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06/14/02 - 06/22/02
This defense allowed nearly 4 YPC last season on the ground, including 4.45 YPC to opposing 1000 yd rushers. If the Dolphins are to control the clock, shoring up the run defense is only half the equation. Daryl Gardener will move from tackle to end to replace departed Kenny Mixon with Tim Bowens and free agent signee Larry Chester clogging the middle. The trio has the potential to shut down running lanes and free up LBs. However, the heath of Gardener has to be a concern no matter where he lines up. Jason Taylor quietly had his best season yet in ’01 with 9 sacks despite facing constant double teams. Once an empty shopping cart against the run, Taylor has become a competent run defender because of his ability to use his long arms to gain leverage. If Taylor is a Charles Haley, he needs a Tony Tolbert on the other side.
The Dolphins DL reminds me of the Broncos skill position in that the unit could instantly implode despite having excellent starters and backups. Gardener could go down for the count at any minute while Chester and Bowens will have trouble staying healthy with the pounding they are expecting to take. Depth is needed and this unit has it… as of today, that is. Rob Burnett assures whoever will listen that he is closer to the player he was in ’00 when he registered 13 sacks. If his personal assessment is correct, the Dolphins will have a starting calibur DE taking the load off of Gardener and Taylor. At 6-3, 295 pounds, Jermaine Haley isn’t athletic or physically imposing, so he must use leverage to compensate, which he was unable to do last year because of nagging injuries. Look for him to be closer to the player he was in ’00 when subbing for Gardener and Bowens. One player that will be interesting to watch is David Bowens. Bowens only played in 9 games as a situational pass rusher, but made his presence felt with a sack, 11 QB pressures, and 5 batted down passes. D-Bo should be a more consistent version of Lorenzo Bromell. Earnest Grant and Adewale Ogunleye, two players with impressive physical ability, need to have strong camps.
Make no mistake about it: this defense lives and dies with Zach Thomas. While Thomas recorded a career high 155 tackles, nagging injuries and the DL’s inability to absorb blockers resulted in a very average MLB down the stretch. When healthy and protected, Thomas is a sideline-to-sideline force capable of making 12 tackles a game and forcing turnovers. When blockers get on him, though, he seems incapable of staying healthy. Derrick Rodgers has maintained his reputation as a fast, instinctive OLB that takes opposing TE’s out of the game. What the former ASU end lacks is the ability to hold his own against the run and make big plays (only 5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 INT in the last 4 seasons). Morlon Greenwood came on strong down the stretch after being thrust into the lineup in Week 4. Over the last four games, Greenwood had 27 tackles, four of which were on 3rd/4th and 1. Already a speedy ‘backer and a solid tackler, he should be more comfortable this season and more active if Jim Bates, as expected, installs more blitz packages.
At one point or another, backups Tommy Hendricks, Twan Russell, or Scott Galyon started at LB. The trio is great on special teams and capable stopgaps, but nothing more. If Thomas, Rodgers, or Greenwood goes down for an extended period of time, the LB core will be in trouble. It wouldn’t hurt to get a young, developmental prospect in a year before the ’03 season; in fact, one probably should have been brought in already.
What more can you say about Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain? 4 out of 5 NFL experts probably would agree that this tandem is the best in the NFL. So obviously this means their ability to take receivers out of the game should have allowed the rest of the defense to focus in on the run… right? WRONG. Playing to the strength of the defense, our CBs, is something that inexplicably eluded our Defensive Coordinator all year long. After the Olin Kreutz snub, Brock Marion re-upped to patrol the FS spot for his fifth straight season. Ever since Jim Bates cut Marion’s responsibilities in half, he has become one of the more consistent, playmaking deep-centers in the league. However, with the safeties expected to cheat up more than in years passed, Marion and SS Arturo Freeman must show great read-and-react skills in order to avoid big plays. Freeman, the new face in the secondary, will be under immense pressure to replace Brian Walker, who disappointed after a pro-bowl calibur season in ’00.
Although signed for the veteran minimum, Terry Cousin gave the Dolphins a third starting calibur CB. Unfortunetly, Cousin played so well that he was awarded a long-term deal and a starting job with the Panthers. If Jamar Fletcher proves worthy of his first round status, he’ll be an upgrade over Cousin. The accurate assessment on Fletcher isn’t that he played poorly… just that he didn’t play. Other than a one-handed 56 yd TD catch by Eric Moulds, Fletcher held his own in the two games he started while gaining valuable experience. Shawn Wooden and Trent Gamble are steady backups at safety that are better suited for spot duty and special teams. Keep an eye on Ray Green. Like Terry Cousin last season, Green made a name for himself in the eyes of DB Coach Mel Phillips in mini-camp. If he continues to impress, Scott McGarrahan and rookie Omare Lowe could battle for the final roster spot.
