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  Overall Improvement Still Unclear
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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As with past offseasons, the Miami Dolphins have gone through a series of puts and takes with regards to their roster. First came free agency, next the draft, then more free agency and, now, some trades.

Last September, General Manager Randy Mueller predicted that there would be significant change this season.


It has to happen that way because we’ve got to find the kind of player(s) that Coach wants to fit into the system”, Mueller said. “This is a league of change nowadays, where you can forecast that 30% of roster will change year to year.”

He wasn’t kidding. Since early September, the turnover rate stands at about 35%.

Most Dolphin watchers would agree that the team is better today, talent-wise, than it was at the start of last season. I share that view.

However, it is difficult to judge just how much better these Dolphins are today. One game? Two? Three? More? None?

On paper, some of the math is straightforward. Gain Daunte Culpepper, lose Gus Frerotte (big plus). Gain Joey Harrington, lose Sage Rosenfels (push at worst). Lose Ricky Williams, gain nothing (big loss).

Even the coaching changes bear scrutiny, with two new coordinators on board. Normally, such upheaval tends to set team progress back or at least slow it down. Disruption, though unintended, always comes to some degree with leadership changes.

While most folks would agree than Dom Capers is an upgrade over the departed Richard Smith and Will Muschamp (the team’s balance sheet certainly will show improvement), is Mike Mularkey as good, or better, than Scott Linehan?

At quarterback, Culpepper is the team’s first legitimate Pro Bowl caliber quarterback since you-know-who. Much of the anticipated improvement rests with him. However, the sobering reality is that it may not be Culpepper who is on the field come opening day. Instead, it could be the newly acquired Joey Harrington who gets that nod. Early on, will it be Harrington who we end up comparing to Gus Frerotte?

Back to Culpepper, the health of his knee the prime question at this time. The Dolphins remain non-committal on the timetable of his return, an increasingly disturbing situation. The fact that the Dolphins were willing to part ways with a conditional draft pick to bring Harrington to Miami, when waiting another month would have netted him for free, speaks to a real and increasing sense of urgency that Nick Saban has in getting the quarterback position covered in the event that Culpepper cannot play for a period of time.

Keep in mind that Willis McGahee missed a year’s worth of work before he was ready to roll. The season opener wouldn’t be a year since Culpepper went down. What will the Dolphins’ fortunes be if Harrington must play the first quarter of the season?

Next is the loss of Ricky Williams, a non-trivial matter. The Dolphins wouldn’t have had a winning record last year without him. And, as much as we all like Sammy Morris as a player, he is not even close to Ricky in terms of talent. Yes, the Dolphins have Ronnie Brown, a very good player. However, 2006 will be just the second time in his college and pro career that he will have to single-handedly shoulder the load. Can he do it?

It is curious and, perhaps a tad troubling, that Saban bent over backwards to save Ricky from suspension. On one hand, the Dolphins can use every good player they can get. On the other hand they do have Brown, a major financial and talent investment. What’s the worry?

Fullback will be improved with the acquisition of Fred Beasley. So will the offensive line, with L.J. Shelton manning Left Tackle and line boss Hudson Houck getting to work with the others through this critical offseason. Derek Hagan is a welcomed sight, the first meaningful investment the Dolphins have made at receiver since Chris Chambers was drafted (with all due respect to Marty Booker and his fine skills, he came in a net loss transaction).

Defensively, improvement rests primarily with the development of young defensive line help and the renovation of the secondary.

Can Manny Wright emerge as a full time contributor at DT? Indirect reports out of Dolphin Camp are not encouraging; Wright is allegedly overweight again. Kevin Vickerson, a promising DT who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, must prove he can return to form. Draftee Rodrique Wright won’t be a factor this season (shoulder surgery). And Matt Roth, a mystery to many, is no sure bet to pan out at DE. Recall that the Dolphins used a second round pick on Roth, the very same pick they acquired in the trade of Patrick Surtain to the Kansas City Chiefs. Right now, any reasonable person would be hard pressed to say that the Dolphins are better off with Roth versus Surtain.

In the secondary, it remains to be seen if the trade of Sam Madison for Will Allen will be an upgrade. And can a rookie (Jason Allen) outperform a veteran like Lance Schulters, clearly the best DB the team had last year?

Linebacker play should get a bit better with Channing Crowder gaining a year of experience. It is too bad that Junior Seau’s body betrayed him; when healthy his level of play is tough to match. The Dolphins haven’t equitably replaced what they lost when Seau went down.

Stir in the aforementioned changes at both coordinator spots and one can see how the fortunes of the 2006 Dolphins becomes debatable.

Strictly on paper, the 2006 Dolphins should be improved. But as last year’s Dolphins learned, painfully early on, teams are built with cohesion, chemistry, and talent. When a team turns over 35% of their roster, with not all of the losses being positive, and new coaching leadership is brought in, progress becomes very difficult to judge.



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