Miami Dolphins 2014 Off-Season Report

2013 Recap

The Dolphins were big spenders last off-season, coming off of a 7-9 season in 2012 and looking to free agency to help them take that next step. As teams who embrace that philosophy often realize, it’s much easier said than done. Big deals given to Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, and Philip Wheeler failed to pay off as the Dolphins finished 8-8 and general manager Jeff Ireland was given the boot.

Mike Wallace’s raw numbers, 73 catches for 930 yards and 5 touchdowns, were not bad, but he and Ryan Tannehill showed a supreme lack of chemistry on deep balls, as Wallace caught just 6 of 36 targets 20+ yards downfield, the worst rate in the NFL. Considering his forte is supposed to be the deep ball, he hardly resembled a wide receiver worth 12 million dollars yearly, especially since he caught just 52% of targets overall.

Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe, meanwhile, proved that the Dolphins bought high on one year wonders with them, as they graded out worst and 6th worst at their respective positions on Pro Football Focus. Add in a disappointing year from right tackle Tyson Clabo, a one-year signing, a significant injury suffered by Dustin Keller, another one-year signing, and a disappointing year by overpaid depth receiver Brandon Gibson and you have a disappointing free agency haul, with the exception of Brent Grimes, a cornerback who excelled on a one-year deal off of a significant injury suffered in 2012.

With all of that and some questionable calls in the past, it’s no surprise Ireland got the boot. The Dolphins were also even worse than their 8-8 record, in more ways than one. For one, they finished the season ranked 24th in rate of moving the chains differential. Though they came close to making the playoffs, they had no business being there and, while San Diego was able to win in Cincinnati, Miami probably would have had a hard time doing so.

They also had a very noticeable collapse down the stretch, being 8-6 off of a win over the Patriots going into week 16, but losing their final 2 games to the Bills and Jets by a combined 39-7 to get eliminated. And then there was the very public Jonathan Martin scandal, in which Martin left the team mid-season because he felt bullied by the rest of the team, which led to suspensions, bad press, and several assistant coaches being fired. I have my thoughts on that later in this write up, and also right here, if you want to read them. Between all that, the firing of their general manager, and the fact that head coach Joe Philbin is now very much on the hot seat as a lame duck head coach, you have an 8-8 season that was much worse than an 8-8 season.

Positional Needs

Offensive Tackle

The Dolphins had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last season and now they have 4 starters set to hit free agency. That could definitely be seen as an opportunity to upgrade the offensive line by getting new personnel in, but they will have to replace those guys. Tackle is the most important offensive line position and Bryant McKinnie and Tyson Clabo are declining players heading into their age 35 and age 33 seasons respectively going into free agency. Jonathan Martin, meanwhile, is highly unlikely to return after the controversy between him and several other members of this offensive line.

Guard

Both of the Dolphins’ starting guards from last season are also free agents, but unlike their offensive tackles, the reason they probably won’t be back isn’t poor play or age, it’s that both of them, Richie Incognito and John Jerry, were reported instigators in the Jonathan Martin bullying scandal. It would be a PR nightmare for the Dolphins to bring either back so they’ll need two new starters at the guard position. Nate Garner and Sam Brenner, who filled in for the suspended Incognito down the stretch, down struggled mightily and should not be looked at as potential starters and internal replacements. They’ll have to go external here.

Defensive Tackle

The Dolphins had one of the deepest defensive lines in the NFL last season, led by a strong trio of defensive tackles Randy Starks, Paul Soliai, and Jared Odrick. Unfortunately, Starks and Soliai are free agents this off-season and it’s very unlikely that they are able to re-sign both. If they lose one or the other, they’ll probably add someone at the position this off-season to maintain the position as a position of depth.

Safety

Safety is another spot where the Dolphins could lose a starter to free agency as Chris Clemons is set to hit free agency. He played pretty well this season on a one-year contract and he played well in 2012 as well, but the Dolphins reportedly don’t see him as a priority with so many other free agents. If Clemons isn’t retained, he’ll need to be replaced.

Outside Linebacker

Philip Wheeler was a bust of a free agent signing, no huge surprise considering they bought high and paid for a one-year wonder. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013. The Dolphins wouldn’t save cap space by cutting him, unless they did it as a post-June 1st cut, but they could still do so in an attempt to get out of his salary and find a suitable replacement.

Cornerback

Cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Nolan Carroll are free agents this off-season, while Dimitri Patterson could be a cap casualty. The Dolphins do have Jamar Taylor and Will Davis waiting in the wings, 2nd and 3rd round picks respectively in 2013, but neither did much of anything as a rookie and I would not be comfortable having those two and Jimmy Wilson be my top-3 cornerbacks for 2014 with no depth. If they are unable to re-sign some of their guys, they should look externally for depth.

Running Back

The Dolphins used a 4th round pick in 2012 and a 2nd round pick in 2011 on running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas respectively, but their running game still struggled last season. They could add someone else to the mix this off-season.

Middle Linebacker

Like Philip Wheeler, Dannell Ellerbe was a bust of a free agent signing and for some of the same reasons. They bought high on a one-year wonder. Like with Wheeler, they could make Ellerbe a post-June 1st cut, save some cap space (though endure a hit next off-season), save some money, and free up the position to find a replacement. It’s less likely, but if they did so, they’d have to find a replacement.

Center

The Dolphins could have a completely different starting 5 on the offensive line in week 1 of 2014 as compared to week 1 of 2013. Mike Pouncey is a talented center, but he was implicated in the Jonathan Martin scandal and reportedly could be facing suspension to start next season. It’s bad timing too as he’s heading into the contract year of his rookie deal and the Dolphins probably would have picked up his 5th year option or extended him had he not been implicated because he’s so talented. Now they might be thinking of moving on from him after next season. Either way, they need another center in the mix to fill in for him when he’s suspended and possibly to be a long-term replacement.

Key Free Agents

DT Randy Starks

Randy Starks is an underrated, undermentioned player who has graded out above average in each of the last 6 seasons from 2008-2013 since becoming a starter, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2009 and 7th ranked defensive tackle in 2013. He has scheme versatility at 6-3 312 and can play both 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4 and defensive tackle in a 4-3 and, even though he’s going into his age 31 season, he’s coming off one of the best seasons of his career. He should command a good amount of money on his next deal over 3-4 years.

CB Brent Grimes

Brent Grimes was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in 2010 and 2011, grading out 10th and 3rd respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in those 2 seasons. As a result, the Falcons franchise tagged him going into 2012, but he tore his Achilles early in the season and was forced to “settle” for 5.5 million on a one-year prove it deal with the Dolphins for 2013. He certainly did prove it though as he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked cornerback for the season, meaning he’s been top-10 among cornerbacks in each of the last 3 seasons he’s been healthy, including two top-3 finishes. He’s going into his age 31 season so he won’t get a huge deal, especially with his injury history, but he should still command a lot of money on a 3-4 year deal. He’s might be the top cornerback on the open market.

DT Paul Soliai

Paul Soliai has been a very solid defensive tackle over the past four seasons, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including a 12th place finish among defensive tackles in 2010 and a 19th place finish among defensive tackles in 2013. However, he’s only a two-down run stuffer and part-time player, maxing out at 627 snaps in 2011. Run stopping ability isn’t as valued as it used to be and Soliai is going into his age 31 season anyway. He’ll make a decent amount of money on a short-term deal, but you shouldn’t be breaking the bank for the 344 pounder.

S Chris Clemons

Chris Clemons has stepped up as an above average starter at safety in 2012 and 2013. In 2012, he was in a contract year, but he only got a cheap contract going into 2013. He once again played solid in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety this season. However, now the Dolphins are reportedly considering moving on from Clemons in favor of finding a new starting safety and re-signing their other free agents. Clemons should be an underrated and cheap young starter (going into his age 29) on the open market.

CB Nolan Carroll

Nolan Carroll has seen his snap count increase in each of the past 3 seasons, going from 330, to 653, to 809 snaps from 2011-2013. He’s been a decent player the whole time and is now an average starter. He should be paid like an average starter and the Dolphins would be wise to bring him back as a starter, especially if they can’t retain Brent Grimes.

TE Dustin Keller

A first round pick in 2008, Dustin Keller broke out as a pass catching threat in 2010 and 2011, catching 55 passes for 687 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2010 and 65 passes for 815 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2011, despite catching passes from Mark Sanchez. However, he played just 8 games in 2012 and struggled through injuries when on the field, catching 28 passes for 317 yards and 2 touchdowns. He took a one-year prove it deal with the Dolphins, but destroyed his knee in the pre-season and didn’t play a snap all season. He’ll be a serious medical question going in 2014 and, despite his talent, he might have to settle for a contract near the veteran’s minimum. At the very least, his contract will be heavily incentive based.

G Richie Incognito

Richie Incognito won’t be back with the Dolphins, but if I had a choice right now between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin in terms of who I’d want on my team, I’m taking Incognito. That being said, I don’t think any team can just sign Incognito like it’s nothing and expect it to 100% work. Because of all of the things that have been said about him in the media, true or untrue, fair or unfair, there are probably a solid amount of players in the NFL who feel they could never play with him. I wouldn’t want him on a team with several of those players. You have to know and consult your locker room before you bring someone like him in now.

That being said, Incognito is still a good football player, only going into his age 31 season, coming off a solid 8 game start to the 2013 season and a 2012 season in which he finished 24th among guards on Pro Football Focus. I’m more sympathetic to Incognito’s side than most people probably are. He’s done some bad things in the past, but I don’t think he comes out of the Jonathan Martin situation like the terrible person a lot of people are trying to paint him as.

