Dolphins players that must make the leap in 2017

Dec 4, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Miami Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker (11) catches a touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Tannehill (not pictured) in front of Baltimore Ravens defensive back Jerraud Powers (26) during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 4, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Miami Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker (11) catches a touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Tannehill (not pictured) in front of Baltimore Ravens defensive back Jerraud Powers (26) during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports /

Expectations are sky high in Miami this coming season. For the Dolphins to finally make the leap to contenders, there are a few big name players that must start living up to their potential.

With free agency in the books and the NFL draft concluded, attentions now steer towards the road to training camp. The Miami Dolphins have high aspirations for the 2017 season, but will need help if they want to dethrone the mighty New England Patriots. It comes down to which players will help the Dolphins this coming year by finally making the leap from player to superstar.

Head coach Adam Gase is now entering his sophomore season with Miami. The Dolphins boast one of the most talented rosters on paper in team history. Some nice moves in free agency and a decent draft last month only helped to bolster a team that went 10-6 last year, culminating in a playoff berth. But if Miami wants to make it deeper in the postseason trenches than the Wild Card weekend, they will need some players to step up their game. Here are a few names:

Ndamukong Suh

Last season, the Dolphins ranked an abysmal 30th in the league against the run, allowing 140 yards per game. Miami fared slightly better in the passing game, holding opponents to only 242 yards a contest, good for 15th overall.

If Miami hopes to vastly improve on the defensive side of the ball in 2017, they will require their front defenders to play at a higher level. That starts with Ndamukong Suh. The 30 year old defensive tackle has recorded only 11 total sacks in the two years since he signed a whopping 6 year, $114 million contract in 2015.

Cameron Wake has always been consistently dominant. But, at age 35, health will continue to become a factor. Newly signed former Los Angeles Ram William Hayes will certainly help to solidify the line. Charles Harris, Miami’s first round pick this year out of Missouri, will hopefully be the edge rusher of the future the Dolphins are counting on. But as a rookie, Harris cannot be relied upon to make a big splash right out of the gate.

The reason Miami spent so much on Suh in 2015 was because of the physical and mental impact he brings to a game. It isn’t just about the sacks. For the Dolphins to be better against the run, Suh needs to be the feared bulldozer he was in Detroit, where he racked up 36 total sacks. That isn’t to say he didn’t have an impactful 2017 season. Suh was selected to the pro bowl along with Cameron Wake last year after registering 41 tackles. To continue that climb, double digit sacks this coming campaign would certainly be welcome.

If Suh can return to the wrecking ball form he displayed in the Motor City, look out. And Miami needs that this year more than ever. New England brought in several talented do-it-all running backs this offseason. Buffalo employs a power running game with LeSean McCoy. If the Dolphins make it to playoffs, chances are they’ll probably see a litany of talented rushers, namely Le’Veon Bell, who torched the Dolphins for 167 yards and two scores in last years wild card game.

Laremy Tunsil

The reason that Miami was comfortable trading veteran left tackle Branden Albert was their faith in last years number one pick Laremy Tunsil.

Tunsil played the left guard position last season, but has made huge strides in the offseason that has the coaching staff singing his praises. Miami should slide Tunsil into the left tackle spot this season, and if the former Ole’ Miss standout can live up to his sizable expectations, Dolphins fans will be ecstatic. Tunsil can help open up holes for Jay Ajayi, who broke through last year with over 1,200 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns.

Protection is paramount for any quarterback. Miami wants to see if Ryan Tannehill can become an elite gunslinger worthy of the hefty contract they’re paying him. But Tannehill has always suffered from too many sacks, so Tunsil needs to become the cornerstone of that offensive line that the Dolphins can count on to shield their quarterback for many years to come.

Julius Thomas

Newly acquired tight end Julius Thomas raised eyebrows when he scored 24 touchdowns in two years with the Denver Broncos. He was picked up by Jacksonville but underperformed for the Jaguars the past two seasons, totaling 9 scores. Miami is hoping a reunion with Adam Gase will help reinvigorate Thomas, who posted 24 touchdowns in 2013 and 2014 when Gase served as his offensive coordinator in Denver. Thomas also must overcome the injury woes that held him to playing in only 21 of the last 32 games regular season games.

Miami had high hopes for Jordan Cameron, but injuries and dropped passes plagued Cameron throughout his stint with the Dolphins. Ryan Tannehill will need a big target in the red zone, and Thomas fits that bill. He can also block well and provide Tannehill a safety cushion when the quarterback is under duress.

Thomas needs to post a big year for Miami to get over the hump and post some playoff wins. When Charles Clay departed for Buffalo, it left a big void in the tight end position that the Dolphins have yet to fill. A 1,000-yard, 6-plus touchdown performance (or better) by Thomas would provide an added dynamic to an already stellar core of receivers.

DeVante Parker

DeVante Parker possesses the biggest question mark here.

With Parker, it all comes down to being healthy. It is often said that for wide receivers, the biggest jump comes in their third season, so that time is now. If Parker is to become the dominant receiver the Dolphins expected when they drafted him 14th overall in 2015 out of Louisville, then he will need to finally get over the lingering foot issues that have plagued him his first two seasons.

When healthy, Parker has flashed signs of brilliance. Jarvis Landry is the unquestionable leader of the wide receiver pack, and he eats up the most targets. By re-signing Kenny Stills in the offseason, the Dolphins kept their biggest deep ball threat. Leonte Carroo, selected in the third round of the 2016 draft, is expected to make a bigger contribution this year and can eat into the volume of an already crowded field of receivers.

Parker will need to step up and be the primary red zone target for Tannehill that Miami drafted him to be. There were rumors that Gase was disappointed with Parker last season with his exercise and diet regimen. If Parker continues to miss games, and other receivers step up, patience with coaches and fans might begin to wane. Parker has proven in spurts that he has the talent to be one of the best pass-catchers in the league. He just has to be on the field to do it.

The makings are all there for Miami to become the new powerhouse in the AFC East. Tom Brady can’t play forever, despite his assertions to the contrary. Buffalo and the New York Jets are still in the rebuilding stage. Scrutiny will always follow the quarterback, but for Ryan Tannehill to make the leap, he needs others to take the plunge with him. For Dolphins fans, this is the year for marquee players to start living up to the hype.