by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist
New coach, new staff, new players, new offensive and defensive systems, new attitude…there isn’t much about the 2005 Miami Dolphins that remains the same.
As the Dolphins prepare to open their 40th Training Camp on July 25, questions abound. Here are my Top 10:
1) Who will be the starting quarterback on Opening Day, A.J. Feeley or Gus Frerotte?
Nick Saban has repeatedly stated that the best player will win the team’s starting quarterback job. Frerotte helps the Dolphins win now but, at 33, isn’t likely to lead this team to a championship. Feeley’s physical skills as a passer are “exceptional” (Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan’s word) but he remains inexperienced. Further, he is not a consistently good practice player…something that may unsettle Linehan and Head Coach Nick Saban.
For now, Feeley remains the Dolphins’ best prospect for the future. The job should be his to win. Let’s see if Saban and Linehan agree.
2) Can Ricky Williams still help the Dolphins win?
The answer should be “yes” but there are many unknowns. Can Williams put 25 quality pounds of muscle back on to his body? Will his teammates genuinely welcome him back? Did a year away from the game damage his ability to play football? Has Williams completely divorced himself from marijuana? What are his motivations for returning and will he see the season through?
We won’t know the answers to these questions for some time. According to his agent, Leigh Steinberg, Williams now weighs 215. Whether or not that is quality strength remains to be seen. One thing is clear: Ricky Williams will be under a very large microscope. He has a lot to prove.
3) How will Zach Thomas perform in the 3-4 defense?
Officially listed as 5-11, 228, Zach does not possess ideal size for the 3-4 schemes that Saban prefers. Can Zach go from the 4-3…where the defensive tackles protect him from offensive lineman, freeing him up to diagnose, run, and tackle…to a 3-4 where he will be forced to take on lineman 90+lbs. heavier?
I’m not sure. Visions of Kevin Mawae tying Zach up continue to dance in my head.
Whatever happens, Zach will have three sure things going for him: speed, smarts, and a huge heart. Never count him out. I won’t.
4) Who will start at cornerback opposite Sam Madison?
The answer was expected to be Will Poole. Poole’s presence gave the Dolphins terrific depth at corner, affording them the luxury of trading Patrick Surtain to the Kansas City Chiefs. Then, on May 4, Poole suffered a major injury to his left knee (medial meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament). His return this season is in doubt.
Veterans Mario Edwards and Reggie Howard, along with rookie Travis Daniels, are the leading contenders for the job. Edwards and Howard have been starters in the NFL and Daniels knows Saban’s system very well (LSU). None are at the level that Poole was, let alone Surtain.
5) Will David Boston return to his former Pro Bowl form?
Boston’s return to Miami was very quiet, almost a footnote to the offseason. The promise that he brought to the Dolphins this time last year was never realized; a wrecked knee before the first preseason game wiped him out for 2004. At season’s end he was released and almost forgotten. After shopping himself around the NFL, Boston decided that a return to the Dolphins, at a reduced salary, was his best bet.
Boston remains a physical freak. At 6-2, 228, he has RB size, WR speed, and plays a physical game. Along with Chris Chambers and Marty Booker, a healthy Boston gives the Dolphins one of the best 1-2-3 receiver combinations in the NFL.
Properly employed in Linehan’s vertical passing system, one that regularly employs three WR sets, Boston could give defenses fits. Will he start opposite Chris Chambers or come in as an extra WR? It all comes down to the condition of his left knee.
6) Can the Miami Dolphins count on Randy McMichael this season?
This question is not directed at McMichael’s football skills. Clearly, he is one the NFL’s finest. The question is directed at McMichael personal life and his legal/marital troubles. Will he be so distracted throughout the season that his play suffers for it? Where will his mind be...on football or, understandably, his personal problems?
McMichael is in the final year of his original contract. His prospects of securing a lucrative long-term deal have already been seriously damaged. Quite frankly, he needs a spectacular effort this season to convince the Dolphins to invest a big contract in him. It will be interesting to see if he can come through. The Dolphins certainly hope so; they need him.
7) Will the Dolphins be able to stop the run?
Next to the offensive line, the defensive line is the most unsettled area of the team…particularly at tackle. And, no matter the defensive alignment, stopping the run begins inside at the tackle position.
The retirement of defensive tackle Tim Bowens (back) was a devastating blow. A solid two gap player, Bowens would have been perfect as a nose tackle when the Dolphins showed three man fronts. In the 4-3, Bowens was one of the most dominant tackles in the league. The Dolphins currently have no one to deliver his caliber of play.
The strongest player on the team, Larry Chester continues to rehabilitate the knee injury he suffered early last year against the Bengals. Will he be able to return to form? The Dolphins pray the answer is yes as Chester is capable of lining up at the nose when needed. Thus, his presence would provide much needed depth.
Given the situation with Timbo and Chester, the Dolphins added other tackle candidates with varying degrees of experience. On one end of the spectrum, there’s 15 year vet Keith Traylor. One the other end there’s rookie Manuel Wright, recently acquired via the NFL’s supplemental draft. Will any of these newcomers be able to step up and improve the team’s run defense, ranked a woeful 31st in 2004? We shall soon see.
8) Can Hudson Houck fix the offensive line?
The Dolphins had better hope so. Like last year, their fortunes rest with the effectiveness of this much beleaguered unit. Houck is one of the best, if not the best, in the business. He has a keen eye for talent and for being able to teach proper technique.
Houck’s surprising move of Vernon Carey to left tackle could end up being the coaching move of the year, provided that Carey makes a successful transition. Meanwhile, the acquisition of right tackle Stockar McDougle gives Houck a mauler on the opposite side and a veteran to help guide second year right guard Rex Hadnot. Left guard Jeno James is well established as a starter.
If Houck can help center Seth McKinney improve, the offensive line could be the pleasant surprise of the season.
9) How will Jason Taylor perform at outside linebacker?
Jason Taylor is blessed with superb athleticism and an uncanny nose for the ball. His proven ability to drop off and cover, combined with his terrific pass rushing skills, makes him a perfect fit at outside linebacker when the Dolphins go into a 3-4 alignment.
I believe Taylor will immediately become one of the best OLBs in the game and could join Kim Bokamper as a Dolphin who earns Pro Bowl honors at both OLB and DE in his career. But the one player I believe Taylor has the best chance of emulating is A.J. Duhe, the heart and soul of the famed Killer B defenses.
10) Did the Dolphins do enough to upgrade the Safety position?
There are some concerns that new starters Tebucky Jones and Travis Tillman could be the weak links in the Dolphin secondary. Neither man has had a particularly distinguished career thus far though both have experience playing in the 3-4 defense. The fact that the Dolphins have been courting free agent Lance Schulters suggests that Saban isn’t satisfied.
Meanwhile, keep your eye on Yeremiah Bell. He was a favorite of interim head coach Jim Bates, with good reason. Bell has excellent football instincts and could unseat Jones or Tillman.