July 28

Q: Flanker Damian Williams appears poised to deliver a knockout blow to both Brandon Gibson (slot receiver) and Marcus Thigpen (the kick returner) in the heated battle for a roster spot. Are there any other hopefuls who can unleash a similar 1-2 punch to established veterans? - Chopin, New York, NY

A: Slow down there Chopin with the knockout blows. Damian Williams, a four-year NFL veteran, had one good week of practice, which featured one practice in pads (which he didn't really standout in). Nobody is ready to declare him a superstar, or say he's about to unseat the starting slot receiver, and kick return specialist. Williams has speed, talent, and experience. The former USC standout is doing what he's supposed to be doing, which is making plays. But it is early. We're one week into a six week marathon. I remember falling in love with the early camp performances of players like David Kircus, Marlon Moore and Legedu Naanee and thinking that Miami's receiver problems were solved. Boy was I wrong. Right now the receivers all have fresh legs. Let us see what happens when those legs start to get weary. Right now nobody has blasted a receiver the earhole, so they aren't hearing footsteps yet. Calm down! I'll admit Williams has talent, and his background as a returner (from his college days) makes him intriguing. But there is a reason the Titans didn't even attempt to re-sign him. Gibson has proven he's an established NFL starter when healthy. Williams has not. Thigpen has proven he's an accomplished NFL return specialist (remember his two touchdowns his rookie season in 2012?), Williams has not. Right now I'd place Williams seventh on the receiver depth chart, putting him behind Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Gibson, Jarvis Landry, Rishard Matthews and Armons Binns. And I also value Thigpen move than Williams because of his versatility (he plays two positions), and ability to do damage as a slot receiver. That means Williams wouldn't be on my 53-man roster right now. But again, I repeat that it is early. If Williams proves he can handle punts, and can play all three receiver spots WELL he'll probably move his way up that depth chart. Injuries could also move up his standing. But one good week of practice isn't enough to say he's safe, or has taken anyone's job. He's making plays, which is what you hope all of Miami's receivers would do when their number gets called.

July 26

Q: Who will step up as the leader this year in the locker room? - Paul Prezzemolo

A: Leadership is critical to the success of any organization, and the Dolphins have lacked it the past few seasons. The only clear cut leaders I've seen since covering the Dolphins were Chad Pennington, Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas and Reggie Bush. But I'm not just talking about locker room leadership. I'm referring to their head coach, Joe Philbin, who hasn't proven he's a leader of men yet. There's a difference between being put in a leadership role and asking people to follow you, and being an individual men want to follow into a troubling situation. Philbin hasn't proven that YET. The organization has gone to great lengths to foster better leadership this offseason, in the wake of last year's bullying scandal, holding a number of seminars for the team, and bringing in a few speakers to address what makes a good leader. The hope is that returning veterans like Cameron Wake, Brent Grimes, Randy Starks, Dannell Ellerbe, Koa Misi, Brian Hartline, Mike Wallace, Ryan Tannehill, Reshad Jones and Charles Clay will become more influential figures inside the locker room. Most of those players, especially Wake and Grimes, fall into the lead by example type of personalities. But the Dolphins need more vocal leaders, players who will willingly speak up when something needs to be said inside the locker room, or to the coaching staff. That's the area which has been lacking, and at this time I can only identify Mike Pouncey and Jared Odrick as the players who fill that void. But there's also a new cast of individuals like Branden Albert, Earl Mitchell, Louis Delmas, Knowshon Moreno, Daryn Colledge, and Cortland Finnegan who could step up and become vocal leaders. I've been very impressed with Delmas, Finnegan and Colledge when it comes to their intellectual capabilities. I've been told by NFL coaches and executives that a team needs a clear cut alpha male in each unit, and that player is the one who sets the tone for his unit. Those players set the tone for their team. Every unit has that individual except for the tight ends and tailbacks in my humble opinion. And it is possible Clay's elevated status could motivate him to become a more forceful leader. It is possible Knowshon Moreno's experience will allow him to rise to that spot. It will indeed be interesting to see how this season unfolds from a leadership standpoint. Someone needs to step up and make it known "this is my team," and the rest of the roster must fall in line. The leading candidates are Pouncey, Wake, Grimes and Tannehill. It should be interesting to watch them all try to get comfortable with their role as the team's new alpha males.

July 23

Q: How much improvement has really taken place on the offensive line, which allowed a franchise-high 58 sacks last season? Will this unit, which won't have Mike Pouncey for the first quarter of the season, give Ryan Tannehill time to execute the offense? - James, Ft. Pierce, Fl.

