Optimism abounds, but work not done in Miami

Don’t get too giddy, Miami Dolphins fans. Paul Warfield isn’t predicting an undefeated season anytime soon.
But the Hall of Famer is pretty excited about the Dolphins having signed deep-threat wide receiver Mike Wallace as a free agent. Warfield remembers what happened when Miami acquired a game-breaking wideout more than four decades ago.
That would be Warfield. After being picked up from Cleveland before the 1970 season, all he did was average a staggering 22.1 yards per catch over the next five seasons, all that ended with a trip to the Pro Bowl. And all the Dolphins did was make three Super Bowls during that stretch while winning two, including one by the legendary undefeated 1972 team.
“I think they can challenge the Patriots now to win the AFC East,’’ Warfield said about the Dolphins having signed Wallace last week away from Pittsburgh. “The Dolphins have an up-and-coming team with a young quarterback (second-year man Ryan Tannehill). This reminds me of when I got there in 1970. We had a young quarterback in Bob Griese, and the Baltimore Colts were the established team in the AFC East and all of football and we eventually were able to overtake them.’’
The Colts won the Super Bowl in 1970, a season that saw the fifth-year Dolphins make the playoffs for the first time as a wild-card entry. The following season, the Dolphins won the AFC East and toppled the Colts in the playoffs. Then they reeled off three more division crowns, including Super Bowl wins after the 1972 and 1973 seasons, before Warfield bolted to the World Football League in 1975 along with teammates Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick.
No, Warfield is not ready to predict Super Bowl wins for the Dolphins. But as the most-decorated wide receiver in Miami history, he knows the value of a guy who can stretch defenses.
“Mike Wallace provides them a much-needed dimension of a deep threat,’’ Warfield said of the four-year man who got a five-year, $60 million deal. “Miami has upgraded significantly. He’s a threat to score on any play. If you can get a guy like that who can occupy two or three or guys on defense, that’s going to open up everything else.’’
Wallace, a Pro Bowl receiver in 2011 who was regarded by many as the top free agent on the market, isn’t the only new target Tannehill has picked up this offseason. The Dolphins also signed well-regarded free agents Brandon Gibson at wide receiver and Dustin Keller at tight end. And they re-signed free agent wide receiver Brian Hartline.
But if Tannehill is on his back nearly as much as he’s in the pocket looking downfield, he won’t be able to fully utilize all his new weapons. So that’s why the jury is still out on the Dolphins despite despite their nabbings of Wallace and solid former Baltimore linebacker Dannell Ellerbe on the March 12 first day of free-agency.
The Dolphins elected not to get into a bidding war to hold onto left tackle Jake Long, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal Monday with St. Louis. The Dolphins believed injuries had made Long, a Pro Bowler in his first four seasons after being the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NFL draft, not the player he was once.
Miami brass may end up being right about Long. But the Dolphins, who still have salary-cap room left, need to find somebody else in free agency or through a trade to man the important position of left tackle and protect Tannehill.
The Dolphins re-signed tackle Nate Garner, but he’s best served as a backup. And if they’re thinking next season about moving Jonathan Martin from right to left tackle, that could be a risk.
Hall of Fame wide receiver and NFL analyst James Lofton said last week he doesn’t believe Martin, entering his second year, is ready for that role. And Martin, like Lofton, is a Stanford graduate.
“A good left tackle is invaluable and Jake Long has been a good one since he was the No. 1 draft pick,’’ Warfield said. “So that certainly will be an issue now.’’
That’s the most significant issue remaining in free agency on offense for the Dolphins, who appear not to be in any hurry to pick up a proven running back. They watched last week as starter Reggie Bush bolted as a free agent to Detroit, not believing he was worth the four-year, $16 million deal he received.
Miami brass appear to believe that third-year man Daniel Thomas and second-year guy Lamar Miller can make up for the loss of Bush, and they could be right. There figures to be an intense battle in training camp between the two, which could make both better. Also, it’s possible to find a running back in the draft able to pay dividends immediately.
On defense, the Dolphins surprised everyone last week by revamping their linebacking corps, which had been a strength. They released proven linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, who have both hit 30, in place of younger guys Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler, also signed as a free agent. If that doesn’t work out, the Dolphins will take a lot of heat for dumping Dansby and Burnett, their two top tacklers last season.
Miami also could face criticism for tinkering with their linebackers while perhaps neglecting the secondary. There’s still time to salvage matters, but the Dolphins badly need a cornerback after having lost free agent Sean Smith to Kansas City. They have re-signed safety Chris Clemons but he’s nothing special.
If the Dolphins don’t get much better in the defensive backfield, perhaps next season again will feature them getting burned too often by opposing quarterbacks. But at least some added weapons, especially Wallace, could help Tannehill do some toasting of his own.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter @christomasson.