Before free agency starts, before the draft experts come out from wherever they hide during the season, before we get deep into needs and priorities, there are some things that need to be said about the 2012 Dolphins.
It was step-up-time for several important Dolphin players. We can’t lose sight of this as we move forward, that the nucleus Joe Philbin and his staff have assembled now includes some crucial pieces.
Joe Philbin spoke at his season-ending press conference about improvement from within, about several players who could make a significant jump next season now that they have gained some valuable experience.
We take a look at some of those players:
• Quarterback Ryan Tannehill
: This is the most intriguing one of all. We saw improvement from Tannehill during the course of this season. We saw better decisions. We saw some excellent accuracy. We saw a player who was literally growing up before our eyes. Yes, we saw some mistakes, some plays Tannehill would love to have back. But isn’t that expected of a rookie quarterback?
Tannehill has a chance, a real chance, to be vastly improved next season. Studies tell us that most young quarterbacks take a quantum leap between their first and second seasons. With another full offseason and with the additions brought in by General Manager Jeff Ireland, I expect fully that Tannehill will have a much more potent supporting cast next season. Only then, in truth, can we truly evaluate where Tannehill is in his career and what his long-term potential might be.
• Center Mike Pouncey
: This is a player who made that huge leap this season that Philbin is talking about. Don’t get caught up in the fact that he did not make the Pro Bowl as a starter. The tape says everything you need to know. It says that Pouncey is now one of the best at his position in the league. It shows how relentless he has become, how he doesn’t just block one player, but then moves on to a linebacker or a safety.
The Dolphins have had some great centers over the years. Nobody is going to start comparing Pouncey to either Dwight Stephenson or Jim Langer just yet. But now entering his third season, it is abundantly clear that Pouncey has the ability and the dedication to be a special player for a long, long time.
• Safety Reshad Jones
: Did any of us really see this coming? I certainly didn’t. In a very quiet and efficient manner, Jones raised his game as the season progressed. What was a real concern at the start of the season became a strength by the end of the season. Jones has all the tools to be a top-tier safety and he demonstrated many of those skills this season.
He is young, intelligent and very productive. I have trouble thinking of the last time the Dolphins had a young safety with this much going for him. Maybe all the way to Louis Oliver and Jarvis Williams. If Jones continues to progress the way young players do, the Dolphins could very well have this important position solidified for the next decade or so.
• Defensive end Cameron Wake
. While we knew prior to this season how talented Wake has become, he only underlined it with his 15-sack performance. Here is another player the Dolphins can build around.
Wake not only continued to show he is one of the finest pass rushers in the league, but he also demonstrated an uncanny ability to stop the run. Bottom line here is that Wake has matured into a complete player. He is in the prime of his career and there is no reason to believe he’s going to slow down any time soon. The real scary question: How much better can he become?
• Wide receiver Brian Hartline
: This was his breakout season. Injured most of the preseason, Hartline emerged as a top-flight receiver this season and someone who rapidly developed an impressive rapport with Tannehill. I can only imagine the numbers Hartline might compile with additional upgrades at receiver during the offseason. Philbin talked at his press conference about “becoming more explosive.” Hartline is certainly part of that mix.
• Offensive tackle Jonathan Martin
: Not only did Martin play well as the right tackle much of this season, but he also stepped in for injured veteran Jake Long
on the left side during the last month of the season and showed he has great potential there as well.
Martin is an important building block on this team. He is highly intelligent, very physical and it is hard to imagine a player with his skills not improving significantly in his second season.
• Running back Lamar Miller
: I saw enough in his rookie season to believe that Miller has a real chance to be a productive back in this league. Learning from Reggie Bush
and watching Bush’s work ethic can do nothing but help Miller in the long run (no pun intended). I like the way he runs, how smooth he looks out there and how confident he seems.
Similar to Martin on the offensive line, Miller could be one of those players who takes a quantum leap in his second season.
• Defensive lineman Jared Odrick
: We have been waiting for Odrick to play like a first-round pick and in 2012 that’s exactly what he did. He seems very comfortable in this new defensive system and showed this season an improved ability in rushing the passer. This is another player in the prime of his career and could continue to emerge as one of the top young lineman in the league.
• Defensive lineman Olivier Vernon
: I have a feeling Vernon only scratched the surface last season of what he is capable of doing. We saw some signs. We saw plays that demonstrated the speed and versatility the Dolphins liked so much when they drafted him. Now, I’m anxious to see more.
Yes, the Dolphins have a lot of shopping to do this offseason and have both free agency dollars and five early draft picks to help them solidify this roster. Yes, there will be changes. That’s what this offseason is all about.
But let’s not lose sight of what the Dolphins already have and that, most importantly, how many of these young players have a real chance to take their game to another level.