The beginning of the NFL season is almost here, preseason games have finally begun, and this Saturday the Dolphins face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their first action of the summer. Dol-fans everywhere will be watching and many will be paying close attention to their favorite players, key positions and camp battles that need to be determined before the official season begins. In this week's Fin Fridays we will take a look and discuss everything Dol-fans should be paying attention to this Saturday when watching their favorite team for the first time this year.
Chad Henne: No other player is as critical to the Dolphins this year as Chad Henne. The Dolphins have been counting on Henne to be the starter in Miami for a long time, and on Saturday Henne needs to show that there is no question as to who is going to be the starting QB in Miami. As Coach Sparano announced yesterday, Henne will have a full quarter to show his best stuff. There are a couple things fans will be looking for when Henne is in the game. First is whether or not Chad Henne has shown improvement since last year. I believe that is the biggest question going into the season. Also, fans will want to know how much chemistry Henne has developed with his new favorite toy, Brand Marshall. Another big question is if Henne's accuracy has improved and if his touch passes have gotten better. Henne must also show that he can avoid costly turnovers and has learned when to throw away the ball instead of forcing it. One question on my mind is who will be Henne's new favorite target in the end zone, Marshall or Hartline? Reports out of camp have said Henne looks impressive out there and has demonstrated he is the Dolphins true starter at quarterback; well now it is time to show it. Chad has all the tools to be a great QB in this league. Now he needs to come straight out of the box and show he is ready to help this team get to the promised land. Henne needs to have a strong performance this week and show fans he is the undeniable starter at QB for the Miami Dolphins.
Brandon Marshall: Throughout training camp, Dol-fans have heard how much of a beast Marshall has been and how he has abused cornerbacks Sean Smith and Vontae Davis. But after a not so good scrimmage from Marshall, there has not been as much talk of the receiver’s performance in camp. Dol-fans are dying to see the beast unleashed, and Saturday, Marshall should have enough time to show why they call him "The Beast." Another big question is how the coaching staff will use Marshall. How will the other wide receivers benefit from The Beast? I know Marshall will not get much time on the field during Saturday’s game, but I think I speak for all Dol-fans when I say we would like Marshall to dominate with whatever time he is given and show us just how good he is.
Battle for the backup Quarterback spot: Three quarterbacks are vying for the chance to be the Henne’s back-up. Will it be Chad Pennington, Tyler Thigpen or Pat White? While I don’t really believe White is in contention, he will see plenty of time on the field this Saturday because Chad Pennington will not play. Pennington is recovering from his shoulder injury which landed him on IR last year. Sparano has said he knows what Chad brings to the table and would like to see what he has in his other two quarterbacks.
Pat needs to make a real strong case for himself just to remain on the team. Many believe that White might not make the final roster and he has a lot to prove if he wants to be a part of the Miami Dolphins. No other player needs to impress more during preseason than Pat White. It looks like the Fins will give him every chance to succeed since he was given a lot of reps during yesterday’s practice, and it appears they are preparing him for plenty of playing time. Dol-fans will be paying close attention to the former second round pick and will love to see him complete passes, drive his team down the field and prove he can make it in this league.
Tyler Thigpen is who I think has real good chance to unseat Pennington. Thigpen has the athletic ability, but for him to be the back-up to Henne he must show accuracy, intelligence and avoid costly turnovers. Thigpen did a good job last year when he took over in the game against the Steelers, but his turnovers cost the team the game on a drive for the win. If Thigpen can show that he has overcome his turnover dilemma and displays the toughness and big play ability he showed when he was a Chief, he might just have a chance to begin the season as Henne’s backup.
Battle at Guard: No competition in camp has been more mysterious than the Guard position. The only guard who has remained a starter all throughout camp has been rookie John Jerry. Coach Sparano has stressed that the Jerry remains with the starting unit because he needs to see what the rookie can bring to the table and has seen plenty of play and tape on Incognito, Thomas, Garner and Procter. The guard position is one that merits a lot of attention this Saturday. Rookie John Jerry is the guard that deserves the most attention. I would love to see the rookie remain a starter and a fixture at the position. Jerry has great athletic ability and is a very good pulling guard, but he needs to show he is ready to play with the big boys and must remain penalty free. If Jerry is able to handle himself on Saturday we just might have our starting right guard for years to come.
The battle of Incognito and Thomas also merits attention with Nate Garner out with an injury. Either Incognito or Thomas needs to step it up. I personally would want to see Thomas win the battle as he is an extremely strong and powerful player. For Thomas to win the left guard spot he needs to show he can handle the left side of the line and remain durable. Durability is Thomas’ biggest concern and something he has struggled with in the past.
Incognito’s switch to left guard is interesting because he has never played the position. The big question is whether Incognito can make the transition and remain penalty free. Incognito needs to show discipline, especially after being part of the only two fights in camp and being labeled the dirtiest player in the game. He has shown he can be a solid player in this league, but he will not have a future if he does not prove he has changed his old ways.
Guard Cory Proctor was signed to add depth and be a swing guard/center. He needs to impress and show he deserves the final spot on the line. With Garner injured, Proctor has a great chance to show what he can bring the team.
