2006 AFC East Preview: Miami Dolphins
The following is an article written by Real Football Services. They are a frequent contributor on newyorkjets.com. Over the next three weeks, Real Football Services will provide an in-depth look at the Jets competition in the AFC East. Third installment: the Miami Dolphins.
OK football fans, here's a pop quiz for you. Who was the hottest team in the NFL at the end of the 2005 regular season? It must have been the Pittsburgh Steelers, right? No. The Steelers had a nice late season run that put them in the playoffs and set them on a course to the Super Bowl title, but another team was hotter than them before the postseason arrived. Seattle was on a tear until a meaningless season finale in the snow at Lambeau against the Pack, but that loss put them behind one other team for the strongest finish.
The Miami Dolphins were the owners of a six-game winning streak when their season came to an end on January 1st, the longest season-ending run in the league. And that is why we think Miami is a team to watch this season in the AFC. The Dolphins are very quietly coming off a successful 9-7 campaign and have put several key pieces in place that should help them build towards even more success in year two of the Nick Saban regime.
The most notable change certainly has come on offense. The team's trade for Daunte Culpepper provides a huge upgrade at the QB position, but also increases the value of several skill position players like WR Chris Chambers and TE Randy McMichael, and gives the Dolphins some offensive credibility that has been missing in recent seasons. Culpepper has a rocket right arm and gives Miami the ability to stretch the field. He is a physically imposing player who has always had the ability to make plays on the run as well. But his mobility is in question since suffering a major knee injury last season. He continues to rehab, and appears to be on schedule for an opening day return. But, just in case he is not ready, the Dolphins scooped up former Lions first-rounder Joey Harrington, giving them great depth with two signal callers with NFL starting experience. And yes, Joey Harrington is an upgrade over Sage Rosenfels and Gus Frerotte. Whatever ailed Harrington in Detroit, he has a good arm and is a very accurate passer if given time and a talented supporting cast, which he'll have in Miami if he is called upon.
The other player who has Dolphins fans excited is RB Ronnie Brown, and rightly so. With the Ricky Williams distractions gone north to Canada, Brown is ready to take the load in the running game and could become one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league this year. He nearly reached the 1,000-yard rushing mark while sharing the job with Williams last season. He has outside speed, the size and strength to be a power rusher between the tackles, the hands to be a dangerous receiver out of the backfield, and is a strong blocker. He is the engine that makes the Miami offense go, and Saban will ride him hard this season.
Receiver Chris Chambers broke out at the end of last season and finished with over 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career, but that's nothing compared to what he can be with Culpepper under center. Chambers' greatest asset is his speed and his ability to get behind coverage, and now with a QB who has the arm to consistently get him the ball, his production could be off the charts in 2006. Look for Miami to stretch the field with Chambers while also using McMichael, Brown, and WR Marty Booker in the short and intermediate passing game, all of which will create more space for the rushing attack.
The offensive line will get a boost from the free agent signings of OT's LJ Shelton and Mike Pearson, who join young and improving players in Jeno James, Vernon Carey, and Rex Hadnot, and veteran center Seth McKinney to form a group that will be a key to any offensive success the Dolphins hope to have.
Miami has had to live and die with their strong defensive unit in recent years, but the key players in that group, namely Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas, have struggled with injuries and are beginning to show their age. The Dolphins have made a conscious effort to upgrade the personnel around them, particularly at the LB position and in the secondary. Sedrick Hodge, a free agent signee from New Orleans, gives the Dolphins a veteran playmaker to replace Junior Seau on the strong side, and though Hodge is no superstar, he will provide more athletic ability and more consistent play than the fading Seau was able to offer a year ago.
The real area of need was in the secondary, and the signing of corners Will Allen, Andre Goodman and Renaldo Hill gives the team good depth at the position along with young rising star Travis Daniels and recent draft pick Will Poole. Free agent safety Deke Cooper emerged as a solid starter in Jacksonville last season, and will hold the same role for the Dolphins this year, but only until rookie number one draft choice Jason Allen is ready to take over. Allen has blazing speed and is a playmaker who has the athletic ability to make plays on the ball and the versatility to play any position in the secondary.
The team has developed a comfort level in Saban's defensive scheme, which is a hybrid system that incorporates parts of the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, which allows the Dolphins to take advantage of the skills of all the players on the defensive side of the ball. Miami had one of the top defenses in the league at the end of 2005, and that should continue in 2006.
With a viable QB leading a versatile offensive attack, and a defense that has already shown the ability to shut down opponents, the Dolphins appear ready to build on last season's mild success.