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2009 team preview: Miami Dolphins

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Inside Slant
Not long after the Dolphins remarkable turnaround season ended in a playoff loss to the Ravens, coach Tony Sparano sent a letter to every player stressing that nothing is guaranteed in 2009, and that every year brings a fresh slate. He reminded them with constant text messages in the offseason.

Sparano realizes that winning the AFC East title means his team will be facing the toughest schedule in the NFL against teams with a combined .594 winning percentage. But with vice president of football operations Bill Parcells and more experienced general manager Jeff Ireland executing another quality draft while bringing in quality free agents, such as Raiders center Jake Grove and safety Gibril Wilson, optimism abounds in Miami.

"The continuity of our offense is much better now because of Chad Pennington and Chad Henne, and how comfortable they are running things," Sparano said. "On defense I remember a year ago we had to teach the 3-4 defense and we had to find the right personnel to fit that defense. Now, we're so much further along.

"What is in the past is in the past, but I like to sue some of the experiences we had in the past to help our team grow this year. Our football team has moved on from last year and all we see in front of us now are the Atlanta Falcons."

They drafted West Virginia quarterback Pat White to supply teeth to their trendy Wildcat, which accounted for 20 percent of their touchdowns, with all but 72 of the 580 yards on 81 Wildcat plays coming on the ground. The Dolphins gained just 3.7 yards per carry on non-Wildcat runs. Teams didn't respect the throwing arm of running back Ronnie Brown, who directed the Wildcat, but with White back there, opposing defensive coordinators not only have to plan for his Michael Vick-like speed, but also for his strong left-handed arm.

By signing the tough Grove and jettisoning his overpowered predecessor, Samson Satele, they also looked to improve the running game when running out of the base so they wouldn't have to rely on the Wildcat, which defensive-minded teams like the Ravens began to snuff out in the latter part of the season.

Other than the tough schedule, concerns over the lack of a go-to receiver still lingers. Also, while quarterback Chad Pennington is in fantastic shape and coming off the best year of his nine-year career in directing the 10th-ranked passing offense, he usually sustains a serious injury every other year so promising backup Chad Henne may have to prove his mettle.

"I feel like when I'm healthy I give my team a really good chance to win," Pennington said. "History has proven things go pretty well when I stay healthy."

Although Pennington's contract expires after this season, for now, it's his ball.

"It's Chad Pennington's team," Sparano said. "What he does out here every day on a daily basis at his age, over and over again, that consistency is what separates him. He is a perfectionist. He is mad when things don't go his way. We are in the scrimmage the other day and he is kicking himself because he didn't put that ball here. It is not OK - in Chad's mind - for him to go out there and be average. To have that kind of desire at this stage of his career - sometimes I feel like I am coaching a 24-year old there."

The Dolphins face other questions.

Can the Dolphins count on 35-year-old Jason Taylor to recapture his Pro Bowl form of two years ago as an every-down starter in a new role on the weakside, where he must help seal the perimeter?

Miami never truly addressed its glaring lack of depth behind mammoth nose tackle Jason Ferguson, who is 34 and playing on creaky knees. Without a quality nose, the 3-4 rarely succeeds.

The Dolphins did focus on fortifying the 25th-ranked secondary by drafting two athletic rookies in the first two rounds -- Vontae Davis and Sean Smith -- to atone for the loss of savvy veteran Andre' Goodman. They also signed Wilson to offset the loss of safety Renaldo Hill. Wilson will serve as a complement to re-signed strong safety Yeremiah Bell to arguably form the best run-support safety tandem in the NFL.

So, while the Dolphins did add depth throughout their roster and are expected to be a more efficient team this year, the schedule, combined with the return of Tom Brady may not translate into more than a nine-victory season and Wild Card hopes.

COACHING: Tony Sparano, 2nd year (11-5).

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 11-5 (1st in AFC East); lost in AFC Wild Card to Ravens, 27-9.

PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 9-7 (2nd in AFC East); lose in AFC Championship game.


Notes and Quotes
--Coach Tony Sparano gave his players an unexpected day off before the final preseason game and took them all to the movies to see, "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra."

"The reason I like doing those kinds of things is I like to make sure the guys, first of all, get a chance to know that I have a heart somewhere under there, and second of all it's just you appreciate what those guys have done right now. ... I just figured there'd be a lot of things blowing up and all those things so I thought it was pretty good. It had a nice looking woman in it too for them so I think all of those things probably helped."

--Tennis superstar sisters Venus and Serena Williams, who live in Palm Beach Gardens, bought a piece of the Dolphins. "Don't draft us," said Serena, who is built like a linebacker.

