Miami Dolphins 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Dolphins had high expectations going into last season, with Ryan Tannehill, the 8th overall pick in 2012, going into the 2nd season of his career, and after a big off-season, in which they were anointed the off-season winners because they spent the most money. However, the Dolphins just improved by 1 game, going from 7-9 to 8-8, and collapsing down the stretch, losing their final 2 games by a combined score of 39-7 to the Bills and Jets, divisional rivals against whom they were favored. Winning just one of those games would have sent them to the playoffs.

However, even if they had made the playoffs, they wouldn’t have deserved it as they were a team that was worse than their record all season. Their offense really struggled to move the chains, moving them at a 66.81% rate, 26th in the NFL. While their defense was solid, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 70.75% rate, 14th in the NFL, it wasn’t nearly enough. They finished the season with a -3.94% rate of moving the chains differential, 24th in the NFL. They weren’t as good as their 8-8 record.

So what happened? Why did they fail to improve? Well, a big part of it was their free agent class was largely a bust. They spent a lot of money, but that doesn’t always equal results, as Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, and Philip Wheeler all disappointed on big contracts, not so surprisingly. Meanwhile, Reshad Jones, who they gave a big extension after a big 2013 season, struggled mightily. They gave one year deals to Tyson Clabo, Dustin Keller, and Brent Grimes and only one of them panned out. They traded up to #3 to draft Dion Jordan and he didn’t do much as a rookie. They also had significant and related issues at quarterback and on the offensive line that I’ll get into.

Ryan Tannehill showed improvement from his rookie year, when he completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.81 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, a QB rating of 76.1. In 2013, he completed 60.4% of his passes for an average of 6.66 YPA, 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, a QB rating of 81.7. He also improved on the ground as the mobile Tannehill rushed for 238 yards and a touchdown on 40 carries, an average of 5.95 YPA, after rushing for 211 yards and 2 touchdowns on 49 carries as a rookie, an average of 4.31 YPA.

Tannehill’s biggest issue last season might have been his pocket presence. He was sacked 58 times, 10 times more than anyone in the NFL, and, while the offensive line had problems, it wasn’t all on them. Tannehill, despite his mobility and athleticism, took a sack on 26.1% of pressured drop backs, 3rd worst in the NFL among eligible quarterbacks. That’s even worse than when he was a rookie and took one on 21.5% of pressured dropbacks, 9th worst in the league. His offensive line needs to do a better job, but he’s not showing good pocket presence. All those sacks are a big part of the reason why the Dolphins’ offense sputtered so often last season. That could improve in his 3rd year in the league, but it’s obviously a concern.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

I mentioned that the Dolphins also had serious issues on the offensive line as well. If they can have improved offensive line play, it’ll help Tannehill develop. They weren’t horrible last season, or at least not as bad as those aforementioned 58 sacks would suggest, ranking 19th in pass block efficiency and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked run blocking offensive line, but they certainly had issues. They also certainly had issues off-the-field as well, as a bullying scandal got left guard Richie Incognito suspended and caused offensive tackle Jonathan Martin to leave the team for emotional reasons.

Last season, the Dolphins started week 1 with Jonathan Martin at left tackle, Richie Incognito at left guard, Mike Pouncey at center, John Jerry at right guard, and Tyson Clabo at right tackle. Martin and Clabo struggled to start the season, getting Martin moved to right tackle, Clabo moved to the bench and forcing the team to trade for Bryant McKinnie, an aging veteran benched by the Ravens, to start at left tackle. Martin then left the team and Clabo took back over at right tackle. Then Incognito, their best run blocker, got suspended, forcing the underwhelming combination of Sam Brenner and Nate Garner to split time at left guard.

Incognito and Martin are now gone and McKinnie and Clabo remain on the open market as aging veterans coming off of down seasons. The only 2013 week 1 starter who could start for them week 1 of 2014 is Pouncey, who could actually face a short suspension for his role in the bullying scandal. The Dolphins obviously knew they had to fix things on the offensive line and spent their off-season focusing on the unit, adding two new starters through free agency on multi-year deals and using a 1st and 3rd round picks on offensive linemen.

