Miami Dolphins 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Two off-seasons ago, the Dolphins undertook an aggressive rebuilding strategy. After years of mediocrity, somehow winning between 6 and 8 games in 9 of the previous 10 seasons, with the exception being a 10-6 season in which they lost in the first round of the post-season, the Dolphins rapidly parted ways with players, either for financial reasons and/or to acquire future draft assets, with the intention of playing young players, accumulating significant draft capital, rolling forward future amounts of cap space, and probably picking up high draft picks of their own over the next couple seasons because of a roster that was significantly subpar. 

Among others who went out the door, the Dolphins traded away long-time starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill and even traded away recent first round picks Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick for future first round picks. The Dolphins also fired head coach Adam Gase after three seasons and brought in promising Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores, a young coach who understood what he was getting into with a rebuilding team.

The result was not expected to be any good in the short-term and, to begin the 2019 season, they might have even been worse than expected, losing each of their first 4 games by at least 20 points per game and an average of 34.3 points per game. However, things improved pretty rapidly from there. They didn’t win their first game until a few weeks later, but the margin of defeat dropped significantly and, after a 0-7 start, they actually managed to win 5 of their final 9 games of the season. 

Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who replaced an overwhelmed young player in Josh Rosen, proved to be a steady hand under center, while the Dolphins’ impressive new coaching staff managed to get the most out of the rest of this roster. Perhaps the most important thing is that they managed to do that without playing themselves out of draft position for a top quarterback prospect. While they did not wind up with the #1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, as at one point seemed inevitable, which would have gotten them Heisman winner and National Champion Joe Burrow, their 5th overall pick still allowed them to select a former National Champion and Heisman finalist Tua Tagovailoa, albeit one who was coming off of a major hip injury. 

The Dolphins still finished the 2019 season 30th in first down rate differential at -3.58%, despite their solid finish to the year, but there was still a lot of reason for this team to be optimistic going forward, with a potential franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie deal in the fold in Tagovailoa and significant draft capital and financial flexibility coming in the future. The Dolphins used some of that financial flexibility and draft capital last off-season to improve this roster and, overall, the Dolphins seemed likely to take a step forward in their second season of the rebuild. However, few expected the Dolphins to do what they did in 2020, which was to finish 10-6 and just on the edge of the post-season in the AFC.

That being said, the Dolphins weren’t quite as good as that suggests, as they finished the season ranked 20th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.60%. Part of it was they faced arguably the easiest schedule in the league. Four of the Dolphins’ wins came against the three worst teams in the league, the Jets (twice), the Jaguars, and the Bengals, while just two of their wins came against teams with a .500 or better record, a 3-point victory over the 8-8 Cardinals and a win over the 10-6 Rams in which the Dolphins managed just 8 first downs and 145 yards of offense and primarily won because they had return touchdowns of 78 yards and 88 yards, which certainly is not sustainable way to week in week and week out.

Beyond those two return touchdowns, the Dolphins benefitted from other metrics that have little predictive value, ranking 2nd in opponent’s field goal conversion rate at 73.91%, 7th in fumble recovery rate at 56.76%, and 3rd in turnover margin at +9. Recovering fumbles and opponents missing field goals are not replicable skills, while turnover margin is highly inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. 

I’ll get into this more in the defense section, but their defense also significantly benefited from being unsustainably good on 3rd and 4th down, as compared to how they played on 1st and 2nd down, allowing opponents to pick up a first down on a league low 33.02% of 3rd and 4th downs, but actually ranking 29th by allowing a 34.07% first down conversion rate on 1st and 2nd downs, meaning that somehow it was easier to convert on 1st and 2nd down against the Dolphins last season than it was to do so on 4th down.

