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When inside linebacker Karlos Dansby arrived in South Florida for a visit with the Dolphins on the first day of free agency, it didn’t take him long to be convinced about the direction of the organization.

It only took a few steps into the team’s weight room on a random offseason afternoon.

“There were more than 40 guys in that building working out,” Dansby said. “That showed me their commitment to winning. This organization is doing whatever it needs to do. That’s what sold me, to be honest.”

Here’s what might sell others on Miami this season: To bolster its roster, the Dolphins gave two players (Dansby and wide receiver Brandon Marshall) a combined $93 million ($46 million guaranteed) over the next five years.

It’s a huge investment from a team that’s picky about its spending. But as the AFC East continues to be one of the most intense battlegrounds in the NFL, it also was an investment that should keep the Dolphins well within the hunt.

What’s new

Offense: No offensive unit was criticized more during the last two seasons than the wideouts. And now, no unit has higher expectations. The Dolphins’ passing game is expected to make a huge leap, primarily as a result of the Marshall acquisition. Marshall should provide the aggressive punch and yards-after-catch the Dolphins have lacked.

Marshall’s presence also gives young quarterback Chad Henne the opportunity to flourish. Coordinator Dan Henning still can find ways to make Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams effective on the ground, but he’ll have more flexibility with play-calling with Marshall in the mix.

Defense: This unit struggled considerably last season, ranking 25th in the league in points allowed. As a result, coach Tony Sparano fired coordinator Paul Pasqualoni and lured Mike Nolan away from Denver to replace him. But it’s going to take more than a coaching change to get this unit back on track.

Expect some differences in philosophy, including a step away from the pure 3-4 defense that Miami has run in the past. Instead, look for the front line to penetrate more gaps, allowing the team to benefit from its athleticism.

With Jason Ferguson suspended for the first eight games, end Randy Starks will shift inside to play nose tackle and rookie end Jared Odrick is expected to start from Day 1. Miami gave one of the most lucrative defensive deals in NFL history to Dansby, a good all-around player who is supposed to make the players around him better.

Breakout player

Brian Hartline, WR. Hartline was a rookie on a struggling passing team, but that didn’t keep him from showing his potential early. He was responsible for four of the team’s six biggest pass plays, and his growth should continue with Marshall the focus of opponents’ coverage schemes.

“I think seeing Hartline (in games as a rookie) is going to help a lot going forward because you are not sitting there worried about not having enough evidence on what he can do. Now, can we improve it? Sure, we can improve some of these things.” — Coach Tony Sparano

Opponent’s view

The Dolphins have become known across the league as a tough team with an innovative coaching staff, which causes opponents to be very diligent about their film study during the week prior to a game. Their ability to master the Wildcat offense was particularly impressive, but now it’s time for them to take another step. …

“They need to become a more multidimensional team on offense, capable of scoring more points, especially if the defense plays anything like it did last season when it gave up all of those points. It’s obvious they realize this, since they added wide receiver Brandon Marshall. With Marshall, they’re close to becoming the real deal. …

“And think about it: If Ronnie Brown was able to be as productive as he was when the Dolphins didn’t have a passing game, imagine what he’s capable of doing when a defense isn’t stuffing everybody they’ve got into the box. Marshall makes this whole team better.”

Bottom line

When the Dolphins finished 11-5 in ’08, it caused many to wonder whether Miami was destined for huge things long before anyone expected. Those with a more realistic understanding knew it wouldn’t be that easy. But just because the Dolphins struggled at times last season, it doesn’t mean they are off track.

Now that the front office has invested serious dough in a playmaker like Marshall, it seems clear the Dolphins believe the initial phases of the team’s development is complete. Some major holes remain on defense, but as young players continue to grow Miami should begin to get back to being more like the team of ’08 than last season’s inconsistent bunch.

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