Training camp is now well underway, and do you know what that finally means? 

Football is back. The Hall of Fame Game is in a few days, and we’re less than two weeks away from the Dolphins’ first preseason game.

What’s more is that Brian Flores’ South Florida squad this season should be the best yet under his tenure. Especially now that fans have been able to catch a glimpse of this 2021 team, excitement is building with every practice pass from second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. 

New additions such as Will Fuller, Jaylen Waddle, Benardrick McKinney, and Jaelan Phillips are adding new intrigue to the team. Miami’s 2020 draft class was so massive that there are many returning rookies from last year who have shown promise. The Dolphins have a new practice facility, an exciting roster, what seems to be a capable coaching staff, and what looks to be a manageable schedule this year. 

So next stop, the Super Bowl, right?

That would be awesome — like, go streaking through my apartment complex-type awesome — but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that in the real world, things happen. 

In football, injuries happen. Young players regress. Old players get old, and slow. Coaches make bad decisions. Bad luck happens because, at the end of the day, footballs are kind of a bizarre shape, and wacky things happen. 

Now before you go thinking that I’m some incurable pessimist, realize that I’m actually an unapologetic optimist. I love this team, and I love their chances at the playoffs this year. That’s why I’ll follow this article up with my reasons to be fired up for the 2021 season. 

For now, however, that leaves us with a topic that’s just as important but much easier to brush off: my top three reasons to be concerned for the 2021 season. The Xavien Howard situation is low-hanging fruit, so we’ll set that one aside here (besides, my gut tells me he ends up as a Miami Dolphin after all for the year). With Howard, this defense is truly elite and for my money can carry this team into the postseason. There are only a few things that can keep that from happening in 2021, Xavien Howard aside…

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— The cohesion of the young offensive line: As excited as we all are about the development of Austin Jackson, Solomon Kindley, and Robert Hunt; the addition of Liam Eichenberg; and the apparent renaissance of guard-turned-center Michael Deiter, there are two harsh realities facing this group:

They’re incredibly young.

And there is no anchor on this line. There is no Mike Pouncey, no Branden Albert, no Billy Turner.

(Okay, okay, I’m joking about that last name. That guy was B-A-D, kind of like the Kalen Ballage of linemen for the Dolphins)

And you thought I was done making Kalen Ballage jokes. Shame on you. 

Anyway, for all the talent that’s consolidated in this trench group, there isn’t that one starter you can point to as a sure-fire stud on the line. As dependable and seasoned as Jesse Davis is, he’s just not that guy. Never has been. 

Granted, there’s also Matt Skura. I’d never undermine the value of veteran mentorship from players like he and Davis, but the guy was benched last year for not being able to snap the ball (which, not to oversimplify things, is kind of what the center is paid to do). So he’s a veteran option, and I’m pulling for him, but he’s currently running behind Deiter in training camp. 

Not only will this group have to stay on schedule in terms of development to keep Tua upright this season, but they’ll also have to grow together as a unit. That’s difficult when you have a coach like Brian Flores that places such an emphasis on positional flexibility and versatility — it works well when guys go down. The real world happens, but it can make cohesion within units like the O-line harder to cultivate. 

A starting line of Jackson-Kindley-Deiter/Skura-Hunt-Eichenberg would be my ideal setup for week one, but they’ll have to grow together quickly if this office hopes to click well enough to make the postseason. And speaking of offense, there’s also… 

The health of the receiving core: Chris Grier and Brian Flores made addressing the wide receiver position a massive priority in the offseason, and to their credit, the group is flush with talent. By the time we arrive at 53-man roster cutdowns, I can virtually guarantee that at least one receiver who has every right to make the team will find themselves on the wrong side of the numbers game. 

Beat writer Omar Kelly even acknowledged the embarrassment of riches Miami has at this position group last week:

I know that Kelly isn’t necessarily a fan favorite, but that sort of sentiment means something when it comes from someone who’s covered the team for a decent while. 

Keeping with the topic of this column, however, the largest problem facing the receiving core is the injury history of the key players there. 

Will Fuller? Extensive injury history and is already dinged up at camp.

Albert Wilson? Coming off a serious hip injury that derailed his 2019 season.

DeVante Parker? We’ll let bygones be bygones here, but you know the story.

Jaylen Waddle? Pretty clean history, but coming off of a serious ankle injury in college.

Preston Williams? Still working back from a foot injury that landed him on injured reserve last season. 

This is crucial because as Bill Parcells always believed, the best ability is availability. Or in other words, a player must be healthy enough to actually play to contribute. All the talent in the world doesn’t matter if he can’t stay healthy (see: much of DeVante Parker’s tenure as a Dolphin).

If this group stays at least mostly healthy throughout the season, they’ll be an incredible assemblage of offensive firepower. But if injuries mount and players aren’t available for weeks at a time, Tua could be left shorthanded at wideout like last season. 

Finally, among what could keep Miami for the postseason, we have a tie between two interrelated issues at practice…

Tua’s development/Flores nailing the safety rotation: I know this is a cop-out by putting two issues in the last bullet point, but they go together in some respects. Tua has been advertised in practice, and Jacoby Brissett has also looked good, which is great at face value. It’s also not a huge red flag for the defense because it’s the only practice, and it’s still very early, but the offense’s dominance thus far through camp brought about one thing I’ve wondered about this offseason. 

Do the Dolphins have someone ready to step in and replace Bobby McCain?

I’ve always thought the team could upgrade with someone more athletic and naturally suited to be a rangy safety in Flores’ cover-one heavy scheme, but is that person ready to perform? 

The hope seems to be that Jevon Holland can take over the role, but he’s only a rookie. Otherwise, the team now has Jason McCourty, but he’ll also be 34 years old when the season starts. 

Remember what I mentioned earlier about players getting old? 

The back-end safety role is crucial in this defense both as a playmaker and as a communicator. Flores needs to have Holland ready to take over the role, make sure McCourty is still up to the task while the rookie grows, or get creative with the plethora of creative defensive backs Miami has on the roster.  

On the flip side of this, every fan around the country and every executive in the league knows that the biggest question facing the Dolphins this year is if Tua Tagovailoa will show enough promise to be the guy in Miami for years to come. 

And don’t get me wrong, I love the kid. Go watch him addressing the fans from the first open practice since the advent of COVID and tell me, how can you not root for him? He’s got the goods, but it’s time to show them off.

This team is essentially in a championship window starting this season: they have a young QB on a cheap contract, an excellent defense, a good head coach, and a salary cap setup that, for the time being, is still very workable. But that window closes at some point, and it generally falls on the quarterback to get a team over the hump in time.

That’s been Miami’s issue ever since the mighty Dan Marino hung up the cleats. 

For the Dolphins to finally shed the mediocre legacy of the last two decades of South Florida football, the team will have to overcome these pitfalls that await them this season. Tua has to begin to fulfill his massive promise, Flores must find a capable safety rotation, the wide receivers must stay healthy, and the young offensive line has to grow together.

If not, fans will once again be left looking ahead to next season rather than relishing the last.


(Thanks for reading! If you don’t believe me when I say I’m not a pessimist, give me a follow on Twitter @EvanMorris72 and see for yourself. And check back soon for my top three reasons why Miami could make the playoffs this season)