This time last year, the Miami Dolphins were in the same position teams like Kansas City and Jacksonville are this season.
After a draft that saw them take a franchise quarterback in the first round for the first time since 1983 (some guy named Marino), the Dolphins figured they had the arm in Ryan Tannehill and the horses in the running game with Reggie Bush, Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller to avoid being the worst team in the conference.
The first year of Joe Philbin’s tenure as head coach was more than the media or the fans expected.
The second year could be dynamic, if all the cards on the table are played correctly.
These are not the Dolphins run by Tony Sparano and Cam Cameron. These are the Dolphins in the mold of Philbin, who was hired away from Green Bay after working with Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy.
After signing the best free agent class in the NFL, dipping into the college draft to select Dion Jordan and solving the team’s issue at right tackle, both Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland are looking to find this team in the playoffs.
Yes, I said playoffs.
While Reggie Bush and Jake Long are no longer on the team, the subtraction of those two players should not distract this team from success. While New England is still the team everyone in the AFC East looks up to, Tom Brady is a year older and at some point, the sand in the hourglass will run out.
As the Dolphins head to training camp, here are the five most pressing issues facing this team.
1. Will Ryan Tannehill take the next step? He isn’t Dan Marino, but Tannehill has a strong arm and can be the second best quarterback to play for this franchise (sorry, Bob Griese). After a strong rookie campaign and now that he had more targets to work with (Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller), will Tannehill jump into the upper echelon of passers in the NFL?
2. Who will carry the football? Reggie Bush left South Beach for Detroit and with him, he took 986 yards on the ground and his pass-catching skills to be featured in the Lions' offense. The Dolphins will counter with Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller to lead the rushing attack. Thomas should be the starter. He was a second round draft pick out of Kansas State in 2011.
Lamar Miller is a smaller version of Thomas out of Miami. It will be interesting to see if the two-headed combination is as effective as Bush had been in Miami.
3. Will the free agents make the difference? They had better do the job. Toward the end of Don Shula’s time in Miami, he acquired former first round talents in an effort to shore up the team. At one point, I think there were 21 of them on his roster. The signings did not help the Dolphins win another Super Bowl.
This year, names like Dustin Keller, Brent Grimes, Tyson Clabo, and others will shore up this team and the defense. Miami went all in this season to find players who could help them win now and in the long run.
4. Can Mike Wallace play and keep his mouth shut? Mike Wallace and his marriage to Miami was never a secret. Now, after sounding off about his feelings on topical events, can he focus on being the receiver this team has needed since the days of Mark Clayton?
Tannehill will look for Wallace to be his main option in the offense and use his other receivers, like 2012 team reception leader Brian Hartline, and newly-acquired tight end Dustin Keller as big targets. Everything starts with Wallace, who will need to justify the acquisition by the team.
5. After the playoffs a realistic goal? After seeing the Colts do it and the Redskins and Seahawks get there, why not? The team has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, had a great free agent period and good draft class. They still may be a year away from competing for a Super Bowl berth or making real noise in the AFC, but they are as good a pick as any to be a surprise pick in the AFC this season.