Let the Games Begin: Five Burning Questions Facing the Dolphins This Preseason

To the casual football fan, preseason games may be nothing more than a signal that the regular season is quickly approaching. For the more invested followers, however, it also acts as a means to learn more about their teams prior to the actual contests. With a completely new coaching regime, and plenty of unfamiliar faces set to take the field for Miami, there are a variety of questions waiting to be answered before Week 1. By the conclusion of the preseason, the Dolphins’ depth chart will be set and expectations should be clear for their most compelling players. With these ideas in mind, let’s take a look at the most intriguing headlines expected to be in the spotlight during Miami’s exhibition season.

Who starts: Jay Ajayi or Arian Foster?

This one seems obvious; it figures to be one of the closest battles throughout the preseason. It is a forgone conclusion that both players will be heavily involved in head coach Adam Gase’s offense. Yet, that takes nothing away from the competition to be named starter between these two players.

Both have a ton to offer in terms of natural ability, yet Foster has the undoubted upper hand in experience, and Ajayi has youth on his side. One thing is for sure: Gase is going to put out the lineup that he believes gives the team the best chance to win right now. So who has the advantage at this point in the offseason?

I previously wrote an article scouting Ajayi and raved about his potential. He has nearly every tool that Gase could look for in his starting back. This next play was arguably my favorite of his during his rookie season:

Ajayi 23

His power, explosiveness, vision and change of direction skills are all on display during this single carry, and they accurately exemplify why I have high hopes for Ajayi in the future. However, Ajayi is currently rehabbing from a minor knee injury, and the addition of Foster could change everything.

Foster has been one of the best running backs of his generation; there’s simply no denying it. From 2010 to 2012, he averaged 1,900 yards from scrimmage and nearly 16 total touchdowns. Even in 2014, a year after the injury bug limited him to only eight games played, he accumulated upwards of 1,500 total yards and 13 touchdowns. Foster set a standard at his position that very few are capable of reaching.

Of course, he is now a different player. He is rapidly approaching 30-years old: the age that is often followed by a drastic downturn in production. Additionally, he is coming off of a devastating torn Achilles that is difficult to recover from and could sap him of some of his explosiveness. With that being said, the reports of his performance have been glowing since joining the Dolphins, and I can’t imagine a situation in which Miami would’ve signed him if they weren’t confident in his current health. With Foster’s experience and prowess in the passing game, I see him as the clear favorite to win the number one spot on the depth chart. Gase announced today that he will be keeping Foster out of the team’s first preseason game, and for good reason. As a veteran with an exstensive injury history, he shouldn’t be pushed during exhibition season. While Ajayi should have a golden opportunity to impress once healthy, he could also end up disappointing with the extra reps: it is going to be a huge few weeks for him. Regardless, both backs are going to have to continue to work during practice and with whatever reps they receive throughout the preseason in order to gain the approval of the coaching staff.

Does DeVante Parker stand out?

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(Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post

DeVante Parker was recently sidelined with a hamstring injury, but Gase has consistently said that they are just being cautious with the up-and-coming wide receiver, and rightfully so. Parker has reportedly been sensational during camp, making a diving catch in the corner of the end zone on Day 3 and repeatedly rising up over Miami’s cornerbacks for connections on deep balls.

Jarvis Landry may be the Dolphins’ best offensive position player at this point in time, but he is not a traditional number one receiver. Parker, on the other hand, could be if he can raise his game to the necessary heights. At 6’3” and 212 pounds, Parker is a spitting image of many of the league’s best. Julio Jones, for example, stands at 6’3” and 220 pounds. Parker is sure to gain strength as he progresses through multiple NFL training sessions as well.

While the former Louisville Cardinal battled injuries throughout his premier season, he tantalized all of us with his spectacular athleticism and knack for making big plays. With Ajayi’s role in question, Parker can now confidently be considered Miami’s best chance for a breakout player in 2016.

I am extremely excited to see Parker in his first true game action of the offseason. If health permits, Parker looks poised to impress even in the preseason. While his final stats don’t necessarily matter, how he looks when accumulating those stats will speak volumes. With the way he has been playing since the end of 2015, I’d be disappointed if he doesn’t distinguish himself from his peers over the next four weeks.

Do we gain any clarity at offensive line?

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(Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports)

Miami’s lineup across the offensive line has been anything but consistent throughout training camp. Players have been shifting along the line, learning multiple positions in hopes of gaining flexibility. This is undoubtedly a smart move considering the o-line injuries that have plagued the Dolphins’ offense over the past few seasons. However, it makes it extremely difficult to tell what plans the coaching staff has for the depth chart.

First round pick Laremy Tunsil has gained experience at both left tackle and left guard so far during practice. With that being said, most of his playing time at tackle has seemingly come as a result of Albert resting, suggesting the interior is the rookie’s clearest opportunity to get into the game. While I fully believe that Tunsil will eventually work his way into the starting lineup in 2016, the coaching staff seems adamant that he won’t be handed opportunities without earning them. That means that we could see any number of lineup combinations come Week 1.

