At this time last year, many were expecting the Dolphins to be one of the worst teams of all time and possibly not win a single game. After years of overspending in free agency to achieve mediocre results (from 2008-2018 the Dolphins won between 6 and 10 games every season and never won a playoff game), the Dolphins took a totally new approach last off-season, completely dismantling their roster to build up cap space and draft picks for 2020 and 2021 to go in all for 2022 and beyond.
In the meantime, the result was a team with the youngest average age in the league and a payroll 9 million dollars less than any team in the league. At least on paper, they looked like one of the worst rosters in recent memory. Despite this being a better plan than their prior strategy, all the Dolphins fans had to look forward to in the short-term was the opportunity to “Tank for Tua,” who was seen as the consensus top quarterback prospect in the draft going into the 2019 season.
The season started as bad as expected, if not worse. The Dolphins lost the first down rate battle by 20% or more in each of their first 3 games of the season. For comparison, there were only 11 other instances of a team having a -20% or worse differential in a game all regular season. Including another double digit first down rate loss week 4, the Dolphins went into their week 5 bye with an unfathomably bad -23.11% first down rate differential on the season, totaling 53 first downs and 2 offensive touchdowns while allowing their opponents to pick up 110 first downs and score 19 offensive touchdowns.
When they came back from their bye, it started out as more of the same, as they were down 17-3 at home in the 4th quarter to the also winless Washington Redskins, but they swapped quarterback Josh Rosen for Ryan Fitzpatrick and nearly came back in the game, failing when they went for two at the end of the 4th quarter rather than going to overtime. Even though the Dolphins didn’t win that game or either of their next two, they ultimately ended up winning 5 games on the season and got much better quarterback play from Fitzpatrick going forward, as he finished the season with a 62.0% completion percentage, 7.03 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. For comparison, Rosen finished the season with a 53.2% completion percentage, 5.20 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 5 interceptions.
Fitzpatrick wasn’t the only reason for the Dolphins’ improvement, as first year head coach Brian Flores and his coaching staff did a great job of getting the most out of this roster down the stretch, and Fitzpatrick had his struggles as well, especially early in the season when he saw limited time in the Dolphins’ September blowout losses, but he was the single biggest reason why this team exceeded expectations and was able to win even as many games as they did. They still finished the season 30th in the NFL with a -5.49% first down rate differential, but were actually about even after their bye, with a 36.50% first down rate and a 36.53% first down rate allowed.
That being said, Fitzpatrick is going into his age 38 contract year in 2020 and has a history of inconsistency, so he was not the long-term option this team needed to find at quarterback as part of their rebuild. He did play well enough to knock the Dolphins out of contention for the first pick, but ultimately they were still able to get Tua Tagovailoa regardless, albeit after he slipped a few picks following some injuries. The Dolphins’ 5 wins cost them a chance at eventual #1 pick Joe Burrow, a cleaner prospect coming off of one of the best seasons in college football history, but Tagovailoa has the upside to be the top quarterback out of this draft class if he can develop and stay on the field. If he does pan out, he’ll give the Dolphins the most valuable asset in football to build around, a franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie contract.
In the short-term, Tagovailoa is almost definitely going to start his career on the bench. Between his recovery from injury, a limited off-season, and Fitzpatrick coming off of a solid season, there is no reason to rush him out on the field. However, the 5th overall pick’s draft status likely ensures he’ll see some action year 1, especially for a team that is still probably a year away from legitimately contending for a playoff spot. He should at least make a few starts down the stretch so he has some experience under his belt for his 2nd off-season.
As talented as Tagovailoa is and as good as he can become, it would be hard for him to match Fitzpatrick’s 2019 level of play, when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked quarterback overall. For that matter, it’s going to be difficult for a 38-year-old Fitzpatrick to match one of the best seasons of his career. Given that, the Dolphins could easily have worse quarterback play in 2020 than they did down the stretch in 2019, so they will need more from the rest of this roster if they’re going to keep being a competitive team.