After reading the thousands of text messages sent back and forth between Incognito and Martin, I can definitely understand why Incognito believed they were friends. Friends rip on each other. I do it with my friends. I wouldn’t expect things to be any different in the NFL. Did Incognito cross some lines? Absolutely. Leaving female family members out of the mix is generally a good rule to follow and some of the racial stuff definitely raises eyebrows, even if it isn’t coming from a truly racist place, which I don’t believe it is.

Incognito definitely doesn’t come out of this looking like a saint, especially when you consider his history and his apparent obsession with strippers, hookers, and fake tits. However, I don’t believe anything Incognito said was coming from a place of hate. In fact, I believe the opposite. And then one day, all of a sudden, lawyers are involved, Incognito is out of a job, and being painted in the media as a racist and a bully. That’s something I can be sympathetic to.

On top of that, the fact that a large number of Incognito’s Miami teammates came to bat for him after the situation happened means something to me. Again, he’s not a good fit in every NFL locker room, but there’s a spot for Richie Incognito in the NFL, especially since I think Incognito is definitely going to be a lot more careful in the future with the lines that he’s crossed after this mess.

OT Tyson Clabo

Tyson Clabo was a top-20 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons from 2008-2012, but the big right tackle wasn’t as good in 2013, grading out about average. That’s pretty understandable considering he’s aging. Now going into his age 33 season, he’s clearly on the decline and he’s only a right tackle, which is a less valuable position. He should be looking at one-year deals this off-season and he should consider himself lucky if he finds a secure starting job.

G John Jerry

Like Richie Incognito, John Jerry was involved in the Jonathan Martin scandal. Jerry wasn’t the reported main instigator, but the fact that he was involved probably got him a one way ticket out of Miami as he heads into free agency. Unlike Incognito, Jerry isn’t that good. The 2010 3rd round pick has been a slightly below average starter on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons as a starter. He could have a hard time finding work this off-season unfortunately.

OT Bryant McKinnie

Bryant McKinnie was a solid blindside protector in Minnesota for years, but he came out of the 2011 lockout at about 380 pounds and got himself cut. He then went to Baltimore, where he was pretty solid as a starter in 2011, but his weight problems limited him to 418 snaps in 2012 total (including post-season), the majority of which were week 17 or later. He played well when on the field, but he once again had weight problems going in 2013 and got himself benched and sent to Miami, where he struggled as the blindside protector. Now going into his age 35 season with a history of weight problems, he might be done.

Cap Casualty Candidates

OT Jonathan Martin

Cutting Jonathan Martin wouldn’t save the Dolphins any cap space, but there’s no way he returns. While I would want Incognito on my team in certain situations, I actually don’t believe Jonathan Martin is an NFL player. He obviously has mental issues he needs to attend to and I don’t think that an NFL locker room is the place to handle that. His situation in another locker room might not be the exact same as in Miami, but he’s going to encounter some locker room culture everywhere he goes. You can’t have someone in an NFL locker room that needs to be coddled and given special treatment. You have to be mentally tough to play football and I don’t get the impression that Martin is.

I wouldn’t have said any of that if Martin had been getting results on the football field, but he struggled mightily as a rookie and for the first part of his sophomore season and it’s definitely becoming clear why. Inadvertently through this situation, it’s come out that Martin was not in the physical shape that the Dolphins wanted him to be in and through his text messages with Incognito it was revealed that Martin didn’t even know how to watch film during the off-season.

On top of all this, he’s now a walking lawsuit for any NFL team. He’s not completely innocent in this, as it doesn’t appear he ever gave Incognito any indication that he didn’t view their relationship as nearly as friendly as Incognito did. I’m very sympathetic to Martin’s need for help, but he put Incognito in a very tough situation. I don’t think that the NFL is the place for him. It doesn’t make him a bad person. Not everyone is cut out for the NFL. Martin is a Stanford graduate and most likely a very, very smart person capable of having a very successful career in the “real world.” The same probably could not be said about Incognito. Martin should just do that.

CB Dimitri Patterson

Dimitri Patterson played pretty well when he was on the field in 2013, but he played just 6 games and 241 snaps. He’s a solid player, but he’s played 15 games over the past 2 seasons combined and he’s going into his age 31 season. The Dolphins can save 5.4 million dollars on the cap and in cash by cutting him, which seems like a pretty straight forward move.

OLB Philip Wheeler

Philip Wheeler was a bust of a free agent signing, no huge surprise considering they bought high and paid for a one-year wonder. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013. The Dolphins wouldn’t save cap space by cutting him, unless they did it as a post-June 1st cut, but they could still do so in an attempt to get out of his salary and find a suitable replacement.

MLB Dannell Ellerbe

Like Philip Wheeler, Dannell Ellerbe was a bust of a free agent signing and for some of the same reasons. They bought high on a one-year wonder. Like with Wheeler, they could make Ellerbe a post-June 1st cut, save some cap space (though endure a hit next off-season), save some money, and free up the position to find a replacement.

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