The 8th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Ryan Tannehill’s career progression was promising throughout the first 3 seasons of his career, as his quarterback rating increased every season, culminating in a 2014 season in which he had a 92.8 QB rating and finished 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. Tannehill took a step back in 2015 though, on an offense that finished 31st in rate of moving the chains. His overall numbers weren’t bad, as his 88.7 QB rating was the 2nd best of his career, but his numbers are misleading because much of his production came in garbage time, on a team frequently playing from behind. In terms of QBR, which takes situations into account, he had the worst rating of his career. He completed 63.6% of his passes for an average of 7.92 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions when the Dolphins were trailing by 17+, but just 61.4% of his passes for an average of 6.92 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions in all other game situations.
Much of that’s not his fault though and he actually still finished 17th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, suggesting he’s not the problem with this offense. One major problem in 2015 was how much of the offensive burden was put onto Tannehill’s shoulder. Between pass attempts, sacks, and quarterback runs, Tannehill was involved on 663 plays last season, as opposed to 314 plays in which he wasn’t, a very high 67.9% usage rate for an average talent at best. Add in the poor play of Miami’s offensive line (more on that later) and you had an average quarterback dropping back to pass as frequently as anyone in the league, behind an offensive line that couldn’t protect him, trying to block a defensive line that knew the Dolphins were probably going to be passing. It wasn’t a winning formula. Tannehill took 45 sacks, as compared to 586 pass attempts, and couldn’t get into a rhythm in meaningful game situations all season.
Part of the reason they had to pass so frequently was because the defense was playing terribly, allowing opponents to move the chains at the 4th highest rate of any team in the league, but Tannehill should benefit from new head coach Adam Gase coming in, after both Joe Philbin and interim head coach Dan Campbell planned very pass heavy game plans all year last year. Not only will Gase bring more balanced play calling to the Dolphins, he’s also a gifted quarterback whisperer who has gotten the most out of both Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler in recent years. Tannehill has to be happy with the hire.
Tannehill also has to be happy that the Dolphins used their first round pick on an offensive lineman, to try and fix what’s been an annual problem in Miami throughout Tannehill’s career. At one point seen as a candidate to go #1 overall before the Rams and Eagles traded up into the top-2 to draft quarterbacks, Mississippi offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil was seen as a top-6 lock going into draft day, but fell all the way to the Dolphins at 13 because someone hacked his twitter account during the draft and posted a video of (presumably) him smoking weed out of a gas mask. Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked draft prospect, Tunsil figures to have a strong career if he can stay out of trouble and could have a big impact as a rookie at a position where the Dolphins struggled mightily in 2015.
He’ll start his career immediately at guard, with the long-term plan being to move him to left tackle, where the aging Branden Albert is currently the starter. Only going into his age 32 season, Albert should have a couple more solid seasons left in the tank, after grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons, including 27th in 2015. However, owed 8.9 million non-guaranteed and 9.6 million non-guaranteed in 2017 and 2018 respectively, with an obvious successor on the roster, Albert is no lock to be in Miami beyond this season. Tunsil will get his time on the blindside. For now, he and Albert should form a solid duo on the left side of the offensive line.
On the right side, the Dolphins get 2014 1st round pick Ja’Wuan James back from injury, after he was limited to just 7 games in his 2nd year in the league last year. James struggled mightily in 16 starts as a rookie, finishing 80th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but seemed much improved before the injury in 2015, finishing above average through 7 games. If he can continue that over the whole season in 2016, it’ll be a big boost to this offense and his first round pedigree suggests he has a good chance to.