Fortunately, the Dolphins came into the off-season with plenty of resources to build the rest of this team. Besides using the 5th overall pick on Tagovailoa, the Dolphins also had another 5 picks in the first 70 selections, including a pair of other first rounders, and they had among the most cap space in the NFL entering free agency. The area that needed the most improvement was their offensive line, which finished as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked pass blocking and worst ranked run blocking line in the NFL last season, making Fitzpatrick’s solid production even more impressive. The Dolphins couldn’t continue to be that bad upfront and expect to have consistent offensive success, regardless of who was under center. The Dolphins seemed to recognize that and were very aggressive about adding several new players to compete for roles upfront.
The Dolphins didn’t make any splash additions, but the player with the biggest upside of the group is first round pick Austin Jackson, who is expected to start at left tackle immediately as a rookie. He’ll likely have some growing pains as a rookie, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over what the Dolphins had at the position last season and he has the upside to be a Pro-Bowl caliber player long-term. The Dolphins also used a 2nd round pick on Robert Hunt, a collegiate tackle who could move inside, and a 4th round pick Solomon Kindley, who will likely spend his rookie year as depth at guard.
Ereck Flowers was their top offensive line signing in free agency, coming over from the Redskins on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. Flowers is probably most famous for being a bust as the 9th overall pick by the Giants in 2015, but after struggling at tackle with the Giants and Jaguars to begin his career, Flowers turned himself into a pretty solid starting left guard for the Redskins in 2019, finishing 31st among guards on PFF and making all 16 starts.
His contract is a little rich for someone with one-year of experience at his new position, as he’ll be the 12th highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual salary, but he’s still pretty young, going into his age 26 season and has plenty of physical upside to keep getting better. His salary is more in line with a tackle than a guard, but between the selection of Jackson and Flowers’ past struggles at the position, it seems unlikely that they’d back move him back to tackle unless they really needed to.
The Dolphins also signed Ted Karras from the Patriots on a one-year deal. A 6th round pick in 2016, Karras was only a depth player in the first 3 seasons of his career, making 5 starts total, but was forced into the starting lineup in 2019 by the absence of center David Andrews and finished as PFF’s 21st ranked center out of 38th qualifiers, holding his own overall. He has the versatility to play guard as well, but his easiest path to playing time is center. His 3 million dollar salary doesn’t lock him into a starting role, but without a better option on the roster, it’s hard to see him not being the heavy favorite for the job. He’s a low upside option with only one year of starting experience, but he’s a solid value signing and can be a serviceable starter.
Right tackle Jesse Davis and right guard Michael Deiter are the only players with a chance to start in the same spot as they started last season and both will face competition, after ranking 69th out of 88 qualifying tackles and 83rd out of 87 qualifying guards on PFF last season. Davis was the better player by default, but has earned a negative grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, while Deiter was a 3rd round pick last season and has more upside going forward.
Second round rookie Robert Hunt could be an option at either spot, while incumbent left tackle Julie’n Davenport will likely be in the mix for the right tackle job, despite finishing 73rd out of 88 qualifying offensive tackles last season on the left side. He could either replace Davis in the starting lineup or kick Davis inside to right guard, where he has some experience. Fourth round rookie Solomon Kindley could also be a long shot option, especially later in the season. The Dolphins are still a work in progress upfront and lack any offensive linemen who have consistently proven themselves as starters, but they have much more talent and many more options than a season before and should be at least somewhat capable upfront, with upside to be more than that if their young guys progress.
Running back is another position where the Dolphins desperately needed to upgrade this off-season. Not only did they finish 31st in the NFL with 3.31 yards per carry, but they were ridiculously led in rushing by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (243 yards), as they cycled through 5 different running backs who all received 36-74 carries and saw little success. Their only running back with any real talent was Kenyan Drake, who had just 174 yards on 47 carries (3.70 YPC) in 6 games with the Dolphins before being traded to the Cardinals at the deadline for a late round pick and promptly broke out as a feature back in Arizona. Offensive line problems were a big part of the reason for their struggles on the ground, but the Dolphins desperately needed to add multiple new options at the position this off-season.