--NT Jason Ferguson is entering his 13th season and is just one of four players on the roster with at least 10 years of NFL experience, along with QB Chad Pennington and LBs Jason Taylor and Joey Porter.

"That's because we love the game," Ferguson said. "You've got guys that are not the old bitter vets who say, 'Aw, this is terrible. Why are we here?' We're pretty much the type of vets that want to win. We push the young guys to keep them focused on what they've got to do next but we try to keep it upbeat just because we know how it can be. These can be the dog days right now and a grind so we try to keep everybody upbeat."

--Dolphins players were surprised yet pumped up when receiving text messages from their old-school coach Tony Sparano during the offseason.

"That guy is an amazing motivator. He'll text me some type of motivational thing and get me going. That's a guy that's in my corner, and I never want to disappoint him," WR Brandon London said.

--The Dolphins-Bucs preseason game was delayed by lightning with 10:11 left in the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium and the Bucs up 6-0. Following the 45-minute delay the Dolphins defense toughened up and after allowing 4.6 yards per play before the storm they held Tampa to 2.9 yards the rest of the way. The stoppage was the third in franchise history. A Sept. 30, 2007, home game against Oakland was delayed by 30 minutes, and a Nov. 26, 2007, game in Pittsburgh was delayed 25. Both were at the start of the game.

"It gave the coaches a chance to yell at us once when we came in for the storm, and again at halftime," MLB Channing Crowder said.

--C Jake Grove has wasted no time in commanding respect and leadership on the Dolphins' offensive line which features two second-year players in Jake Grove and Donald Thomas, as well as quiet veteran Vernon Carey, and oft-injured LG Justin Smiley. "It was interesting, last week, we were at the hotel (in Tampa) before the game and I happened to go down stairs and watch the group ... And 11 of (the offensive linemen) were huddled up at a table or 12 of them, whatever it was, and the only one talking was Jake Grove," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said.

--SLB Matt Roth had a solid season in his first since changing positions from defensive end, finishing with 53 tackles and five sacks, however, a lingering groin injury has kept him sidelined all summer. "I'm not one bit concerned about my contract. I want to play football, and I want to get out there," said Roth, who is due to make $550,000 this season. "I'm trying to do everything I can to get cleared and be out there with my teammates."

--If the Dolphins follow what Parcells' Jets teams did a year after he took over then they should reach the AFC Championship game. The Jets were 1-15 in 1996 before he took over in 1997 and 9-7 in his first year. They were 12-4 and reached the conference title game the following season.

BY THE NUMBERS: 34 -- The Dolphins play their first home game of the season on Monday Night against the Colts, marking the first time they've opened their home schedule on MNF since Sept. 22,1975 or 34 years ago against the Raiders, and the first time ever at Land Shark Stadium.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Nobody really knows. I don't care about them. Whoever Vegas is, tell him come to the house, come knock on my door and tell me we're going to win seven games and I'll let him have it." -- LB Channing Crowder on Las Vegas casinos picking the Dolphins' under-over on wins at 7.5 games.


Strategy and Personnel
Although the signing of offseason free agent safety Gibril Wilson was supposed to fortify the Dolphins back end, along with the re-signing of SS Yeremiah Bell, the two are still ironing out the kinks in their communication skills. While the Dolphins won their first three preseason games, there have been plenty of breakdowns in the middle of the field. This must be ironed out before the season opener against the Falcons and their talented young quarterback Matt Ryan.

The limbo status of incumbent SLB Matt Roth (groin) has put the onus on 35-year-old six-time Pro Bowler Jason Taylor to be far more than a pass-rushing specialist, which was the original thinking when the Dolphins re-signed their former star after an injury-plagued season in Washington. That said, expect Taylor to be limited in his snap count with Charlie Anderson, Quentin Moses and Cam Wake filling in.

Although WR Greg Camarillo has seemed to make an amazingly speedy recovery from knee surgery, he may need the early part of the season to regain his speed and cutting skills, which should pave the way for rookie WR Brian Hartline to make a good impression and possibly earn increased playing time.

PLAYER NOTES

--SSLB Matt Roth has gone from starter to limbo after missing the entire training camp and all four preseason games with a groin injury. He's had three surgical procedures on the groin since 2007. He has one year remaining on his contract, and it's possible he'll either be waived or placed on PUP.

--Rookie WR Brian Hartline has gone from fighting for a roster spot to possibly starting opposite Ted Ginn Jr. with his consistent hands, polished routes and intelligence.