A: Last season the Dolphins gave up 3.6 sacks per game, and what was really troubling was the fact most of those takedowns came in bunches, and in critical moments during the fourth quarter. But keep in mind it wasn't just the offensive line that was a disaster from a protection standpoint. The playcalling was too vanilla, and sometimes contributed to the sackfest. The tailbacks and tight ends gave up their fair share of sacks (eight was my official count), and Tannehill has a nasty habit of holding onto the ball too long (he really needs to learn how to throw a checkdown pass). When you put all the issues together, and throw in the suspensions from the bullying saga, you've got a nightmarish season from a protection standpoint. From a talent standpoint the Dolphins have upgraded by adding Branden Albert, a Pro Bowl left tackle, signing Shelley Smith, Daryn Colledge and Jason Fox. The team has also drafted JaWuan James and Billy Turner and signing Tyler Larsen as an undrafted rookie. You also have to factor in the development of Dallas Thomas and Sam Brenner, who are each entering their second season. Add those nine players to Pouncey and Nate Garner and it is easy to argue this year's unit is an upgrade over last year's line, which featured Bryant McKinnie, Tyson Clabo, Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito and John Jerry as the starters. This line is far more athletic, younger, and more versatile. The quick pace of the offense, which encourages Tannehill to get the ball out of his hands quickly, will also help the offensive line from a protection standpoint. My biggest concern is whether or not the unit will be able to open up running lanes for the tailbacks, especially when opposing defenses know the Dolphins need to run the ball. The only way to judge whether or not the unit is an improvement over last year is by seeing if the 2014 offensive line can trump last year's rushing totals (1,440 rushing yards, eight rushing touchdowns, and a 4.1 yards per carry average), and if they can trim down the sacks. The Dolphins have averaged 44 sacks per season during a five-year span. That breaks down to 2.75 sacks per game, which is right around the league average (2.5 per game) from last year. So basically, all this year's offensive line has to do is allow one less sack per game than last year and they provide a significant improvement.

July 21

Q: Injuries and suspensions breed opportunity. Any thoughts on the likelihood of rookies like Tyler Larsen, Damien Williams & Terrence Fede rising up the depth chart and locking down positions on the 53-man roster? - Chopin, New York, NY

A: The moment in training camp I live for is the moment when the light bulb comes on with a unheralded youngster. I call it "The Awakening." He's been practicing for three weeks, probably played in his first exhibition game. He's held his own, taking some victories and a few losses, but he's learned from it all. He's picking up tips from veterans and has taken to coaching. The game is beginning to slow down for him, and all of a sudden he realizes, "I've got this! I can play in the NFL!" It is that moment that makes the NFL special, and makes what I do rewarding. Last year A.J. Francis was that guy. One day he flicked a switch and started dominating the third team offensive linemen, and then began performing well in the exhibition games. The year before that it was Derrick Shelby and Isaako Aaitui. The year before that Charles Clay and Jimmy Wilson were tearing it up. And before that it was Nolan Carroll, Marlon Moore and Reshad Jones. Plenty of rookies have the potential to prove that they can be impact players, and/or make the 53-man roster based on the fact this team is desperate for playmakers, and new General Manager Dennis Hickey wants to carve out his mark on this 2014 roster. The question is, who will it be? Fede is a raw football player, but a talented athlete who could cement his future in the NFL by stepping into Dion Jordan's role in the speed package and tearing it up. If Larsen pushes himself he could leapfrog Nate Garner and Sam Brenner and become the Dolphins' starting center considering he's snapped the ball more during his college career at Utah State than everyone else on Miami's roster not named Mike Pouncey. But can Larsen prove he's strong enough to anchor Miami's rebuilt offensive line? Damien Williams intrigues me because I can see the talent he has when the pads aren't on. Problem is, you really can't judge a tailback until the pads come on, and the team is hitting. But he's got skills, and his rise up the depth chart will depend on the impact he makes when he's given opportunity. Unlike last season, there aren't as many jobs, roles, roster spots carved in stone, so any youngster who excels in training camp's first three weeks could thrive, and move up the depth chart quickly. The players I'll be watching closely are receivers Stephen Williams and Rantavious Wooten, H-back Gator Hoskins, Fede and Larsen because they've all done something to catch my eye during the offseason program. They have all elevated their starting position based on the offseason work they put in, or injuries and suspensions. Now we'll see if they can build of that early success, and continue to make progress when the pads come on, and opportunity arises. Injuries also open the door for players. Last year John Jerry's knee injury was Josh Samuda's chance to prove he could be an NFL starter. Problem is Samuda struggled, wasted his shot, and got waived. I've discovered that the key to NFL success is being ready for that opportunity, and when someone or something opens the door for you....KICK IT DOWN.

July 16

Q: Trouble seems to keep finding Mike Pouncey. He was involved with the bullying scandal, wore the Free Hernandez hat at his birthday party last year, got subpoenaed in the Aaron Hernandez's trial, sends that childish tweet to JaWuan James about expecting a gift from the rookie, and now he's involved in an alleged assault at this year's birthday party. Will Pouncey ever smarten up? - Jason, Baton Rouge, La.