Most expected them to use a high draft pick on a back, but instead they brought in a pair of veterans in Jordan Howard and Matt Breida, though they did use a 5th round draft pick to acquire Breida from the 49ers on draft day. Howard, meanwhile, came over from the Eagles on a 2-year, 9.75 million dollar contract. A 5th round pick in 2016, Howard burst on to the scene by rushing for 1313 yards and 6 touchdowns on 252 carries (5.21 YPC) as a rookie, but he’s been limited to 4.00 YPC and 24 touchdowns on 645 carries in 3 seasons since and is a very limited player in the passing game, maxing out with 29 catches in a season and averaging a pathetic 5.18 yards per target for his career. Given the veteran backs still available in free agency, it’s unclear why the Dolphins felt the need to rush out and sign Howard to a significant contract early in free agency.
Breida’s addition makes a little bit more sense, but I still don’t like the idea of using a draft pick to add a player who is in the final year of his rookie deal when you’ve already added Howard, as opposed to drafting a running back for the long-term. Breida also comes with significant risk. He has an impressive 4.99 YPC average in 3 seasons in the league, including 5.32 YPC in 2018 and 5.07 YPC in 2019, but he hasn’t consistently kept the offense on schedule, ranking 30th out of 47 qualifying running backs with a 46% carry success rate in 2018 and 31st out of 45 qualifying with a a 46% carry success rate in 2019.
Breida has 23 carries of 15 or more yards the past two seasons, but has averaged just 3.27 yards per carry on his other 253 carries. He’s also spent his whole career in a very running back friendly system in San Francisco that fits his skill set perfectly and gives him big holes to run through to get big gains, he’s undersized at 5-11 195 and has already had multiple injury problems over the past two seasons despite topping out at 153 carries in a season, and he’s limited in the passing game with a career high of 27 catches in a season. He might not be a bad change of pace back even outside of the 49ers’ system, but considering how relatively easy it is to find running backs in the mid-rounds that can make an impact immediately, I would have preferred the Dolphins draft a back instead. As of right now, none of their running backs are locked into a roster spot beyond 2020.
With Howard and Brieda both being limited in the passing game, Patrick Laird seems likely to see a significant role as the passing down back. Undrafted in 2019, Laird showed nothing as a runner with a 2.71 YPC average on 62 carries, but caught a pass on 14.6% of the 158 routes he ran and earned significant playing time down the stretch. He could continue being significantly involved in the passing game, but he figures to be more of a snap eater than an impact player and the Dolphins lack a capable pass catching back behind him if he gets hurt. This is a better group than last year’s by default, but it’s still an underwhelming group.
The one offensive group the Dolphins didn’t upgrade this off-season was their receiving corps. It was their strongest group around the quarterback on offense in 2019, but it’s still surprising they didn’t add at least some competition. They have solid depth at wide receiver, but expected #2 wide receiver Preston Williams comes with a lot of risk. Preston Williams had a solid 32/428/3 slash line while playing 79.7% of the snaps in 8 games, but he’s coming off of a November ACL tear and is still a relatively unproven second year undrafted free agent, so he’s a bit of a question mark.
Top wide receiver Devante Parker also comes with a lot of risk. A first round pick in 2015, Parker had his long awaited breakout year in 2019, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked wide receiver and ranking 5th in the NFL in receiving yards on a 72/1202/9 slash line. It was a bit of a quiet breakout year, in part because he played on a bad team, in part because he had 248 receiving yards combined in weeks 16 and 17 to shoot himself up the yardage ranks at the last second, but he finally consistently showed the #1 receiver ability he was drafted for.