Unfortunately, they overspent on their two offensive linemen and reached in the first round for a player widely regarded as a 2nd round prospect. They’ll be better on the offensive line, but the unit is far from fixed. Branden Albert was their big money signing. The Dolphins obviously needed a blindside protector, possibly more than any team in the league, but this was a buyer’s market in terms of left tackles, which is a rarity considering top level blindside protectors rarely are allowed to hit the open market. This off-season Albert, Jared Veldheer, Eugene Monroe, and Anthony Collins all were available as high level left tackles, while Rodger Saffold has the ability to be a strong left tackle when healthy. Branden Albert got 5 years, 46 million, with 25 million of that guaranteed, which makes him, by far, the highest paid of the bunch and I don’t think he’s the best of the bunch.

Eugene Monroe got 5 years, 37.5 million with 19 million guaranteed from the Ravens. Eugene Monroe has been a top-16 offensive tackle on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 3 seasons, maxing out as #6 in 2011. He graded out 16th overall this season, but playing even better once he was traded to Baltimore. The Baltimore “version” of Monroe was the #12 offensive tackle this season. Jared Veldheer got 35 million over 5 years from Arizona and he was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked offensive tackle in 2011 and 12th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, before an injury plagued contract year hurt his value a little bit.

Still, I think both of those players are better than Albert, who is 3 years older, going into his age 30 season, has a history of back problems, and really didn’t get a lot of interest from his original team, the Chiefs, in keeping him around. Albert has never graded out higher than 18th on Pro Football Focus, ranking 18th in 2011, 25th in 2012, and 28th in 2013. Veldheer and Monroe have graded out higher than 18th a combined 5 times over the last 3 years, with the exclusion of a fluky injury plagued year for Veldheer in 2013. Albert also appears to be in slight decline yearly as he heads into his 30s. Albert will help the Dolphins, but he’s not the elite blindside protector the Dolphins are paying him like, so they really overpaid, to the tune of about 10 million dollars over 5 years.

Shelley Smith was their other big free agent signing and he’ll start at right guard. His signing wasn’t as big of a move as Albert’s, as he got 2-year, 5.5 million, but the Dolphins are still overpaying him because he’s never been a full-time starter in the NFL, maxing out at 371 snaps last season and playing 731 snaps total in his 4-year career. Smith flashed last season on those 371 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked guard despite the limited playing time, so he has upside. However, in 2012, he graded out 55th out of 81 eligible on just 360 snaps and he was just a 6th round pick in 2010. He didn’t play a single offensive snap in the first 2 years of his career.

Ja’Waun James was the 19th overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, but he was widely considered a 2nd round prospect before the draft, something several league sources have confirmed. The Dolphins apparently panicked when Ryan Shazier got drafted 4 spots ahead of them and drafted someone that, while they had a 1st round grade on him, they could have gotten in a trade down. He has a big body, but he’s flat footed and could be overwhelmed as a rookie starter at right tackle. They don’t really have any competition for him.

At left guard, the Dolphins will start another inexperienced player, either 3rd round rookie Billy Turner or 2013 3rd round pick Dallas Thomas. Turner would probably struggle as a rookie because he’s a 3rd rounder coming from small school North Dakota State, but Thomas might not necessarily be an upgrade. Despite all the issues the Dolphins had on the offensive line last season, Thomas still managed to play just 2 snaps, which has to be concerning.

Mike Pouncey at center, as I mentioned, is the only holdover on the offensive line and he’s also probably their best offensive lineman. The 15th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft had a lackluster rookie year, but he has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center in 2012 and 13th ranked center in 2013 and could be even better now in his 4th year in the league, only his age 25 season. His twin brother Maurkice is the bigger name, playing center for the Steelers and somehow making 3 Pro-Bowls and 3 All-Pros in 3 healthy seasons, but Mike is the better football player.

Despite his off-the-field problems, the Dolphins still picked up his 5th year option for 2015 this off-season. Obviously, if he were to have any sort of suspension, it would be a big loss for the Dolphins. Their next option on the depth chart is Sam Brenner, a 2013 undrafted free agent who struggled mightily on 292 snaps as a rookie last season. He played 231 snaps at guard and no guard played fewer snaps and graded out worse than him. He was better in 1 game at center and he could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but no one drafted him so there’s obviously no guarantee that he can even develop into a passable spot starter.

