Top 10 Questions Heading Into Miami’s Preseason Opener

Ryan Tannehill Steve Mitchell / USA TODAY Sports

After finishing 8-8 for the second year in a row while missing the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season in 2014, the Miami Dolphins were major players in an eventful offseason. Offensively, Miami gathered new weapons and gave quarterback Ryan Tannehill, now entering his fourth season, a big contract in May. On the defensive side of the ball, Miami signed Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to the largest contract for a defensive player in NFL history.

However, questions are still abound and figure to persist heading into their season opener on September 13 against the Washington Redskins at FedExField. For now, here are the top 10 questions heading into Miami’s preseason opener tonight against the Chicago Bears:

 1. Who Fills the Shoes at Backup Running Back?

Jay Ajayi

Lamar Miller is firmly entrenched as Miami’s starting halfback after becoming the first Dolphins player since Reggie Bush, in 2011, to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark on the ground. The fourth-year back, who was drafted in the fourth round out of local University of Miami, started all 16 games last season and had the second-highest rushing average (5.1 yards per carry) of any running back who hit quadruple digits on the ground. He set career highs in rushing attempts (216), rushing yards (1,099), and total touchdowns (nine). However, Miller only carried the ball 13.5 times a game and his smaller frame (5’10”, 224 pounds) suggests he will not be asked to do a full workload this upcoming season.

In the 2015 NFL Draft, the Dolphins selected Boise State University running back Jay Ajayi in the fifth round, hoping he works his way into the tailback rotation this season and possibly become a starter in the future since Miller is set to hit the free agent market after the season ends. This plan seems temporarily on hold, though, as the six-foot, 221-pound rookie is currently battling a hamstring injury that forced him out of commission for tonight’s game against the Bears. When he was able to practice, Ajayi had yet to separate himself from the competition. During Miami’s open scrimmage last Friday, Ajayi had just one carry for 12 yards. Dolphins VP of football operations Mike Tannenbaum said there are areas Ajayi needs to improve if he is going to play this season.

“There are things we like about (Ajayi), but if he can’t pass protect, he will never be active,” Tannenbaum said last Tuesday. “I don’t care how talented he is between the tackles. If Jay Ajayi can’t pass protect, he won’t be active.”

The talented rookie is competing with veterans Damien Williams, LaMichael James and Mike Gillislee for the number two spot.

Williams, entering his second season out of the University of Oklahoma, is known more for his receiving skills than as a runner. Last season, Williams averaged 8.9 yards on 21 receptions, compared to a 3.4 yards on 36 carries. In the scrimmage, Williams received 11 carries and took three of them into the end zone. He is listed on the second team as a kick returner.

James, another fourth year back, made his way to the Dolphins after two and a half disappointing seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. The former University of Oregon Duck standout gained just nine yards on the ground in two games for the last season, but James has made a favorable impression in camp. He led Miami with 41 rushing yards on nine carries in the scrimmage and has been praised for his willingness to pass protect. James is also in the mix to return kicks, where he is on the third team for both punt and kickoff returns.

“I’m really happy with how LaMichael is competing right now. I think he came into camp with a great attitude,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor told the SunSentinel last week. “He plays fast in the run game and the pass game, which is really impressive. I can’t wait to watch him in the preseason. He’s the kind of back that fits this offense. When he came here, we knew he’d have a chance to be the type of guy who makes plays in space.”

If any of the backs are in danger of not making the 53-man roster, Gillislee appears to be the odd man out. After becoming the first University of Florida Gator to surpass the 1,000-yard mark since 2004, he was drafted in the fifth round by Miami in 2012 but has yet to make an impact in the pros, though. Gillislee has six carries to his name and missed all of last season after being put on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. While he scored a touchdown on Friday, he does not stand out in any area, and is behind the other backs in almost every phase of the game.

Next: Who Will Step Forward at Offensive Guard?


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