Miami Dolphins 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Dolphins have gone 23-25 over the past 3 seasons, but they’ve needed a 20-6 record in one score games just to get to that record. Remarkably, the Dolphins have just 3 wins by more than 8 points over the past 3 seasons, as opposed to 19 losses, and their point differential over that time period is -243, only ahead of the 49ers, Raiders, and Browns. Last season, the Dolphins finished 7-9 and were in the playoff race until late in the season, but they finished 30th in the NFL in both first down rate differential (-6.41%) and point differential (-114).

Typically, a team’s record in close games is highly inconsistent on a year-to-year, as it tends to be more luck than skill, but, to the extent it is a skill, that skill probably went out the door when the Dolphins fired head coach Adam Gase, who had been their coach for all 3 of those aforementioned seasons. The Dolphins hired former Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores to replace Gase as head coach and are going into a full rebuild, similar to what the Browns and Jets have done in recent years.

For years, the Dolphins have been a mediocre veteran team that was consistently up against the salary cap. This off-season, the Dolphins got rid of several expensive veterans and have the lowest active cap spending in the league. They also have the most dead money on their cap of any team in the league, but the Dolphins are clearly building for 2020 and beyond. They won’t actively try to lose games in 2019, but this is more than a one-year rebuild and their roster for 2019 looks like arguably the weakest in the NFL.

One expensive veteran the Dolphins got rid of this off-season was quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill had been with the Dolphins since they drafted him 8th overall in 2012 and he’s made 88 starts in 7 seasons with the team, but he was an underwhelming starter at his best and saw his stock fall even further after a 2017 season that was wiped out by a torn ACL and a 2018 season in which he struggled mightily, finishing dead last out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Owed 18.75 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season in 2019, the Dolphins could have cut Tannehill for nothing, but opted to negotiate a deal with him and the Tennessee Titans. Tannehill took a reduced salary to 7 million, with the Dolphins paying 5 million of it at signing, and the Titans sent the Dolphins a 2019 7th round pick and a 2020 4th round pick for Tannehill and a 2019 6th round pick. Essentially it’s a clever way for the Dolphins to buy a 2020 mid round pick, but it’s unclear if that’s worth 5 million and moving down a round in 2019. Either way, Tannehill is now a Titan and the Dolphins entered the off-season without a quarterback.

The Dolphins signed veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal in free agency and then, rather than using a high draft pick on a quarterback in a weak quarterback class, the Dolphins traded a late 2nd round pick (after trading down from their original 2nd round pick and receiving a 2020 2nd round pick in the process) to the Arizona Cardinals for Josh Rosen, who was the 10th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Rosen struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 38th among 39 qualifying quarterbacks on PFF and posting a 66.7 QB rating, and he fell out of favor in Arizona when they got the opportunity to draft Kyler Murray #1 overall, but he comes with plenty of upside and the Dolphins are getting a bargain with him.

Not only do they get him about 50 picks later than where he went last year, but the Cardinals paid him a 10.88 million dollar signing bonus last year, so the Dolphins owe Rosen just 6.24 million total over the next 3 seasons. Even if he doesn’t pan out as a starter, the Dolphins are still getting a cheap backup and they’re only giving up a pick in the late second round, where it’s usually very tough to find starting caliber quarterbacks anyway. Rosen was thrown into a very difficult situation as a rookie, with a weak roster around him that only got worse as injuries piled up, and he certainly wouldn’t be the first quarterback who went on to have a good career after struggling as a rookie (Peyton Manning and Jared Goff come to mind).

Rosen and Fitzpatrick will compete for the starting job. Rosen is considered the favorite, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Fitzpatrick ended up winning it outright in a competition. Rosen is still unproven as a starter and Fitzpatrick is coming off of arguably the best season of his career. Making 7 starts with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Fitzpatrick completed 66.7% of his passes for an average of 9.62 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and finished as PFF’s 10th ranked quarterback. Part of that is because he had a strong offensive supporting cast and he’s always had issues with turnovers, but he can also make plays downfield.

