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AC in the AM: Competition Heating Up This Week
August 21, 2017 09:30 AM
With the Dolphins in Philadelphia for a few days of practices against the Eagles, with some leftover thoughts about last Thursday's preseason game against Baltimore and with the regular season opener now just 20 days away, we offer these Monday morning observations:

• I like the fact the Dolphins are practicing against the Eagles this week. First, it breaks the monotony of a long, hot summer. Second, in many ways, it comes close to simulating the intensity of a real game. "It's great competition," said coach Adam Gase. "It's fun for guys to go against somebody different instead of hitting their teammates." Fun and beneficial. Sounds like the makings of a productive few days.

• This is an important week in Philadelphia for many reasons. It is time to take things up a notch, time for the starters to further acclimate themselves and for decisions to be made regarding playing time and position battles. Clarity needs to surface in several areas. Roster decisions are looming. In so many ways, this week and this Thursday's game is the final dress rehearsal for many of these veterans. It may just be the most important week of the summer.

• As I look back at last Thursday night's game against the Ravens, clearly the lasting impression was the debut of quarterback Jay Cutler. Yes, he looked in command of the offense. No doubt, he threw some nice passes. But three things not associated with the stat sheet also stood out:

1. He was embraced by the crowd, getting loud cheers as he first ran on the field. It is clear this is a chance for Cutler to resurrect his career in many ways. He had an interesting on-and-off relationship with Bears fans. But now he is starting over and Dolphins' fans seem genuinely intrigued and open-minded about the possibilities.

2. Cutler took a hard hit on his surgically repaired right shoulder and bounced right up, almost as if he survived a right of passage back into the league. This was important, an obstacle he needed to overcome. It's good that he got it out of the way early. Cutler even gave up a thumbs up to his Chicago based shoulder doctor.

3. Did you notice Cutler running a little no-huddle offense? That says so much about his comfort zone less than a couple of weeks into this journey. It also shows you the pace he likes to play at, keeping a defense off balance and keeping his teammates in that face-paced mode. All told, a promising first outing.

• This week in Philadelphia presents an opportunity for Cutler to continue the growth process, further embrace this offense and, perhaps most importantly, develop a sense of trust and confidence with his teammates. There's nothing like an extended road trip to help accomplish that.

• While it was only a small sample size, the first team defense clearly showed improvement against the run, holding the Ravens' starters to negative plays or short runs. Now we need to see this continue against the Eagles.

• No significant injuries. For one week, we can exhale just a little.

• Starting battles? Most have already been decided. The obvious exceptions appear to be at left guard where there is close competition to replace injured veteran Ted Lawson. It looks as if Anthony Steen and Kraig Urbik are the leading candidates. Also too-close-to-call is nickel back where Bobby McCain and Alterraun Verner are the primary candidates. Not sure it matters which of the two emerges as the top nickel back because both will play a lot. Finally, with the addition over the weekend of veteran Rey Maualuga, there is now veteran competition for Mike Hull at middle linebacker. It's too early to know how that might unfold.

• Speaking of Maualuga, he is exactly what the Dolphins needed, an experienced, productive linebacker who excels against the run and is familiar with Defensive Coordinator Matt Burke from their time together in Cincinnati. It's yet another example, like the signing of Cutler, of a win now mentality within this organization.

• The rise of DeVante Parker continues. Parker had a strong first quarter against the Ravens and it is clear he has already developed a nice chemistry with Cutler, who compared him to a faster version of former Bears and current Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery. This is clearly just the beginning for Parker. All signs continue to point to a big year.

• Another word about special teams: Yes, it was a forgettable performance against the Ravens. But you need to keep in mind that those were mostly young players on special teams with a lot of mixing and matching going on by Special Teams Coordinator Darren Rizzi. A clearer picture should emerge this week as Rizzi starts to finalize his units for the regular season. Only then can we start to draw some conclusions.

• Going to be interesting to see what happens when safety T.J. McDonald returns from his 8-game suspension. McDonald has had a strong summer and, if not for the suspension, would be in quite a starting battle with fellow veteran Nate Allen. I think as the season unfolds we'll look back at McDonald's signing as a steal, so many teams probably hesitant to get involved because of the suspension. What is clear at this precise moment is that McDonald sure looks like he'll be worth the wait.

• Yes, it's a big week. We should know a lot more about this team when it's over.
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