One Down, Three to Go
Coming off a close, albeit meaningless loss in the preseason opener against Tampa Bay, the Miami Dolphins shift their focus this week to Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
The second week of the preseason typically sees the starters play an extra couple drives potentially into the second quarter. This will likely be the case here for the Dolphins as well, with Quarterback Ryan Tannehill being the focus.
In the opener last week, Tannehill only saw one drive of action, in which he went 4 of 6 for 32 yards. The opening drive resulted in a missed 53 yard field goal from Jason Sanders. While the first team offense looked sharp, there are still a ton of question marks surrounding this young Dolphins team. Most of those question marks are in regard to the defensive side of the ball. Here are three key things to look for in Friday’s game against Carolina, and throughout the entirety of the preseason.
The Continued Development of Ryan Tannehill and Whoever Wins the Backup Job
After sustaining the devastating ACL tear in December of 2016 that caused him to miss the final three games of that season and all of the 2017 season, Tannehill’s return to game action came just one week ago against the Buccaneers. Head Coach Adam Gase didn’t waste any time getting him re-acclimated, as the Dolphins opened with a play action roll out pass that saw Tannehill connect with receiver Kenny Stills for a 15 yard gain.
It was only one drive and the sample size was minimal, but that won’t stop me from spreading my excitement. OUR QUARTERBACK IS BACK! OK, maybe that’s too much too soon, but the optimism in South Beach is flowing for good reason.
Before the injury in 2016 Tannehill was on his way to his most efficient season, having career bests in completion percentage (67.1) and Quarterback Rating (93.5). This was his first season under Head Coach Adam Gase, which caused excitement for the future. Tannehill will now be be armed with arguably the best backfield he’s ever had, and an improved offensive line. Under the command of Tannehill this offense is set up to have success early and often.
While the starting role isn’t in question, the backup quarterback position is still being decided. David Fales is listed second in the depth chart at this time. He is followed by Brock Osweiler and Bryce Petty.
Fales started the Week 17 game against Buffalo in place of Jay Cutler. He was kept on the roster in the off-season over long-time backup Matt Moore specifically for this role. Fales was also sharp in last week’s preseason game, where he went 8 for 11 for 115 yards. This was by far the best performance of the three backup quarterbacks.
Both Petty and Osweiler struggled with accuracy issues. Petty threw the Dolphins lone interception and Osweiler couldn’t even put together a 50% completion percentage. There is no chance that the Dolphins keep four quarterbacks on the roster. With the depth the team has at other positions across the board, these three guys could be battling for one roster spot.
Will a Corner Emerge Opposite of Xavien Howard?
2017 was the first full season as a starting defensive back in the NFL for Xavien Howard. The young corner was quick to try and make a name for himself. This was especially true in the second half of last season.
In back to back games against the Broncos and Patriots, Howard flashed just how great he can be. In these two games he recorded eight pass breakups and snagged four interceptions. The emergence of the second year player from Baylor was a welcome sight for Dolphins fans everywhere. This is especially true since the starting corner role has been a revolving door since losing Brent Grimes to the Buccaneers a few seasons ago.
As far as the other outside corner spot goes, it is anyone’s for the taking. Defensive Coordinator Matt Burke will oversee a secondary that finished 16th against the pass in 2017. This was especially disappointing relative to expectations so the Dolphins are desperately looking to improve on those numbers moving into 2018. The other corners currently on the Dolphins roster include Bobby McCain, Tony Lippett, Cordrea Tankersley and Cornell Armstrong.
McCain and Tankersley commonly rotated and gained valuable experience last season. However, neither has looked very impressive so far throughout camp. This is leading to doubt about any of them being a long-term solution. It is clear that the Dolphins aren’t satisfied with rolling out the same, middle of the road crew in 2018. So, what options does that leave for Coach Gase moving forward?
Throughout camp, the medical staff has been working to help Tony Lippett back on the field into what will hopefully be a prominent role of the defense. Lippett, who tore his Achilles in August of 2017, is working on building from a 2016 season where he started 13 games and had four interceptions.
It may or may not be fair to expect Lippett to immediately jump back into a starting role, but the depth he will provide until he is back 100 percent healthy could prove vital. While on the topic of depth in the secondary, one has to think of rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick. Projecting the impact a rookie will have on an NFL roster is virtually impossible, but the versatility of Fitzpatrick will really showcase his ability to make an impact all over the field.
In his time at Alabama, Fitzpatrick played corner, nickel, and strong safety where he excelled at each. Fitzpatrick has the ability to play all over the field and to cover receivers on the inside or outside. With safeties Reshad Jones and TJ McDonald also lurking in the secondary, don’t be surprised to see Fitzpatrick play of a more traditional corner role. This may be the decision initially until the Dolphins have a more solid plan in place.
Battle of the Young Kickers
A position many might overlook, but one that can be the difference between missing and making the playoffs; just ask the 2017 Los Angeles Chargers. In 2017, the Dolphins relied on Cody Parkey for their kicking duties. However, an off-season that saw Parkey sign with the Chicago Bears leaves an opening for one of two young rookie kickers on the roster to make a name for themselves.
The two rookies would be the undrafted Greg Joseph, and the 2018 seventh round selection Jason Sanders. It’s pretty easy to tell that Sanders has the superior leg of the two. However, accuracy has always been his downfall. This could end up being the foot in the door that Joseph needs.
In his four years at New Mexico, Sanders was a mere 25/35 on field goal attempts. His opportunities were few and far in between. However, he was able to connect on a school record 81 straight extra points.
Both kickers were awarded opportunities to get on the field and prove their worth last week. Joseph only got one opportunity, but made the most of it when he nailed a 48 yard field goal in the third quarter. Sanders had a few more scoring chances, connecting on 2/3 of his field goal attempts and locking down an extra point in the first half.
While it is easy to look at the miss as a negative, it also showcased the exact reason Dolphins brass took a chance on him with their 7th round selection. The kick was a 53 yard attempt that ultimately sailed wide left. However, the distance behind it suggested Sanders leg is easily capable of hitting from 60+ at any time. Finding a leg like that isn’t easy to come by in the NFL. If Sanders can find his accuracy the job is seemingly his.
However, I would expect Gase to use every bit of these next three games before making a decision. So, the opportunity for Joseph to win the job is there, but he will really have to impress.
While there are plenty of position battles and storylines as we make our way through the preseason and beyond, these three positions intrigued me the most heading into Friday’s game against the Carolina Panthers. A healthy, improving Tannehill, a solid lockdown option opposite of Howard, and a reliable kicking game will not only be focal points of the preseason, but the entire 2018 season for the Miami Dolphins.