With the preseason opener now just a few days away, with the roster and starting battles coming into clearer focus and with last Saturday's scrimmage at Hard Rock Stadium providing few answers, some insight and perspective seems in order.
Let's start with my top five training camp performers through eight practices and that scrimmage on Saturday.
1. Cornerback Xavien Howard: Nobody has been more impressive on a consistent basis. He had three interceptions in last Thursday's practice alone and has clearly gotten the better of DeVante Parker in most one-on-one matchups. If Howard doesn't have a big season, a Pro Bowl season, I'd be very surprised.
2. Safety Reshad Jones: It wasn't just the Pick Six in the first week of practice; it's more about setting a standard and maintaining it. Jones is entering his ninth season and the combination of football smarts and athleticism has never been more evident. With Howard and Jones leading the way, the secondary could be one of the strengths of this team.
3. Wide receiver Danny Amendola: I knew he was consistent and smart and sure-handed and generally the type of player who is going to make any offense better. But until now, until seeing him on the practice field every day, I wasn't aware of the depths of those skills. Perhaps most impressive has been his ability to separate himself from a defender.
4. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill: No, he hasn't been stellar. There have been several interceptions he'd like to have back. But it's the big picture that stands out most. Tannehill is moving around with remarkable ease. There are absolutely no lingering issues with his surgically repaired left knee. When you consider the importance of that, it automatically gets him on this list.
5. Defensive end Charles Harris: I was tempted to go with Kiko Alonso, Jordan Phillips or Frank Gore for the fifth spot since all have been impressive. But Harris punctuated his summer with two sacks in the scrimmage and even Cam Wake singled him out as the most improved player on the team. "Everything," Harris says, "feels a little different this season." He is clearly making a position of strength even stronger.
• The good news so far, the really good news, is that the Dolphins have remained relatively healthy. There have been no serious injuries and no setbacks involving the players returning from injuries. Defensive lineman William Hayes went down with a hamstring injury last week, but should be back before long. Nobody else who figures to play a lot has been slowed by an injury. You have to be lucky in this league to prosper and I would say, certainly after last season, that the Dolphins are due for some good luck.
• Flag issues: The emphasis has been evident since the first day of training camp. Cut down on penalties, especially the pre-snap penalties that troubled and deterred this team a season ago. "This can't be part of our storyline anymore," said coach Adam Gase. The coaching staff went back and evaluated every penalty from last season. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Who was to blame? There were 137 penalties in all, second most in the league. It is clear, though, that nothing quite riles Gase as much as the false starts on offense and offsides on defense, all pre-snap violations. The problem is being addressed, but there are too many reminders that it has yet to be solved, most recently several pre-snap flags in last Saturday's scrimmage. "It's beyond frustrating," said Gase. Bottom Line: This team simply can't afford to give away yards.
• Tough decisions at wide receiver: While defensive end is the deepest area of the team, wide receiver may prove to be the most difficult in terms of final roster decisions. The Dolphins have been known to keep five receivers, though usually keep six. Look at this roster. The first five appear pretty well set with, in no specific order, Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker, Albert Wilson, Danny Amendola and Jakeem Grant. That leaves some awfully promising players battling for that sixth spot, players like former third-round pick Leonte Carroo, former seventh-round pick Isaiah Ford, and others like Rashawn Scott and Malcolm Lewis, two former UM players who have each had their moments. My thought: Ford has shown the biggest upside in camp, though he has trouble staying healthy. Carroo needs a few breakout preseason moments to secure his spot. Going to be a close call between four or five players.
• A second helping: You expect it to happen, second year players returning as different, far more productive players. But it doesn't always happen. It is, though, happening with four Dolphin defenders: We previously mentioned defensive end Charles Harris among the training camp standouts, but then there's also defensive tackles Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor, and linebacker Chase Allen. All four have clearly used what they learned as rookies to take their games to another level this season. Godchaux and Taylor have refined their games and Allen, a surprise undrafted rookie last season, is playing so well he's seeing some practice time at starting outside linebacker. It could mean plenty for this defense if all four second-year players continued this impressive look during the regular season. "I'm playing so much faster now," said Taylor.
• Minkah Fitzpatrick update: He has been solid, though, not spectacular all through camp. Even for a player with such a high football intellect, there is still a lot to learn, especially when you are playing three or four different positions in the secondary. I expect that the preseason games will serve as a coming out party of sorts and I see no reason why Fitzpatrick won't play a major role on the defense this season.
• And finally, the pace picks up considerably beginning this Thursday against the Bucs at Hard Rock Stadium, the first of four preseason games, which means the regular season is now just five Sundays away. Can't get here soon enough.