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Improvements should help Dolphins compete for playoff spot

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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DAVIE, Fla. -- Executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells couldn't care less about the preseason image of the Miami Dolphins. He's focused on keeping the right players and having a tough team, a group built on youth and a blend of key high-priced veterans.

After missing the playoffs last season, the Dolphins went out and traded for receiver Brandon Marshall and signed linebacker Karlos Dansby. Despite the acquisitions, there are a few critical questions coach Tony Sparano must answer if his team is to return to the postseason.

Is quarterback Chad Henne good enough to lead this team to the postseason? With Marshall in the mix, a solid running game and a year under his belt as a starter, Henne should be up to the challenge.

Last year, the offense was 17th in the league while the rushing attack ranked fourth behind Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown, who missed the final seven games of last season due to a foot injury. Marshall, a perennial 100-reception receiver, will be the cornerstone of the offense and bring legitimacy to the passing game.

Defensively, can the Dolphins rush the passer without Joey Porter and Jason Taylor? Last year, the two veterans were responsible for 16 of the team's 44 sacks. The team might not finish with the same number this season, but it should be close because of the depth up front.

Sparano and new coordinator Mike Nolan both acknowledged that the defensive line is the strength of the team. When the second unit consists of Charles Grant, Paul Soliai, and Marques Douglas that's impressive enough. But when they have competition behind them from Lionel Dotson, things look good up front, where Randy Starks is joined by Kendall Langford and first-round pick Jared Odrick.

Dansby, who left Arizona for Miami, will anchor the middle of the defense, and as Sparano said, "Whenever we played against Dansby, he was around the ball making a play."

The defense ranked 22nd a year ago, so there is room for improvement on all fronts. Nolan has his work cut out for him.

As a whole, is there enough depth on other areas of the roster to withstand injuries? I believe there is at quarterback and running back, but questions remain on the offensive line and at safety.

That might be part of the reason nobody seems to think Miami will win the AFC East. While Tom Brady is healthy in New England and the Jets continue to get attention, keep this in mind. The Dolphins swept the Jets last season and beat out the Patriots for the division title in 2008.

With three of their first four games against division opponents, Sparano said the Dolphins "have to start fast." No truer words could have been spoken.

OBSERVATION DECK

» As for my personal observation deck at training camp last week, the Dolphins gave Bill Cowher and I a great spot to watch practice. Sitting with Cowher to discuss everything in front of us was invaluable to studying this team.

» QB Chad Pennington is key to the team's success, because he continues to coach up Henne.

"He can come off the bench without any practice reps and win a game," Sparano said.

The luxury of Pennington is that the team can really dedicate time to deciding between Tyler Thigpen and Pat White for the other spot on the depth chart. Right now, Thigpen appears to be winning the battle, and his 10-for-19 effort for 145 yards against the Buccaneers on Saturday helped even more.

» There are issues to be resolved on the inside of the offensive line, and fans should expect a lot of shifting around until the right combination emerges. Sparano did mention how pleased he was with rookie right guard John Jerry, who played well in the preseason-opener.

ROOKIE REPORT

» Odrick is penciled in as the starting right defensive end and has done nothing to indicate he will lose that spot during camp. After being a one-gap penetrator in a 4-3 at Penn State, Odrick told me he has some learning to do from a new stance and new techniques in a 3-4. He likes to call his new style "controlled aggressiveness."

» Koa Misi, a second-round pick, is penciled in as the starting left outside linebacker, replacing Taylor. From watching Misi at practice, he looks up to the task against the run but still has a long way to go in the pass rush.

» Most offensive line coaches would describe Jerry as a big, dancing bear. He is nimble on his feet, and can sustain a block. Watch the first half against the Buccaneers to get a feel for his upside.

» Cornerback Nolan Carroll, a fifth-round choice, is battling for a roster spot. His main competition is Nate Ness, a former undrafted free agent. Sparano mentioned Carroll in our sit-down as a guy who is having a good camp.

» Reshad Jones, a fifth-round selection, needs to become the swing safety behind Yeremiah Bell and Chris Clemons. Jones is a physical player from what I observed, but even against the Buccaneers he demonstrated that he has to make quicker decisions. That should come with more preseason playing time.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

» The Dolphins use a buzzer at practice that goes off during every pass play indicating the quarterback took too much time to throw the ball. Henne had the ball out of his hand almost every time before the buzzer went off, which indicates that his decision-making is right on schedule. Henne told me that Sparano is still pushing him to make faster decisions.

» Backup running back Lex Hilliard looks like the best compliment to Brown and Williams. His performance (10 touches for 37 yards and a touchdown) against Tampa Bay reinforced that impression.

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LASTING IMAGE

» When the Dolphins put Davone Bess, who led the team with 76 catches last season, in the slot next to Marshall, they could have their own receiving threat the likes of Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

SAY WHAT?

"Last year, I watched 'Hard Knocks' and got the misconception that an NFL camp was 'Camp Marshmallow'. It's anything but that in Miami, and I like it this way."
-- Odrick

EXTRA POINTS

» With Dansby, who had 25.5 sacks in six years with the Cardinals, expect the Dolphins to use more inside blitz calls than the average 3-4 defense, especially with Starks at nose tackle. A simple blitz call with Starks, who had seven sacks last season, penetrating the "A" gap and Dansby off the twist blitz could really disrupt pocket passers who like to throw from a launch point behind the center.

» I like this team to flip their record and go 9-7 and fight for a wild-card spot right down to the final weekend.

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