First in a series of previews on the Patriots’ competition in the AFC East:
Jay Cutler is now a reality star, but the reality in Miami is this is most likely Ryan Tannehill’s final season to prove it or lose it.
Once considered the franchise quarterback of the future, the soon-to-be-30-year-old Tannehill, who has a 37-40 career record as a starter, enters his seventh season with as many question marks hanging over him as he did when he entered the league.
Tannehill showed promise under QB guru Adam Gase in 2016 but has missed the last 20 games because of a left knee injury. Can Tannehill, whose cap hit jumps to $26.6 million next season, get back on track? That’s the biggest question facing this franchise. If he can, this team will contend for a playoff spot. If he can’t, he’ll never see that cash.
The backup situation isn’t great with unproductive Brock Osweiler and unproven Bryce Petty holding the job — and clipboard — once held by the great Don Strock.
Making Tannehill’s job tougher is the absence of Jarvis Landry, who took his NFL-leading 112 catches (boy does Cutler owe him a cameo on “Very Cavallari”) to Cleveland. Tannehill does have a rapport with Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker, but he’d do well to get up to speed with Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson quickly.
The top tight ends Mike Gesicki (second round) and Durham Smythe (fourth) both are rookies.
The ground game should be able to make some hay with veteran masher Frank Gore serving as a mentor to surging Kenyan Drake and rookie Kalen Ballage.
The defense also lost its best player, with terrifying defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh now plying his trade and stomping his feet in Los Angeles for the Rams. His presence and production will be hard to replace with largely unproven players Vincent Taylor and Davon Godchaux having the inside track on the inside.
The Dolphins are stacked off the edge with Cameron Wake (fresh off his fifth Pro Bowl nod) and former Rams stud Robert Quinn the projected starters. Andre Branch and Charles Harris provide quality depth.
Outside linebacker Kiko Alonso (115 tackles) is instinctive and tough and likely will emerge as the leader of this unit. Rookie Jerome Baker will be on the other side, while Raekwon McMillan, who missed all of his rookie campaign with a knee injury, is expected to man the middle.
The secondary will be an area of strength.
First-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick joins a safety group that includes Pro Bowler Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald. The top four corners — Cordrea Tankersley, Xavien Howard, Bobby McCain, and Tony Lippett — make a solid group.
Placekicker Cody Parkey defected to the Bears in free agency and that hurts because he was extremely reliable (21 of 23 field goals). Rookie Jason Sanders was drafted in the seventh round and it’ll be his job to lose. Jakeem Grant is an above-average return man and can flip the field.
Key newcomer: Danny Amendola — he’ll provide clutch plays on the field and valuable leadership in the room.
Big loss: Mike Pouncey — the big center was the anchor of the offensive line. He sealed off bull rushers up the middle.
Tough stretch: The Dolphins close the season by hosting New England, visiting Minnesota, hosting Jacksonville, and visiting Buffalo. That’s cold.
Prediction: 8-8 (third in AFC East)