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With the exception of the 2008 season, the Miami Dolphins have struggled to make an impact in the AFC East in recent years, playing second fiddle to the New England Patriots and the New York Jets. Expectations are higher coming into the 2013 season, however, with key additions made to the Dolphinsâ€™ roster on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Although the Patriots are a team which should never be taken lightly, they do look more vulnerable than at any point in the last decade, and with both the Jets and Buffalo Bills struggling last season, the inevitable question is raised: can Miami win just their second division title in the last 13 seasons?
The arrivals of wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson, and tight end Dustin Keller, should give second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who often relied heavily on Brian Hartline last season, plenty of targets this season. Suggestions that the Dolphins overpaid for Wallace may not be wrong, but wide receivers who can stretch the field, and average over 17 yards per reception, do not come cheap. If he can put up similar numbers to those he posted in Pittsburgh in 2010 and 2011, especially with a productive supporting cast of Gibson, Hartline and Keller, then the Dolphins will be more than content that they have got value for money.
Bigger questions revolve around the Dolphinsâ€™ offensive line and their running back options; however, the departures of veterans Jake Long and Reggie Bush left both units looking thin. The Dolphins are set at center with Mike Pouncey and the signing of veteran Tyson Clabo, who will likely fill the void at right tackle and could be pivotal to Miamiâ€™s hopes of success this season. Second-year tackle Jonathan Martin will be under pressure to improve after a solid if not spectacular rookie season, and protect Tannehillâ€™s blindside, whilst rookie Dallas Thomas could push the likes of Richie Incognito, Nate Garner and John Jerry for one of the starting guard spots, if he can impress in training camp. Options are even thinner at running back, with neither Daniel Thomas nor Mike Gillislee offering a proven threat behind the equally unproven Lamar Miller. Dolphins fans will hope Miller has developed considerably during his first season in the NFL, as he will now be asked to shoulder a workload of 15-20 carries a night, as well as increased responsibilities in pass protection.
The defense has also undergone an overhaul, with Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler and Brent Grimes all coming in via free agency. The Dolphins also used their top two draft picks on defensive lineman Dion Jordan and cornerback Jamar Taylor. The Dolphins now boast one of the most fierce defensive lines in the NFL, with Jordan joining Cameron Wake, Randy Starks, Paul Soliai and Jared Odrick, but quality and depth looks to be thin amongst the linebackers. Ellerbe, who only started for the Baltimore Ravens last season due to injuries to Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain, will need to replicate his form from that Super Bowl winning-campaign, whilst other arrival Wheeler will need to play like a player who deserves a $26 million contract, as opposed to how he has played with the Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders previously. The secondary looks solid with Taylor and Grimes joining Richard Marshall, Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons, but any injuries could be very significant, with quality sparse lower down the depth chart.
The Patriots are a team which should never be underestimated, but with Wes Welker now plying his trade in Denver, and Aaron Hernandez facing a homicide trial, the trademark Patriots offense looks vulnerable, particularly with itsâ€™ two go-to receivers, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski, both considered injury-prone. The Jets’ struggles have been well publicized over the last couple of seasons, and although Geno Smithâ€™s arrival could spell the end for Mark Sanchez, itâ€™s debatable whether the Jets have the receivers or running game to make them a legitimate offensive threat. If Robert Woods can earn himself a starting spot and help take some of the heat off of Stevie Johnson, then the Bills could emerge as surprise candidates for the AFC East, but there is no denying that the battle for the AFC East title will be more competitive this season than it has been for years.
The headlines may have been stolen by the big money free agency acquisitions that the Dolphins made this offseason, but it could well be Miamiâ€™s moves in the draft which decide how successful their season will be. If Tannehill, Martin and Miller can all take significant steps forward in their second seasons, and defensive rookies Jordan and Taylor can show playmaking ability opposite the likes of Wake and Grimes, then Miami has every chance of emerging at the top of the AFC East pile come the end of the season.
Photo Courtesy of June Rivera