DAVIE – In 2013, the Dolphins moved up in the draft to select defensive end Dion Jordan with the No. 3 pick. Then something unexpected happened. Defensive end Olivier Vernon recorded 11.5 sacks and pretty much kept Jordan on the bench.
With that in mind, here's a look at the 10 Dolphins Returnees Most Likely to Have a Breakthrough Season in 2015.
It's important to note this list omits recent Pro Bowl selections DT Ndamukong Suh, CB Brent Grimes, DE Cam Wake, C Mike Pouncey, LT Branden Albert, and P Brandon Fields. They've already broken through, so to speak.
It also omits newly-signed free agents and players recently acquired through trades such as TE Jordan Cameron, CB Brice McCain, Suh (again) and WR Kenny Stills. This is strictly Dolphins returnees.
Now, on to the list…
10. K Caleb Sturgis: A breakthrough season would probably mean something along the lines of converting 88 percent of his field goal attempts, which would likely put him in the NFL's 10 best. It'd be a huge improvement. Last season Sturgis converted 78.4 percent (28th in NFL) and for his career he's converted 77.5 percent. His job is on the line this season.
9. S/CB Walt Aikens: A breakthrough season would probably mean starting, say, eight games, and having maybe three or four INTs. He won't enter training camp as a starter over Reshad Jones or Louis Delmas, but Aikens seems to have some playmaking potential. Aikens (15 tackles, 1 INT last season), who was drafted as a cornerback, switched to safety, and then saw playing time at cornerback last season, making an impact somewhere this season.
8. OT Ja'Wuan James: A breakthrough season would probably be pushing for a Pro Bowl alternate selection. James might start the season at LT, depending on how Branden Albert recovers from his knee injury. James, a 16-game starter as a rookie last season, seems ready to take a step forward. He needs works on his technique, but should be able to handle that task.
7. DT Anthony Johnson: A breakthrough season would probably be starting around eight games and/or being the second- or third member of a three-man DT rotation. He needs to play tough run defense and apply a decent pass rush from the middle. Johnson (two tackles last season), an undrafted rookie from LSU, is strong and athletic. If he learns the game he could be good.
6. QB Ryan Tannehill: A breakthrough season would definitely mean leading the Dolphins to the playoffs. Statistically, it means passing for at least 4,000 yards (he had 4,045 last season), and maybe 32 TDs and 12 INTs (he had 27 TDs and 12 INTs last season). His WRs corps will be largely youngsters, the OL might be questionable, and the running game might not be effective in the red zone. Tannehill will have to be a strong leader.
5. DE Derrick Shelby: A breakthrough season would probably be eight or nine sacks, and possibly some time at DT. He had 3.0 sacks last season and has 5.5 sacks in three seasons. Shelby signed a one-year tender, meaning he'll be a free agent after the season. That could be incentive. But he's also a good young talent whose versatility and athleticism should help him become an established player.
4. LB Jelani Jenkins: A breakthrough season would probably be a second consecutive 100-tackle year. That would indicate durability as well as some sure tackling, something the Dolphins badly need. Jenkins (110 tackles last season) can't really be expected to become a leader on a unit with veterans such as Suh, Wake, Grimes and Jones, but he could push for a spot in that circle.
3. DE Olivier Vernon: A breakthrough season would be at least 10 sacks, which would give him two double-digit sack totals in the last three seasons. The stage is set for Vernon, who had 6.5 sacks last season, with Wake on one side and Suh in the middle. He's done more with less help, such as in 2013 when he had a career-best 11.5 sacks.
2. S Reshad Jones: A breakthrough season would mean a Pro Bowl berth, which is within the realm of believability. Jones got off to a hot start last season but then cooled off a bit, as did the entire defense. Jones ended with 80 tackles and 3 INTs in 12 games. He had a goal of making the Pro Bowl last year (he wasn't eligible due to a four-game suspension) and should get a step closer to that goal this season.