Fitzpatrick isn’t a long-term solution at age 35 and it’s unlikely he’ll be able to repeat his career best 2018 season in 2019, so the Dolphins will probably want to see what Rosen has at some point, similar to how the Buccaneers went back to Jameis Winston last season, but Rosen might not be out there week 1 if the coaching staff feels Fitzpatrick gives them a better chance to win. Regardless of who ends up starting, the Dolphins could end up taking a quarterback with a high pick in a better quarterback draft in 2020, as the Dolphins have arguably the worst roster in the NFL and will likely be picking high even if they get competent quarterback play.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Not only did the Dolphins get rid of some expensive players this off-season, they also didn’t re-sign their most important free agent, right tackle Ja’wuan James, who signed a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal with the Denver Broncos. That’s a little rich for James, but losing him without really replacing him or adding a comparable player at another position on the offensive line makes an already poor offensive line even worse. James was Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked offensive tackle in 2018, while his replacement Jordan Mills finished 74th out of 85 qualifying. Mills is inexpensive (2-year, 3.8 million) and experienced (82 starts in 6 seasons in the league), but he’s never played that well. The Dolphins didn’t take an offensive tackle in the draft until they took Isaiah Prince in the 6th round, so Mills is likely locked into a starting job.

James was just one of two offensive linemen to earn above average grades from PFF in 2018, with the other being left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who finished 34th among offensive tackles in 15 starts. The 13th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Tunsil hasn’t quite been as good as expected, but he has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league (44 starts) and he still has obvious upside, going into his age 25 season. The Dolphins need him to take a big step forward with the rest of the line in bad shape.

The biggest addition the Dolphins made on the offensive line this off-season was Michael Deiter, who has a good chance to start at one of the guard spots as a 3rd round rookie. Normally you don’t want to rely on 3rd round rookies, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be a better than Ted Larsen and Jesse Davis, who finished 88th and 59th out of 88 qualifying guards at left and right guard respectively in 2018.

Larsen is no longer with the team, but Jesse Davis is still on the team and will compete to keep his starting role, despite his poor play in 26 starts over the past 2 seasons. Along with Deiter, the only other real option on the roster is free agent addition Chris Reed, who made just 8 underwhelming starts in 4 seasons in Jacksonville since going undrafted in 2015. The Dolphins are in the unenviable position of having to pick two starters between him, Davis, and Deiter, so if Reed wanted a chance to play he picked the right place to sign.

Daniel Kilgore could have been at option at guard, but with center Travis Swanson retiring due to injury, Kilgore is likely locked in as the starter at center. Swanson didn’t play that well in 2018, but Kilgore hasn’t been any better in his career, and he’s now going into his age 32 season and coming off of a triceps injury that ended his 2018 season after 4 games. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will be under heavy pressure. If that quarterback ends up being Josh Rosen, it could easily be a repeat of what happened last season in Arizona.

Grade: D

Running Backs

The Dolphins’ offensive line problems will also affect their running game. They rushed for 4.68 yards per carry in 2018 (9th in the NFL) in spite of offensive line problems, as their two top backs Frank Gore and Kenyon Drake both ran well. Gore averaged 4.63 yards per carry on 156 carries and ranked 15th in elusive rating with 3.29 yards per carry after contact and 23 broken tackles, while Drake averaged 4.46 yards per carry on 120 carries and ranked 22nd in elusive rating with 2.68 yards per carry after contact and 28 broken tackles.

Gore is no longer with the team, but Drake remains and could see a much larger role. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Drake has shown a lot of promise in his career, averaging 4.75 yards per carry on 286 carries. In addition to ranking 22nd in elusive rating last season, Drake also ranked 3rd in elusive rating in 2017 with 4.29 yards per carry after contact and 29 broken tackles on 133 carries. He is also a useful player in the passing game, with 85 catches for 716 yards and 6 touchdowns in the past 2 seasons, despite being a part-time player. He’s never carried a huge load, even dating back to his college days, but it looks like he’ll get a chance this season, with the Dolphins only using a 7th round pick on a running back.