--RB Patrick Cobbs is obviously coach Tony Sparano's favorite player because of his dogged practice habits and versatility. Cobbs scratched the surface of his playmaking skills as one of the secret weapons in the Wildcat last season with three touchdowns, while tying for the lead in special teams tackles.

--RB Ricky Williams has signed a contract extension that will pay him $4.35 million in 2010. After that season, he plans to retire to continue his osteopathic education so he could practice holistic medicine, specifically for sports teams. There were some rumblings of trading Williams so that blossoming RB Lex Hilliard could get some carries.

--RB Lex Hilliard has emerged in preseason, leading all Dolphins runners with 126 yards on 29 carries and a touchdown to earn a roster spot behind Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams and Patrick Cobbs. The second-year back out of Montana needs to excel on special teams and improve his blocking. "I'm not one of those guys that checks the computer every night to see what people are saying. We're in training camp. I've got enough to do," Hilliard said of his chances to stick

--RG Shawn Murphy may not have beaten out Donald Thomas for the starting job but after sitting out every game his rookie season last year he has improved enough to become a regular in the offensive line rotation. Murphy trimmed down and added muscle, so it looks like the son of former Braves slugger Dale Murphy will get on the field this season.

--SSLB Jason Taylor hopes to reassert his Pro Bowl status after an off year in Washington, but it won't be easy at 35 especially on the strong side where he will have to not only rush the passer but seal the perimeter in the running game.

--WR Greg Camarillo's 55 catches was one shy of team leader Ted Ginn Jr., despite missing the final five games after tearing his ACL against the Patriots in Game 11. Although he has made a speedy recovery, he may sit out large chunks of games early in the season before he regains his full speed and cutting ability.

--LG Justin Smiley is a key to the success of the offensive line, however, he must prove that he can play a whole season without ending up on injured reserve for the third straight season. He was playing at a Pro Bowl level before sustaining a season-ending leg injury in Game 12.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/25, CB Vontae Davis, Illinois - Although he may need a year to mature and adjust to the intricacies of the NFL, Davis clearly has the athletic skills and aggression to become a top-notch cover corner for years to come.

Rd. 2/44, QB Pat White, West Virginia - Drafted primarily to add some teeth to the Dolphins trendy Wildcat, White has displayed the speed and arm strength of a young Michael Vick, however, he has a long way to go regarding accuracy.

Rd. 2/61, CB Sean Smith, Utah - His size and ability to get his hands on balls has zoomed him past Davis and into the starting lineup so he can better deal with some of the AFC East taller receivers.

Rd. 3/67, WR Patrick Turner, USC - Lags behind fellow rookie wideout Hartline in NFL acumen and hands, but his 6-5 frame is too attractive a red-zone target for him not to get plenty of opportunities.

Rd. 4/108, WR Brian Hartline, Ohio St. - His versatility on special teams as a potential returner and tackler, combined with his glue-like hands and intelligence may just earn him a starting job at least until Greg Camarillo regains his pre-surgical form. Hartline led all receivers with 107 yards on five catches through three preseason games.

Rd. 5/161, TE John Nalbone, Monmouth - Should beat out Joey Haynos for the third tight end role, which means he better excel on special teams or else end up on the practice squad. Could supplant veteran David Martin, whose contract expires after this season, as the second stringer behind Anthony Fasano.

Rd 5/165, S Chris Clemons, Clemson - Has the speed and coverage skills to eventually start, but first he must earn his stripes on special teams.

Rd. 6/181, T Andrew Gardner, Georgia Tech - Should supply much-needed depth at both tackle positions, especially the left side where he will primarily back up second-year LT Jake Long, the overall No. 1 last year who got into the Pro Bowl as an alternate.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Chad Pennington. Backups - Chad Henne, Pat White.

Pennington is trying to keep Henne at bay and, after earning his second Comeback Player of the Year award last year as well as tying for second in the league MVP vote, he should succeed for another year. Pennington became the first quarterback in history to throw for at last 3,500 yards and have seven or fewer interceptions. Henne has struggled this preseason and doesn't seem to have the mentality to start yet. White is a project who should get some chances in the 'Wild-Pat' to add more intrigue to Miami's versatile offense.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Ronnie Brown, FB Lousaka Polite. Backups - RBs Ricky Williams, Patrick Cobbs, Lex Hilliard.

Brown has never been healthier or in better shape. Add the fact he's in his contract season and playing behind a better offensive line and Brown should notch his first 1,000-yard season. All three RBs are excellent pass receivers and all will be showcased in the Wildcat. Hilliard must earn his snaps by excelling on special teams, while Polite will be used as a blocker and in short-yardage situations.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- TE Anthony Fasano. Backups - David Martin, John Nalbone.