Consistency is the key, as he’s shown flashes at times before last season, but had struggled to put it together consistently, in part because of work ethic issues that lead to him being called out publicly by coaches. Still only going into his age 27 season, Parker theoretically has a few years left in his prime, but he could easily regress in 2020, having never topped more than 744 receiving yards in any of his other four seasons in the league.
The Dolphins don’t seem concerned, locking him up on a 3-year, 30.5 million dollar extension this off-season and not bringing in any competition, but he could easily go back to his old ways now that he has guaranteed money in the bank. The Dolphins can theoretically move on after 1-year and 14.6 million, but given that they could have had him at a 5 million dollar salary for his contract year in 2020 and made him prove it again, that extension could easily look like a mistake quickly. Realistically, he’s locked in for 2 years and 22.95 million.
The Dolphins do have solid depth behind Williams, with veterans Allen Hurns, Albert Wilson, and Jakeem Grant all in the mix for roles, but none of them have much upside and, aside from Hurns, who was extended on a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal during the season, the Dolphins could have moved on and found upgrades this off-season. Grant’s 3.78 million dollar salary didn’t guarantee until the middle of March, while Wilson was kept after taking a pay cut from 9.5 million down to 3 million.
Hurns is the most proven of the bunch as, seemingly in another life, he had a 1000+ yard receiving year in his 2nd season in the league with the Jaguars in 2015, after which he signed a 4-year, 40.65 million dollar extension that would kick in after the final two years of his rookie deal. However, he never made it to the extension portion of his new deal, getting cut two years and 16 million in guaranteed new money later, and has since bounced from Jacksonville to Dallas to Miami on low-to-mid range contracts, never topping 484 yards in a season since 2015. Hurns is still only going into his age 29 season, but he’s been pretty banged up and it seems likely that the former undrafted free agent just had a fluke year in 2015, especially since he had a large percentage of his yards come in garbage time on a bad Jaguars team that year.
Wilson and Grant, meanwhile, have never topped 554 yards receiving in a season, with Grant never going over 268 yards. Grant is dynamic in the return game, but the 4-year, 19.7 million dollar extension the Dolphins gave him in last August suggested they believed he’d developed into a contributor in the passing game as well, but that has yet to happen, in part due to injuries that have limited him to 10 games apiece in the past two seasons. He hasn’t been effective when healthy either, as his route tree has been mostly limited to short screens. He has 18.4% of his career receiving yards on 2 catches and outside of those has averaged just 10.2 yards per reception in his career. Now going into the 5th year of his career, I don’t expect much more from the 2016 6th rounder, but he could have a new career high in catches just by staying healthy. He’ll have opportunities to play.
Wilson is a little bit more proven than Grant, but the 3-year, 24 million dollar deal he signed with the team two off-seasons ago was not in line with his level of production in Kansas City and was one of many questionable signings the Dolphins have made over the years. It’s not surprising the Dolphins forced him to take a pay cut to stay on the roster after injuries have limited him to 69 catches in 20 games over the past 2 seasons. Still only going into his age 28 season, he has some upside if he can stay healthy and his yards per route run since joining the Dolphins is respectable at 1.69, but I wouldn’t expect a big receiving total from him even in the best case scenario.
The Dolphins also stood pat at the tight end position this off-season, despite getting just 66 catches from tight ends in 2019, just 17.8% of their overall total. The Dolphins are clearly banking on improvement from third year tight ends Mike Gesicki and Dalton Smythe, who went in the 2nd and 4th rounds respectively in 2018. Gesicki is more productive in the passing game, jumping from a 22/202/0 slash line as a rookie to a 51/570/5 slash line last year, but that’s an underwhelming total considering he ran 521 routes on the season (32nd among 44 qualifying tight ends in yards per route run at 1.09) and he’s been one of the worst blocking tight ends in the league thus far in his career.