Drake’s biggest competition for touches is 2018 4th round pick Kalen Ballage. Ballage averaged an impressive 5.31 yards per carry on 36 carries last season, but 75 of those yards came on one carry and he’s very unproven. He’ll likely have a role, but it probably won’t be as big as Gore’s last season. Drake could be a 250+ touch back with Ballage working as a backup rather than being in a true timeshare. Assuming Drake can handle the bigger workload, he should still be able to break some big runs without great blocking. I also expect him to be used heavily in the passing game so they can get the ball in his hands in space as much as possible. He’s a potential breakout player.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers

One player the Dolphins did surprisingly bring back this off-season was wide receiver Devante Parker. A first round pick in 2015, Parker fell out of favor with the previous coaching staff, catching just 2 passes on 38 snaps in the first 7 games of the 2018 season before being forced into action due to injuries and making 22 catches for 269 yards and 1 touchdown in the final 9 games of the season. Parker must have shown enough for the new coaching staff to give him a chance, as they re-signed him to a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal, rather than releasing him outright ahead of a 9.387 million dollar non-guaranteed salary.

It was a surprising move, but it actually makes a lot of sense. The 5 million dollars he’s guaranteed in the first year is a steep drop from his previously scheduled salary and the Dolphins also get an option to keep him for 2020 for another 5 million if he shows progress. Even if he only matches his career high 56/744/4 slash line from 2016, he’ll be worth that salary. He’s missed time with injury in all 4 seasons in the league and he’s been called out by coaches for his work ethic, but he’s only going into his age 27 season and the Dolphins are evaluating players for the future more than anything in 2019. Perhaps a fresh start with a new coaching staff will do him a lot of good.

Even if Parker doesn’t break out, this wide receiver group isn’t a weakness. They didn’t have a pass catcher with more than 600 receiving yards last season, but that was in part due to bad quarterback play and in part due to the fact that the Dolphins spread the ball around and didn’t throw to one target more than 79 times. Their team leader in targets, Danny Amendola, who also led the team in receiving yards with a 59/575/1 slash line, is no longer with the team, but the Dolphins still have Kenny Stills to start outside opposite Parker and they have both Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant coming back from injuries that limited them to 7 games and 10 games respectively in 2018.

Stills was second on the team in receiving last year with a 37/553/6 slash line on just 64 targets. He’s averaged a 45/709/5 slash line in 6 seasons in the league and is still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, so he could easily be more productive in a bigger role in 2019. He’s a great deep threat, with an average reception depth of 12.2 yards from the line of scrimmage in his career, but he’s limited after the catch, with just 16 career broken tackles and 3.7 yards per catch after catch.

Albert Wilson is a natural fit on the slot, provided he’s healthy after suffering a significant hip injury in 2018. Wilson was having an impressive year before going down, catching 26 of 35 targets for 391 yards and 4 touchdowns in 7 games, despite being a part-time player. His 3.03 yards per route run average actually led all qualifying receivers. An undrafted free agent in 2014, Wilson didn’t show much in his first 3 seasons in the league, but had a solid 2017 season in Kansas City, posting a 42/554/3 slash line, which led to the Dolphins giving him a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal last off-season.

Wilson is very much the opposite of Kenny Stills, with an average reception depth of 5.1 yards from the line of scrimmage in his career, but 42 career broken tackles (including 24 on 68 catches in the past 2 seasons) and 7.8 yards per catch after catch. The 5-9 186 pounder has never played well outside, so he won’t be an every down player, and this passing game will likely be held back by poor quarterback and/or offensive line play, so I wouldn’t expect a big statistical year from him even if healthy, but he’s a solid player.

