The 21st century has been hard on Dolphins fans. The franchise has clinched a playoff berth just twice since 2001 with eight losing seasons and a dreadful 1-15 campaign in 2007 under head coach Cam Cameron.
This season has gotten already gotten off to a similarly frustrating start with key players Mike Pouncey and Knowshon Moreno on the mend following offseason surgeries. But here are five reasons Dolphins fans should be optimistic heading into the 2014 NFL season:
1. A brand new offensive line: Now one can make the case for this being reason for concern, but after the performance—or lack thereof—from the Dolphins’ O-Line in 2013, it couldn’t possibly be worse this season. Factor in the addition of a premier left tackle in Branden Albert, a very talented and versatile guard in Shelley Smith, and two key rookies Ja’Wuan James and Billy Turner, and Miami may have constructed one of the better lines in the AFC East in the matter of one offseason. That’s impressive. If they can learn offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s blocking scheme quickly, they could be a much-improved force when protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Mike Pouncey’s return from injury will only strengthen the group.
2. Bill Lazor’s offense: Speaking of Lazor, the quarterback wiz will get his hands on third-year gunslinger Ryan Tannehill. The Dolphins are hopeful he still has some of that magic left that helped turn the Eagles’ Nick Foles into one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks. Tannehill has already taken big steps in his professional career, capping off 2013 with 3,913 passing yards (10th most in the NFL) and 24 touchdowns. Lazor’s scheme is expected to be a high-powered spread offense featuring a similar aerial attack dependent on quick, efficient passing plays. With talented offensive weapons in Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Charles Clay and rookie Jarvis Landry, Lazor and Tannehill will have plenty of options to work with.
3. The superb secondary returns—potentially better than before: Last season, the Dolphins’ secondary was a pleasant surprise. This season, much of the group returns with only safety Chris Clemons being the major key player who departed this offseason for Houston. They kept Brent Grimes in the fold, however, and that was the most important move for Miami on defense. Grimes is an elite cover corner coming off his second Pro Bowl selection; Clemons is replaceable.
Meanwhile, they added veteran Cortland Finnegan to the fold at cornerback. Along with second-year players Jamar Taylor and Will Davis, Finnegan should help solidify the Dolphins’ cornerbacks group and bolster the team’s pass coverage. Safety Jimmy Wilson should be in the fold at slot cornerback as well, but he’ll make his mark on defense in some form or another. Reshad Jones and Louis Delmas are quality players who should do a great job rounding out Miami’s defensive backfield.
4. Another year of improved play from Olivier Vernon: While it would be nice to see 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan take the next step this season, the continued development of sacks leader Olivier Vernon could be more vital to the Dolphins’ success. Vernon, who racked up 11.5 sacks a season ago, made great progress alongside the veteran Cameron Wake and helped create one of the AFC East’s more formidable pass-rushing units. Playing against the Patriots’ Tom Brady, Vernon is a key piece to the puzzle in providing Miami with the boost they need to be legitimate contenders within the division again. At 23 years of age, he can only get better—a reality that should have all opposing offensive coordinators shuddering in fear.
5. Rishard Matthews: I’ll tell you right upfront that I believe rookie Jarvis Landry will beat out Matthews and Brandon Gibson for the Dolphins’ slot receiver gig. But when it comes down to it, Matthews is going to be the subtle, game-changing wideout who helps put the Dolphins over the hump in 2014. Pro Football Focus’ “Secret Superstar” lined up 87 percent of the time in the slot for Miami in 2013, catching 41 passes for 448 yards and two touchdowns. 331 of those yards came in the final half of the season, including a 100-yard performance against the Buccaneers during which he caught 11 of 14 passes thrown his way with both of his 2013 touchdowns and seven first downs in a loss.
He posted the fourth-best drop rate among all NFL receivers, according to PFF, and proved to be a viable option out of the slot for Tannehill throughout the season. Matthews does not appear to be a top-tier threat by any means, but as a third or fourth receiver, preferably playing out of the slot, his production could have a great effect on the Dolphins’ success this season.