While the Dolphins fill what were huge holes last season at left guard and right tackle with Tunsil coming in and James returning, their major hole at right guard was not filled this off-season. Veteran free agent acquisitions Jermon Bushrod and Kraig Urbik came cheap (1.5 million and 1.25 million respectively) for a reason. Bushrod has 96 career starts in 9 years in the league, but has graded out above average just once and was benched mid-season by the Bears last year. He’s also new to the guard position, spending all of his career thus far at offensive tackle. Urbik, meanwhile, was a 42-game starter at guard from 2011-2013, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, but has made just 13 starts over the last 2 seasons combined and graded out below average in both seasons. Going into their age 32 season and age 31 season respectively, neither is a good starting option.
However, their holdover options aren’t any better, as Dallas Thomas, Billy Turner, and Jamil Douglas finished 80th, 69th, and 82nd respectively among 82 eligible guards in 2015. Douglas didn’t even make the final roster. Thomas started all 16 games at left guard last season, but he’s one of the worst interior offensive linemen in the league. It’s not just how badly he played last season; he’s been horrible as a 25-game starter over the past 2 seasons. Turner was the best of the bunch last season in the first 12 starts of his career at right guard, but the 2014 3rd round pick still doesn’t look like a long-term starter. Whoever starts at right guard, it figures to be a position of weakness once again in 2016.
Speaking of center, that figures to be a strong position once again, as center Mike Pouncey finished 11th among centers last season. That was a bounce back year for him, as he was horrible in 2014, dealing with a hip injury all year and playing out of position at right guard. The 2011 1st round pick has finished 12th, 14th, and 11th among centers in his last 3 seasons at the position and figures to play well once again in 2016, only his age 27 season. With better play expected at left guard and right tackle, it seems like a much improved Miami offensive line.
The coaching change and the improved offensive line are the good news for Tannehill, but the bad news is this team lost arguably their best offensive weapon in running back Lamar Miller, who averaged 4.59 YPC in 4 seasons in Miami and finished last year 4th among running backs on Pro Football Focus. Adam Gase still figures to try to implement a more balanced offense, but that offense won’t be as effective as it would have been if Miller were still around. The 4-year, 26 million dollar deal he signed with the Texans this off-season was a very reasonable value.
Instead, the Dolphins will turn to the man who Miller replaced in Houston, veteran Arian Foster. Foster is a big name, especially with the fantasy football community, but he’s going into his age 30 season and seems to be breaking down quickly, not uncommon for a running back. Foster has been limited to 25 games by injury over the past 3 seasons and didn’t even sign with the Dolphins until late July, as he was working his way back from a torn achilles he suffered last October, a very significant injury. The early training camp reports have been good and he was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked running back in his last healthy season (13 games) in 2014, but his best days are likely behind him.
Even if he locks up the starting job in training camp, which it appears he might, he figures to work in heavy rotation with one or two other backs, in order to keep fresh. The Dolphins like holdover Jay Ajayi, even though he averaged just 3.82 YPC on 49 carries as Miller’s backup last season and has a history of knee problems, and used a 3rd round pick on Alabama’s Kenyan Drake, even though he had just 233 carries in his collegiate career. As long as he’s healthy, Ajayi figures to be the primary backup and see a good amount of carries, while Drake will likely need someone to get hurt to see significant action. His best asset is his pass catching and Foster averages over 3 catches per game for his career, so he doesn’t offer them anything Foster and Ajayi don’t. It’s far from the best running back group in the league, but it’s a position with potential.
With Miller gone, wide receiver Jarvis Landry becomes the Dolphins’ best offensive weapon. On an otherwise miserable offense, Landry finished last year with a 110/1157/4 slash line and was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked wide receiver, after posting a 84/758/5 slash line and finishing 16th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus on 683 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2014. Already a legitimate #1 receiver, Landry is still only going into his age 24 season, meaning his best years are still ahead of him. Even if the Dolphins run more often this season, another 1000 yard year seems likely for Landry.
With Rishard Matthews leaving as a free agent this off-season, 2015 1st round pick DeVante Parker is expected to become the other starter, after flashing on 468 offensive snaps as a rookie, 4th most on the team by a wide receiver. A broken foot suffered in the off-season put him behind the 8-ball early, but he played 365 snaps in the final 6 games of the season and caught 22 passes for 445 yards and 3 touchdowns over that stretch. That’s 59/1187/8 slash line over 16 games, very possibly a sign of things to come. He could easily have a breakout year in his 2nd year in the league.