Smythe, meanwhile, has just 13 career catches, but has at least been a capable blocker in two tight end sets. The Dolphins have little depth at the position behind them, so they’re stuck with these two as their top tight ends and, as underwhelming as they are, they would be in big trouble at the position if one were to miss time with injury. It’s not a horrible receiving corps overall, but it’s a bit surprising they didn’t add any help at all this off-season, as they are led by a one-year wonder #1 receiver and a second year undrafted free agent who is coming off of a major knee injury.
Like the Dolphins’ offense, the Dolphins’ defense struggled mightily at the beginning of the year, allowing a 47.78% first down rate before their week 5 bye, but after the bye that fell to 36.53%, which would have been 21st in the NFL over the full season. They didn’t have any stand out players on defense, but they went through a ridiculous volume of contributors, with just two players playing more than 750 snaps, but 17 players playing more than 300 and 27 players playing more than 100, and by mid-to-late season they had identified some diamonds in the rough after cycling through so many players, which elevated their overall level of play.
They still finished 31st in the NFL on the season with a 39.41% first down rate allowed, but there are reasons to believe they’ll be better this season. Like on offense, their young guys are more experienced and they’ve added a significant amount of players through free agency and the draft. On top of that, they should be healthier this season, after having the second most games lost to injury on defense in the league last season, including 11 games missed by one of their few high level players, cornerback Xavien Howard.
The area the Dolphins upgraded the most this off-season was the edge, which was much needed, as the Dolphins had 8 different players play at least 100 snaps off the edge last year, including linebackers Jerome Baker and Sam Eguavoen, but none of them topped 5 sacks and the team finished dead last with 23 sacks on the season. In order to fix that, the Dolphins signed defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson, as well as linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who has experience as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker with the Patriots, where he previously played for Brian Flores in a similar defensive scheme.
Van Noy was the big addition, coming over from New England on a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal. Van Noy was a second round pick by the Lions in 2014, but was just sitting on Detroit’s bench having played 406 snaps in two and a half seasons in the league when the Patriots acquired him at the 2016 trade deadline for a late round pick. He immediately saw more playing time with the Patriots, whose scheme he fit much better, and, while he was mostly a snap eater for his first 2 years in New England, he developed into a much better player in his final 2 seasons in New England, finishing 41st among off ball linebackers in 2018 on Pro Football Focus and 19th among edge defenders in 2019.
Van Noy is a rare player who can play the run, rush the passer, and drop back to coverage effectively, but his value is primarily as a pass rusher. He’s rushed the passer on 62.9% of his pass snaps over the past 2 seasons, managing 10 sacks, 17 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate. In Miami, he’ll directly replace Sam Eguavoen in the lineup, which will be a big boost, given that Eguavoen ranked 78th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF last season.
Eguavoen rushed the passer on 59.5% of his snaps as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end and I would expect a similar percentage from Van Noy, although he’s obviously an upgrade and should play closer to every down than the 621 snaps Eguavoen played last season. Van Noy’s age is a minor concern going into his age 30 season and the Dolphins are paying him a premium for him because he played his best year in a contract year, but he was definitely a worthwhile addition and wasn’t overpaid by much.
With Van Noy playing a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role, Ogbah and Lawson are likely to be their starting defensive ends, though they’ll face competition from top holdover Vince Biegel, who was one of the diamonds in the rough the Dolphins discovered down the stretch last season. Biegel was a 4th round pick by the Packers in 2017, but saw just 124 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, bouncing from Green Bay to New Orleans before ending up in Miami in 2019.
With the Dolphins, he barely played to start the season, but averaged 52.5 snaps per game in his final 11 games of the season and finished with 627 snaps on the season, leading all Miami edge defenders. He had just 2.5 sacks, but added 12 hits and had a 10.7% pressure rate, while holding up against the run and showing the versatility to play some linebacker and drop in to coverage. He’s still unproven with one year of production, so he could regress, but, on the other hand, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued to improve in his 4th year in the league.
