We start with the offense and one of the biggest questions of the offseason: What will Bill Lazor’s look like? We do know it will feature a zone running game led by new offensive line coach John Benton. Aside from that, there are few concrete aspects that we know for sure. Friday will certainly confound or debunk some ideas. Some have posited the possibility that the Dolphins will be running a no-huddle offense. Lazor and Philbin have mentioned huddles when talking about tempo and so the tempo will likely be a result from the break of huddle to the snap of ball. That said, it should be pretty easy to see if they are running a Chip Kelly like no-huddle offense, as it will be pretty apparent if they huddle or not. Regardless, we can still look for some traits from Chip’s Offense. One thing to look for is for certain passing concepts such as to see if the QB reads work in triangles. This has recently been nicely illustrated by Jordan Plocher on his twitter account - @starvingscout. The concept was used by the Eagles particularly when the field became shorter and within the running game where Chip Kelly will announce what run play formation they are in by their running backs alignment. Left and set back a step indicated outside zone and right to the side of the QB was inside zone. These are small elements of the O, but may indicate which influences will be more pronounced.
The brief look we will get at Ryan Tannehill will be the main window to look at the speed in which plays are called in and then at his decision making pre-snap. Once the ball is snapped, we’d like to see quick decision making in both reads in in throwing the ball away if necessary. Zone read has been a large feature of training camp and I somewhat doubt we see Tannehill/Lazor exploit this in preseason, but it would be interesting to see if we do get a look at it as well.
As for the most talked about unit this offseason, the offensive line, we expect the starting five (from left to right) to be: Albert, Colledge, Satele, Thomas and James. It would not be a surprise to see Albert and Colledge get the least work in and then take to the bench with Tannehill. Not much needs to be seen in their individual games as both players are proven products. The other vet in the starting five, Satele, will have the toughest of roles as he has had little time to work with the unit. Primarily I will look to see how cleanly Satele has the unit coming off the snap. As for the younger crop on the Oline, it would be good to focus on Dallas Thomas’ lower base, which was a particular issue last year without a full preseason for conditioning. Reports are that this has improved, but it will get its first non-practice test on Friday and is a vital component for him to be a functioning NFL starter. Finally the 19th overall pick James should have little issue in pass protection. Even if he gets beat by speed, his arm length should save him more times than not. Look in particular for his first two steps in the running game and hand placement.
As a unit as a whole, keep an eye on whether they are land marking the correct player in the run game. This is done by the furthest player each side of the line and generally starts with land marking the furthest in-box defender, which is generally an OLB or a SS. This can be determined by who the OT or inline TE moves up to in the 2nd level and also affects the subsequent matchups along the entire line. This convention from outside in is key in particular to inside zone plays and could be an area with some issues due to having a such a varied personnel on the 1st team unit.
As for the 2nd unit, look for where Shelley Smith lines up. I would hope and assume he comes in for Colledge at LG as I feel that this is Smith’s strong spot and takes advantage of his run blocking, while hiding his deficiencies in his pass protection (where he generally allows more pressure through his left side). At LG, getting past Smith still means the defender either has the LT in his way or, even if he gets free, he has a longer route to the QB as compared to a RG with a right- handed QB.
Billy Turner could see reps at either OG position during the game depending on how much work Thomas gets at RG. He also could be moved to RT in place of James, which has been reported in short spells of camp. Look for Billy to dominate when he gets his hands on a defender. One area to focus on is how quickly he reacts to his defender. Playing inside you have one on you much faster than at his college position of tackle; not to mention the step up of talent, which further increases the speed. As with James, Billy’s footwork technique and hand placement will be key areas to look for improvement on as he officially enters the pros. The natural talent and athleticism should shine through.
As for the rest of the Oline, there are 3 realistic players fighting for what I see as 2 spots - Brenner, Fox and Garner. Brenner, like Thomas, needs to show improvement in his lower base from last year. If this improvement for him is substantial and he’s in as the 2nd team center, it’s very likely he keeps that back up C job into the season. That would put Fox in the driving seat for the swing tackle Job. Fox’s main challenge is health. He won the RT job in Detroit last year, but was not able to play a full game until week 17 when he looked more than serviceable. The reason I say he would be in the driving seat over Garner is purely due to his upside as a swing tackle. Garner struggles on the edge, but has the great advantage of being serviceable at all 3 interior positions. However, with Billy, Smith and Brenner as interior depth, that role becomes less important and having someone that can play tackle, in particular with Albert’s injury history, has great value on a 53 man roster. Fox may not be Albert’s straight back up, but he could allow James to swing in a pinch; either option is more desirable than Garner at tackle.
Finally there’s the Oline performance in pass pro. The Falcons offer a great early opponent with their hybrid front giving a similar amount of 3 and 4 man fronts. They boast a deep Dline featuring familiar face Paul Soliai at NT along with Tyson Jackson and rookie Ra’Shede Hageman (potential featuring a cast on his hand), which will be a great challenge for the interior line. The tackles will face the likes Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Babineaux, Jonathan Massaquoi and Kroy Biermann. These vet edge rushers will offer a great chance for James and likely Thomas to work against players with a variety of skill sets and rush moves that will only help them for the upcoming season.
