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Pats opponent first look: Miami Dolphins

In our third installment of Pats opponent first look, we put the Miami Dolphins under the microscope for an in-depth look at what weeks five and fourteen may have in store for the Patriots. The Dolphins recently inflated thier new 96,600 square-foot training facility in Miami ...

It seems everyone has an opinion about whether the Miami Dolphins have what it takes to challenge the Patriots for the AFC East Division title this year. But one thing seems certain: Belichick disciple Nick Saban is an NFL-caliber head coach.

He proved that last year when he essentially gutted the Dolphins and rewired them from the inside out. He changed the team's staff, schemes, rules and requirements and still managed to finish the season at 9-7, including a win in the season finale at Gillette Stadium (albeit against most of the Patriots backups).

Many of the Dolphins players were left wanting more and despite replacing 35 percent of their roster, many of them will be chomping at the bit to earn more respect this season. Could they be contenders this season? They were contenders last season, finishing with only one more loss than the Patriots. And that was with Gus Frerotte throwing the ball.

As any good high school coach will tell you, when two teams walk on the field, there's a chance either of them will be the victor. That being said, the Dolphins still have some serious obstacles to overcome as the season opens, as well as some spots that desperately need to be filled. Here's how it looks through the pre-training camp keyhole:

Offense – As seems to be the standard in the AFC East, the exception being the Patriots, the Dolphins are holding their breath and crossing their fingers that the quarterback position pans out for them. They're taking chances with both quarterbacks they've brought in: Daunte Culpepper, whose knee had to be reconstructed after he tore three ligaments last season, and Joey Harrington, who had three 11-loss seasons as the Lions quarterback and one other when he lost 10.

Culpepper has been seen running on his repaired knee, but Willis McGahee could do squats a few weeks after his knee repair in 2003 and wasn't ready to play for a year. Culpepper blew out his knee at the end of October and his return is yet to be announced. Harrington is hoping for a fresh start and Saban wouldn't have sacrificed draft picks for both of these struggling quarterbacks if he thought Culpepper was going to be ready.

Culpepper was a three-time Pro Bowler who had 5,123 yards of total offense and 41 touchdowns in 2004, but at 29 he simply may not be ready to play in time to keep the Dolphins swimming upstream. Don't look for Frerotte on the roster; he wouldn't even consider staying to play second fiddle to Culpepper after leading the team to nine wins last year and is now in St. Louis.

Saban is bringing in former Bills head coach Mike Mularkey as the new offensive coordinator. Mularkey was little more than his last name suggests in Buffalo, but he was well respected as the Steelers offensive coordinator. He engineered a short-passing, precision-based offense that made Kordell Stewart look good, even to the trained eye. Culpepper is a strong-armed downfield passer who may have trouble adapting to a precision passing game, so he may not fit well into Mularkey's quick-route style.

Miami still has wideout Chris Chambers, who enjoyed a breakout season last year, but Mularkey won't send him down the sidelines on fly routes every play like Randy Moss. So Culpepper's short game will have to improve. Chambers also fumbled five times last season, and dropped 17 passes – the second most drops in the league.

Marty Booker will be the other receiver. He established a career-high with a 17.6-yards per catch average, but he also was open less frequently than Chambers. He had his fewest receptions (39) since his rookie season with Chicago in 1999.

Third-round pick Derek Hagan looks good enough to win the backup spot. At 6-2, he's taller than the starters and his 3,795 total yards is the third-best in Pac-10 history, but he caught a serious case of the dropsies in the high-profile Senior Bowl at the end of last season, which is sure to raise questions about his ability to play under pressure.

The Dolphins ground game looks good with Ronnie Brown carrying the load at running back. He looks strong enough and talented enough to start all 16 games, but there's no visible backup for him if he goes down with Ricky Williams' suspension. Tight end Randy McMichael is also a valuable offensive weapon and consistent pass catcher.

Miami picked up veteran tackle L.J. Shelton from Cleveland and guard Bennie Anderson from Buffalo. They also drafted Joe Toledo from Washington in the fourth round, but it isn't likely he'll beat Vernon Carey for the right tackle spot opposite Shelton. Jeno James will play left guard opposite Anderson.

Defense – The Dolphins also hired former Texans coach Dom Capers, ostensibly as defensive coordinator although he's officially listed as the special assistant to the head coach. As part of the negotiation with Houston to allow Capers to join the Dolphins, he can't hold the coordinator title. The title seems fitting because Saban attends every defensive team meeting and works closely with defensive backs.

The Dolphins overhaul seems to center on defensive schemes Saban learned working for former Michigan State coach George Perles and perfected under the tutelage of Bill Belichick as Cleveland's defensive coordinator from 1991-94. Capers should fit in nicely with Saban's defensive strategy, but he's replacing Will Muschamp, who followed Saban from LSU only a year ago.

Capers constructed a defense in Carolina that went to the NFC Championship, and then coordinated a unit in Jacksonville that went to the AFC title game before moving on to the Texans for his second head coaching stint. Capers loves to blitz and uses a variety of blitz zones to do so. Saban hopes the aggressiveness leads to more turnovers this season. They'll be running a 3-4 base defense that bounces into a 4-3. Saban introduced it last season and it caused much grumbling and complaining by players for its complexity.

Although schemes will be key for Miami's defensive success, it seems the linebackers will need to be the core of its execution. Zach Thomas is always reliable but young Channing Crowder (weak side) and Donnie Sprague (strong side) aren't nearly as proven. The Dolphins brought in veterans Keith Newman and Sedrick Hodge this offseason as well.

Jason Taylor successfully made the move from defensive end in the old 4-3 to outside linebacker in the 3-4 last season and will be back this year. These guys will all be flying around on a myriad of blitzes under the supervision of Saban and Capers.

The Dolphins defensive line could be solid against the run, but looks too slow to be killing quarterbacks and stealing sacks. Those responsibilities will be primarily left up to Taylor, stunting secondary men and blitzing 'backers. Defensive end David Bowens will be back and Saban recently praised the offseason effort of Matt Roth, who has reportedly added size and strength since last season. Roth will likely start at end opposite Bowens. Former Patriots defensive tackle Keith Traylor has three Super Bowl rings and will be back for his 16th season in the NFL. Reports are circulating that free agent defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson is considering signing with Miami, but that has yet to happen.

The Dolphins have some question marks in the secondary as well. They lost cornerbacks Sam Madison and Reggie Howard as free agents and Lance Schulters is still unsigned. Tebucky Jones signed with the Patriots andKiwaukee Thomas went to Buffalo.

Miami is left pasting together a secondary that's so young they may actually end up eating the paste. (If it's the non-toxic kind it will probably just cause constipation.) Don't be surprised if it takes a while for things to loosen up either, since they'll be trying to learn Saban's playbook and it could take a while to digest.

Tennessee's Jason Allen was the Dolphins top pick (16th overall) and will play a big role. He's versatile enough to play safety or cornerback and has known Saban since he was being recruited to play college ball. Second-year cornerback Travis Daniels will look to improve upon a promising rookie season.

Overall – Special teams should be strong again with kicker Olindo Mare and punter Donnie Jones both returning. A lot depends on how quickly Culpepper is game-ready. Two years ago he had 39 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions, so he could be just what the Dolphins need. Then again, he's not going to be throwing to Randy Moss this year no matter what. Mularkey could do well as the offensive coordinator, where he certainly has experience, but everyone is going to have to get used to new faces. Miami lacks depth in a few key positions including running back and the defense is going to have to keep its ears open to execute all the stunts and blitzes Capers employs. Don't be surprised if he and Saban use such plays to make up for a lack of experience in the secondary.

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