Last year the Dolphins tight ends combined to gain 926 yards with 11 touchdowns with an emerging Fasano leading the way with 34 catches and seven TDs. Martin shed his inconsistency tag with 31 catches for 450 yards and three TDs, while improving his blocking skills. Nalbone, a rookie, will primarily work on special teams before assuming Martin's role in 2010.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Davone Bess. Backups - WRs Brian Hartline, Patrick Turner, Brandon London, Greg Camarillo.

Now in his third season Ginn is hoping to finally live up to his first-round status and hopefully double his two-year TD total of four. As an undrafted rookie Bess exceeded all expectations with 54 catches for 554 yards, while becoming Pennington's go-to slot guy. Camarillo is getting over a knee injury but his crisp route running and soft hands makes him a quarterback-friendly receiver. Hartline brings intelligence and consistency, while Turner presents a solid red-zone target. The Dolphins may not have an elite receiver but the combination of Pennington's accuracy and their solid receiving skills should be good enough.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Jake Long, LG Justin Smiley, C Jake Grove, RG Donald Thomas, RT Vernon Carey. Backups -- G/C Joe Berger, T Andrew Gardner, T Nate Garner, G/T Brandon Frye, G Shawn Murphy.

Grove's veteran presence along with his toughness should stabilize a unit that operated best out of the Wildcat when shifting to an unbalanced line. However, the combination of Long's continued progress and the presence of first-time starter Thomas should bolster the ground game when running out of the base offense. Smiley must stay healthy and the re-signed Carey needs to clean up some of his pass-blocking mistakes.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LDE Kendall Langford, RDE Randy Starks, NT Jason Ferguson. Backups - DE Phillip Merling, DE Lionel Dotson, Tony McDaniel, Rod Wright, NT Paul Soliai.

Langford, who had 31 tackles and two sacks his rookie season, is on the brink of stardom, while Merling, taken a round earlier in the second round, has regressed. Ferguson, 34, needs to remain healthy because the Dolphins still don't fully trust Soliai, who seems to be more serious about his profession. Dotson flashes potential, while Starks is trying to shed his backup label. The Dolphins allowed a hefty 4.2 yards per rush, so run defense is a priority.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Joey Porter, SLB Jason Taylor, MLB Channing Crowder, ILB Akin Ayodele. Backups - OLB Cameron Wake, OLB Quentin Moses, OLB Charlie Anderson, LB Erik Walden.

Crowder must start making game-turning plays instead of just accumulating tackle numbers. The Dolphins need to keep the 35-year-old Taylor fresh by rotating in CFL sackmeister Wake as well as an improving Moses. Anderson and Walden are special team stalwarts, but Anderson will provide depth in the base defense. Porter hopes to build off a resurgent 2008 when he posted a career-high 17.5 of Miami's 40 sacks, however, the pass rush was generally quiet unless Porter was in the QB's face. Opposing defensive coordinators will be kept up nights trying to scheme against Porter and Taylor in pass-rushing situations.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: LCB Will Allen, RCB Sean Smith, FS Gibril Wilson, SS Yeremiah Bell. Backups - CB Vontae Davis, CB Nate Jones, CB Jason Allen, CB Joey Thomas, FS Tyrone Culver, SS Courtney Bryan, SS Chris Clemons.

Allen has played Pro Bowl-caliber corner the past two seasons and did so last year playing on a bad knee and groin. Smith and Davis bring aggression and playmaking potential to a pass defense that came up with 18 picks last year (their highest total since 2003), however, their inexperience may cost some early-season woes in the secondary. Culver is a solid insurance policy behind Bell and Wilson, who may form the best safety tandem in the NFL, particularly in run support. Jones is a prototypical nickel corner who will blitz on occasion. Bryan and Clemons are special teamers, with Clemons projected to be a future starter.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Dan Carpenter, P Brandon Fields, LS John Denney, KR Ted Ginn Jr., PR Davone Bess.

Carpenter was pushed in the preseason by Connor Barth but should improve on a solid rookie season in which he converted 21 of 25 field goals, while Fields should add to his excellent control (24 punts inside the 20). The returner spots are still up for grabs with Bess clearly the most dependable punt returner. Hartline and Cobbs are expected to receive their share of kickoff returns to keep Ginn fresh, however, if Ginn starts to break a few like he did at Ohio State, it'll be his job to keep.

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