Jakeem Grant will be the 4th receiver when everyone is healthy, but he’ll have a role in this offense. Last season he played 282 snaps in 10 games before a foot injury and could see a similar role in 2019. He played primarily outside in 2018, lining up there on 222 of 282 snaps, but could see more action on the slot with Danny Amendola gone and he might be a better fit there. The 5-7 169 speedster is similar to Wilson, averaging 8.6 yards per catch after the catch and breaking 9 tackles on 34 catches in his career. He’s still unproven, but flashed a lot of potential last season and should have a career best year if he can stay healthy. When everyone is healthy, this is a solid quartet of wide receivers.

They are not nearly as talented at tight end. Michael Gesicki led Dolphin tight ends in receiving yards with 202, which was 7th on the team in 2018. A 2018 2nd round pick, Gesicki could be a lot better in 2019, but if he’s not the Dolphins don’t have a receiving threat at tight end. Veteran Nick O’Leary and 2018 4th round pick Durham Smythe played 373 snaps and 176 snaps respectively last season, but they blocked on 267 snaps and 134 snaps respectively and had just 14 catches combined.

The Dolphins signed Dwayne Allen from New England this off-season, but he’s primarily a blocker as well. The 7-year veteran has had some decent receiving years in the past, putting up a 45/521/3 slash line in 2012 and a 35/406/6 slash line in 2016, but he caught just 13 passes in 2 seasons with the Patriots and ran routes on just 279 of 839 snaps over those 2 seasons. The Dolphins may use him a little bit more in the passing game, but he was primarily signed for his above average run blocking ability. His contract (6.5 million over 2 years) suggests he’s the favorite to be their primary blocking tight end over O’Leary and Smythe.

The Dolphins will probably use 3 and 4 wide receiver sets regularly to compensate for their lack of pass catchers at tight end. There is a lot of upside in this young receiving corps, with Devante Parker, Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant, and Michael Gesicki all potentially exceeding expectations, but this passing game as a whole will likely be held back by poor quarterback and/or offensive line play, so I wouldn’t expect big numbers from anyone, especially with so many different options.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

Another reason why the Dolphins are likely to frequently use 3 and 4 wide receiver sets is because they figure to be trailing often, forcing them to pass more than they’d like, in large part due to serious issues on defense. Their weakest position group is defensive end. The Dolphins saved 18.8 million in cash and cap space by moving on from Robert Quinn and Andre Branch and then opted not to re-sign Cameron Wake, who signed a 3-year, 23 million dollar deal in Tennessee. Branch struggled last season and was not nearly worth his salary, but Wake and Quinn will be big losses, after finishing 10th and 22nd respectively on Pro Football Focus in pass rush grade in 2018, and the Dolphins didn’t do much to replace any of the edge defenders they lost.

Instead, they’ll be counting on third year defensive end Charles Harris to take a big step forward. Harris was the 22nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but he’s only played 843 snaps in 27 games in 2 seasons in the league, making just 3 starts. He’s been a better pass rusher than his 3 sacks suggest, as he’s added 12 hits and 39 hurries on 486 pass rush snaps, a solid 11.1% pressure rate, and he could have a decent sack total in 2019 in a larger role, but he’s still a very unproven player and he is a liability against the run at 6-3 250. Only in his age 25 season, he has upside, but he’s not someone you want to be your best defensive end.

The only other edge defender who played a snap for the Dolphins last season that is still with the team is Jonathan Woodward, a 2016 7th round pick who was underwhelming in the first 128 snaps of his career in 2018. He could easily be a starter in 2019, given their lack of depth. The Dolphins didn’t add a single defensive end through the draft and their only veteran additions were Nate Orchard and Tank Carradine, who played 36 snaps and 24 snaps respectively in 2018.

