It was pretty obvious after January's 27-9 mishap against the Ravens. Then, it was even more glaring after Draft Day... the Miami Dolphins are very thin at wide receiver and in the secondary; and they know it.
Four of the team's first five picks, last month, were either defensive backs or wide receivers, and the Fins made a couple waves in the free agent pool, as well. Let's start with the receiving game that Chad Pennington has to work with.
In 2008, he had Ernest Wilford (flanker) and Ted Ginn, Jr. (split end) to start the season. Greg Camarillo (pictured in center) was the wide out to be used on third and long situations.
After Wilford struggled and then flaked away, claiming injury, Camarillo took over the flanker position as seen above, and had a nice little run of it until injury struck him in week 12.
Camarillo is slated to start this season, alongside Ginn, but the question is whether he can be effective after a torn ACL. Camarillo has okay size at 6'1", 190, but he's not known for being a physical player, and, since Miami is predominantly a running team, the weekly toll of blocking for Brown and Williams might really add up after a while.
Ted Ginn, Jr. should continue his ascent as one of the league's up and coming, but I fear team's will feel comfortable enough shadowing him with the free safety. The strength of Pennington is not the deep route, anyway. His arm strength has always been a little suspect.
Ginn needs to assert himself as a reliable possession receiver for Pennington to affirmatively duplicate what he did last year, but this is not necessarily a vital consequence for the quarterback, as we'll talk about.
With Camarillo's indefinite gauge, those two rookie additions at wide receiver in Patrick Turner (Rd. 3, USC) and Brian Hartline (Rd. 4, Oh. St.) may very well be fighting for playing time along with Hawaii alum and punt returner, Davonne Bess.
Hartline is used to lining up across from Ginn thanks to his recent days as a Buckeye, but Turner and his 6'5" frame make a more obvious choice to throw in the mix as a lengthy target Pennington can seek out on short routes.
Let's stick with quarterback Chad Pennington and why he set career numbers in 2008, his first year with Miami. His rapport with his tight ends was phenomenal. Anthony Fasano left Dallas as, predominantly, a blocking specialist.
He ended up with seven of his eight career scores in '08, while more than tripling his yards-per-game tally of the year prior. He and back up, David Martin, combined for over 900 yards, while still blocking amicably for the rushers.
Maybe Pennington's arm hasn't gotten any stronger since leaving New York, but he still does a remarkable job building on-the-field relationships with his players. By utilizing so many single back sets (two tight ends on the field), the Dolphins are able to keep defenses on their toes, guessing as to commit to a pass or a rush.
You know what? Results do not lie. The Dolphins' passing game ranked tenth in the league, last season, despite not having an 800-yard receiver. To note, David Martin did undergo a sports hernia surgery earlier in the week (5/20), but is not expected to miss any training camp time.
So, are there questions at wide receiver? Absolutely, but based on this team's track record, the visible inefficiencies are not damning in the least. Pennington utilizes tight ends and split HBs from the pro set or i-formation to carbon-copy the results of a Pro Bowl caliber possession wide receiver.
The running game, anchored by fifth-year vet, Ronnie Brown, averaged nearly 120 yards per game in '08, using a successful platoon of power rushers like few teams have ever boasted. Brown and, back up, Ricky Williams, combined for 1,575 yards, while third-stringer, Patrick Cobbs, was the team's sixth most prolific receiver.
The unit in front of these guys, the offensive linemen, is quite different this year, with a brand new center and a make-shift right guard rotation that will hopefully pan out in the preseason.
Center, Jake Grove, was brought in from Oak-Town to spell Matt Spanos, which is certainly an upgrade (one the Dolphins are paying about $6-million a year for).
The right side of the ball is a little inexperienced, but GM Jeff Ireland seemed comfortable letting Sparano fill the holes left from free agency, in house, with aforementioned oft-injured guard, Donald Thomas, and, tackle, Vernon Carey.