K Olindo Mare continued to be one of the most accurate kickers in league history by nailing 90.5% of his FG’s last season. He is automatic from inside the 25, nailing 60/62 FGs inside of 40 yds. What’s more is that Mare is solid on kickoffs and a special on on-siders. The loss of P Matt Turk to division rival New York is worth keeping an eye on. New addition Mark Royals is a solid directional punter, but lacks Turk’s distance and hang time. The kick and punt coverage units are among the best in the league. Wannstedt, like Jimmy Johnson, believes in keeping several players on the team solely for special teams with the list including Ogden, Galyon, Hendricks, Russell, McGarrahan, Gamble, and Wooden.
The sand in the hourglass is flowing furiously with Thomas, Bowens, Gardener, Marion, and Rodgers in need of heir-apparents in a year or two. However, there is still time for Dorothy and Toto to escape the evil dungeon. With an impressive mix of seasoned veterans (Taylor, Bowens, Gardener, Thomas, Madison, Surtain, Marion) and up-and-comers expected to assume complimentary roles (D. Bowens, Haley, Greenwood, Fletcher, Freeman), there is no excuse for sub-par play on the defensive side of the ball this year. Last season’s defense was eerily similar to the defense we saw from ’97-’99: beat up weak opponents and exposed against top-notch offenses. While our #5 defensive ranking last year doesn’t indicate a drop in performance, I took pride in the fact that this defense stood up to great offenses in ’00, such as holding the Colts to 51 points in 3 games and the Vikings to 13. This defense has the potential to be a dominating force and Jim Bates holds the key. Bates simply cannot have the blind faith in the DL that he had a year ago when he refused to cheat safeties up to the line of scrimmage to stop the run or blitz to compensate for the lack of pass rush. Living in St. Louis, the disgruntled look I saw on the faces of Rams fans when Faulk only got 17 carries in the Super Bowl reminded me of how I felt all season when our secondary wasn’t utilized correctly. If we are going to pay Madison, Surtain, Fletcher, and Marion umpteen dollars, they have to be treated as cornerstones. If we are going to use them like any other unit, Surtain should have never been re-signed, Fletcher never should have been drafted, and management should have done everything in their power to get a pass rushing threat opposite Jason Taylor. But I like our secondary, and it's time to let the destiny of our defense rest with our best unit.
Offensive Overview: Balance, not greatness.
The thing I like most about the NFL is that it for 10 months of the season, our hunger for gameday action or NFL news is satisfied. The season kicks off in September and lasts until the latter portion of January. Free agency begins a month later with the NFL draft taking place at about the time when all big name free agents find their new homes. After the draft until training camps get under way, however, is a dull period that makes religious fans like myself yearn for something as minute as a mini-camp report. Couple this apathetic time with my demanding finals toward the end of May and you have the reason why I’ve failed to put out an article in just under two months. But I’m here and and I’m eager to see the 2002 Miami Dolphins.
We know that Jay Fiedler will be under the microscope for succeeding Dan Marino until he reaches a certain level of excellence. Two years after Marino finalized the end of his illustrious career, Dolfans still have a split decision on the former Dartmouth grad. Fiedler’s cons are fairly obvious with his 20 INTs last season and failure to consistantly complete deep passes immediately coming to mind. While those shortcomings cannot be dismissed, neither can his multiple comeback victories, determination, mobility, and improvement over his career from a training camp body to a starting QB with an 80.3 rating. Jay Fiedler cannot take this team on his back to a Super Bowl; then again, no QB in this league should be put in that situation. With a greatly improved running game and one of the brightest offensive minds in the game calling the shots, Fiedler will be reduced to the role of a caretaker that wins the game in the fourth quarter. The burning question is whether or not Fiedler will thrive in Turner’s deep-passing offense.
Training camp and pre-season will be crucial for backup Ray Lucas. He has failed to make an impression in practices and it may be time to cut ties with him if he doesn’t make significant strides this season. Keep in mind that the Kurt Warner’s and Jeff Garcia’s were found by juggling backup QBs until a gem was eventually uncovered. The team showed a lot of faith in undrafted free agent Tim Levcik by trading Cade McNown to the 49ers.
To say Lamar Smith was below average last season is a slap in the face to every RB in the league. Under 3 YPC in 13/17 games, 7/19 on 2/3/4 and 1, more fumbles (7) than rushing TD’s (6), and 3.25 YPC on first down is (in the words of Tom Hanks in Castaway) a “horrible, disgraceful outrage.” Ricky Williams combines a punishing running style with a resume of productivity. In 2000, Williams was on pace for over 2100 total yards and league MVP consideration before a foot injury shelved his season. His presence alone will make the offense balanced and more efficient. I have been critical of Williams’ off-the-field antics, notably a “social anxiety disorder” and repeated snubbings of voluntary workouts. If Williams produces on the field but fails to mesh with this cohesive ball club, the trade has to be viewed as a failure because the team will be built around a cancer. Williams has attended every voluntary and mandatory meeting thus far and appears determined to make the most of this golden opportunity that he may or may not have deserved.
Travis Minor made big plays in clutch situations such as 29 and 56 yard TD runs against the Jets and Colts in close ball games. Minor will be an asset in any role he assumes… unless that role is a 30-carry-per-game back. Robert Edwards and rookie Leonard Henry will battle for a roster spot. Although many are pulling for Edwards to be the comeback player of the season, look for the younger Henry to win this competition.
