With a new coaching staff, the Miami Dolphins are looking to put the 2007 season behind them and start fresh. In order to improve on their 1-15 mark from last season, Miami must improve their offense. The offense ranked 28th overall last season. The running game in particular struggled after the loss of running back Ronnie Brown (knee). Miami averaged a putrid 84.8 rushing yards per game in the games without Brown, while they managed 115.1 yards per game in the first seven weeks with him.
The Dolphins are hoping with the return of Brown, after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament at the season's midway point, and Ricky Williams (chest) the rushing game will pick up where it left off. Williams recorded only six carries before he was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. He is reportedly close to 100 percent and ready to roll. Brown was averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and was on the verge of a breakout season, until he was sidelined for the season. To put in perspective how bad the Dolphins rushing game was, Brown still led the team in rushing with 602 yards even though he played in just seven games.
During the Dolphins recent organized team activities, Williams participated in full team drills, while Brown observed from the sidelines for much of the practice. Durability will continue to be a question mark for Miami's duo - Williams has played in only 13 games over the past four seasons, largely due to his off-the-field indiscretions, but a lack of in-game contact leaves questions surrounding his season-long sturdiness. Severe knee injuries are usually tough to come back from, especially at the running back position, but Brown plans on being ready to go full speed by the Dolphins first game. For the sake of balance, anterior cruciate ligament tears generally take 18 months before a player is back to normal.
If Brown is healthy by Week 1 it is expected for him to be used as the lead back in a committee approach. However, common sense says Brown won't be ready in time, so look for Williams to see plenty of action, especially early in the season. Miami will likely ease Brown into the rotation as he shakes the rust off and gets into game shape. The competition between the two backs should only help Miami, with both running backs pushing each other to perform better.
It is believed that both backs will share the load even after Brown is healthy, and keep in mind that head coach Tony Sparano's history points to a dual approach in the backfield. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning prefers a single-back system, but if executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells has his way, look for the rock to be shared a lot.
The Dolphins upgraded their offensive line in the offseason, starting with the selection of left tackle Jake Long, of the University of Michigan, with the first overall pick in this year's draft. Miami hopes Long will anchor the offensive line for years to come. The Dolphins have only two returning starters in second-year center Samson Satele and right tackle Vernon Carey. Carey last year started on the left side but will now become the right tackle. Rounding out the offensive line for Miami are the free-agent additions of Justin Smiley and Steve McKinney (knee). The Dolphins have talent up front, but how quickly these guys come together in training camp will be key for not only the running game but for the entire offense.
The question mark, as it seems with many teams in the NFL, is at the quarterback position. Josh McCown and John Beck are the only experienced quarterbacks on the roster, but that is not saying much. The Dolphins drafted University of Michigan quarterback Chad Henne in the second round, and they have not ruled out the possibility of starting the rookie at the beginning of the season. For now, it appears as though McCown has the upper hand to win the job.
Whoever is under center for Miami will have their work cut out for them as they ranked 24th in passing last season with 207.4 yards per game. Defenses are likely to stack the box, daring wide receivers Ernest Wilford and Ted Ginn Jr. beat them on the outside.
As a security blanket, the Dolphins drafted two running backs in this year's draft. In the sixth round, Miami selected Jalen Parmele, out of the University of Toledo. Parmele averaged 125.9 rushing yards per game, which was good for ninth in the country. Parmele will likely help the inside running game for Miami and provide some toughness in short-yardage situations, should he ever be called upon. Lex Hilliard, out of the University of Montana, was also drafted in the sixth round. If he is able to make the team he will add depth for the Dolphins at the running back position or the fullback position as he has demonstrated to be a terrific blocker in college.
Both Brown and Williams are high-risk, high-reward players. Typically, it takes 18 months before a player returns to his former self after such a knee injury. Brown has stated that he will be ready by the season opener, but look for him to really start hitting his stride by midseason. Consider Brown as a weak No. 2 option or a strong No. 3 option. Brown was on the verge of a breakout season before the injury, and it is likely going to take time for him to find that form again. Brown was a threat out of the backfield last season as a receiver and as he progresses into shape, his versatility will only increase.
Williams has worked hard this offseason to try and regain the talents he possessed early in his career. He looks to reinvent himself at 31 years old, but it will be hard to count on Williams because he has played in only 13 games over the past four seasons. Like Brown, Williams needs time to get into playing shape. Consider Williams a quality No. 4 back and somewhat of a sleeper candidate for quality fantasy production.
Parmele is worth keeping an eye on in training camp, but he is not draftable at this time. If Brown or Williams were to suffer another serious injury, grabbing Parmele off the wire could prove to be a steal. Hilliard should not be drafted in any format; if he continues to work at fullback, his expected value is nil.
As the season progresses, the better back may get the majority of the carries. At this stage in their careers, Brown is the better talent, but Williams is hoping to catch lighting in a bottle one more time. It would be wise to handcuff the two backs together come draft day.