Ogbah and Lawson, meanwhile, come over from the Chiefs and Bills respectively on contracts worth 15 million over 2 years and 30 million over 3 years respectively. Unlike Biegel and Van Noy, they are traditional defensive ends who won’t play much if any linebacker. Ogbah was a second round pick in 2016 and got plenty of playing time early in his career in Cleveland, playing 52.9 snaps per game in 3 seasons with the Browns, but he didn’t do much with the opportunity, posting 12.5 sacks in 40 games, pressuring the quarterback at a 7.8% rate, and earning mediocre grades from PFF in all 3 seasons.
The Browns then traded him to Kansas City and he promptly looked much better in a smaller role, playing 40.9 snaps per game in 10 games, posting 5.5 sacks and a 10.8% pressure rate, holding up against the run, and finishing as PFF’s 40th ranked edge defender overall through week 10, before suffering a season ending chest injury. Ogbah’s salary in Miami is more in line with his role in Cleveland, so he could prove to be an overpay if he can’t translate his solid play in 2019 to a larger role, but he’s a former 2nd round pick who doesn’t tun 27 until later this year, so he comes with plenty of upside.
Lawson was also a late bloomer, going in the first round in 2016, but showing very little in his first 2 seasons in the league, while limited to 21 of 32 games with injury. In two seasons since, he’s played 29 of 32 games and has shown impressive ability as an all-around defensive end, albeit in a limited role, maxing out at 520 snaps played. Over the past 2 seasons as a part-time player, Lawson has managed 10.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate, while holding up against the run. Like Ogbah, he’s unproven in a bigger role, but he still has upside only going into his age 26 season. At the very least, Ogbah and Lawson should be able to hold up against the run, but they have upside as pass rushers as well.
Along with Biegel, the only remaining holdovers from last year’s edge defender group are Trent Harris, a 2018 undrafted free agent who played the first 253 snaps of his career as primarily a situational run stuffer in 2019, and 2019 5th round pick Andrew Van Ginkel, who underwhelmed on 197 snaps last season, but still has some upside in this defense as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. They also used a 5th round pick this year on Boise State’s Curtis Weaver, who also fits the mold of a hybrid edge player. He could also be in the mix for a reserve role along with Van Ginkel and Harris. This is a much deeper and more talented group than last year, but they’re banking on a couple of Ogbah, Lawson, and Biegel continuing to develop and taking another step forward as edge rushers opposite Van Noy.
Things were much more stable inside at defensive tackle last year, where Davon Godchaux and Christian Wilkins made all 16 starts and were among the leaders on the defense with 718 snaps and 730 snaps respectively. Neither player was spectacular, earning middling grades from Pro Football Focus, but they were still two of the Dolphins’ better defensive players last season and both should remain locked into starting jobs in 2020.
A 5th round pick in 2017, Godchaux has played consistently well against the run since entering the league, maxing out with a 18th ranked finish on PFF in run grade among interior defenders in 2018, but he hasn’t gotten to the quarterback much, with just 3 career sacks and a 4.8% pressure rate. He’s only going into his age 26 season, but he was not highly drafted because of his lack of pass rush ability and it’s fair to wonder if he’s ever going to develop into a consistent quarterback disruptor. He may max out as a run stuffing defensive tackle, but a good one at that. Wilkins, meanwhile, is more well-rounded (8.5% pressure rate last season) and has much more upside after going 13th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. He could easily take a big step forward in his 2nd season in the league in 2020.
John Jenkins also played all 16 games last season, playing 480 snaps as the primary reserve, and he actually played the best of the Dolphins top trio on a per snap basis, finishing as PFF’s 41st ranked interior defender. He signed with the Bears this off-season, which is a bigger loss than most would think, but the Dolphins did replenish depth through the draft, taking Alabama’s Raekwon Davis in the 2nd round and North Carolina’s Jason Strowbridge in the 5th. Davis is much more likely to fill Jenkins’ old role given where he was drafted, leaving Strowbridge to compete for a deep reserve role in his first year in the league. Losing Jenkins will hurt a little, but this is still a solid group.
