Three Burning Questions
Can a healthy Daunte Culpepper lead this offense?
When the Dolphins acquired the rights to Culpepper from the Vikings, they closed the cushion within the AFC East on the Patriots. Coming off a season-ending injury and his poor performance in 2005, Culpepper has a lot to prove this year. Culpepper displays very good athletic skills for the position with the kind of size and arm strength that sets him apart from most quarterbacks in the NFL. His ability to slide and move in the pocket will make the offensive line much improved, along with his strong supporting cast in RB Ronnie Brown, WR Chris Chambers and TE Randy McMichael.
In 2005 the Dolphins' secondary ranked 20th in the NFL, allowing 206.7 yards per game. In the offseason, the Dolphins wasted little time in upgrading their secondary. They terminated the contracts of Sam Madison, Tebucky Jones and Reggie Howard, and did not re-sign free agent Lance Schulters. They added free agents Will Allen, Andre' Goodman, Renaldo Hill and Deke Cooper, and drafted Jason Allen in the first round. Will Allen will replace Madison at right corner, while Hill moves inside at strong safety; the versatile Jason Allen will play free safety. Second-year player Travis Daniels, who replaced Howard last season, will start at left corner.
Can the Dolphins overtake the Patriots in the AFC East?
There is no doubt the Dolphins closed the gap on the Patriots in the offseason. Head coach Nick Saban is a disciple of Bill Belichick and has slowly installed many basic fundamentals that has made New England a superior organization in the NFL. Both coaching staffs are excellent in game planning and teaching the proper fundamentals that relates to their system. But the one key element that will make it hard for the Dolphins to overtake the Patriots in the division is New England QB Tom Brady. Brady creates so many problems when keeping defenses off balance. His ability to manage the game while making the proper decisions is second to none. The bottom line: Brady knows how to win close games. However, the pieces are in place for both franchises to get through the regular season and continue their play into the postseason in 2006.
The player under the microscope
Culpepper. For the Dolphins to get back to respectability in the AFC, it starts with their experienced quarterback. Culpepper will be under immense pressure to produce from day one. Based on his performance last season, Saban will need to establish the confidence that his signal caller will need if he struggles early in the season. However, look for Culpepper to put up big numbers in 2006 and excel in a Dolphins offense that will be very similar to the one he ran in Minnesota.
Free safety Jason Allen. Allen, the first-round pick out of Tennessee, upgrades a position of need for the Dolphins. He is a versatile player who can play either safety or corner in regular and sub defenses. He has size, instincts and playmaking skills that the Dolphins lacked much of the 2005 season. He is a playmaker against both the run and pass. He is a physical insert player who rarely missed tackles in open space in college. He should get a lot of opportunities to make a positive impact in the Dolphins' secondary.
Comeback player of the year
FB Fred Beasley. The Beasley signing this offseason was a solid addition by the Dolphins based on his versatility. The former Pro Bowl player is one of the better blocking fullbacks in the league. He is a tough, physical blocker who never really fit in with the new coaching staff in San Francisco. He does have some declining skills based on age, but he has been impressive in the offseason program and should bring a unique dimension to the Dolphins' offense based on his experience and receiving skills. If he could somehow get back to his Pro Bowl ways, the Dolphins have added another solid weapon on offense opposite Brown.
Former Bills head coach Mike Mularkey takes over the offense in 2006. Mularkey will tinker with the terminology somewhat, but the system installed by Scott Linehan will stay in place. Keep in mind that this should benefit Culpepper in a big way from not having to learn a whole new system. It's a player-friendly system that features a strong, powerful running game as the foundation that sets up the passing game. The Dolphins will rely on a strong running game that features stretch zones and misdirection that enables Brown to utilize his physical running style. However, with the addition of a healthy Culpepper, look for the Dolphins to open up the passing game even more vertically down the field to keep defenses off balance. Also, look for Mularkey to incorporate more play action, semi-rollouts and bootlegs, which play to Culpepper's strengths and put even more pressure on the defense.
Saban made the transition a year ago from smaller, speedier players to bigger, more versatile ones who fit his multiple-look defensive schemes. Dom Capers (special assistant to the head coach) was hired this offseason to improve and work within the framework of a defense that finished 18th in total defense in 2005. Capers is known for his attention to detail and his mastery of the concepts of the zone blitz. Even though the Dolphins finished second in the NFL in sacks with 49, Capers will incorporate more ways to generate pressure with his zone blitz style, while playing a lot of matchup zones on the back end in coverage. The Dolphins will continue to change schemes from week to week, depending on the matchup. Most of the problems on defense occurred in the secondary last year, so the Dolphins will unleash a totally different secondary in 2006 that features Jason Allen at FS. However, the front seven remains completely intact with experienced, veteran players led by MLB Zach Thomas and RDE Jason Taylor.
Keith Kidd spent 14 years in NFL front offices, including key roles in the personnel departments of the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots.