Dolphins vs. Bucs: Five Things To Watch

The third preseason usually is considered the most significant because it's the one where the starters will play the longest. For example, starting quarterback Chad Pennington will play into the third quarter against Tampa Bay Thursday night after playing a little more than a quarter in the first two preseason games. With that in mind, here's what we'll be watching tonight.

1. Keeping tabs on Thomas

We remain convinced that it will be Donald Thomas who will start at right guard when the Dolphins open the season at Atlanta on Sept. 13, but he has been rotating every series with Shawn Murphy so far in the preseason.

It will be interesting to see if that pattern continues in the all-important third preseason game and also how the offensive line performs with each in the game.

2. Is Hartline making a push to become a starter?

After third-round pick Patrick Turner got off to a hot start in training camp, he has cooled considerably, but fourth-round choice Brian Hartline has steadily improved, to the point where he started against Carolina on Saturday night.

It's a wide open battle for the starting job opposite Ted Ginn Jr., but nobody is going to tell us that the Dolphins have a better wide receiver on the roster than Davone Bess — and that includes Hartline. Perhaps the Dolphins wanted to see Hartline play with the first-team offense, perhaps the Dolphins like Bess better coming off the bench as a slot receiver, who knows.

What we do know is the Dolphins obviously like Hartline, so we'll be watching him closely against Tampa Bay to see if he can build on his strong work in practice.

3. Which young outside linebacker can stand out?

There might not be a spot on the roster where there's more competition for roster spots than at outside linebacker, where it seems the Dolphins have an abundance of capable players.

As it stands right now, it's likely that a quality young linebacker will have to be let go because there simply won't be enough room on the roster.

Joey Porter, Jason Taylor and CFL import Cameron Wake appear to be locks to make the team, and at some point Matt Roth figures to be part of the equation as well. Because of his strong camp and preseason and his work on special teams, Charlie Anderson also should make the team.

That leaves Erik Walden, another special teams stud, and Quentin Moses to battle it out. Walden seemed to have the edge early on, but Moses is coming off a really strong game against Carolina.

4. The rookie cornerbacks

That hasn't changed from the first game of the preseason, we need to see what Sean Smith and Vontae Davis can do on a game-to-game basis.

After struggling against Jacksonville in the preseason opener, Davis had a really strong outing against Carolina and it will be interesting to see if he can build on that.

Smith, meanwhile, had a nice interception against Jacksonville but sat out against Carolina after getting sick.

There's been no indication as to whether Smith or Davis will be the starter opposite Will Allen against Tampa Bay, and it may be that the starting job will come down to how each of the rookies performs in the last two preseason games.

5. The return game

After focusing on rookie free agent Chris Williams for the first preseason game and a half, the Dolphins will turn to most established players against Tampa Bay, although Tony Sparano didn't specify who that might be.

After not being seen returning kickoffs at all during training camp, Patrick Cobbs was brought up by Sparano as a possibility this week and he's the guy we want to see because we felt he was the team's best in that role last season.

It also could be Ted Ginn Jr. who returns kickoffs, or a combination of the two with Anthony Armstrong mixed in.

On punt returns, the two logical candidates are Ginn and Bess, although we like Bess better in that role.

But, clearly, a long punt or kickoff return could win someone a return job.

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