Randy Starks & Jared Odrick: After the first night of this year’s draft, Dol-fans were informed that Randy Starks would be switching to NT. The problem with this switch was that Starks was coming from a pro bowl like season at defensive end, but after failing to address the nose tackle position in the draft and losing Jason Ferguson to an eight game suspension, there was no other choice for the Dolphins. While many believed Starks would just be at the position until Ferguson returned from suspension, we were proved wrong with the impromptu retirement of Jason Ferguson. Starks is a player who will have plenty of attention come Saturday. Fans will be wondering if he can be as dominant at nose tackle as he was at right end. Starks will also have to demonstrate durability at the position as he will be attracting constant double teams. Coaches and players seem to have no problem with Starks’ switch. After going through a learning curve the first days in camp, it appears Starks has locked himself in the position and has shown he has what it takes to man the position. He has received comparisons to Jay Ratliff of the Cowboys for his athleticism, strength and ability to get into the backfield. If Starks can continue to improve at nose tackle it looks like the Dolphins could have a real dominant player manning the nose of their defense.
Jared Odrick, the Dolphins first round pick in this year’s draft will also be on display. The rookie has remained a starter all through camp and has been impressive. I will be keeping a close eye on Odrick to see how he performs against the Bucs left tackle, Donald Penn. Another thing to monitor about Odrick is how he is used to certain alignments, including nickel situations. It has been reported that he has been moved inside in 2-4-5 nickel alignments. Dol-fans can’t wait to see the rookie first round pick in action.
The Outside Linebackers: Even though the Dolphins were one of the teams with the most sacks last year, they failed to create constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That is why it was no surprise to Dol-fans when the Fins got rid of Joey Porter and refused to re-sign former Dolphin Jason Taylor. Instead, Miami moved former CFL sensation Cameron Wake to the starting position at outside linebacker after an impressive rookie season where he registered 5.5 sacks and created constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Dolphins also added rookie outside linebacker Koa Misi in the second round of this year’s draft. Misi has been the starter opposite to Wake since the first day of training camp. Miami also made an impressive move when they switched former Lions’ second round pick and defensive tackle, Ikaika Alama-Francis to outside linebacker. Ikaika has taken every snap behind Misi and has taken Quentin Moses spot in the lineup. He has shown the ability to set up the edge against the run and has been impressive in coverages, considering he has never played outside linebacker. The Dolphins still have quality back-ups Charlie Anderson, Quentin Moses and Erik Walden. Misi was not the only rookie Miami added; they drafted Chris McCoy in the seventh round of this year’s draft as well.
This position has big time question marks. We know Wake can apply pressure and sack opposing QBs, but can he cover tight ends and defend the run? Rookie Koa Misi needs to impress. There was a lot of positive talk about the rookie when he was drafted, but talk has died down a bit. I want to see what Misi brings to this team. Can he cover, defend the run and apply pressure? Can Misi shed tackles in this league or will he be eaten up? Rookie Chris McCoy has remained very quiet. Will he make some noise and show he deserves a spot on this team?
Last, but not least, can Ikaika Alama-Francis make the transition to OLB much like Roth did under Pasqualoni? Alama-Francis has received rave reviews in camp, but I want to see what he does when the lights come on. Like I said, there are a lot of questions at the position and hopefully some will be answered by the end of Saturday’s game.
Secondary: The secondary was the achilles heel of the Dolphins 2009 season. When it was not Gibril Wilson and his poor play, it was the rookie corners making mental mistakes. Wilson was released and former rookie safety Chris Clemons was plugged in at the position this offseason. Clemons has been manning the position since the beginning of camp and has received plenty of positive reviews. Coach Sparano has said that if Clemons does well this Saturday he will be named the starter. That is why it is critical for Clemons to have a good game and show that the mental mistakes and poor coverage skills that haunted Wilson will not haunt him. Clemons must also show he can communicate with his teammates and show he can tackle.
Vontae Davis and Sean Smith showed tremendous promise last year and are expected to remain the starters this year. I expect these two to have gotten over their mental mistakes and show even more upside this year. I will be looking to see how much they have improved, especially after facing Brandon Marshall everyday in camp.
Jason Allen has received raving reviews from Coach Sparano, but can he continue making progress on the field? Can the former first round pick be ready to make an impact or will he be relegated to special teams once again? I think I speak for all Dol-fans when I say we would love nothing more to finally see Allen produce.
Another player I am sure Dol-fans will be interested in seeing is rookie safety, Reshad Jones. Jones has had a quietly good camp and it will be a nice surprise to see the rookie continue his good play this Saturday.
With all that said none of the defensive backs mentioned will get more attention than rookie sensation Nolan Carroll. Carroll has been amazing in camp. He has displayed maturity, tremendous athletic ability and a knack for the ball. He is being considered the steal of this year’s draft and not one player has been more hyped than Carroll. All eyes will be on him since he will be seeing plenty of time on special teams, as a kick returner and a nickel back. If Nolan can demonstrate on the field what he has shown in practice and show he can tackle in this league, the future of the Dolphins secondary could be very promising.
Kick Returner: The Dolphins have been looking for a return man since trading Ted Ginn to the 49ers after acquiring Brandon Marshall. Currently taking snaps at the position are Patrick Cobbs, Tristan Davis and Nolan Carroll. Cobbs is recovering from an apparent hamstring injury and might not suit up Saturday, giving plenty of chances to Davis and Carroll to showcase their skills. It is very important for Davis to impress since Coach Sparano has said he would not mind wasting a roster spot on a kick returner. Carroll could add to his already impressive resume if he can be a quality returner, after all it was the pick used on Carroll in the draft that we received in return after trading Ginn to the 49ers.
The Dolphins have a ton of upside, but plenty of question marks. Dol-fans will be thirsty come Saturday seeking answers to the many questions we have about our beloved Miami Dolphins. At the end of the night, I hope we are all raving about these players instead of ending up with even more questions. If the Dolphins can have some of the young players produce at their position we are in for a real exciting season. I hope our players have an amazing game, are free of injury and produce a win. Go Dolphins!