“Rob Konrad will be a big part of our offense this year”… how many times have we heard that since Jimmy Johnson traded up for him in the ’99 draft? Norv Turner, who believes in using his RB’s and TE’s in the passing game more than Chan Gailey or Kippy Brown, could turn that myth into reality. Konrad’s blocking has improved greatly upon his enterence into the league and has the hands and size to be one of the best all-around FBs in the league.
Deon Dyer is a punishing lead blocker with underrated versatility. He could start for 15 other teams in the league, but Konrad’s improvement as a blocker relagates Dyer to a limited role.
After the Yatil Green’s, the Larry Shannon’s and the Randall Hill’s, the Miami Dolphins finally have a superstar WR in Chris Chambers. He led the league in YPC with 18.4 and had 14 catches of 25 yds or more and is the perfect combination of size, speed, and hands. He was also a clutch player, catching would-be game winning TDs in victories over the Colts, Broncos, and Bills. James McKnight and Oronde Gadsden will fight for the spot opposite Chambers, and it should be a battle that lasts throughout the preseason. McKnight was ever so close to making several big plays last season, but always seemed to fall short on those 30-40 yard gains because of drops and Jay Fiedler overthrows. If McKnight raises his consistancy, and holds on to the ball more than he did last season (5 fumbles), he should win the job fairly easily and give the Dolphins two speedy wideouts on the outside.
Gadsden still has the hands and size to make an impact, but his chronic foot problems have taken away the little speed and athleticism that he has. Dedric Ward, a player whom many thought would be a one-dimensional deep threat, proved to be a solid intermediate receiver when healthy. The Dolphins may have come out on the southern end of the Colts and Bills comebacks had Ward not grabbed 4th down passes late in the game. Return specialist Jeff Ogden, rookie Sam Simmons, and oft-injured Robert Baker figure to battle for a roster spot. May the best punt returner win.
Chan Gailey’s philosophy that TE’s are “blockers, not receivers” forced the offense to be quite predictable. When Hunter Goodwin was in, defenses either waited for the run or prepared to ignore Goodwin when he went out into the flat for a 5-yard pass. Alonzo Mayes will be given every opportunity to win the job because he has the potential to be an excellent two-way TE. Then again, Mayes has blown every opportunity to realize that potential stemming from a failed pre-draft drug test in ’98 to showing up to mini-camp at a hulky 313 pounds.
Jed Weaver may not be a Jay Novecek in Turner’s offense, but he could be a Stephen Alexander. By Week 1, I see Jed taking the starting job and catching anywhere from 40-50 passes; I have a lot of respect for this guy, a player whom I feel is vastly underrated. Rookie Randy McMichael is the dark horse in all of this. A fluid athlete at the TE position, McMichael needs to show greater maturity and willingness to block than he did at Georgia. While project Shawn Draper, a 5th round pick a year ago, appears to be the odd man out, he could sneak onto the roster if Mayes continues to disappoint. TE Ed Perry will make the team as a long snapper.
Horrible. Downright horrible. There is no better way to explain last year’s OL. Spencer Folau and Heath Irwin, starters when LT Brent Smith and LG Mark Dixon were sidelined for the season, proved to be stopgaps that can help in the shortrun but hurt in the longrun. C Tim Ruddy regressed from his 2000 pro bowl season, G Todd Perry was a free agent bust, and RT Todd Wade was hampered by a knee injury. Although there aren’t a lot of different faces, there are reasons for hope. First of all, Fiedler’s mobility and Williams’ ability to make yards on his own will put less pressure on this line. The return of Smith and Dixon will strengthen the left side and if G Leon Searcy is even close to the player he was two years ago, he could bring back a take-no-prisoners mentality that Donnalley had and Perry failed to provide.
The roster battles for the backup positions will be interesting. C Seth McKinney is a lock, as is Marcus Spriggs because he is the only other LT under contract. G Jamie Nails could push Perry off the roster if he manages his weight, which would throw C/G Troy Andrew and OT Anthony Cesario into a battle for a roster spot.
When I turn on my TV set on Sunday afternoons, I am fully aware that words like “juggernaut” and “unstoppable” will not be the adjectives I use to describe the Miami Dolphins offense on Monday mornings. What I do expect, however, is a balanced offense capable of controlling football games and putting points on the board… unlike in ’00 when the offense lived and died with Lamar Smith and unlike ’01 when our offensive output rested on the shoulders of our average, but determined, Quarterback. The addition of Williams prompted me to adopt this reason of hope for our offense: we now have one of the best offensive minds in the game, a RB that can control the clock, and a QB that has proven he can take a team on his back if all else fails. With Fiedler’s mobility and the addition of Ricky Williams, the OL would have to play unreasonably poor to have a domino effect on the rest of the offense. Then again, considering what we saw from this unit a year ago, a fear of such imcompetence might be more than just paranoia.