There is finally some optimism in the air following the Dolphins’ 20-10 win over the Panthers on Friday night thanks to a dominant first-half performance from the starters.
Those good feelings are tempered some by who the opponent was, a Carolina team that selected first in the draft after going 2-14 a year ago, but the progress we saw was refreshing nonetheless.
Let’s take a look at whose stock is up and whose stock is down halfway through the preseason.
Reggie Bush: One night in a meaningless preseason game doesn’t overshadow what Bush has done in his first five seasons in the league, but there’s no denying he looked the part of feature back against the Panthers.
He did the things we expected, showcasing explosiveness in the open field and receiving skills arguably second to none as far as running backs go.
But he also did some of the things the critics say he doesn’t do well. He ran between the tackles and picked up some tough yards after contact with determination and extra effort.
What appeared to be a long shot when the Dolphins traded for him, and that was being optimistic, Bush suddenly seems capable of becoming the Dolphins’ primary runner this season.
I worry Reggie won’t be able to hold up with workhorse carries combined with all the extra touches he gets as a receiving threat and in the return game. But if he can stay healthy, I don’t see why Reggie can’t have a career year in Miami.
Kevin Burnett: Burnett was less than stellar in the opener against the Falcons, failing to fill running lanes effectively which was one reason why Atlanta was able to run all over the Dolphins early on.
On Friday against the Panthers, though, Burnett looked like a considerable upgrade over Channing Crowder, filling running lanes, getting after the quarterback, and dropping back into coverage where he saw the opportunity to reel in an interception bounce off his hands.
It’s evident that Burnett is much faster and athletic than his predecessor. He figures to bolster the Dolphins’ ability to cover backs and tight ends and adds the playmaking aspect Miami has missed over the years with Crowder.
Dansby and Burnett should be entertaining to watch this season, flying all over the field as one of the league’s most underrated inside linebacker tandems.
Dolphins’ offensive line: Maybe the Panthers are just that bad, but the Dolphins’ offensive line seemingly underwent a transformation in merely a week’s time.
In Atlanta, the O-line offered no push and the Falcons completely stuffed Daniel Thomas. With Reggie Bush making his debut, however, the Dolphins created arguably more push than we’ve seen since 2009, as Reggie and D. Thomas combined for 100 rushing yards on 20 carries.
So far Mike Pouncey is looking the part of stud, maybe Pro Bowl caliber, Richie Incognito appears much improved since 2010, and Vernon Carey is catching on at guard quickly.
Consistency is now in order if the Dolphins are going to resurface as one of the game’s top rushing offenses after last season’s hiatus. Oh yeah, the best offensive lineman in the business, Jake Long, returns to the lineup this week.
Chad Henne: The roller coaster ride continues. We’ve had three stock watch segments this preseason. Henne has been up, then he was down, and now he’s back up again.
His nearly 200-yard first-half with no interceptions has fans believing again. Henne clearly benefited from getting Brandon Marshall back and Reggie Bush into the lineup, and now the buzz around South Florida is that he could be finally ready to emerge as a quality starting quarterback in this league.
A reality check is in order, though. Just like many overreacted to Henne’s struggles in Atlanta, some are jumping back on the bandwagon a little too quickly. If anything, Henne only confirmed he’s the Miami Dolphins’ starting quarterback in 2011.
Matt Moore isn’t challenging him for the job anytime soon and trade rumors involving the likes of David Garrard or Tim Tebow shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Jared Odrick: Odrick may be a week overdue for rising status, as he had a standout performance in Atlanta. But getting the start over Randy Starks on Friday night against Carolina, whether that was just Sparano getting a feel for him against a first-team offense or he’s actually challenging for a starting role, confirmed how impressive Odrick has looked in training camp and in the preseason.
He’s going to have a significant role on the deepest defensive line in football regardless. As the 2010 first-round pick appears to be panning out, the Dolphins are now very flexible at the position.
They can easily afford to trade away Phillip Merling, who is reportedly on the trading block, for a piece that would bolster a weaker position like tight end.
Nolan Carroll: Once a virtual lock to make the team, Nolan Carroll has clearly digressed in his second season.
Carroll, who actually was a key piece in the Dolphins’ dime package and returned kicks a year ago, is now vulnerable to getting the boot if a roster fringe corner like Nate Ness or Vince Agnew can make a play or two in the final two exhibitions or if Will Allen can get healthy and on the field.
Carroll getting shook on a would-be tackle for loss on a screen pass and getting trucked attempting to make a tackle down the field against the Panthers essentially assured he’s now on the bubble.
Matt Moore: Those fans that were calling for Matt Moore to replace Henne as the starting quarterback have been awfully quiet this week.
Moore’s momentum following a solid showing against the Falcons was short lived, as he threw for a measly 73 yards and had a ugly fumble while leading the Dolphins to only three points in the second half Friday night.
I still believe Matt Moore is a solid backup quarterback. But that’s all he is.
Dolphins’ tight end depth: Charles Clay finally flashed with a couple receptions, but he’s been more of a fullback than a tight end thus far. The Dolphins may be concealing their real plans for Clay for the regular season, but that doesn’t change the fact that there isn’t a tight end on the roster outside of Fasano that deserves to be on the 53. Nobody is stepping up.
If the Dolphins don’t pull off a trade for a solid number two, expect them to search the waiver wire when teams make final cuts. Another team’s trash could be treasure for the Dolphins considering how poor their depth is at tight end right now.
Phillip Livas: I have Livas here really only because the list of candidates is short this week. He didn’t shoot himself in the foot with poor decisions or try to do too much.
Livas let the ball bounce for a touchback and called for a fair catch when it was appropriate. But we didn’t see the elusiveness we saw against the Falcons, especially on his two kick returns.
He’ll need to do more in the final two preseason games or it may be safe to assume his success in Atlanta had more to do with Falcons’ special-teams units not being quite ready in the first game of the year than Livas being the league’s next dangerous return specialist.
A big return or two, though, and we can once again revisit the possibility of Miami keeping six receivers.
Lex Hilliard: It’s tough when you’re stock drops after you score a touchdown in the last game, but Lex Hilliard takes a little bit of a hit with the signing of Larry Johnson.
Some are saying the signing stems from the Dolphins not being happy with rookie Daniel Thomas. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
While Johnson will provide insurance for Thomas, who is unproven, and Reggie Bush, who hasn’t played a 16-game season since 2006, his ceiling is jumping Hilliard for third on the depth chart.
I still expect Hilliard will make the team even if Johnson has something left in the tank, as keeping four running backs seems to be in order, but it doesn’t appear this regime is as high on him as we were being led to believe.