On top of that, the Dolphins offense was actually at it’s best not when rookie Tagovailoa was on the field, but when they played veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick started the first 6 games of the season, but was then benched for Tagovailoa, only to see Tagovailoa not come close to matching his production level, completing 64.1% of his passes for an average of 6.26 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions (another 8 dropped by defenders) on the season and finishing as PFF’s 33rd ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible, while Fitzpatrick completed 68.5% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions and finished as PFF’s 19th ranked quarterback. Perhaps most concerning for Tagovailoa is he was actually outperformed on the ground by the aging veteran, averaging 3.03 YPC on 36 carries, while Fitzpartrick averaged 5.03 YPC on 30 carries, even though Tagovailoa was known for his athleticism before his injury.

On several occasions, the Dolphins actually benched Tagovailoa mid-game for Fitzpatrick who was a noticeable improvement and even occasionally led the Dolphins to a comeback victory, but they refused to go back to the veteran permanently and this off-season they let him walk as a free agent, where he signed in Washington to be their expected starter. The Dolphins added an above average insurance policy for Tagovailoa by signing ex-Colt Jacoby Brissett, who has made 32 starts in 5 seasons in the league, but he has largely been an underwhelming starter and would likely be a downgrade over Fitzpatrick’s 2020 performance if he had to see action.

Of course, the Dolphins are hoping that doesn’t happen, expecting Tagovailoa to take a big step forward in his second season in the league, another year removed from his injury. The Dolphins had the financial flexibility and draft capital to make a big trade for a veteran this off-season or they also could have used the 3rd overall pick they acquired from the Texans as part of the Laremy Tunsil trade on a different young quarterback in a strong quarterback draft class, but instead they traded down and opted to build around Tagovailoa in the draft and in free agency. 

If Tagovailoa can take a step forward and the supporting cast the Dolphins have been building up over the past two off-seasons can do so as well, that should counter the fact that they will have a much tougher schedule, that they are unlikely to win the turnover margin by as much, that they are likely to regress on third and fourth downs on defense, and that they are unlikely to have the same special teams and return touchdown success. However, I have some questions about this supporting cast holding up its end of the bargain, which I will get into, and Tagovailoa is the big question, which makes the Dolphins among the most high variance teams in the league. 

If Tagovailoa can bounce back from the significant injury that ended his college career and from his underwhelming first season and develop into the franchise quarterback it looked like he would one day become, the rest of this team is talented enough that the Dolphins could still be playoff contenders, but if Tagovailoa plays like he did last season, the Dolphins are bound to disappoint. I would lean more to the latter than the former because of how many question marks Tagovailoa comes with as an inexperienced, unproven player who may never be the same after a significant injury and, even if he someday does reach his potential, that doesn’t necessarily mean he is going to be an above average starter in year two, but the scenario where he makes a big leap is a possibility as well. 

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The group the Dolphins upgraded the most this off-season was their receiving corps, which was a big problem last season, lacking any consistent wide receivers behind #1 option Devante Parker. Parker led the team with a 63/793/4 slash line, but no other wide receiver topped 36/373/1 on the season. To remedy this, the Dolphins address the position in free agency and in the draft, signing Texans wide receiver Will Fuller to a one-year deal, 10 million dollar deal and using the 6th overall pick after trading down from the 3rd pick on Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. Parker, Fuller, and Waddle figure to play together in a much improved group of top-3 wide receivers.

Parker is a former first round pick in his own right, being selected 14th overall by the Dolphins in 2015. Parker’s first four years in the league left something to be desired, as he never played all 16 games, frequently disappointed coaches with his work ethic, and maxed out with a 56/744/4 slash line in his second season in the league in 2016. After Parker had a career worst 24/309/1 slash line in 2018, it looked as if he would be released ahead of the expensive 5th year option on his rookie deal, but the Dolphins instead re-signed him to a cheaper deal and he rewarded them with his long awaited breakout year in his 5th season in the league in 2019, finishing with a 72/1202/9 slash line, playing all 16 games for the first time, and ranking 17th among wide receivers on PFF.

That slash line fell to 63/793/4 in 2020, but that was more because he missed a couple games with injury and because the Dolphins were much run heavier in 2020 than 2019. His 1.75 yards per route run average was still only slightly down from his 1.89 average in 2019 and was still the 2nd best of his career. He also finished 32nd among wide receivers on PFF in 2020, only slightly behind 2019 and also the 2nd best finish of his career. 