Grade: B-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Mike Wallace was the Dolphins’ biggest off-season signing of the previous off-season, as they gave him a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal last off-season with 30 million guaranteed. Like the rest of their big signings last off-season, Wallace didn’t really pan out. Wallace caught a career high 73 passes, but only for 930 yards. His 5 touchdowns were the smallest total of his 5-year career, as was his 12.7 yards per catch. He was brought in to be a deep threat, but he hauled in just 6 of 36 targets 20+ yards downfield. He caught 73 passes on 137 targets in general (53.3%) and quarterbacks threw 9 interceptions when targeting him, giving them a 59.4 QB rating when they threw to Wallace. Wallace also dropped 11 passes and averaged a mediocre 1.44 yards per route run. He was decently productive, but he graded out just about average on Pro Football Focus, certainly not worth his insane salary.

This kind of disappointment shouldn’t be surprising from him. It’s always concerned me when a guy is obviously just chasing money. Wallace held out long into training camp going in 2012, rather than playing out the final year of his rookie deal and, as a result, he had a poor year by his standards in 2012, with 64 catches for 836 yards and 8 touchdowns despite a career high in targets. He was 34th in the NFL in receiving yards and graded out noticeably below average on ProFootballFocus, finishing 91st out of 105 eligible. It was obvious when he went into that holdout that a down year like that was a possibility, but he didn’t seem to care. He was part of the reason why the Steelers missed the playoffs.

And then he chased the money and went to Miami, a team with a young quarterback that had made the playoffs just once in the previous 11 seasons. It was very possible he’d just coast once he had the money and it seems like he did. He’s a one trick pony anyway. He’s got great speed, but he’s still not a good route runner and the NFL has caught on to him over the past few seasons. It’s very possible the 1257 yards he had in his breakout 2010 season will be his career best when his career is all said and done. Some are saying that a new offensive coordinator, with Bill Lazor taking over from Mike Sherman, will help Wallace, but I’m skeptical.

With Wallace disappointing last year, Brian Hartline led the Dolphins in receiving yards for the 2nd straight season. He’s put up pretty identical 74/1083/1 and 76/1016/4 seasons over the past 2 seasons, since the 2009 4th round pick broke out in 2012. He’s not an explosive athlete, a touchdown threat, or a deep threat, but he knows how to get open and Tannehill is obviously comfortable throwing to him. There’s a good chance he leads them in receiving for the 3rd straight season. He’s averaged 1.84 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons.

The Dolphins have a three-way competition for the 3rd receiver job. Brandon Gibson had a strong start to last season in the slot, after the Dolphins gave him a 3-year, 10 million dollar deal last off-season even though he hadn’t shown himself to be anything more than a marginal receiver in his career, grading out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in his career prior and averaging 1.34 yards per route run, and even though he had played just 175 slot snaps in his career prior. Gibson flashed in 6 games, catching 30 passes for 326 yards and 3 touchdowns on 196 routes run, an average of 1.66 YPA, but then tore his patellar tendon. Gibson has youth on his side, but a torn patellar tendon is arguably the most serious lower body injury a player can sustain. If healthy, he could have another solid season, as he’s graded out above average in each of last 2 seasons, but he’s unproven and coming off of a very serious injury.

Rishard Matthews stepped up as the slot receiver in his absence and flashed, grading out above average, though he did average just 1.23 yards per route run, catching 41 passes for 448 yards and 2 touchdowns on 363 routes run. However, he’s still pretty unproven, as the 2012 7th round pick played just 236 snaps as a rookie, grading out below average, and he’s reportedly showing up late to practices and meetings this off-season, which kind of has him in the coaches’ doghouse. That could cost him the slot receiver job. Meanwhile, Jarvis Landry was their 2nd round pick and he’ll be in the mix as well. If he or Matthews wins the job, the Dolphins could cut Gibson and save 1.7 million on the cap and 2.7 million in cash, rather than keeping him as an expensive depth receiver.

