MIAMI (CBSMiami) – By most predictions, the Miami Dolphins exceeded expectations in 2012. But, after getting mauled by the New England Patriots Sunday; the game showed just how far the Dolphins have to go before they can compete with the Pats.

The Dolphins offensive line came into shape at the end of the season with rookie Jonathan Martin taking over at left tackle for Jake Long. This gives the Dolphins plenty of leverage in negotiations with Long, if the Fins choose to try to re-sign the oft-injured tackle.

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The Dolphins finally appear to be set at quarterback with Ryan Tannehill at the helm. But, as excited as Fins fans have been for Tannehill, he threw 12 touchdowns against 14 interceptions this season. Still, he improved over the second half of the season, until he ran into Patriots in the final game.

Fins fans should remember though, in Chad Henne’s first season after taking the reins of the offense, he won seven games and threw 12 touchdowns…against 14 interceptions.

The main thing Tannehill needed on offense was speed/playmakers. Outside of Reggie Bush, the team didn’t have a game breaker on offense. That should change as the offseason gets rolling for the Fins.

Miami will have five of the first 100 picks in the NFL Draft in April and will head into free agency with more than $45 million in cap space to use to acquire talent for the offense and defense.

Speaking of the defense, in the front seven, the biggest question mark is defensive tackle Randy Starks. He combined with Paul Soliai to form arguably one of the best defensive tackle combinations in the NFL. Starks is an unrestricted free agent and he will command a lot of money on the open market.

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The Fins will not likely use the franchise tag on Starks, which means the team will either have to pay him or let him hit the free agent market.

The franchise tag will not likely be saved for cornerback Sean Smith, who is also scheduled to become a free agent, according to Armando Salguero of CBS4 news partner the Miami Herald.

Smith improved his play each season and was the Fins’ best cover man in 2012. Smith, 25, only had 2 interceptions this season, but forced three fumbles and had 52 total tackles for the Dolphins. But the team, according to Salguero, doesn’t see him as worth a $10 million tag next season.

The Fins should be in better shape in the secondary next season with the likely return of Richard Marshall, Smith, possibly Dmitri Patterson, and whoever the Dolphins can pick up in free agency and the draft.

What will determine the future of the Dolphins will be the skill of general manager Jeff Ireland managing his draft picks and salary cap. If Ireland can hit on several draft picks and sign a couple of free agents who can contribute, the Dolphins are very close to being a playoff team.

The other key for the Dolphins will be managing Tannehill and trying to help him avert the almost inevitable sophomore slump. Tannehill will be surrounded by veterans, which should help stave off some of the problems.

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But, the Dolphins will only go as far as Tannehill and Ireland can take them over the next few years. Nevertheless, for the first time in a long time, Dolphins fans have hope for the future. Now the team just has to convert that hope into success.