Orchard was a 2nd round pick by the Browns in 2015 and had a couple decent seasons, earning average grades from PFF in 2015 and 2017 on 475 snaps and 431 snaps respectively, but he’s never been much of a pass rusher, with 5 sacks, 9 hits, and 20 hurries on 442 career pass rush snaps (7.7%). Carradine was also a former 2nd round pick, being drafted by the 49ers in 2013, but he’s never played more than 229 snaps in a season, in part due to injury. He’s been more effective rushing the passer on a per snap basis than Orchard, but he’s also going into his age 30 season. Both players could see significant roles in a very thin position group.

Grade: D

Interior Defenders

The Dolphins are deeper on the interior of their defensive line. They return starters Davon Godchaux and Akeem Spence and although the latter struggled last season, they used the 13th overall pick on Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins to replace him in the starting lineup. Wilkins could have been a top-10 pick and will almost definitely be an upgrade as a rookie. He’ll start inside next to Godchaux.

Godchaux struggled on 500 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2017, but took a big step forward in his 2nd season in the league, making all 16 starts and earning an above average grade from Pro Football Focus. He didn’t get much pass rush, with 1 sack, 3 hit, and 13 hurries on 354 pass rush snaps (4.8% pressure rate), but he finished as PFF’s 17th ranked defensive tackle against the run and should at least have a base package role again in 2019. He might never develop as a pass rusher, but he’s still a valuable player.

Akeem Spence will likely still have a big role as the 3rd defensive tackle. He’s never been more than a replacement level player as a starter, but he’s experienced (53 starts in 88 career games) and isn’t a bad fit as a 3rd defensive tackle. The Dolphins also get Vincent Taylor back from injury, after a foot injury cost him the final 8 games of the 2018 season. In part due to that injury, he’s only played 389 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 6th round in 2017, but he’s shown a lot of promise in limited action and should get a bigger role in 2019 if he’s healthy. Unless they get a big rookie year from Christian Wilkins, they don’t have any game changing players at defensive tackle, but they have solid depth.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Dolphins return all 3 starters at linebacker, Kiko Alonso and Jerome Baker on the outside and Raekwon McMillan at middle linebacker. McMillan started the year as an every down player, but struggled mightily in coverage and began coming off the field in obvious passing situations down the stretch, with Alonso and Baker staying in as the two nickel linebackers. McMillan finished as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked off ball linebacker against the run, but finished the season with 36 catches and 6 touchdowns allowed on 41 targets.

A 2nd round pick in 2017, last season was essentially McMillan’s rookie year because he missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL. Another year removed from the injury, McMillan could take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league, only in his age 23 season, but he’ll have to compete with Jerome Baker for an every down role. Baker was significantly better in coverage and had a promising season overall in 2018, finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked off ball linebacker overall on 678 snaps, despite only being a 3rd round rookie. Like McMillan, he could take another step forward in 2018.

Alonso led this unit with 1004 snaps played in 15 games last season, but he was also the worst of the bunch, finishing as PFF’s 82nd ranked off ball linebacker out of 96 qualifiers, especially struggling in coverage. Way back in 2013, Alonso was a promising young linebacker, but he’s had a couple significant knee injuries since then and hasn’t been the same player in recent years. His rookie season was the last time he earned an above average grade from PFF. The Dolphins opted to keep Alonso at a non-guaranteed 6.51 million salary rather than make him part of their veteran purge, so the new coaching staff clearly thinks they can get the most out of him. Now in his age 29 season, that’s unlikely, but he should continue playing a significant role in this linebacking corps.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Dolphins also return all of their starters in the secondary. In fact, every defensive back who played a snap for the Dolphins last season is still on the roster. That’s not necessarily a good thing though, on a defense that finished 29th in first down rate allowed and 30th in yards per attempt allowed. They are better at safety than cornerback, as both starting safeties Reshad Jones and TJ McDonald earned above average grades from Pro Football Focus in 2018. They also used the 11th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on Minkah Fitzpatrick, who they want to eventually play safety.

