Why Dolphins are my sleeper pick for 2013

March, 1, 2013
3/01/13
2:00
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Joh Philbin, Ryan Tannehill and Cameron WakeGetty ImagesMiami's Joe Philbin, left, has a nucleus led by QB Ryan Tannehill and sack artist Cameron Wake.
Potential franchise quarterback? Check.

Solid defense? Check.

Plenty of resources in the draft and free agency? Check and check.

I've picked a sleeper team nearly every year since joining ESPN.com's Blog Network. This season's under-the-radar pick is the 2013 Miami Dolphins.

The Dolphins were 7-9 last season and appear poised to take the next step. Enough good things already are in place to persuade me Miami will be a threat to make the playoffs next season.

My track record for picking sleepers is pretty good. In 2008, I picked the "sleeper" Baltimore Ravens, who drafted a lesser-known quarterback named Joe Flacco and advanced to the AFC title game. In 2009, I picked the Cincinnati Bengals, who surprised many with an emotional run to the playoffs.

I didn’t see a sleeper in my former division in 2010 or 2011, so I took those years off. I resumed my sleeper picks in 2012 by going out on a limb with the Buffalo Bills, which was a mistake. (Remind me not to pick the Bills again until they prove something first and end the NFL’s longest playoff drought.)

But I really like what is going on in Miami, which laid the foundation last season. The Dolphins are the biggest threat in the AFC East to the perennial dominance of the New England Patriots.

Here is why Miami is poised to surprise the NFL in 2013:

  • Quarterback stability: Finally, the Dolphins have a player resembling a franchise quarterback. Ryan Tannehill, a 2012 first-round pick, showed plenty of promise by winning seven starts in his rookie season. Tannehill threw for 3,294 yards, 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. But don't be fooled by his numbers. Tannehill played winning football most weeks and proved that he can make all the throws and has good mobility. Tannehill is Miami's best hope for a long-term solution since Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino retired in 2000. The Dolphins are focused on getting Tannehill a better supporting cast in Year 2. That will only make Tannehill more dangerous next season.
  • Plenty of draft capital: The NFL draft is the lifeblood of any good team. Miami has a great chance to improve the roster in April with nine draft picks, including five in the first three rounds. This is a draft built on depth, not star power. That suits Miami just fine. The Dolphins hold the No. 12 overall pick and should be able to get a very good player. Two picks in the second round and two picks in the third round could provide more immediate contributors. The key will be general manager Jeff Ireland's making the right picks. He's hit in the past with selections like Tannehill and center Mike Pouncey.
  • Plenty of salary-cap room in free agency: The Dolphins are among the teams with the most to gain in free agency this offseason. They have more than $40 million available. Ireland acknowledged that wide receiver will be a primary focus. Expect the Dolphins to land a big-name receiver, and there are several available. Mike Wallace of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Greg Jennings of the Green Bay Packers and Dwayne Bowe of the Kansas City Chiefs would all fit well in Miami’s offense. The Dolphins are expected to spend big bucks to land one of these three receivers. Miami's second starter could involve re-signing 1,000-yard receiver Brian Hartline or using a top draft pick on a player like Cordarrelle Patterson from the University of Tennessee. Miami also has the money to improve depth in other areas like cornerback and safety.
  • Head coach Joe Philbin: It's too early to say Philbin is the next Don Shula. But Philbin certainly did not embarrass himself in his first year as a head coach. Philbin mostly made the right moves, including the decision to start Tannehill as a rookie. The moved improved Miami’s team immediately and for the future. There were a few hiccups in Philbin’s first year, but none that would make anyone question his coaching ability. It’s early, but it appears the Dolphins made the right hire.
  • Weak AFC East: Outside of New England, no AFC East team has been able to post a winning record the past two seasons. Someone could step up this year to challenge the Patriots within the division -- and the best bet is Miami, if only by default. The downtrodden New York Jets are a mess that will take at least a year or two of rebuilding to clean up. New Jets general manager John Idzik is tearing down the roster by cutting veteran talent and doesn’t have the cap room to field a good team. Buffalo is in major transition with a new head coach, a new offense, a new defense and possibly a new quarterback. Speaking of quarterbacks, both New York and Buffalo have disastrous situations. The Jets are stuck with Mark Sanchez for another year because of his $8.25 million guaranteed salary. The Jets want to add competition, but can’t afford to bring in a big-name veteran to compete with Sanchez. Buffalo has inconsistent Ryan Fitzpatrick and backup Tarvaris Jackson on the roster. The Bills might still cut Fitzpatrick before his $3 million roster bonus is due or ask him to restructure. Buffalo also is expected to draft one of the top quarterbacks in this year's draft.

The Patriots are in their own league in the AFC East. Neither the Jets nor the Bills is in the same ballpark with New England. But Miami at least has the infrastructure in place and the offseason resources to close the gap.

That makes the Dolphins my sleeper pick for 2013. You heard it here first.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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