With two of the four preseason games complete and with the third and most important game now right in front of us, let's take a look back at what we learned last Friday night against the Bucs and what we need to learn over the next few weeks.
Have to start with the quarterbacks. Head coach Brian Flores indicated after the 16-14 loss to the Bucs that 15-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick would “probably” start at quarterback Thursday night against Jacksonville at Hard Rock Stadium, generally considered the most important and telling of the preseason games.
Is this a clear indication that Fitzpatrick will start the opener against Baltimore? While nothing will be official until Flores makes it official, things certainly seem to be trending in that direction.
For one thing, Josh Rosen has resided somewhere between OK and good much of this summer, but we're still waiting for undeniable signs that he could become special.
He completed 10 of 18 passes against the Bucs, victimized by a couple of drops, and was able to convert just 1 of 8 third downs. Didn't help his cause that he short-hopped a fourth-and-goal pass to an open Isaiah Ford in the front of the end zone. But when you look at his entire body of work, Rosen has been solid, for example showing nice touch against the Bucs on a rolling left and throwing sidearm 21-yard pass to tight end Durham Smythe. The question remains: Is solid good enough to sway Flores?
Then you've got Fitzpatrick, who really hasn't played much this preseason; instead clearly stating his case on the practice field. He has, though, had his moments; how he dropped his right shoulder into the body of Bucs safety Darian Steward on a fourth quarter play last Friday night, knocking him down and gaining a few extra precious yards in the process. That's the type of attitude, the type of leadership, the type of try-and-stop-me mentality that we have seen much of the summer and the type that Flores absolutely embraces.
I imagine a firm opening game starter will be announced sometime following this Thursday night's game. I would also expect the situation to remain fluid during the season. After all, why shouldn't it be? But the best indicator we have gotten so far of what Flores might be thinking came in the late hours of Friday night when he told the media that Fitzpatrick would "probably" be starting against the Jaguars. This certainly looks like an opportunity for Fitzpatrick to lock things up, at least heading into the opener.
Complicating the evaluation of both quarterbacks was the up-and-down play of the offensive line. With left tackle Laremy Tunsil starting, we saw some good things early on, though Rosen was sacked three times in the first half and there was little running room. But when Tunsil departed for the night, it quickly became apparent how much the Dolphins need him in the lineup. This is a concern -- quality depth on the line --- that must be addressed.
As an aside, the two rookie starting guards – Michael Dieter and Shaq Calhoun – played much of the game together. They struggled some especially in pass protection. But they also had their moments, fueling hope that the learning process is working well. Each week, each play, is a test for these two. We need to continue to see improvement.
OK, let it be known I'm officially sold on first year linebacker Sam Eguaveon. If he didn't have a spot on this roster locked up before last Friday, it sure looks like he does now. He was far and away the most impactful player in this game, finishing with five solo tackles on defense, including an important forced fumble, and one special teams tackle. His anticipation was excellent, his hits were jarring and he seemed so comfortable out there. You can't teach the intensity he plays with; it's got to come from deep within. And right now Eguaveon has shown everyone this summer that he deserves to be on the field.
There were also some promising moments for the defensive line. Former No. 1 pick Charles Harris had one of his most complete showings, finishing with 1 ½ sacks and looking as quick off the ball as we have seen. Current No. 1 pick Christian Wilkins was also excellent, sacking Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert to end a red zone scoring threat and generally looking like things were starting to come together.
On the down side, we heard an all-too-familiar refrain from Flores after the game. Too many penalties. Too many missed tackles. Too many dropped passes. "We'll keep harping on all those things," Flores said. Plain and simple, they can't become a season-long storyline.
You look around the league and you see several teams struggling to find a quality placekicker and then you look at the Dolphins with Jason Sanders nailing all five of his preseason attempts, two of them against the Bucs, and you realize how fortunate they are.
No, Preston Williams wasn't the story of the night last Friday like he was six days earlier against the Falcons. He dropped a couple that he should have had and there were simply no breakout moments. But that won't change the ongoing narrative of how immediately impactful this undrafted rookie could be. We'll see how he responds this week after a so-so performance against the Bucs.
With the clock rapidly ticking toward the regular season opener on Sept. 8th, we know the Dolphins need to get better, but they also need to get healthy and the two are certainly intertwined. The list of injured is growing – 13 players sat out last Friday's game with a variety of ailments and almost all of them figure to play large roles this season. Many of them are close to returning, probably some were held out simply for precautionary reasons, but getting them back is a big part of the urgency over the next few weeks.
Now it's on to the dress rehearsal of the preseason, Thursday night's game against the Jaguars, where many of the starters will play into the second half and where some of the most important competitions will, at least hopefully, be resolved.