The Dolphins brought in Dustin Keller to be their starting tight end last off-season, on what seemed like a smart, one year, buy low, prove it deal given to a former 1st round pick who caught 65 passes for 815 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2011 from Mark Sanchez, before missing 8 games and being limited in several others in 2012. However, Keller suffered a devastating knee injury in the pre-season and didn’t play a snap. The injury was so bad that it is threatening his career, as he remains unsigned as of this writing.

The Dolphins really needed someone to step up in Keller’s absence and they found that someone with Charles Clay, a 2011 6th round pick who broke out last season in his 3rd year in the league. Clay caught 69 passes for 759 yards and 6 touchdowns on 458 routes run, an average of 1.62 yards per route run, which ranked 11th among eligible tight ends. He was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked tight end in terms of pass catching grade, though the 6-3 245 pounder didn’t offer much as a blocker, grading out 14th worst at his position in that aspect. Clay is still a one year wonder, after playing a combined 744 snaps in his first 2 years in the league and catching a combined 34 passes, but he could have another solid season as a pass catcher this season, which would set him up for a solid payday going into free agency next off-season.

Dion Sims is the favorite to be the #2 tight end and blocking specialist tight end again, but the 4th round rookie struggled mightily as a run blocker last season, grading out 11th worst at his position in run blocking grade and 6th worst overall. He played 280 snaps and only ran 81 routes, catching 6 passes for 32 yards and a touchdown. Arthur Lynch, a 5th round rookie, could push him for snaps if he continues to struggle. Michael Egnew, a 2012 3rd round pick who has played just 255 snaps in 2 seasons, could also be in the mix, but he’s also squarely on the roster bubble.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Dolphins were a poor running team last season, averaging 4.12 yards per carry and only attempting 349 runs to 594 passes. Even that was buoyed by Tannehill averaging 5.95 yards per carry on 40 carries. Part of it was the team’s inability to run block, as they graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked run blocking team. They should be better in that aspect this season with their revamped offensive line. However, part of it was the team’s lack of talent at the position.

In order to attempt to remedy this, the Dolphins brought in Knowshon Moreno this off-season. Knowshon Moreno had over 1500 yards from scrimmage last season (1038 rushing and 548 receiving), but was still available about 3 weeks into free agency. There were reasons for that. The running back position has been strongly devalued in the NFL. We’re in an off-season where no running back has gotten more than 4 million dollars yearly and going into a draft where no running back went in the first round of the draft for the second straight year.

Also, as much production as Moreno had last year, much of it was the product of Peyton Manning. Moreno rarely faced stacked boxes and, much more often than not, was running against boxes of 6 or fewer defenders. In spite of that, he actually just rushed for 4.31 yards per carry, which isn’t a spectacular average. He was just Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked running back in terms of running grade. He’s a talented pass catcher and pass protector, but he’s an average runner at best.

He also missed 20 games from 2010-2012 and had just 426 touches over those 3 seasons. There’s a reason why the Broncos showed no interest in bringing in back with Montee Ball behind him on the depth chart. On top of all this, Moreno reportedly showed up for off-season practices out of shape and is dealing with a potentially very serious knee injury that could keep him from having much of an impact at all this season.

Lamar Miller is currently the front runner to be the starter for the 2nd straight season. Miller, a 2012 4th round pick, rushed for 709 yards and 2 touchdowns on 177 carries last season, an average of 4.01 yards per carry. In 2 seasons in the league, Miller has averaged 4.21 yards per carry, showing why he fell to the 4th round in the first place. I don’t expect him to be much better this season. Assuming Moreno can’t do much this season, Daniel Thomas should be the 2nd running back again this season. Thomas struggled last season like he has in his whole career, as the 2011 2nd round pick averaged 3.72 yards per carry last season and has averaged 3.59 yards per carry for his career. Mike Gillislee, a 2013 5th round pick who played 9 snaps as a rookie, could also be in the mix for carries. It’s not a particularly talented group.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Dolphins had a solid defense last season that allowed them to remain competitive despite issues on offense. The strongest part of that defense was their defensive line, where they have a ton of talent and a ton of depth. The Dolphins had a trio of talented defensive tackles in Randy Starks, Jared Odrick, and Paul Soliai, who graded out 7th, 13th, and 20th respectively on Pro Football Focus among defensive tackles on 742 snaps, 878 snaps, and 526 snaps respectively last season.