With veteran Greg Jennings also gone (307 snaps in 2015), Kenny Stills (594 snaps in 2015) is locked in as the 3rd receiver. Stills was Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked wide receiver in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, posting a 63/931/3 stash line on 458 routes with the Saints (2.03 yards per route run), but was not a good fit in Miami in his first season, posting just 27/440/3 in limited playing time and grading out below average for the 2nd time in his 3-year career. In a new offense, there’s some bounce back potential here, so he’s not a bad bounce back candidate, but he could also be pushed for snaps down the stretch by 3rd round rookie Leonte Carroo, a possible steal who earned a high 2nd round grade from Pro Football Focus. It’s a deep group of wide receivers.
The same is not true at tight end though. Starter Jordan Cameron posted an impressive 80/917/7 slash line in 2013 with the Browns, but benefitted from being on one of the pass heaviest teams in the league that season and still graded out below average overall because of his issues as a run blocker. He has never been good as a run blocker, but he also has only 59 catches for 810 yards and 5 touchdowns in 26 games combined over the past 2 seasons and is coming off of a 2015 season in which he finished 43rd out of 67 eligible tight ends. Dion Sims, meanwhile, is the #2 tight end, but he was even worse than Cameron last season, finishing 63rd among tight ends, and has finished below average in all 3 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2013. Landry and Parker figure to dominate targets in a receiving corps that is much like their running backs, far from the best, but plenty of potential.
The Dolphins made a big splash last off-season, bringing Ndamukong Suh in from Detroit as a free agent on a 6-year, 114 million dollar deal, then the richest contract ever given to a defensive player. However, they still surprisingly fell from 14th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2014 to 29th in that category in 2015. Suh drew some criticism for his attitude a couple times during the season, but he was far from the problem, finishing 4th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’s now finished in the top-4 at his position in 4 straight seasons, the only defensive tackle in the league who can say that, and, only going into his age 29 season, he figures to play just as well again in 2016.
He wasn’t the Dolphins’ only dominant defensive lineman last season, as Olivier Vernon finished 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. He signed with the Giants on a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal this off-season though. Also gone is Derrick Shelby, who finished above average on 836 snaps last season, but signed a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal with the Falcons this off-season. The Dolphins would have loved to have kept both, but had next to no cap space to work with. The Dolphins kind of went all in on 2015 (which obviously didn’t work) and, as a result, couldn’t do much this off-season. Big deals (like the one they gave Suh) took up a lot of the Dolphins cap, leaving them with very little flexibility. The Dolphins have 8 different players with cap numbers of 8 million or higher in 2016.
As a result, the Dolphins will rely on bounce back years from a pair of veteran starters at defensive end. Mario WIlliams was signed to a 2-year, 16 million dollar deal, coming over as a free agent from Buffalo after the Bills cut him this off-season. Williams struggled mightily in 2015, finishing 93rd out of 110 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, leading to his release, but graded out above average in every season from 2007-2014. Not completely over the hill, going into his age 31 season, Williams is now back in a 4-3 system that fits his skill set a lot better and he has obvious bounce back potential. He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end as recently as 2014.
On the other side, Cameron Wake returns from a torn achilles that cost him the final 9 games of the 2015 season. Prior to 2015, he had missed just 3 games in the previous 6 seasons with injury and he finished in the top-4 at his position in all 6 of those seasons. He’s coming off of a significant injury and going into his age 34 season, but it’s possible he still has another couple solid seasons left in the tank. He’s not as sure of a bet as Williams to bounce back, but he has much better upside if he’s healthy, considering he was one of the best defensive players in the league prior to last season. Even last season, before the injury, he was playing at a pretty high level on 249 snaps. The Dolphins seem confident in his recovery, keeping him on a 2-year, 15 million dollar renegotiated contract with 10 million guaranteed this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his deal in 2016.
