Busy Offseason Means Dolphins Will Challenge Patriots, AFC East

Busy Offseason Means Dolphins Will Challenge Patriots, AFC East The Dolphins probably caught the biggest fish when it comes to 2010 offseason acquisitions in the AFC East, reeling in wide receiver Brandon Marshall to boost the team's passing game that had been a work in progress. Miami has some question marks in other areas, but overall, how will the Dolphins match up against the Patriots next season?

First off, Marshall bullied the Patriots last season in Denver, catching eight passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns. He was more physical than anyone in the New England secondary, and he'll give the Pats hell twice in 2010. Marshall will also spread the field for quarterback Chad Henne, who has a big arm and played well after taking over as the starter last season.

Miami's passing attack will rely heavily on Marshall, whether he's catching passes or drawing heavy coverages, and slot receiver Davone Bess might be the biggest beneficiary of defenses with wandering eyes. The Dolphins got disappointing production out of tight end Anthony Fasano in 2009, so the pressure will be on him to step up his game next season.

Famously, the Dolphins' offense has built its reputation out of the backfield since the inception of the Wildcat in 2008. When healthy, running backs Ronnie Brown (coming off a season-ending foot injury) and Ricky Williams have been the best one-two punch for two seasons, and their continued success will be crucial for the growing Henne.

After Brown's injury last season, the Dolphins veered away from the Wildcat, but the traditional running attack actually helped Williams. With the addition of Marshall and Henne's downfield ability — he can open up the field much more than Chad Pennington, who was the starting quarterback when the 'Phins most heavily relied on the Wildcat — it's possible that the Wildcat could be on the endangered list.

The Patriots would actually be sad to see the Wildcat die. New England was embarrassed by the tricky offense in 2008, but the Pats' defense smothered it each time thereafter, to the point where Miami offensive coordinator Dan Henning had to basically wave the white flag.

The Patriots' biggest challenge on defense will be creating a pass rush to disrupt Henne, who looked like a Hall of Famer in the Dolphins' Week 13 victory over New England last season. Henne's jersey remained clean, and he completed 29-of-52 passes for 335 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. It wasn’t the fault of the New England secondary nearly as much as it was the defense's complete ineptitude on the pass rush. If the Patriots can change that — obviously, that’s one of the Patriots' biggest overall concerns in 2010 anyway — they'll actually have a chance to limit the Dolphins' two-fronted offense.

On the other side of the ball, Miami's changed the direction of its defense by adding inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and subtracting outside linebackers Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, each of whom was largely ineffective in 2009. The Dolphins are pleased with young cornerbacks Sean Smith and Vontae Davis, but they've got a canyon-sized hole at free safety after Gibril Wilson departed and they missed out on Antrel Rolle.

And, despite the struggles of Taylor and Porter, Miami is entrusting its outside linebacker positions to rookie Koa Misi, Cameron Wake and Charlie Anderson. So, yeah, there's that. The addition of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will greatly help this defense, but the Dolphins will be starting a lot of unproven talent, which will give the advantage to the Patriots' offense.

The Dolphins, who won the AFC East title in 2008, will be in contention to win it again in 2010. But after winning seven games last season, they'll be asking a lot out of Marshall, Henne, Dansby and the coaching staff to provide enough of a turnaround. There's no question that the Dolphins will be well-coached — Tony Sparano and his staff are one of the best groups in the NFL — but they'll have to avoid last season's inconsistencies to give the Patriots a bigger scare in 2010.

NESN.com will be answering one Patriots question every day until July 24.

Saturday, July 3: Will the emphasis on acquiring good character guys pay off on the field?

Monday, July 5: Will the big-money guys back up their contracts?

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