In Max Himmelrich’s recap of Day 4 of training camp, he reported that the team initially used (left to right) Albert, Thomas, Pouncey, Turner and James along the offensive line, before they shifted to a lineup of Albert, Tunsil, Pouncey, Thomas and James. At this point these seem like the most likely starting groups for the regular season, but so much could change over the next few weeks. Expect Tunsil to gain a ton of reps throughout the preseason to prove himself to the coaching staff. If he fails to secure a staring spot, he will at least enter 2016 as the odds-on favorite to be the primary backup at both left tackle and left guard.

This position group figures to be an absolute x-factor for Miami this season. Injuries decimated the Dolphins’ linemen last year and it drastically affected the entire offense’s performance: the team’s level of play is extremely different when Albert, Pouncey, and James are all healthy. In addition, Thomas and Turner have gained valuable experience, and Tunsil is a future Pro Bowler. We may not know who will start until after exhibition season, but at the very least the arrow should theoretically be pointing up for this position group.

Who starts with Byron Maxwell?

Miami Dolphins at San Diego Chargers

(Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

While Byron Maxwell is a lock to start at right cornerback, the nickel spot and other outside defensive back position are largely up for grabs. Bobby McCain and Tony Lippett entered the offseason as potential favorites at these spots, but have faced ongoing pressure from Michael Thomas and Chimdi Chekwa, respectively.

McCain and Lippett were still listed as the starters on Miami’s first depth chart, but have each lost first-team reps to their competitors throughout training camp. The reason for this isn’t completely clear. Adam Gase and Vance Joseph may simply want to have multiple players ready to start in case a future situation calls for it. However, they could just as plausibly favor Thomas or Chekwa to the incumbent starters for the future.

McCain seemingly has the advantage as Thomas spent 2015 rotating with Walt Aikens at free safety. In fact, Michael Thomas is still competing for playing time next to Reshad Jones with expected starter Isa Abbdul-Quddus. McCain, meanwhile, is able to focus all of his attention on perfecting the craft of covering the slot. For this reason alone, I expect Thomas to be more of a rotational depth piece, although many would be pleased to see him win the starting nickel job.

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(Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

On the other hand, Lippett was most likely not the coaching staff’s first choice to start across from Maxwell. Miami spent a second round pick on defensive back Xavien Howard, who was expected to receive every opportunity to grab the second spot on the Dolphins’ depth chart. However, a knee injury has stunted his progress at this point and, despite Joseph claiming that Howard could start in Week 1, it is no guarantee that the former Baylor Bear will be healthy enough when the time comes. Furthermore Chekwa, the only real competition for Lippett beyond Howard, is dealing with a leg strain. That leaves Lippett as the only healthy competitor heading into the preseason, but Joseph doesn’t seem satisfied with how he has performed in training camp.

Overall, the former defensive back’s coach has a lot of work left to do with this group. Miami’s defensive line has been one of the stars of training camp thus far, and the pressure that they imply should, in theory, make life much easier for the secondary. Nonetheless, whoever wins the starting spots must rise to the occasion if Joseph wants his attacking, aggressive style of defense to be successful.

How has Ryan Tannehill progressed?

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(Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)

Measuring Ryan Tannehill’s development is nearly impossible at this time and will likely continue to be difficult to determine well into the preseason. He has surely had his bright moments, but then again many players do during training camp and he has in no way been spectacular. What we do know is that he has been working closely with Gase; he has become more vocal and seems much more comfortable controlling the offense. He has finally audibled at the line of scrimmage and seems to have no issue with relaying his thoughts to his teammates. Evidently, he has made progress in his time working with Gase.

Tannehill obviously still has a lot of room for improvement though. His pocket presence has long been questioned and will most likely continue to be if the offensive line struggles. Additionally, he has seemingly had trouble with with his consistency in throwing the deep ball during camp. While Tannehill has the ability, Gase is going to need to see some regularity in his performance before truly letting his quarterback loose.

When it comes down to it, Tannehill’s play during exhibition season isn’t going to make or break him, but it would surely inspire some self-confidence heading into Week 1. He has the opportunity to further nurture his connections with the receivers and work on the things he has struggled with in the offseason. It is up to Tannehil to ensure that his teammates come out with an intensity that was lacking during Saturday’s scrimmage.

Tannehill isn’t ready to be elite, and admittedly may never be, but he still has a ton of physical skills as well as the potential to put up some gaudy numbers with the talent around him in Gase’s offense. As of right now, he should simply be trying to act as a leader and game manager: moving the chains, avoiding mistakes and putting the offense in a good position to succeed. That responsibility starts on Friday – Tannehill’s first real game action under his new head coach. How he handles himself, as well as his teammates, is going to be extremely telling about his progress and should give us a great idea of what to expect in year one of Tannehill and Gase’s relationship.

 

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