That depth was threatened this off-season as Starks and Soliai hit free agency. However, they were able to re-sign Starks, which was a huge move, especially on a very reasonable, 2-year, 12 million dollar deal. Starks is an underrated, under-mentioned 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. He’s also equally good as a pass rusher and run stopper. Marcell Dareus was the only other defensive tackle to grade out in the top-10 in both run stopping grade and pass rushing grade last season. Even though he’s going into his age 31 season, he’s coming off one of the best seasons of his career. His contract was perfect for the stage of his career he is in.

The Dolphins lost Soliai to the Falcons, but the big run stopper was the least important of the Dolphins’ 3 defensive tackles last season. They brought in Earl Mitchell from Houston to replace him as that 3rd defensive tackle behind Starks and Odrick. I’m intrigued to see Mitchell in a 4-3, the scheme in which he played in college at Arizona. He was a 3rd round pick in 2010, but the 6-2 292 pounder was miscast as a 3-4 nose tackle in Houston over the last 3 seasons. Even still, he wasn’t terrible, grading out around average in all 3 seasons in a part-time role, so there’s a chance he can become a solid contributor in a 4-3. The Dolphins probably overpaid, giving him 16 million over 4 years with 9 million of that guaranteed, but he’s definitely not bad as a 3rd defensive tackle, even if he may be a step down from Soliai.

Of course, Odrick remains as well. Odrick had a fantastic season last year, grading out 13th among defensive tackles and excelling as a pass rusher. He remains a one year wonder, but he was a 1st round pick in 2010 and last year was the first season he was allowed to play his natural role as a 4-3 penetrating defensive tackle. It’s no surprise that he had by far his best season in that role.

Odrick missed all but one game in his rookie season with injury and was just about average on 597 snaps in 2011 as a 3-4 defensive end. The Dolphins switched to a 4-3 going into the 2012 season, which should have helped him, but they decided to play him primarily at 4-3 defensive end, which was a bad fit for the 6-5 304 pounder. He struggled mightily, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end. He was solid against the run, but couldn’t generate any pass rush, ranking 3rd worst in that aspect. He could easily have another strong year as a 4-3 defensive tackle in 2014, which would set him up for a big payday going into free agency in 2015.

At defensive end, the Dolphins have so much talent that they couldn’t even get the 3rd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Dion Jordan, onto the field much last season and reportedly considered trading him this off-season. Jordan played 339 lackluster snaps as a rookie, but obviously still has an enormous upside. He should, at least, leap Derrick Shelby on the depth chart for the #3 defensive end job this season. Shelby is a solid reserve, grading out about average on 667 snaps in 2 seasons since going undrafted in 2012, but he doesn’t nearly have Jordan’s upside.

Jordan should also eat into the snaps of Oliver Vernon somewhat. Vernon, for some reason, led this talented defensive line in snaps played last season with 929, even though he graded out worst among the unit. He wasn’t awful, but he was below average, playing the run decently, but grading out below average as a pass rusher. He did have 11 sacks, but only 5 hits and 32 hurries on 531 pass rush snaps, a mediocre rate of 9.0%. The 2012 3rd round pick showed more of the same on 445 snaps as a rookie, as he had 3 sacks, 7 hits, and 11 hurries on 289 pass rush snaps, a 7.3% rate. Having him cede some pass rush snaps to Jordan would obviously be a good idea that would help this team.

On the other side, Cameron Wake starts and is one of the better edge rushers in the game. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 4-3 defensive end last season, arguably the worst season of his career. He was #1 among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012, #1 among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2011, and #3 among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2010. Even in 2009, his first year in the league coming over from Canada, he would have been Pro Football Focus’ #3 ranked 4-3 defensive end if he had been eligible, despite playing just 167 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher and he had an absurd 7 sacks 6 hits, and 20 hurries on 134 pass rush snaps, a rate of 24.6%, meaning he disrupted the quarterback on about a quarter of his snaps.

He’s a dominant pass rusher who holds up against the run at 6-2 241 as well. Last season, he graded out 2nd at his position in pure pass rush grade, with 10 sacks, 20 hits, and 41 hurries on 416 pass rush snaps, a very impressive rate of 17.1%. The fact that he showed slight decline in general last season, hampered by a knee injury, now going into his age 32 season, is a minor concern, but I fully expect him to be one of the top few edge rushers in the NFL again this season. The Dolphins have so much depth that they were able to keep his snaps at 694 for the season, which should help his longevity. If, for whatever reason, he starts showing more decline, Dion Jordan could be his long-term replacement in the next few seasons.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Dolphins’ linebacking corps featured two big contract free agents struggling mightily in their first year with the team, a big part of the reason why the Dolphins disappointed after being named off-season winners because of their spending spree. The Dolphins revamped the unit last off-season, releasing aging veterans Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett and replacing them with highly-paid, one-year wonder players who were younger. It backfired big time, as Dansby was one of the better middle linebackers in the league last season, Burnett played solid as an every down linebacker, and Ellerbe and Wheeler showed proved to be nothing more than one year wonders.

Wheeler was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2012, which got him a 5-year, 26 million dollar deal from the Dolphins last off-season, even though, prior to 2012, he had graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2008. Also prior to 2012, he never had played more than 537 snaps in a season, so he was the definition of a one year wonder. Wheeler struggled mightily last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst 4-3 outside linebacker, especially struggling against the run. There are also reports that Wheeler got complacent once he got paid, which is why he struggled so much last season. Now going into his age 30 season, Wheeler is still on the team only because his 5 million dollar salary was guaranteed for this season.

Ellerbe has a similar story. Ellerbe, a 2009 undrafted free agent, maxed out at 456 snaps in a season from 2009-2011, but he had a solid 2012 season, grading out 14th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 667 regular season snaps and then following that up with a strong post-season, en route to a Super Bowl victory by the Ravens. The one year wonder got a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal from the Dolphins and then proved to be a one year wonder last season, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. Like Wheeler’s 2014 salary, Ellerbe’s 6 million dollar salary for 2014 is fully guaranteed, which is why he’s still on the roster. Both will have to play much better to have any hope of staying on the roster for 2015, after the guaranteed money runs out.

In order to make the most of this situation, the Dolphins will be shuffling things around in their linebacking corps, moving Ellerbe to outside linebacker and demoting him out of sub-packages, making him a two-down linebacker. Koa Misi will then play every down in the middle. They could be improved in the linebacking corps, but only because they can’t possibly be as bad as last season, not because this reshuffling is likely to make things better.

Misi was their two-down linebacker last season. He was their best linebacker and in that sense it makes sense letting him get more playing time, but, while he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in terms of run grade, he struggled in coverage. The collegiate defensive end has never been good in coverage in his career. The 2010 2nd round pick has also never been anything more than a two-down player in his career, maxing out at 619 snaps thus far in the 4 seasons he’s been in the league.

Having Ellerbe only play part-time should be good for them and he’s better as a run stopper than he is in coverage, but he could still struggle. Wheeler could be better, but only by default and ideally you don’t want him to be playing every down. If Ellerbe and Wheeler continue to struggle, the Dolphins don’t have a ton of internal options. Jelani Jenkins was a 2013 4th round pick, but he struggled on 127 snaps as a rookie. Jordan Tripp, meanwhile, is a 5th round rookie. It’s unlikely things will be fixed with this unit until they can release Wheeler and Ellerbe next off-season.

Grade: C

Secondary

The one signing from the Dolphins’ last off-season that worked out was the one-year, prove it deal, worth 5.5 million that they gave to Brent Grimes, who coming off of a torn Achilles. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked cornerback last season and the Dolphins rewarded him with a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal this off-season. That’s a lot of money for a player going into his age 31 season that has Grimes’ injury history, missing 19 games from 2011-2012.

It was a good deal though. When healthy, Grimes is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback in 2010, 3rd ranked in 2011, and 2nd ranked in 2013. He joined Antoine Winfield, Brandon Flowers, and Jason McCourty as the only 4 cornerbacks to grade out in the top-10 in 3 of the last 4 seasons. The cornerback position is one of the most inconsistent in the NFL on a year-to-year basis. Just two cornerbacks graded in the top-15 on Pro Football Focus in both 2012 and 2013. One was Richard Sherman (#2 and #6) and the other was Jason McCourty (#6 and #10).

