 13th in rushing defense but third in third-down efficiency.

"We were as good as an offense can play," Smiley said. "We set the bar awfully high. That's what's expected of us now.

"So now there's no excuse every week. We have to go out there and play like that."

Only second-year center Samson Satele is in the same position as 2007. Smiley, from the San Francisco 49ers, was the Dolphins' top free-agent signing. Long was the No. 1 draft choice. Right tackle Vernon Carey lined up on the other side last year. The Dolphins signed right guard Ike Ndukwe off the Baltimore Ravens practice squad before the season finale.

Carey, who is 27 years old, is the oldest offensive lineman. He and Smiley are in their fifth seasons, making them the unit's most experienced. All five starting linemen have only 127 career starts combined.

By comparison, Jets guard Alan Faneca has 157 career starts and Jets tackle Damien Woody has 124. The three-man Patriots defensive line the Dolphins went against last week have 217 career starts among them.

"I go against them every day," Dolphins outside linebacker Joey Porter said of the Dolphins O-linemen. "They're a young group. In time, around Week 8, Week 9 they'll be able to prove how good they really are."

Suffice to say, with Bill Parcells running Miami's football operations, establishing a redoubtable offensive line was a high priority. Sparano was Parcells' offensive line coach with the Dallas Cowboys. The Dolphins brought in Mike Maser, who has coached NFL offensive lines for 14 years.

But Miami's running game was a joke through the first two games.

Brown and Williams had grand plans to rush for 1,000 yards apiece, but 19 backs, including four rookies, had more yards than the 121 yards the Dolphins mustered as a team -- and that figure included a couple receiver reverses and a quarterback scramble.

So much for smashmouth, right? You wondered if Sparano would rather get caught singing Smashmouth songs into his hairbrush in front of the bathroom mirror than call a run play on third and 3.

From an offensive lineman's perspective, mocking a team's ground game is tantamount to questioning his manhood. But the Dolphins had no one to blame but themselves.

"We weren't running the ball like we wanted to," Long said. "Everybody was talking, and that was the big thing: 'Why can't this offensive line open up holes?'

"We took that personally and put it on ourselves and took the blame."

Then they went out and bulldozed the vaunted Patriots defense, gashing their renowned defensive front in earnest.

Miami befuddled New England with the Wildcat package only six times. Take out those unusual plays and Miami still had 342 net yards, didn't allow a sack and gave Chad Pennington enough time to complete 17 of 20 passes.

"Whether that be good or bad, that's the way it is now," Smiley said. "Now people know we can play that way. There's no gimmicks. It's the way things have taken shape.

"Obviously, a lot of people were down on us, but with good reason. We weren't playing up to expectations. We're showing our capabilities now."

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