Opening against Bucs, Dolphins' improvement must come from holdovers

Published May 2, 2017

They say the NFL offseason is a marathon, not a sprint, and that free agency moves have to be paired with draft selections to truly gauge the direction a franchise is headed.

Well, after taking a look at the roster Dolphins vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum and general manager Chris Grier have handed coach Adam Gase, I've concluded that the Dolphins have improved the roster's overall depth, and added a more impactful tight end duo.

But the Dolphins haven't closed the gap on the reigning AFC powers when it comes to talent.

The bottom line is that Miami's floor has been raised, but the ceiling has not.

Last year's 10-6 playoff team was sandbagged by three issues: 1. Poor roster depth, which got exposed as injuries mounted; 2. The terrible run defense, which allowed 140 rushing yards per game; 3. Inconsistent offensive line play, which resulted in 10 games where Miami rushed for fewer than 100 yards.

The biggest additions this offseason were veteran inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and tight end Julius Thomas. Both of those former Pro Bowl talents should help address problem areas.

Thomas is a seam threat and red zone weapon who should open up the field a bit more for everyone, and Timmons' physicality, production and football instincts should help Miami's run defense improve.

But will Thomas and Timmons allow the Dolphins to keep pace with the Patriots, the reigning Super Bowl champions, or the Steelers, who embarrassed Miami in the playoffs?

Management's priority this offseason was to "take care of their own," and Miami did that by re-signing returning starters.

Every player the Dolphins really wanted back came back, with the exception of Dion Sims, who left Miami to become the Bears' starting tight end.

But staying the same, and fortifying the roster's depth through the draft, doesn't guarantee growth.

It doesn't ensure continued success.

All it does is give Gase's team an opportunity to begin the 2017 season in full stride when it opens at home against the Bucs on Sept. 10.

To achieve that improvement it must come from within. It must be driven by Miami's coaches being better at their jobs in Year 2, and from the players improving on their skillset because the offensive line got weaker when Branden Albert was swapped out for likely starting guard Ted Larsen, from Palm Harbor University and former Buc.

And the defensive line swapped Earl Mitchell, Jason Jones, Mario Williams and Dion Jordan with William Hayes, first-round pick Charles Harris and fellow draftees Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor.

Nobody knows how well that trio of rookies will play, but banking on them being dominant would be irresponsible.

What isn't irresponsible is expecting Jay Ajayi and the offensive line to prove that last year's Pro Bowl season for Ajayi wasn't a fluke now that opposing defenses will be game planning for him.

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It's reasonable to expect Ryan Tannehill to improve on last year's career-high 93.5 passer rating, and take a Matt Ryan-like leap forward in his second season in Gase's offense, becoming the type of quarterback that deserves the franchise label because of his play on the field and not his salary.

It's reasonable to expect Reshad Jones to come back from his shoulder injury and be a game-changer, and that Miami's trio of young cornerbacks — Xavien Howard, Tony Lippett and Bobby McCain — will prove that the investment in playing time the Dolphins have made the past two seasons will reap an overflowing harvest.

It's fair to expect Jordan Phillips to shed his "questionable motor" label, and play up to his talent level for an entire season.

This season is about Andre Branch and Kenny Stills proving they are worth their lofty price tag, and Cameron Wake and former Gator Mike Pouncey silencing those who question whether they can still be elite.

Every aspect of the Dolphins must find another gear if this franchise is going to finally turn the page on its decade of mediocrity, and it is on the returnees, not the newcomers to get this team to its desired destination.