The issue is opposite Grimes. The Dolphins signed Cortland Finnegan to a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal this off-season, a move that was subtraction by addition. He’s expected to be the starter opposite Grimes. Finnegan was a train wreck last season with the Rams. He only played 367 snaps in 7 games for a variety of reasons, including injuries and poor performance, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked cornerback. He allowed 26 of 34 completion for 353 yards, 4 touchdowns, and an interception, a QB rating against of 136.0 that was 3rd worst among eligible cornerbacks. He also committed 6 penalties. There’s a reason why the Rams cut him 2 years into an absurd 5-year, 50 million dollar deal.

That was the worst season of his career, but he’s going into his age 30 season so he’s probably not getting any better any time soon. He was great in his contract year with the Titans in 2011, which is why he got such a big deal, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback. However, that’s the only year in the last 4 years that he’s been even remotely good. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked cornerback in 2010 and ranked 86th out of 113 eligible cornerbacks in 2012. He’s a serious downgrade from Nolan Carroll, an average starting cornerback who is now in Pittsburgh.

The Dolphins have a trio of young, unproven cornerbacks who could push Finnegan for his job. Jamar Taylor and Will Davis were the Dolphins’ 2nd and 3rd round picks respectively in 2013 and played 45 and 65 snaps respectively last season. Walt Aikens, meanwhile, is a 4th round rookie. Jimmy Wilson, a cornerback/safety tweener, will probably continue to play as the slot cornerback. He struggled in that role in 2012, but the 2011 7th round pick was better in 2013.

Wilson won’t be able to play much, if any, safety this year, where Reshad Jones and Louis Delmas are clearly set as the starters. Jones was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked safety in 2012, but he fell all the way down to 68th (out of 86 eligible) in 2013. He also struggled in 2011 in his first year as a starter and only played 152 snaps as a rookie in 2010. The 2010 5th round pick is the definition of a one-year wonder. He should be better this season, but it’s very possible that he’ll never be as good as he was in 2012 again. The Dolphins owe him a guaranteed 6.76 million in 2015, meaning he’ll be around for at least 2 more seasons, so they better hope he bounces back. He got a 4-year, 30 million dollar extension going into his contract year last off-season, after his big 2012 season.

Delmas, meanwhile, was a free agent signing this off-season, after he was cut by the Lions. Delmas has a history of injury, missing 13 games in 2011-2012 combined. Those injuries hampered him when he was on the field as well, as he graded out below average in both seasons. However, he played all 16 games last season and he played pretty well, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked safety. His injury issues seem to be behind him for now. When healthy, he is a solid player, showing it last year and in 2009 and 2010, when he ranked 21st and 31st respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus. The Lions cut him because it saved 6 million on the cap and in cash, but the Dolphins are only giving him 3.5 million over 1 season, which is much more reasonable.

The issue is he’s a downgrade from Chris Clemons, who is now in Houston. Clemons was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety last season and 25th ranked safety in 2012 in two years as a starter with the Dolphins, his only two years as a starter. Clemons only got 2.7 million over 2 seasons from the Texans so re-signing him, instead of signing Delmas, would have been the better move. At the end of the day though, Delmas should be a solid starter as long as he’s healthy and on the field.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Dolphins were essentially a roughly 6-10 team that managed to go 8-8 in 2013. They should be better this season as they overhauled the offensive line, but they overpaid for two starters in free agency, they reached for a starter in the first round of the draft, and they still have issues upfront. They also lost three players defensively, Paul Soliai, Chris Clemons, and Nolan Carroll and their replacements are all downgrades.

If Ryan Tannehill can break out in his 3rd year in the league behind a revamped offensive line, they could make a playoff push. They also have a trio of players defensively who, while they are one year wonders, could have bounce back years in 2014, after rough 2013s and strong 2012s. However, I have the Dolphins as the 3rd most talented team in the AFC East and out of the playoffs right now. I’ll have official wins predictions for each team at the end of all my previews.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in AFC East

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