Alright, now that we’ve given some good thought towards the oline, let’s give a quick glance at the skill positions. As Clay, Egnew, Lynch and Gator are very unlikely to contribute in this first game, the TE unit looks very traditional and will be relatively limited to the short passing game. If we see anything deeper from Sims it would be a real positive and it would be particularly interesting to see how he uses his body to box out defenders and make catches in traffic uncontested. The main spot Sims can lay claim to is at the TE 2 role that focuses on inline blocking. This is a skill set the Dolphins TE group drastically lacks and Philbin often talks about liking the idea of Sim’s body type and style inline. He was, unfortunately, more than disappointing in that area last year. A key for Sims is to limit penetration and to create some movement towards the sideline when in the outside zone.
The running backs could enjoy some success in the 2nd level against the Falcons, but more importantly should show patience at the LOS to allow blockers upfront to designate the reads. We may not see any big runs early, which is somewhat influenced by the design of the zone running scheme being to not lose yards and to set up bigger plays as the game goes on. The scheme takes advantage as a defense overcommits, while leaving big gains to be made on the back side of the play. What will be more enlightening is to see how the backs are deployed in the passing game. Whether motioned out to the slot, used in the screen game, or as a check down option, Lazor utilized his backs a lot in the passing game in his time at UVA. This also seems likely in Miami as it’s been mentioned several times in the training camp reports. To what extent the RBs are used in the pass game will start to become clearer on Friday. Friday could also be the start of the last place RB battle likely with three main combatants for two spots in Gillislee, Darkwa Orleans and Damien Williams. Gillislee offers a little different skill set to the other two and so he likely has the easiest path to a roster spot. Orleans and Williams both have natural talent. I have Orleans ahead just due to Williams off-field issues, but if the gap on the field becomes large enough, that could change.
Finishing of the look at the offense is the WR unit. Mike Wallace only having had limited work this past practice week would lead me to think he will see little to no work on Friday. The WR corps will face some great opponents in one of the best young CBs in the game in Desmond Trufant who will be partnered with Robert Alford who also showed some intriguing flashes last year as a rookie. The Dolphins WR depth chart is pretty deep so there should be some viable targets throughout the game. Moreover, as the TE group is pretty diminished with injuries, the WRs should be the feature of the passing game. The more interesting aspect of the WRs to watch in this game will be how Lazor utilizes them. I’m curious to see how Lazor designs a free release whether by motioning pre-snap or by the stack sets that he frequently used at UVA. I think it’s safe to say Landry will catch some footballs. Many have questioned his speed, although on game tape it has never looked like a real issue. Nonetheless, seeing Landry vs NFL CBs may lessen any worries anyone might have had. Then it’s just a matter of who plays and performs between Mathews, Hazel, Binns, Damian Williams and Cone as they compete to stay up on the depth chart. Perhaps the last wideout to mention is Thigpen. He was listed as a WR in the team’s first depth chart and seemed to be targeted often this week in practice; we’ll see whether that translates to game time or not.
Special Teams will feature Devin Hester returning on the other side and will afford a great challenge and opportunity for any player on the 53 man roster bubble to make a claim for a last spot. In regards to the Dolphins returners, it’s Thigpen and not much else. Anyone else getting a KR/PR will be telling as to whether Thigpen is facing any competition. Kicker, punter and long snapper are set in stone pretty much, so the last area to watch is gunner. I expect Aikens to excel in that role. Don Jones’ job is on the line, having looked bad in that role last year, and he needs to have improved substantially on special teams for any chance to make the 53.
The defense will show very little turnover relative to the offense, but there are still some things up in the air. Primarily, we’ll see how the new additions will affect Coyle’s scheme. The biggest loss, at least literally, is in the 40 lbs lost from Paul Soliai to new DT Earl Mitchell. It’s unlikely that Mitchell plays over the center as he did with the Texans as we lack the double team suction pad of JJ Watt. I expect us to see a lot of 3 tech from both DTs.
The DT play will also change how the LBs make their reads and the gaps they cover on the dline. This could be a contributing factor as to why Misi has been moved to the Mike. A critical aspect in the Misi move will be to see how his eyes adapt from reading outside his whole career, to now reading inside out. We could see some hesitation when at game speed as he adapts.
Tripp could challenge Wheeler’s job with a good showing. I wouldn’t expect Jenkins to excel in base defense, but he should be challenging for a spot to see the field as a nickel backer. Chris McCain has been active in camp where he is learning a new position after having predominantly played as an edge rusher at Cal. Whether he can drop back in coverage is a question mark and it will be interesting to see how he has developed in this new role.
The Dolphins edge rush is their deepest group and it should be a great watch throughout the game. Fede will be particularly watched closely by me to see how he has developed since his time at Marist. The key for Fede is his pad level. If he can come off the snap low, half the battle is already won in unlocking his natural talent. Shelby may get some snaps against Jake Matthews after Cam Wake has had his way with the rookie RT.
At the back end, the Dolphins have two vet additions. Delmas' role is assumed to be as a mirrored SS/FS hybrid alongside Reshad Jones. Whether they stick to their side of the field or switch depending on formations will be of note. Finnegan seems to be excelling in camp and by reports appears to be the CB2. We’ll see if when in nickel he moves into the slot and Jamar goes to the boundary or Jimmy Wilson is placed at the slot role where he excelled last year. The2nd string secondary will feature a likely combination of Taylor, Will Davis and Walt Aikens and their development and durability might allow the Dolphins to keep less DBs on the roster than last year, which would free up space for another potential pass catcher.
Not all off these questions will be answered on Friday, but at least it will be the start of putting together the jigsaw puzzle for most of us. Let’s hope we get lots of edge pieces.