In addition to signing Kyle Van Noy from the Patriots, the Dolphins also brought another one of Brian Flores’ former linebackers from New England over in a more under the radar move, signing Elandon Roberts to a 1-year, 2 million dollar contract. In addition to playing special teams and dabbling as a fullback, Roberts has averaged 365 snaps per season as a linebacker since the Patriots took him in the 6th round in 2016. Roberts has struggled when counted on for a larger role, but has been more comfortable in a situational run stuffing role over the past two seasons, though he did play just 202 snaps last season. His contract isn’t much, but he should at least compete for a base package role alongside Van Noy and Raekwon McMillan.
McMillan excelled against the run last season in a part-time role, playing 516 snaps overall and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked off ball linebacker against the run, but he was very much the opposite in coverage, ranking 87th out of 100 qualifiers on PFF in that aspect. The same was true in 2018, when he finished 8th against the run, but finished 88th out of 95 qualifiers in coverage. McMillan was a 2nd round choice in 2017, but the big 6-2 248 pounder wasn’t known for his athleticism coming out of college and a torn ACL that cost him his whole rookie season doesn’t seem to have helped matters. He should excel in a base package role again, but would likely be overstretched in a larger role, though he may still have untapped potential, not even turning 24 until later this season. If he does break out and as every down caliber linebacker, this would be a great time for it, as he’s set to hit free agency next off-season.
Jerome Baker actually led this linebacking corps with 1,080 snaps played last season, but he was mostly a liability, ranking 86th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF on the season. He wasn’t bad in coverage, but finished 96th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in run grade. The 2018 3rd round pick was better in a smaller role (678 snaps) as a rookie, so he has some bounce back potential, but with Van Noy, Roberts, and McMillan all better against the run, Baker may be limited to situational work as a coverage linebacker. The Dolphins also figure to use 6 defensive backs somewhat frequently in obvious passing situations to make up for their lack of coverage linebackers, though that would leave them very susceptible if opponents decide to run instead. The concerns about coverage ability are legitimate, but they should be a tough linebacking corps to run on.
If there is one strength on this team, it’s the cornerback position, as, much like his former mentor Bill Belichick, Brian Flores wants to build his defense around the secondary. The Dolphins spent significant resources this off-season making the cornerback position a strength, signing ex-Cowboy Byron Jones to a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal that makes him the second highest paid cornerback in the league in average annual salary and then using their third first round pick (30th overall) on Auburn cornerback Noah Igbinoghene. Add in holdover Xavien Howard, who is healthy now after missing 11 games with a knee injury in 2019, and the Dolphins have a very intriguing top trio of cornerbacks.
Jones and Howard are two of the highest paid cornerbacks in the league, with Howard ranking 3rd in among cornerbacks on a 5-year, 75.25 million dollar extension that he signed last off-season, so obviously they will start in base packages, but Igbinoghene has a clear path to the 3rd cornerback job, with only 2019 undrafted free agent Nik Needham potentially pushing him for the role. Needham flashed as a rookie and was one of the diamonds in the rough that the Dolphins uncovered, but he overall earned a middling grade from PFF on 743 snaps and is probably best as a depth cornerback long-term. Assuming Igbinoghene beats him out for the job, there should be plenty of playing time for him as the 3rd cornerback, given how much teams use three cornerbacks at the same time, even with Jones and Howard unlikely to come off the field much if at all.
Jones and Howard are paid similarly, but Jones is the better player. Cornerback is a position that is very difficult to be consistently good at in the NFL and Jones joins now division rival Stephon Gilmore as one of two cornerbacks to finish in the top-15 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons. His best year came in 2018, when he finished 7th, but his 2019 wasn’t too shabby either. The 2015 first round pick wasn’t quite as good earlier in his career, but that’s because he bounced around from slot cornerback to both safety spots before settling in as an outside cornerback. Still only going into his age 28 season, he should have at least a couple more seasons left as a top level cornerback and his versatility to play other spots in a pinch if needed just add to his value.
