DAVIE, Fla. — He starred in high school in Miami. He excelled in college at the University of Miami. Now, it will be seen if Lamar Miller will be a pro star in the city.
How Miller does in taking over as the starting running back is one of the key questions facing the Dolphins as they enter the regular season, which starts Sunday at Cleveland. He replaces Reggie Bush, who bolted to Detroit as a free agent after the Dolphins showed little in interest in retaining him.
So will the Dolphins regret having such a laissez-faire attitude toward Bush?
Bush became a big star mostly due to winning the Heisman Trophy at Southern California (before being forced to forfeit the award). Yes, he had a 1,000-yard season for the Dolphins in 2011 and nearly got there in 2012. But Bush never has been a great pro back. He danced around too much and was too inconsistent for Miami’s liking.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Miller, who gained 250 yards on 51 carries as a rookie, puts up 1,000 yards in his second season. Miller also is getting better as a pass blocker and receiver, but he’s not satisfied.
“I just got to get better as a player and just help this team win,” Miller said. “I just got to do my part.”
If Miller does, that will help answer one of the burning questions facing the Dolphins. Here are some others:
1. Will Ryan Tannehill show he truly can be an elite NFL quarterback?
Not yet. Tannehill, helped by free-agent signees Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson at wide receiver, will be better. But it was a blow when tight end Dustin Keller, who looked as if he could be Tannehill’s favorite target, was lost for the season due to a knee injury in the third preseason game.
Besides, while Tannehill had a decent debut season last year, he was clearly just the fourth-best rookie quarterback in the NFL behind Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson (in whatever order you like). It will take more time than this season for Tannehill to show he can be Miami’s best quarterback since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season.
2. Will Miami’s new linebacking corps mesh?
Yes. The Dolphins took a gamble when they released solid performers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett during free agency and replaced them with younger starters Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. Those two players should bring activity to the linebacking corps and force more turnovers.
Middle man Ellerbe has championship experience, having been with the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens last season. The third linebacker, Koa Misi, is a holdover from last season who should continue to develop.
3. Will the Dolphins be able to overcome the loss of Jake Long at left tackle?
Eventually. Long made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons, from 2008-11. But he had been starting to break down in recent years, including missing the final four games last season due to a torn triceps.
The Dolphins didn’t seem willing to throw huge bucks at Long, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal as a free agent with St. Louis. They are instead going with second-year man Jonathan Martin, who started at right tackle as a rookie. Martin was shaky at times early in training camp but ended up looking better in preseason games and should continue to slowly get more comfortable.
Secrets to success
The Dolphins must develop more big-play ability on offense. The signing of Wallace, who dubs himself the fastest player in the NFL, should help. Miller also should be able to bust some runs. As for Wallace, even if he isn’t breaking big plays, his mere presence should help open things up for the run and for short passes.
The secondary must show improvement, and that looks very possible due to the signing of free-agent cornerback Brent Grimes, a former Pro Bowl selection, and the continued improvement of fourth-year safety Reshad Jones. And the defensive line must live up to its reputation as one of the NFL’s best.
Road to failure
If Martin can’t handle the job at left tackle and Tannehill is running for his life, the Dolphins will be in trouble. The Dolphins also can’t have a repeat of last season, when they had a minus-10 turnover margin.
Tight end could be a trouble spot after Keller was lost for the season due to his knee injury. Miami doesn’t have a proven tight end who can catch the ball.
While the secondary does look to be better, cornerback Dmitri Patterson and safety Nolan Carroll must avoid being two weak spots that opposing quarterbacks seek to exploit.
8-8, no playoffs
The Dolphins might just improve one game from last year’s 7-9, but they no doubt should be a better team. The problem is the schedule isn’t easy. The opener at Cleveland is very winnable but then the Dolphins play at Indianapolis, are home to Atlanta, at New Orleans and home to Baltimore. They have to avoid at all costs a 1-4 start.