With two aging veterans at the position, the Dolphins’ depth will be key. They added veterans Andre Branch and Jason Jones in free agency and also get Dion Jordan back from a season long suspension. Branch made 13 starts in 51 career games in 4 seasons with the Jaguars, after they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2012, but graded out below average in all 4 seasons. Jones is older, going into his age 30 season, but he’s probably their best option behind the starters, with 65 career starts in 95 career games in 8 years in the league. He’s graded out above average in 4 of those 8 seasons, including last season on 542 snaps. At 6-5 278 pounds, he specializes in stopping the run and could see a good amount of action in base packages.
Jordan is the wild card of the group. He was actually the 3rd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but has been a massive bust thus far, playing just 560 nondescript snaps in 2013 and 2014 combined and then missing his entire 3rd season in the league in 2015 after being suspended for a 3rd failed test for performance enhancing drugs. Jordan has been reinstated and is being given a shot to make this team and possibly carve out a role. Only going into his age 26 season, I wouldn’t rule it out, but he’s unlikely to be a huge contributor on this team.
Meanwhile, Earl Mitchell and Jordan Phillips will compete for the other starting defensive tackle job, rounding out this 4-man defensive front. Both struggled in 2015, on 504 snaps and 430 respectively, but Mitchell has been an unremarkable player throughout his career, while Phillips is still young and was a relatively high pick, going in the 2nd round in 2015, so he’s probably the front runner. He’s no guarantee to improve in his 2nd year in the league, but he does still have some upside. It’s a defensive line that will miss some departed players and that is relying on some aging veterans, but there’s still talent here, led by Ndamukong Suh.
The back 7 was really the problem for the Dolphins in 2015. They will really need to improve in 2016 because the defensive line figures to take a step back this season on a defense that was not good last year anyway. The Dolphins made the weird decision to move down from the 8th pick to the 13th pick before the draft, in exchange for veteran defenders Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell from the Eagles. The Dolphins still got Tunsil at 13 (while the Eagles moved up further to take a quarterback at 2), but the draft trade value chart says that the Dolphins gave up a 3rd round pick’s worth of value to get Alonso and Maxwell, a steep price considering Alonso hasn’t been healthy in 2 seasons and only has one year left on his rookie deal, while Maxwell is owed 17 million over the next 2 seasons (11 million of which is guaranteed) and played terribly last season.
Alonso also played pretty terribly last season, when he was on the field, as knee problems limited him to 472 snaps in 11 games. He finished 92nd out of 97 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Alonso was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker as a 2nd round rookie in 2013, but hasn’t been the same since an ACL tear that wiped out his entire 2014 season. His knee problems and overall poor play last season can be traced back to that injury. The Dolphins are counting on him to fill a big hole at middle linebacker and he does have some bounce back potential if he can stay healthy, still only going into his age 26 season, but he’s not a reliable player. Even if he does play well in 2016, he’ll be a free agent next off-season, so I don’t understand giving up a 3rd round pick’s worth of value and taking on Maxwell’s horrible contract to get Alonso.
Alonso will play every down inside, while Jelani Jenkins remains as the every down linebacker outside. He wasn’t bad in that role last season, grading out slightly above average for the 2nd straight year. The 2013 4th round pick has made 27 starts over the past 2 seasons and is an extension candidate ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. Koa Misi will be the 3rd linebacker. He struggles in coverage, but will primarily play against the run as a pure base package linebacker in 2016, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. He’s a good player against the run (finishing 13th among linebackers in run grade in 2015), so he’s a good fit in that role. If Alonso can bounce back, it’s a solid group, but that’s a big if.
