DAVIE—The Dolphins’ three weeks of voluntary-but-not-really Organized Team Activities are finished and they’ll get a quick three-day minicamp next week before going on hiatus.
The team got 10 practices in over the past two weeks, and there was a much different mindset for those sessions than a year ago. There were minimal introductions since most of the key players are returnees, and most of the teaching regarding Miami’s offensive and defensive schemes were simply updating the team on minor tweaks.
The attitude was different, too. There’s no more talk about changing the culture. It’s been done. The organization is operating cohesively, and last year’s performance elevated the expectations from merely making the playoffs to doing some damage in them.
“I’m definitely sick and tired of making it to the playoffs and not going further, and I think everybody feels that particular way,” defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “It’s a good feeling to feel that guys weren’t satisfied with where we were at. It’s exciting, for my vantage point, to see hunger.”
Despite the great accomplishment of rallying from a 1-4 start to make the postseason at 10-6, there was a sense of emptiness because it could’ve been better had Miami not been missing so many guys. No one feels that more than quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Tannehill put together the best stretch of his five-year career with 1,723 yards, 13 touchdowns against five interceptions and a 100.1 passer rating in eight games before being knocked out for the season with a sprained left knee. The Dolphins went 7-1 in that span.
Fortunately for the team, Tannehill didn’t need surgery this offseason, and his ligaments healed quickly enough for him to be full-go for OTAs. Not only was he out there for every practice, he looked agile with the knee brace. There’s not a ton to be discerned about any player in OTAs, but that signals big progress.
“He looks fantastic,” backup quarterback Matt Moore said. “He looks like nothing happened. Again, I’m not a doctor and I have no idea the entire issue, but he looks great. So he’s moving forward like normal.”
As for those surrounding Tannehill, Miami kept intact a group of skill players it thinks can be one of the best in the league. There’s talk about trying to get Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi at least 350 carries this season, coaches are once again hyping the possibility of a breakout year for DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills is trending upwardly.
Then there’s Jarvis Landry, hands-down the best offensive player on this team. He can’t possibly be thrilled about the prospect of playing this season, the final one on his rookie deal, for $1.1 million while Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown enjoys a four-year, $68 million extension. Nonetheless, he showed up for every day of OTAs and gave every indication he will not hold out from minicamp, which runs Tuesday through Thursday, or training camp.
“I’m here,” Landry said. “I’m here to help my team. All that other stuff, it’ll come… I’m comfortable where I’m at.”
Not only did he help the organization avoid any headaches by skipping OTAs, he was exceptional on the field.
“The entire spring, he’s really done a great job with the consistency of the way he’s practiced,” coach Adam Gase said before pointing out that Thursday’s practice was one of his best. “He made the plays. He got himself open and made some tough catches. He was doing all the little tiny details that would make him to where if he was just a little bit open, he really did a good job of getting himself wide open.”
As much as the Dolphins rely on Landry, who had 1,100-plus yards each of the last two seasons, they brought in tight end Julius Thomas from Jacksonville to spread things out. Playmaking tight end was a glaring void in last year’s offense.
He put up big numbers (108 catches, 1,277 yards and 24 touchdowns) in 2013 and ’14 with Gase as his offensive coordinator in Denver, then struggled through two dismal seasons with the Jaguars in which he totaled 76 catches, 736 yards and nine touchdowns in 21 games. The concern for Miami is it can’t know for sure which Thomas it’s getting.
Thomas, soon to be 29, says he feels healthy and still has prime years left in his body. He looked fine during OTAs, and the Dolphins have big plans for him.
“If Julius Thomas is healthy and we catch some breaks, he can be and has been a 10-touchdown guy,” offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said. “That’s a big number. He can be that.
“He’s a rare pro. He’s been huge in our locker room; he’s been huge in our meetings. Way beyond whatever he does on the football field, which I think will be big things if he can stay healthy, his presence has been enormous.”
It has to be. The Dolphins have many question marks at the position if they lose their bet on Thomas.
Not all the news out of OTAs was positive for the Dolphins, though. The largest concern is that Mike Pouncey has been on the sideline because of another hip issue, and the team is actively preparing for life without him in the upcoming season.
Miami hopes to have Pouncey available for all 16 games and will minimize his offseason and preseason work to make that happen. However, the staff is rotating four guards at center to develop a viable contingency plan if he’s not. Current starting left guard Ted Larsen, rookie Isaac Asiata, Kraig Urbik and Anthony Steen are all getting snaps in place of Pouncey.
“We’ve got a pool of guys there that I think we’re going to end up being pretty darn deep,” Christensen said. “We’ll have more experience and more depth than last year.”
Then there’s the defense, which needed substantial renovations after finishing 24th in the NFL in yards allowed and giving up the biggest single-season rushing total in franchise history.
Up front, the Dolphins will roll with the same four they had most of last season and hope Jordan Phillips means it when he says he’s sick of being an underachiever. They also added noted run stopper Williams Hayes, who can play end or tackle, and drafted pass rusher Charles Harris at No. 22 overall.
Harris is here to be a key backup this season and take over as a starter down the road. It should help him that he won’t be asked to step immediately into a starting role, but he might not need that cushion. He looks athletic enough to play right away, and the staff has been impressed by his capacity so far.
“The biggest thing with Charles is his work rate,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke said. “We’re working him and he’s responding. For him to practice at the tempo that he practices at and with the workload we’re putting a lot on him—he’s going and going and going… Until we put pads on, nobody is getting overly excited about anything, but just to know that’s the foundation to what he’s doing—his work ethic is through the roof.”
Burke is still mixing and matching linebackers at different positions, but it appears Kiko Alonso, Lawrence Timmons and second-round pick Raekwon McMillan will enter training camp as the top three options.
All of them will practice inside and outside, and the Dolphins are keeping quiet about any long-term plans in that regard. Burke said he probably won’t finalize their main positions until preseason games begin.
At the back end, Miami felt really good about its secondary for 2017 before losing safety Isa Abdul-Quddus to a likely career-ending neck injury. The team still has quality cornerbacks in Byron Maxwell and Xavien Howard, plus Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones, but needs another safety to emerge.
That’s a complicated situation at the moment. Free agent signee Nate Allen, who hasn’t been a regular starter since 2014, will compete with Michael Thomas and others, but T.J. McDonald looms as a major challenger. The problem with McDonald is that he’ll miss the first half of the year because of a league suspension. He’ll get a full slate of reps until the season begins, but can’t practice after Sept. 2.
“I’m treating every day right now like a game for me,” McDonald said. “I’m just going out there, giving it my all and trying to take it all in and make sure that when my name is called, I’ll be ready to go.”
There’s a ton to sort out before the opener, which is a big reason teams take this part of the calendar so seriously.
While the last three weeks were a broad overview of what Miami plans to do this season, the upcoming minicamp will be a deeper, more specific set of meetings and practices. It’ll be the first real chance to see where the Dolphins stand for this season, and OTAs gave them a good idea of who’s ready for that kind of work.
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