The New England Patriots have owned the AFC East for the better part of a decade, but this could be the year the Miami Dolphins supplant Tom Brady and Co. atop the division. Jeff Ireland and Joe Philbin have assembled an offense with the potential to match points with the Pats, simultaneously unnerving the rest of the AFC.
How will the Dolphins' offense emerge as an elite unit after suffering through an embarrassing performance a year ago? I've spent time studying Philbin's squad and present three reasons why Miami is ready to make a run in 2013:
1) Ryan Tannehill is on the verge of stardom.
In discussions about the 2012 quarterback class, the focus typically centers on Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. If 2012 is any indication, Ryan Tannehill will be included in the conversation soon. Although his modest numbers (58.3 completion percentage, 3,294 pass yards, 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions) don't necessarily pop off the stat sheet, the film study reveals an impact player ready to break out.
Checking in at 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with 4.58 speed, Tannehill is a new-school quarterback with arm talent and athleticism. He can make every throw in the book with zip and velocity, while also displaying above-average ball placement and accuracy on most throws. Most importantly, he shows better poise, anticipation and pocket awareness than many scouts expected, based on his limited experience at Texas A&M (19 collegiate starts).
Tannehill should be even better in 2013 with a better understanding of the pro game after 16 regular-season starts. Tannehill now has a thorough understanding of various route concepts, which will allow him to work through his progressions quickly and exploit the vulnerable areas of coverage. This will result in a higher completion percentage, as he begins to target the second and third options, instead of forcing the ball to his primary target. By settling for the check-down when deeper routes are covered, Tannehill can continue to keep the offense on schedule.
In the run game, Tannehill's maturation will lead to better pre-snap decisions. He will be able to check and adjust the play based on the alignment of the defensive front, making sure the Dolphins are running away from the strength of the defense. This will help running back Lamar Miller find more running room between the tackles, which in turn will create big-play opportunities in the passing game off play-action.
Additionally, look for the Dolphins to incorporate some of the zone-read concepts that added an element of explosiveness to several NFL offenses a season ago. Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman sparingly used the zone-read at Texas A&M with Tannehill at quarterback and has openly discussed flirting with the concept throughout the offseason. Last season, the Dolphins called it a few times to take advantage of Tannehill's running skills, which can be seen in the video clip to the right. On the play, Tannehill cleverly fakes the ball to the runner before keeping it and racing around the end for a 31-yard gain.
2) The Dolphins' receiving corps is loaded with explosive playmakers.
After struggling to score points consistently a season ago, the Dolphins made a concerted effort in the offseason to add playmakers. Ireland opened the checkbook to bring in Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson and Dustin Keller, three veterans who have accounted for 58 total touchdowns in their careers. These are significant additions for an offense that only scored 28 touchdowns in 2012, including just 11 after Week 9.
Mike Wallace: He has been one of the most prolific big-play threats in the NFL since entering the league in 2009 as a third-round pick from Ole Miss. He enters the season averaging an astonishing 17.2 yards per catch on 235 career receptions, with 32 touchdowns. Most impressively, he has amassed 67 receptions of 20-plus yards, including 27 catches of at least 40 yards.
While those numbers are certainly eye-popping, it is the speed and explosiveness Wallace displays that truly scares defensive coordinators. The fifth-year pro clocked a 4.33 40 at the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine, and he routinely displays that burst by blowing past defenders on vertical routes. This can be seen in the video clip to the right. Remarkably, Wallace streaks past the defender without using a set-up move to create separation. With Wallace's ability to simply run past defenders on sheer speed, the Dolphins are suddenly a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
Brandon Gibson: He was one of the most underrated pass catchers on the free-agent market, but scouts have been closely watching the fifth-year pro develop into a big-play threat. Last season, Gibson produced 43 first downs on 51 receptions and impressed evaluators with his ability to get open against tight coverage.
Gibson is a masterful runner with an outstanding combination of balance, body control and short-area quickness. He excels at setting up defenders at the top of his routes and uses those same skills to whip defenders at the line of scrimmage against press coverage. In the video clip to the right, he showcases his impressive release skills by stutter-stepping at the line to slip past the defender on a fade route. Gibson's craftiness at the line is the key to winning the route, and a major reason why the Dolphins wanted to add him as a third-down specialist.
Dustin Keller: In today's NFL, offensive coordinators covet big, athletic tight ends with the speed to make plays down the middle of the field. Keller fits the mold. Measuring 6-2, 250 pounds, Keller is too big for nickel cornerbacks and too fast for linebackers and safeties. As a result, defensive coordinators have struggled containing him between the hashes.
In five seasons with the New York Jets, Keller converted 61.8 percent of his receptions into first downs and found the end zone 17 times. This is the kind of production that the Dolphins have desperately needed over the middle, particularly with a young quarterback looking for a security blanket. The Dolphins hope Keller can quickly build a rapport with Tannehill.
3) Lamar Miller is the NFL's best-kept secret.
Some were surprised the Dolphins didn't make a stronger play to keep Reggie Bush after his contract expired at season's end. But I believe Lamar Miller will show the football world the team was wise to move on when he steps into the starting lineup this fall.
I believe Miller is a Clinton Portis clone, with the tools to be a dominant runner in the NFL. He has the speed to turn the corner on outside runs, while also displaying the toughness to pick up the hard yards between the tackles. Additionally, he possesses the elusiveness to make defenders miss in the open field on the way to big gains.
When I evaluated Miller coming out of college, I ranked him as the third-best runner in the 2012 class and gave him a late first-round grade. Although he inexplicably slid into the fourth round, I still believe he is a special back, based on the glimpses he displayed as a rookie. In the video to the right, Miller shows the combination of vision, balance and burst that caught my attention. He has exceptional stop-start quickness, which makes him tough to tackle in the hole. With the Dolphins set to use more three-receiver formations to spread the field, Miller's talents as an all-around runner could shine in Miami this season.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks