With the regular season now less than a month away, let’s take a look at some of the most important issues that remain unresolved and how things are trending at this precise moment.
- Will it be Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh Rosen? This is understandably the most pressing issue and right now there is no clear-cut favorite. Rosen certainly helped his chances against the Falcons, but he also played three-plus quarters compared to just one for Fitzpatrick. My gut feeling is that a decision will come following the third preseason game. This one is too close to call.
- Kalen Ballage or Kenyan Drake? Both running backs will play a lot, and so much depends on game situations and the best skill set for that moment. They are different, which is good. Drake is more flash and dash, Ballage more of a power runner who also has excellent speed. Through the first weeks of camp, Ballage has spent the most time lining up with the starters. That’s got to give him a slight edge heading into the next two preseason games.
- What kind of impact will this draft class have? Early signs indicate a huge impact, certainly from the top of the draft. Barring something unforeseen, No. 1 pick Christian Wilkins will be a starting defensive tackle and third-round pick Michael Dieter the starting left guard. (Note: The Dolphins traded their No. 2 and No. 4 pick in the Josh Rosen deal). After that, fifth-round pick Andrew Van Ginkel could be a core special teams player with a role in a variety of defensive sets and sixth-round pick tackle Isaiah Price has been trending well lately and had a strong game against the Falcons. As for the two seventh-round picks, Chandler Cox is bringing the fullback back into this offense, his clearing block on Mark Walton’s touchdown run an excellent indication of his skills, while running back Myles Gaskin scored a pair of touchdowns against the Falcons. At this point, the Dolphins are getting exactly what they had hoped for out of the rookie class.
- Will we see two rookie guards in the starting lineup? The last time the Dolphins started the season with two rookie guards in the lineup was, well, never. That could change with Dieter currently at left guard and undrafted rookie Shaq Calhoun at right guard. The situation is fluid and both Dieter and Calhoun must continue to show they belong. But they’ve been lining up with the first team for almost two weeks now and it is clear that it is their jobs to win.
- Where’s the pass rush coming from? This was a major concern heading into training camp and so far we have been pleasantly surprised with the play of veteran newcomers Tank Carradine and Nate Orchard. A few of the young linemen have also entered the mix including Dewayne Haskins, Wilkins and Jeff Ledbetter. The Dolphins are planning to implement several different looks to bolster the pass rush, including a heavy dose of blitzing from linebackers and defensive backs. Still, with so much unproven talent, the questions will remain.
- Will Albert Wilson be a factor right away? Wilson, who is rehabbing a hip injury that sidelined him last season, has been practicing, but has yet to do much in contact drills. He looks like he’s close and that could be huge for an offense in need of his playmaking skills. We’ll continue to monitor this closely over the next few weeks, but I’m anxious to see if Wilson plays in the third or fourth preseason game. That could tell us plenty.
- Where are they going to play Minkah? Could the answer be: Everywhere? Minkah Fitzpatrick has spent time this summer playing just about every position in the secondary and has even lined up some as a linebacker of sorts close to the line of scrimmage. He will play a lot and the challenging part for this coaching staff is figuring out where he is best in a variety of situations. My gut feeling is that he’ll probably spend most of his time as the nickel corner, though his flexibility provides options that few other players can provide.
- Is Preston Williams going to remain the story of this summer? He certainly is so far, his performance against the Falcons last Thursday night clearly demonstrating an enormous upside. But let’s be cautious here. We have seen too many players over the years come out strong early camp and then disappear late. I don’t believe Williams will be one of those players. But we won’t know for sure until he continues what he’s done.
- Will we get some clarity at tight end? The Dolphins currently have five tight ends in the mix for significant playing time – Dwayne Allen, Mike Gesicki, Clive Walford, Nick O’Leary and Durham Smythe – and you can make a case for each of them. This will be a tight end friendly offense with many formations calling for two in the game and some calling for three. It appears that Allen and O’Leary have the most complete games of the group though nobody can jump and catch quite like Gesicki. As for Smythe, he has put on more than 15 pounds from last season and his blocking has benefitted. This is a good problem to have, and I would imagine the next two preseason games should have a lot to do with final decisions.
- Who’s going to start at cornerback opposite Xavien Howard? This remains wide open with several possibilities still in place. The most likely choice appeared to be Eric Rowe, who knows this staff from his time with the Patriots, but he has missed some significant time with an injury including the preseason opener. Undrafted rookie Nik Needham got the start against the Falcons and struggled some. Among the other players still in the mix are Jomal Wiltz, Cornell Armstrong, Torry McTyer, Chris Lammons, Tyler Patmon and Jalen Davis. Translation: Somebody’s got to separate himself from the others.
We’ll come back and re-visit these questions in a few weeks.