Howard has played as well as Jones at his best, but he hasn’t been nearly as consistently good as his interception numbers (12 in 40 career games) would suggest, maxing out as PFF’s 20th ranked cornerback in 2018. In addition, he’s had durability issues throughout his career, missing 24 of 64 games and only playing in 16 games once, while his new running mate Byron Jones has missed just 1 game in 5 years in the league. Howard is still only going into his age 27 season and has the potential to keep getting better and put together some more strong seasons if he can stay healthy, but he comes with a lot of risk and isn’t quite worth his salary. He could also be facing a short suspension to start the season, after an off-the-field incident.
While things are pretty clear at cornerback, playing time at safety is much more up for grabs, with converted cornerbacks Bobby McCain and Eric Rowe competing for playing time with 3rd round rookie Brandon Jones and holdovers Steven Parker and Adrian Colbert. Parker and Colbert weren’t terrible last season and were part of the reason why this defense wasn’t bad down the stretch, but they played just 339 snaps and 361 snaps respectively, so they’ll likely settle in to reserve roles if they make the roster, while Jones is likely a year away from contributing significantly, leaving veterans McCain and Rowe as the favorites to start.
Rowe is another former Patriot on this defense, spending 3 years there from 2016-2018, after spending just a year with the Eagles who took him in the 2nd round in 2015. Rowe was never able to stay healthy consistently while in New England, missing 27 of 48 games, and he didn’t play well even when on the field, but he started all 16 games with the Dolphins in 2019 and wasn’t bad, earning himself a 3-year, 16.15 million dollar extension that he signed in December.
Rowe’s 16 starts last season were split 12 and 4 between safety and cornerback, but with the Dolphins’ moves at cornerbacks this off-season, he looks locked in as a pure safety for the first time in his career, having spent most of his 5-year career as an oversized cornerback at 6-1 205. He’s not a lock for a starting job, but his salary suggests he’ll get significant playing time and safety is the only position where he can do that on this roster. Still only going into his age 28 season, he comes with some upside at his new position, but his injury history remains a concern.
McCain is also a converted cornerback, making the conversion last off-season, after previously playing primarily as a slot cornerback. McCain lacks Rowe’s size at 5-11 192, but wasn’t bad last season in 9 starts before getting hurt, playing primarily as a deep safety. Expect him to continue playing there with the bigger Rowe working as a box safety and occasional linebacker. McCain has been an unspectacular player wherever he’s played throughout his 5-year career, but you could do a lot worse at the position. Jones, Parker, and Colbert, meanwhile, figure to compete for reserve snaps on a defense that will likely try to mask their lack of coverage linebackers with frequent dime packages. Their safeties are unspectacular overall, but cornerback is the strongest position on the roster.
The Dolphins exceeded expectations and won a few games in 2019 and added a lot of new players this off-season through the draft and free agency, but they look at least another year away from contending for a playoff spot, even in the weaker AFC. Given how well Ryan Fitzpatrick ended up playing last season, the biggest reason why they won any games, there’s good reason to expect that the Dolphins won’t get as good of quarterback play this season, either from a rookie coming off of a serious injury and a shortened off-season or from a 38-year-old journeyman who will likely struggle to repeat one of the better years of his career. The Dolphins upgraded the rest of their roster, but this is still not a playoff caliber supporting cast. This team will be more competitive this season overall, but could ultimately still end up in last place in their division. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.
Final Update: The Dolphins were hit with opt outs in the receiving corps and traded away run stuffing linebacker Raekwon McMillan, which hurts their projection. The Dolphins likely won’t get blown out as often as last year, but they won’t necessarily win more games.
Projection: 4-12 (3rd in AFC East)