Pennington was only sacked 24 times last year, a testament to this line, and, of course, his perfected three-step drop he mastered in New York.
No. 10 is an easy guy to block for, and the powerful running backs should make the acculturation process for a lineman pretty routine.
But keep an eye on the proceedings here at right guard as many names will be thrown into the fire such as former Texan, Brandon Frye, who made a couple appearances for Thomas, last year, despite being a natural tackle out of Virginia Tech.
Now, let's saddle up the defense, and look right at the team's primary issue. The coaching staff had to address the inefficiencies at cornerback and free safety this off-season.
The team's pass defense is coming off the previous season ranked 25th in the league. Former Cardinal, Reynaldo Hill, was dropped so to make room for free agent free safety, Gibril Wilson, signed away from Oakland by way of the Giants.
The other starting safety will be Yeremiah Bell, rewarded for his 120 tackle performance of a year ago. But numbers like that can mean one of two things for a strong safety. Either they were great in run coverage, or their tackles served to cover up their own blown coverage on an opposing receiver.
That said, he's physically imposing enough at 6' 1", 200 lbs. now, to inspire enough fear amongst any receiver trying to run across the field with their hands pointed toward the quarterback.
The more gaping concerns were/are at cornerback. Will Allen is slated to start with converted safety Jason Allen, promoted for the departed Andre Goodman. The team also spent a first and second round draft pick on corners.
The weaknesses at this fulcrum position are almost too obvious, and serve as the hand that will either rock or tip the cradle this season. We've seen Will Allen with starting roles before in both conferences, and he continues to get beat long, while offering little run support.
His route-jumping did improve last year, as he set a career-high in interceptions, but his consistency is suspect. Opposing team's top receivers seem to almost always post big numbers on Miami.
Jason Allen is a free safety, by trade, who wasn't fast and spry enough. He's clearly just holding down the fort until first-round rookie Vontae Davis (Illinois) is able to assume the starting gig.
But it takes some time for rookie defensive backs to adjust to NFL playbooks. We have seen guys like Darrelle Revis come of age fast, but Davis was a 20-something pick (25th to be exact), almost a top of his class kind of guy, but not quite.
In the meantime, former punt-coverage specialist, Nathan Jones, will likely cover opposing wide outs on long yardage and shotgun situations.
This secondary unit is stretched really thin, and a nice draft and free agent class won't solve things overnight. The Bills have really revamped their passing game and the Pats get Brady back, so watch out.
But, of course, there is a sunny side looking up. The front seven is fierce, only to be rivaled in division by the Jets. Porter, Ayodele and Crowder are all back with a vengeance, and Jason Taylor was re-signed to sure up the right side of the d-line.
If nose tackle Jason Ferguson can regain his pre-torn bicep form that he had in Dallas, this team will once again be ranked among the league elite in run defense. They were 10th in '08 without Pro Bowler, Taylor (Redskins).
So, are the problems at wide receiver and in the secondary heavy enough to outweigh the positives reported? A team like the Jets, who wants to pound the ball, will have problems scoring on Miami.
But, teams like New England and Buffalo, with over-sized receivers and active passers, can really exploit the corners. Can Pennington keep up with Brady in a high scoring game, with such a questionable wide receiving core?
There will be a lot of pressure on Miami's diverse ground attack to shorten the games and make sure that big 3-4 defense is well rested before each change of possession to the opponents.
The ingredients that worked last year are still in the batter, but the youth employed to cover up the scars branded by the Ravens passing game in Wild Card week will require a natural acculturation process that could leave the team exposed early on.
Overall, the team's schedule is difficult, being a defending division champion. Eleven wins should, theoretically, be in sight, once again, but the steep competition in division and expected bounce back by New England should provide much challenge for Miami to reach the playoffs come January.
Second place in the AFC East might reflect a watered down record compliments of the competition around. Eleven wins was not good enough for division runner-up New England, last year.
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