There were rumors the Dolphins could opt to trade Reshad Jones to free up a spot for Fitzpatrick immediately, but those never came to fruition, possibly because no team was willing to trade for his 13.115 million dollar salary, which is mostly guaranteed. His 11.585 million dollar salary for 2020 is not guaranteed, so this could end up being Jones’ final season in Miami. He’s been a good safety for years, with his best seasons coming in 2012 (3rd among safeties on PFF), 2014 (10th), and 2015 (7th), but he’s now going into his age 31 season and isn’t a great fit on a team that is just starting a 2-3+ year rebuild. He could continue being an above average starter in 2019, but his best days are likely behind him.

If the Dolphins want to start Fitzpatrick at safety long-term, they could move on from TJ McDonald next off-season instead of Jones, but McDonald is younger, in his age 28 season in 2019, and cheaper, signed for just 12.65 million in 2020 and 2021 combined. He’s never played as well as Jones did in his prime, but he’s been a capable starter for years and has 75 career starts in 6 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2013. He should continue his solid play in 2019.

With Jones and McDonald locked in as starting safeties, Minkah Fitzpatrick will continue to play cornerback. He’s better on the slot than he is outside, but he played 281 snaps outside last season, for lack of a better option, and will likely continue serving in that role again as the #2 cornerback, playing outside in base packages with only 2 cornerbacks on the field and inside on the slot in sub packages with 3+ cornerbacks on the field. Fitzpatrick struggled last season, earning a below average coverage grade from PFF, and will likely benefit significantly from his eventual move to safety, but he will continue playing out of position in 2019.

His main competition for the #2 cornerback job is Bobby McCain, last year’s #3 cornerback, and free agent acquisition Eric Rowe. Like Fitzpatrick, McCain is better on the slot than outside and struggled in 2018 while playing out of position (421 outside cornerback snaps as opposed to 283 on the slot). He was one of the best pure slot cornerbacks in the league in 2017, but he needs to be used properly to get the most out of him. Rowe, meanwhile, is a pure outside cornerback and follows head coach Brian Flores to Miami from New England, so he’ll be in the mix for a role. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Rowe showed himself to be a capable outside cornerback at times in New England, but injuries limited him to just 21 games combined over the past 3 seasons. He comes with upside, but isn’t much more than a flyer. On a 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal with just 500K guaranteed, he was worth a shot.

The only cornerback locked into his role is Xavien Howard, who remains as the #1 cornerback. Howard missed the final 4 games of the 2018 season with a knee injury and also missed 9 games with a knee injury as a rookie in 2016, but the Dolphins don’t seem concerned, locking him up ahead of the final year of his rookie deal with a 5-year, 75.25 million dollar extension that guarantees him 39.31 million in the first 3 years and makes him the highest paid cornerback in the NFL in terms of average annual salary. It’s a steep increase from his previously scheduled 1.286 million dollar salary for 2019.

Howard still tied for the league lead in interceptions in 2018 with 7, despite missing 4 games, but he wasn’t quite as good as his interception totals suggested, as he gives up too many big plays in coverage. He definitely played at a high level though, finishing as PFF’s 20th ranked cornerback. He only had an average grade in 2017, but he improved significantly down the stretch during that season, which clearly carried over to 2018. Still only in his age 26 season, Howard could keep getting better. His contract is a little bit of an overpay, but the Dolphins had to keep him and as more top cornerbacks sign extensions his extension won’t look as expensive by comparison. Two or three years into this deal and he might not even be a top-5 cornerback in terms of average annual salary. He’s Miami’s best defensive player and elevates a secondary that, by default, is the Dolphins’ best defensive group.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Dolphins are not intentionally trying to lose games in 2019, but they are clearly building for the future. They have the most dead cap space in the league and the lowest active spending and it shows on this roster, which is arguably the worst in the NFL. The Dolphins will very likely be in position to select a quarterback high in the 2020 NFL Draft. 

Prediction: 2-14, 4th in AFC East

Team Score: 69.13 (32nd in NFL)

Offensive Score: 67.43

Defensive Score: 70.83

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

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