In what promises to be a banner year for this oft down-trodden division, Week 1 of the 2015 NFL season is nearly upon us. While the consensus is that the reigning Super Bowl Champion Patriots still look like a shoe-in for the division crown, every other team appears to have improved while the Patriots actually look like they have regressed somewhat, particularly on defense. Could we finally see a new team winning the AFC East after a decade and a half of Tom Brady domination?
Let’s start with the Miami Dolphins, or as their fans like to call them, the next Super Bowl Champions. For the second time in three years, the Dolphins made a splash in free agency in signing the biggest name on the block in Ndamukong Suh. Unlike the last time they overpaid a free agent, the Dolphins actually signed a good player and Suh will make an immediate impact on defense, particularly on run defense. The Dolphins were fairly mediocre on defense in 2014 and with this one signing, their fans think this will catapult their unit into the top 10. Unfortunately for my aquatic brethren, while Suh plugs an enormous hole in the front line defense, there remains a few gaps on the rest of the team. For starters, the linebackers in Miami are nothing to write home about. Jelani Jenkins impressed last year and Koa Misi is solid, but the rest of the group is ho-hum at best. The secondary is no better off either. Brent Grimes is a top ten cornerback and Reshad Jones is an above average safety, but other than those two, who do they have? The answer to that question is nothing special (side note: The Dolphins have almost as many McCains as the Bills have Williams). Now, we can’t underestimate the impact a player of Suh’s caliber will have on the groups behind him. His presence will help mask the deficiencies of the back 7 by causing havoc in the offensive backfield. Combined with Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon rushing off the edge, the Dolphins could very well ride their front line into a top 10 spot, much like the Bills have done in the past couple of years. The question is whether or not they can take what they have, which looks pretty good on paper, and make it work for them on the field.
Speaking of looking good on paper, how about that Miami offense? Ryan Tannehill went on a tear during preseason and he looked just about as perfect as anyone can reasonably expect. With a plethora of weapons at his disposal, the only question anyone can ask about the Dolphins offense in 2015 is whether or not that patchwork offensive line can protect him long enough to get rid of the ball. With the return of Brandon Albert at left tackle, Tannehill’s blindside is once again covered, but the guards are the real issue on this line. Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas are more like turnstiles than protectors of their quarterback and with Tannehill’s tendency to hold on to the ball a touch too long, it could lead to another year of him taking a lot of hits and sacks, especially with the quality of defensive lines he has to face in the division. But again, on paper, the Dolphins look to have a serious offense capable of putting up more than enough points to win games. Outside of OL, the Dolphins wide receiver group looks formidable, but, as usual, most fans got a little carried away with the best WR group in the NFL predictions. Let’s review: Devante Parker, rookie, missed camp and preseason with an injury; Kenny Stills, Mike Wallace 2.0, but he can actually catch; Greg Jennings, the “wily veteran” of the group, who knows what he has left in the tank; and Jarvis Landry, receptions leader from 2014 who probably won’t duplicate that feat because of the offensive game plan wanting to utilize all those new weapons. Look, I’ll be the first person to say this is a group with talent and potential. But let’s wait and see how it looks on Sundays before making any brash statements. This could easily backfire, Parker has to shake off some rust, Jennings may flame out early, Stills might actually not be very good without a Hall of Fame caliber QB throwing him the ball and Landry’s rookie year could have been nothing more than product of Hartline and Wallace being unreliable.
After all that negativity, you might be surprised to learn that I’ve predicted the Dolphins will win 10 games and make the 6th seed in the playoffs. I believe talent eventually wins out and the Dolphins have talent everywhere on the team, just not much in the way of depth. They have all the makings of a good football team and things would need to go very wrong for them to not improve upon their usual 8-8 record.