Until now, the games were just for practice and, by extension, so were the grades we handed out after each Dolphins exhibition. August was just an exercise in getting ready for September, which has arrived. Mercifully.
Next weekend, the Tampa Bay Bucs visit to start the regular season. Are the Dolphins ready? Let’s take stock of what we know so far:
On the strength of eight passes, people are feeling comfortable at a position in which the starter is out for the year and his replacement is a talking head from the Fox broadcast booth. Kind of startling to put it that way, but when Ryan Tannehill wrecked his knee, Adam Gase knew he had to call Jay Cutler, who did an immediate mic drop for $10 million. Eight completions later, Gase deemed Cutler ready to go — no need to risk him in the preseason finale. Gase was right. Cutler has command of the system, a nifty 111.9 passer rating and was in such a rush to get here, he neglected to pack that ever-present frown. His rocket arm? Yeah, that made it through security. Put it together with the skillset of this receiving corps, Cutler could/should top his previous best season, in Chicago under a QB coach named Gase.
Kenyan Drake, Damien Williams, Storm Johnson and De’Veon Smith all had more carries this preseason than Jay Ajayi. Everyone OK with that? Thought so. After 1,272 yards last year, Ajayi doesn’t have to prove anything. Even with a mere 11 carries, Ajayi had runs of 26 and 19 yards. He averaged 4.6 per. When does the countdown start for his next 200-yard game?
Only a lunatic would toss out a strange stat in Dolphins history to suggest it could happen again. I’m not that loony, but I will say that Mark Duper had zero catches as a rookie and 1,003 yards in Year 2, after he learned how to get in a football stance (no joke). Fat chance Jakeem Grant is Duper 2.0, but he is the team’s most-improved player. It’s further evidence that track stars need time to develop. Look beyond his ridiculous 28.8 average and his frightening breakaway speed. Instead focus on plays such as his 12-yard catch against the Falcons and how he bounced off two defenders on his 69-yard TD against the Eagles. Grant, one of the smallest Dolphins ever, showed grit we never suspected he had. What happens when Gase plants Grant wide on one side and Kenny Stills on the other? Not to mention, a couple of guys named DeVante Parker and Jarvis Landry in a four-wide set?
The line couldn’t stick together last season and will have trouble doing so in 2017. Mike Pouncey played 14 snaps in preseason, which was more than expected. Elsewhere, guard Ted Larsen tore a biceps and should miss about half the season. Tackles Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James endured ups and downs. The ideal starting five may not have taken a single snap together yet. The Dolphins allowed five sacks and averaged just 3.0 yards per rush, fair indications of the line’s performance.
Fifth-rounder Davon Godchaux should win the only job available, starting at tackle next to Ndamukong Suh. All that means is Godchaux gets the glory of taking the first snap on Sundays. It doesn’t mean Jordan Phillips is off the hook, because their snap counts may be equal. Godchaux hasn’t been perfect but has been more consistent than Phillips, who swore he was going to shed his reputation of taking plays off. Phillips turned in a good performance against the Eagles, but that was only after getting a kick in the behind from coaches. “Go ask the coaches,” a petulant Phillips repeated to reporters during his downward trend. First-round pick Charles Harris, an end, took 99 snaps in preseason to Phillips’ 84 and Godchaux’s 83. But Godchaux had seven total tackles compared to two apiece by Phillips and Harris, who quieted after a strong start.
Lawrence Timmons’ interception against the Eagles stood out on a unit that did little else to excite. Check that. There was a buzz early over second-rounder Raekwon McMillan, but that lasted about a minute into the preseason opener when he blew out a knee and was lost for the year. We’ll see how much Timmons has left. Mike Hull figures to step in for McMillan, but given how often the Dolphins go with only two linebackers, improving the 30th-ranked run defense falls into the laps of Timmons and Kiko Alonso.
Reshad Jones is back. Cordrea Tankersley doesn’t look like a rookie. Xavien Howard is healthy. Newcomers Alterraun Verner and Torry McTyer can make plays. Sounds great? Not so fast, my friend. First, there’s the loss of Tony Lippett (Achilles). Plus the half-season suspension of T.J. McDonald, who justified a sudden four-year contract. And now, the funk Byron Maxwell has plunged into. Coordinator Matt Burke better hope Maxwell rebounds as he did in 2016. (Random question: What might be going through Landry’s mind as the Dolphins have forked over $34 million to McDonald and Cutler in recent weeks?)
It was a Matt-for-Matt swap at punter, with Matt Haack winning the job over dependable Matt Darr. Even though he’s not actually a lefty, Haack punts left-footed. Statistically, not much separated the two, but coaches may have been swayed by the lefty situation, which can throw off punt returners and lead to muffs. It will be interesting to see how the Dolphins handle return duties and whether they risk Landry and even Grant.
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Join our reporters for a special evening as they talk NFL with Dolphins Pro Bowl Guard Jermon Bushrod, two-time Super Bowl champion Bob Kuechenberg and former Dolphins Pro Bowl linebacker Kim Bokamper on Tuesday, Sept. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at Bokamper’s Fort Lauderdale. The event is free to the first 100 people and will include raffles, light bites and drinks.