Maxwell, meanwhile, was probably a negative value coming over in that trade, given his salary. Maxwell was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked cornerback on 484 snaps (5 starts) in 2013 with the Seahawks, but fell to 45th in 2015 as a 13-game starter. Despite that, the Eagles still foolishly gave him a 6-year, 63 million dollar deal last off-season (one of the reasons Chip Kelly is no longer in Philadelphia). Maxwell struggled mightily in his first season in Philadelphia, finishing 75th among 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, making it borderline miraculous that the Eagles found someone willing to take on his contract in a trade. It’s the Dolphins’ problem now. There’s very little bounce back potential here with a player who has never been that good as a full-time starter.
In order to make room for Maxwell’s deal under the cap, the Dolphins had to release last year’s #1 cornerback Brent Grimes. Grimes wasn’t great in 2015 and might not have been worth his 7.8 million dollar salary in his age 33 season in 2016, but he played a lot better last season than Maxwell did. Also gone is Jamar Taylor, who was horrible on 712 snaps in 2015, finishing 108th among 111 eligible at his position. By sending him to the Browns for a late round pick, the Dolphins did a little bit of addition by subtraction.
That being said, the Dolphins didn’t have an obvious replacement on the roster for Taylor and might still get poor play from that cornerback spot this season. The Dolphins drafted Baylor cornerback Xavien Howard a round too early in the 2nd round. He’ll compete with 2nd year players Bobby McCain and Tony Lippett (both 5th round picks in the 2015 NFL Draft) for playing time behind Maxwell, as will free agent acquisition Chris Culliver when he’s healthy. McCain played just 308 nondescript snaps as a rookie last season, while Lippett played well, but did so on just 133 snaps.
Culliver, meanwhile, graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 2012, and 2014 (he missed 2013 with a torn ACL), including 14th as recently as 2014, which earned him a “4-year, 32 million dollar deal” with the Redskins in free agency last off-season. However, Culliver finished the 2015 season 110th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on just 350 snaps before another torn ACL (different knee) ended his season after 6 games. He also was suspended one game for an off-the-field infraction, which nullified the rest of his guaranteed money and allowed the Redskins to cut him after just one year and 7.8 million. The Dolphins didn’t even sign him until early August and he’s expected to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list and miss at least the first 6 weeks of the season, which severely limits his bounce back potential. The Dolphins might have the worst cornerbacks in the league this season.
Fortunately, their safeties are a lot better. Reshad Jones finished last season 12th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, the 3rd time in 4 seasons he’s finished at least 12th at the position. Jones had a bit of an up and down start to his career, but has turned into one of the better safeties in the league. Going into his age 28 season, Jones already has 74 career starts and should play well as a starter again in 2016. After Suh, he’s their 2nd best defensive player by a wide margin.
Meanwhile, Isa Adbul-Quddus and Michael Thomas will compete for the other safety job. Abdul-Quddus received a 3-year, 12.75 million dollar deal in free agency, which suggests he’s viewed as at least the favorite to start, after he finished 21st among safeties on Pro Football Focus in 8 starts last season. He’s only made 16 starts in his career since going undrafted in 2011, but has been serviceable at the very least whenever he’s been called on to play. Thomas, meanwhile, had 12 starts last season in the absence of injured veteran safety Louis Delmas and finished above average in the first significant action of the 2012 undrafted free agent’s career (12 starts). He has experience covering the slot in sub packages at 5-11 197 and could be a candidate for the #3 cornerback job, considering how thin they are at cornerback. They’re far deeper at safety than corner in an overall weak secondary.
The Dolphins finished last season with the 2nd worst rate of moving the chains differential last season and the 5th worst point differential, so it’s a long climb for them to get into the playoff race this season. They improved their offense by adding to their offensive line and hiring head coach Adam Gase, who will help a team that’s been one of the worst coached in the league over the past few seasons. However, they also lost talented running back Lamar Miller and their defense lost talented defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby. This isn’t a very talented roster and that should show on gameday.
Prediction: 6-10 4th in AFC East