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  Judge March in December
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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These are exciting times for the Miami Dolphins.

Free agency has been a rousing success on paper, yielding a bounty of very talented players. The bell cow of the lot is WR Mike Wallace (Steelers), a gamebreaker in the mold of Mark Duper, the type of receiver the team hasn’t had since Irving Fryar plied his trade almost 20 years ago.

And now comes the highly anticipated NFL Draft. The Dolphins possess a hoard of high draft picks, even gaining two extra picks as compensation for past free agents lost. With the progress made in free agency, General Manager Jeff Ireland is now in a unique position…being able to draft more for top talent versus need.

It’s really a special opportunity: Ireland has a chance to virtually eliminate the gap between his Dolphins and the New England Patriots. How long have Dolfans been waiting for the chance to do THAT?

Heck, there is even a new team logo and overall brand impression, long promised by owner Stephen Ross and much desired by many progressive-thinking faithful. Reaction is mixed, but it screams change and a fresh start.

Even Dan Marino tweeted “#NewEraNewLook”.

All of this excitement has somewhat blunted the pain of the past four consecutive losing seasons, with real hope blossoming in perfect synchronization with the spring season. It’s easy for Dolfans to conclude that the losing streak is over, and that the playoffs must be a foregone conclusion.

It says here that’s a leap we shouldn’t make just yet.

The Dolphins did lose some good players to other teams. The reasons for this were varied, though the real cause for concern is that some of the replacements currently on the roster are either downgrades or question marks.

Is second year offensive lineman Jonathan Martin ready to handle left tackle for 16 games? Will he prove a solid replacement for Jake Long (Rams)? Some say he doesn’t have to be that good, and he’s a lot less expensive than Long. But make no mistake: the spotlight on him will be very hot. If QB Ryan Tannehill gets injured in a game by a guy that Martin should have handled, the uproar and second-guessing will be deafening. That’s not to say we should expect Martin to fail, but he has a lot of work to do before he can be considered a good NFL left tackle, let alone a player the caliber of a Jake Long.

Consistency” is what coach Joe Philbin wants to see out of Martin for the sale to be made.

And what about second year running back Lamar Miller, is he really ready for prime time? Is he ready to replace Reggie Bush (Lions), a man with 2,000 yards over his two Dolphin seasons?

Again, Philbin cited “consistency” when referencing Miller’s biggest need. Hey Joe, don’t forget pass protection!

What about third year man Daniel Thomas? We haven’t seen much from him to suggest he’s anything more than the second coming of JJ Johnson. He’s oft injured and also struggles in pass protection. Really, he is eight games away from earning a big fat bust tag.

Health” and…you guessed it… “consistency” are Philbin’s keys to his success.

Let’s be clear: THE reason why Bush wasn’t re-signed is that Ireland made a big investment in these young backs, trading up for Miller and Thomas, and needed to show a return. Bush simply stood in the way of that. It’s a huge risk letting their best offensive playmaker last season get away, but Ireland is determined to take that risk.

There are some other questions that remain to be answered.

The biggest remains quarterback Ryan Tannehill. His future as an NFL QB is not yet validated. He had a decent rookie season and made the sort of progress you wanted to see from a raw college prospect. Now comes Year Two, where truly elite QBs generally make a big leap forward. This year Tannehill has the tools he needs to be successful: his favorite target (Brian Hartline) is back, as is Davone Bess, and now he has Wallace and Brandon Gibson (Rams) too. And Dustin Keller (Jets) should prove to be a better target at tight end over the departed Anthony Fasano (Chiefs).

So now it is up to him. Other pretenders to Dan Marino’s throne failed at this point in their careers. Will Tannehill succeed where the others didn’t?

Defensively, the shock of free agency came with the unexpected release of linebackers Karlos Dansby (free agent) and Kevin Burnett (Raiders). They were the top two tacklers on the team last season, each netting over 100 stops in total. This was very impressive. But Ireland and coach Joe Philbin weren’t much impressed, and decided to instead opt for youth NOW. Enter Dannell Ellerbe (Ravens) and Phillip Wheeler (Raiders). Logic says they should do well behind Paul Soliai and the franchised Randy Starks.

The hope is that Ellerbe and Wheeler give defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle a new dimension or greater flexibility to employ on game days. For example, Ellerbe should be more effective against tight ends running down the middle. But are they “upgrades” over Dansby and Burnett?

Another problem that needed to be solved: cornerback. Ireland and Philbin decided it was time to go in a different direction by allowing Sean Smith to leave (Chiefs). When we consider all the redzone TDs allowed by Smith over the years, it’s easy to understand the decision. Smith’s departure follows the trade of Vontae Davis to the Colts; this effectively writes off Ireland’s heavy investment in the former starting duo.

To replace Smith, Ireland signed former Pro Bowler Brent Grimes from the Falcons to a one year deal. The reasons are simple to understand: Grimes is still recovering from an Achilles injury, and there are some very good CBs at the top of the upcoming NFL draft.

Remember the name Xavier Rhodes from Florida State. He has the ability to play multiple techniques, is lightning fast, has Nnamdi Asomugha size, is good against the run, and hits with force. As things stand as of this writing, he is a very real and attractive possibility for the Dolphins with their 12th overall pick.

Overall, it’s hard to know yet what these changes (and others not named here) will really mean to the team’s fortunes. We need to keep watching the movie. Even intangibles such as team chemistry need to be rationalized, especially with the number of free agents infused in such a short time. A lot still needs to happen for these Dolphins to be seriously regarded as a playoff contender.

So temper your excitement just a bit. The signs are very good, but don’t forget the past four seasons. Judge March in December. Only then will we really know what the impacts of the changes really are.

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