A: There's no denying that Pouncey has had a rough 12 months, and that his judgment can be questions in each incident, altercation, situation. But ask yourself what crime has Pouncey committed? Has Pouncey been arrested for battery, assault, drunk driving, drug or weapons possession, spousal abuse, trafficking, driving without a license during his Dolphins tenure? Exactly what is Pouncey guilty of outside of poor decision making, and bringing bad press to the Miami Dolphins? I'd argue to you that the same traits that keep Pouncey in the headlines are the exact trails that make him a good football player. Pouncey is loyal, sometimes to a fault (Aaron Hernandez). There's no doubt in my mind that he's the one Dolphins player I'd want with me in an alley fight, whether I'm right or wrong. Pouncey has what I call "the dog," which is a ferocious mentality that benefits an athlete on a football field. It is a kill or be killed mentality. He's no choir boy, and sometimes you need people with a fighter's mentality, a ride or die approach on your team. It is my professional opinion the Dolphins need more players like Pouncey, not less. I personally get along with Pouncey because I can relate to him, and vice versa. There's no denying he's the alpha male of the Dolphins locker room because he's the toughest, most vocal leader on the team. He's the biggest, baddest lion in the locker room's jungle. Nobody elected him as the alpha male. He just is, and there's nothing you can do to change it outside of adding a bigger, badder lion. It is one of those situations where you want Pouncey on that field, you need Pouncey on that field, and every team needs players like that. The hope Miami Dolphins fans must have is that as this 24-year-old ages and matures Pouncey gets to the point where he puts more thought into his actions, decisions, friendships. Sometime outside of money needs to motivate Pouncey and his circle of friends and family. Pouncey is a smart guy. He just needs to figure out how to avoid bad decisions, and negative headlines. Maybe Pouncey won't get there until he's on his second contract, playing for his second team. But I'm confident he'll eventually get there.

July 14

Q: This has always been a football town, and we'll get back to that now that Lebron James has returned to Cleveland. But can the Dolphins seize on this window to win the hearts of the South Florida sports community? Tyler Richardson, Cutler Bay, Fl.

A: The Dolphins are South Florida's longest tenured pro franchise, and even when the Heat was on top of the sports world, local radio stations consistently talked Dolphins 24-7. Because of that obsession I have a hard time believing a winning Dolphins team wouldn't own this town's heart. We obsess about football down here in South Florida. However, the Heat's decade of success has probably shifted some young people's hearts, making basketball their first love instead of football. But that tide can easily turn back if the Dolphins find a way to become the Seattle Seahawks. All it takes is success, and a few playoff wins. The starting point in my opinion is producing a nine win season in 2014. That probably won't guarantee a playoff spot, but it will mean Joe Philbin and Ryan Tannehill have made progress. It will mean the franchise has produced its first winning season since 2008, and hint the organization is heading in the right direction. For years I've consistently said the Dolphins are a .500 team that could win or lose two extra games because of quarterback play (85-plus passer rating is needed), and injuries. Nothing that has happened this offseason has altered my opinion, especially when you consider last year's Dolphins got to 8-8 without a running game, a respectable offensive line, a significant amount of injuries, and submerged in a national bullying scandal. And keep in mind that 2013 team could have easily gotten to nine or 10 wins if they hadn't lost four games in the fourth quarter, or tanked the final two games of the season while a playoff berth was on the line. Better quarterback play (Tannehill, a better run game (Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller, better defense against the run (Earl Mitchell and Koa Misi), and better coaching (Philbin and his staff) can easily turn the Dolphins into a winning team that could own this community's heart.

July 10

Q: Do you see the Dolphins getting the same production out of Oliver Vernon this season? - Juan Giraly, Coral Gables, Fl.

A: I'm on record with my belief that Olivier Vernon is a rare athlete, and is primed to have breakout season that trumps last year's contributions if he can stay healthy. Vernon is bigger and stronger than last year. He's got a year's more worth of experience in the NFL. He'll likely be called on to man Dion Jordan's "speed package" role while the second-year pass rusher is suspended the first four games of 2014. Cameron Wake's knee is healthy, so Vernon will likely have a full 16 games from the Pro Bowl pass rusher, who occupies most of the double teams. And most importantly, Vernon is entering a contract season because next year is the year he's eligible for an extension. That means another double-digit sack season could turn into a $30-35 million offer from the Dolphins. Too many people underestimate Olivier Vernon's talent level, which convinced the Dolphins to select the former University of Miami underachiever in the third-round of the 2012 NFL draft. If Vernon had stayed at UM for his senior season and produced like he has the potential to there's no doubt in my mind he could have been a first-round pick in the same draft as Jordan. That's why I don't understand why so many Dolphins fans are disappointed that Jordan can't, and probably won't beat out Vernon for the starting spot. Vernon is smart, he has rare athleticism, he's a hard worker, and is committed to maximizing his potential. He's one of the team's hardest workers, and has shown steady growth under Kacy Rodgers. That's why I expect Vernon to contribute more than the 57 tackles and 11.5 sacks he produced in 2013, giving the Dolphins a dangerous duo of NFL pass rushers.