Globe NFL writer Albert Breer is visiting select training camps around the East Coast, and will report from each one he visits.
The Dolphins camp at their facility in Davie, Fla., just West of Fort Lauderdale. A lovely place to be in December in January. Not so much in August. It's sticky hot here, and the truth is that the organization likes it that way. Today's workout is inside the club's air-conditioned practice bubble, but most are on the putting-green practice field behind the main building.
This club likes the built-in edge it has with the South Florida humidity early in the season, and it could well come into play for critical Week 3 and 4 showdowns with the Jets and Patriots, respectively. And that's a big reason for working in the heat as much as the Dolphins do.
At the end of practice on this day, the players shed their pads and ran sprints - hard sprints -- like a high school team would. This is a club built on size and strength, but Ton Sparano and Co. are sure it's in shape, too.
To review his previous reports, check out his training camp tour page.
All this work is getting down in front of sparse crowds, which kind of fits. Even as new owner Stephen Ross has tried to add glamour to the franchise, the football-centric environment remains.
THREE THINGS TO SORT OUT
Leadership: The Dolphins went to great pains this offseason to get younger, and if you look at their roster, almost every key piece is 28 or younger. They spent big money to sign Karlos Dansby, invested cash and draft picks in Brandon Marshall, and paid the premium because the emphasis was on bringing ascending players, rather than stopgaps. And that bodes well for the next half-decade in Miami, but will pose questions this year. What happens when the team hits a rut, as everyone does? Who will put the squad together if there's a rash of injuries, as there was last year? The Dolphins are expecting much of Dansby on the defensive side of the ball and Jake Long on the offensive side in this regard. But how a young team weathers storms is always a worthy question, until it actually goes through one.
The defensive front: Miami figures to have five new starters in its front seven, with Channing Crowder and Kendall Langford the only players set in their 2009 spots. That's a lot of turnover, without even getting to the installation of a different scheme under new coordinator Mike Nolan. The idea, for Miami, is be more aggressive and attacking from an Xs-and-Os standpoint, an approach that seems to tailor-made for a younger team. The question becomes whether or not the Dolphins can generate the kind of pass rush to make it work. Nolan engineered a big-time turnaround last year in Denver, but he'll have to find a new Elvis Dumervil in Miami, or assimilate that kind of production with the young edge-rushing duo of Cameron Wake and Koa Misi.
The offensive line: Sparano was among the league's most respected line coaches prior to getting the head job in Miami, so you have to think he'll figure this one out. The Dolphins have managed to assemble a nice slew of skill players around Chad Henne. Marshall gives them the bona fide No. 1 receiver to match with complementary pieces Brian Hartline, Davone Bess and Greg Camarillo, the tight ends are solid, and the backfield should be fine. So the primary issue comes between cornerstone tackles Long and Vernon Carey. There are a total of six players competing for the three interior spots, though rookie John Jerry seems to have one nailed down. How that shakes out, and Miami's ability to get the right mix in general up front, could determine whether Miami can hold on to its smashmouth identity.
TYING IN THE PATRIOTS
Some may not believe Henne to be championship-ready. Some don't call Foxborough their workplace. The Dolphins upset of New England last December featured the first-year quarterback besting his career high in completions by 9, attempts by 16 and yards by 94. When it was over, Henne made every key throw he needed to in order to sneak out a 22-21 win, and showed his offensive teammates he was capable to carrying the day in a victory over a quality opponent. "What that came down to was when plays were out there, we made plays," Henne said. "There were a couple plays in there where we didn't do well. But overall I thought we kept grinding, we went down and had different situations - two-minute, in the red area - and I think we executed well there."
THE QUOTE THAT CAPTURES
"There's not gonna be any excuses for us. We want to win games right now."
-- Coach Tony Sparano on the team's youth
You get to know Marriott properties pretty well in this job. And here's one you should get to know: The Harbor Beach Marriott on Fort Lauderdale Beach. This is where the Colts stayed prior to the Super Bowl in February and, now that I got a better look at it, it's real easy to see why this is a pretty attractive destination. Nice gym. A 90-second walk to the beach. Sizable pool. Outdoor restaurant area. Jet Ski rental right there. And the price really wasn't bad at all. Then, there's this: On my way out, I was expecting to pay the $50 parking fee for the two nights, only it didn't show up on the bill they slipped under the door. I went to the front desk to clarify, and the lady said, "Don't worry about it." Telling you, if you're coming down here for the Oct. 4 game with the Patriots, you could find worse places to stay.
THE GUY TO WATCH
NT Randy Starks. The Dolphins moved Starks inside following the drafting of rookie Jared Odrick, a prototype (size-wise) 3-4 defensive end, and the move seems to be working out. Jason Ferguson fit the profile of what Bill Parcells long looked for in his nose tackles, but plenty in the Miami brass, while still in Dallas, had their eyes opened by the emergence of the smaller, quicker Jay Ratliff at the position. Ratliff, similarly, was pressed into the position in 2007 after an injury to Ferguson, and thrived because of his versatility and three-down capability. The hope is that 305-pound Starks can flash similarly in the interior pass-rush area, and defend the run like Ratliff did. Now, this isn't to compare Starks to the two-time Pro Bowler. It's just to say the idea of Starks playing there now isn't that different than Ratliff moving was then. And the early returns are good.
Some teams get excited when acquiring a piece like Marshall and quickly scramble to rework their offensive approach. Here? Seems like guys are most excited about what the 6-foot-5, 230-pound terror will do to open things up in the running game. Tells you that Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams will still be the engine for this offense. ... Ikaika Alama-Francis is an interesting story, a 2007 second-round pick who washed out of Detroit, signed with Miami last November and hasn't played in a game since 2008. Alama-Francis dropped some 15 pounds, getting down to 275, to play linebacker in 2010 and has impressed with his athleticism. He could provide depth for the Dolphins in a place it's needed - Outside linebacker. ... This team is excited about young corners Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, but keep an eye on their 2009 draft classmate Chris Clemons at free safety. That position has been a question mark for Miami this offseason, but the club has had high hopes for Clemons all along. ... While the Dolphins are more than happy with three of their top five picks from the 2009 draft (Davis, Smith, Hartline), it's clear they need to get more out of the other two, second-rounder Pat White and third-rounder Patrick Turner. There's a chance that neither makes the team here. ... Sparano lost a staggering 58 pounds in the offseason, looking like a much different guy than the one I covered in Dallas or the one who prowled the Miami sidelines the last two years. The Connecticut-raised coach says he got into a workout program after undergoing knee surgery, kept with it after his rehab was finished, and has gotten real results.