After a pair of joint practices with the Buccaneers in Tampa, the Dolphins move on to their preseason opener Saturday night.
An offseason that included big-name acquisitions and elicited record fan excitement — the team sold out 2022 season tickets and created a waitlist for the first time ever — culminates in the first game under head coach Mike McDaniel, albeit an exhibition.
Here are five things to watch for Saturday night.
Who plays, who doesn’t
When asked before Thursday’s practice whether he had decided to play Tua Tagovailoa in the preseason opener, McDaniel insinuated he was leaning toward sitting the third-year quarterback.
“I will say that based off of the last couple practices, I’m encouraged about the idea of not playing him,” McDaniel said.
Tagovailoa wrapped up a productive pair of joint practices with the Buccaneers with a strong performance Thursday, throwing multiple touchdowns in team drills. With that being the lasting image of Tagovailoa’s work before the preseason opener, McDaniel could very well be compelled to hold off his debut for another week.
Meanwhile, McDaniel said certain players likely won’t play Saturday. The team has been cautious about the practice reps for veterans such as cornerback Xavien Howard, left tackle Terron Armstead and outside linebacker Melvin Ingram III. It would be a surprise to see any of those players see the field, as well as established veterans such as wide receiver Tyreek Hill and defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah.
McDaniel, though, said, “everybody is expected to be prepared to play, but there’ll certainly be players that don’t.”
Debut of McDaniel’s offense
The installation of McDaniel’s wide zone running scheme has been the leading story line in the first three weeks of training camp in Miami Gardens. Offensive players have praised the creativity of the offense and defensive players have noted the difficulty of game-planning against its speed.
“They do a lot of misdirection stuff and make you have to have great eyes,” outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett said. “If you’re looking in the wrong spot you could get out of position, and they use that as an advantage — run game with the reaches and the wide runs and all the motions in the run game and the passing game too is the same. It’s just nothing straightforward — you have to be on your p’s and q’s, on your assignments and on your keys so we can execute. I think they are going to have us prepared for the season this year because we have to be disciplined and be able to go against them and have a good game against them.”
While multiple top offensive players might be sidelined Saturday, the preseason opener should give a good look at the progression of the offense. Thus far, the passing game appears to be ahead of the running game. Saturday will also mark McDaniel’s first game calling plays as head coach. He’s expected to communicate with multiple assistants in the coaches’ booth and has been prepping for the game-day responsibility by relaying play-calls during practice via walkie-talkie.
Offensive line combinations
Media guidelines prohibit reporters from stating offensive line combinations during training camp, but the Dolphins’ first depth chart showed the starting five that the team is expected to take into the regular season: Armstead at left tackle, Liam Eichenberg at left guard, Connor Williams at center, Robert Hunt at right guard and Austin Jackson at right tackle. Aside from the coalescence of this unit, the depth of the offensive line is one to monitor with multiple reserve spots available. If Armstead does not play, Larnel Coleman is listed as his backup on the depth chart. Otherwise, the playing time of linemen — and how early they enter the game — will be telling of the position group’s pecking order.
Hill and Jaylen Waddle have starred in training camp but other young receivers have stood out, too, most notably rookies Erik Ezukanma and Braylon Sanders. The two figure to get extensive action in the preseason opener and could help their causes — Ezukanama receiving an early offensive role and Sanders making the team — with good performances Saturday. Second-year tight end Hunter Long should also receive a lot of playing time and has a big opportunity to increase his role after playing sparingly last season.
Young defensive backs
Howard will play minimally — if at all — Saturday, meaning young cornerbacks Noah Igbinoghene and Trill Williams will continue to see a lot of time on the field. Igbinoghene was listed as a backup corner on the depth chart, while Williams was listed on the third team. However, Williams has outperformed Igbinoghene to this point. The Dolphins have a strong trio at cornerback when Byron Jones returns from the physically-unable-to-perform list but the depth behind that is questionable. The first of three preseason games will go a long way to deciding who takes key reserve spots at the position.