Parker isn’t quite a true #1 receiver and, though he is still young in his age 28 season, he probably is as good as he’s going to get, but having proven it for two years now, I would expect his early career issues to mostly be in the past now and that he will continue being an above average starting option for at least the next couple seasons. The Dolphins locked him up long-term after 2019 on a 4-year, 30.5 million dollar extension that was a risk at the time for the Dolphins, but a risk that seems to have mostly paid off.

Fuller is also a former first round pick, being selected 21st overall by the Texans in 2016, and he’s also had some issues to start his career. His biggest issue has simply been staying on the field, as he has yet to surpass 14 games in a season in 5 seasons in the league. Fuller didn’t show much early in his career, in part due to poor quarterback play, and he missed 8 of his first 32 games as well, but he showed a lot more promise over the past three seasons in Houston with Deshaun Watson healthy under center, averaging 2.24 yards per route run, 2.03 yards per route run, and 2.28 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons respectively.

However, that has translated to just slash lines of 32/503/4, 49/670/3, and 53/879/8 respectively, as he was limited to 7 games and 11 games by injury in 2018 and 2019 and, in 2020, when it seemed like he was finally going to make it through a full season, and on pace for a 77/1279/12 per 16 game slash line through 11 games while ranking 10th among wide receivers on PFF, Fuller was suspended for the rest of the season for performance enhancing drugs, a 6-game suspension that will also keep him out for week 1 of 2021. 

Fuller has assured the Dolphins it was a one-time mistake and the Dolphins are taking a chance on him with a one-year deal, not just because of the PEDs, but because of his injury history, but it’s a risk that could pay off, though the one-year nature of his deal limits the overall upside. Waddle’s selection may mean Fuller is likely to ultimately be one and done in Miami, but for now, they will be a talented wide receiver trio, as long as all three are healthy. Waddle is coming off of an injury plagued season as well in his last collegiate season, while Parker has only made it through one full season without missing time in 6 tries, so that might be easier said than done, but having all three at least gives them some insurance.

The Dolphins also have some decent depth options. They return Jakeem Grant (36/373/1), Preston WIlliams (18/288/4), Lynn Bowden (28/211/0), and Mack Hollins (16/176/1) from last year’s group and will also have a pair of veterans in Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson who are returning from opting out of the 2020 season and they totaled slash lines of 32/416/2 and 43/351/1 respectively in 2019. All would be underwhelming starters if they had to see extended action and none of them may be guaranteed a roster spot, but it’s a group with some promise.

Preston Williams might have the most, as he has averaged a decent 1.51 yards per route run averaged in two seasons since signing with the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent, but he has struggled to stay on the field, playing just 16 of a possible 32 games. Lynn Bowden is a 2020 3rd round pick, although he was traded by the Raiders to the Dolphins before his rookie year even started and his 1.00 yards per route run average as a rookie is really underwhelming. 

Jakeem Grant is a good situational deep threat, but has never played more than 370 snaps in a season and the 5-7 169 pounder isn’t anything more than a situational player. Mack Collins was a 4th round pick by the Eagles in 2017, but he’s managed just 42 catches in 48 career games and 0.99 yards per route run. Hurns and Wilson have some history of success, especially Hurns, but they’re going into their age 30 and age 29 season, after missing an entire season. The Dolphins were right to focus on upgrading this group, but the holdovers they replaced don’t make bad depth options.

Lacking options at wide receiver behind Devante Parker last season, tight end Mike Gesicki finished 2nd on this team in receiving with a 53/703/6 slash line. That was a big step forward for Gesicki, a 2018 2nd round pick who improved his yards per route run average from 1.04 over the first two seasons of his career to 1.60 last season. Gesicki’s 51/570/5 slash line from 2019 isn’t bad, but it was primarily the product of the amount of opportunity he received. 

In 2020, despite receiving a few targets fewer than in 2019 (89 in 2019 vs. 85 in 2020) and despite running almost 100 fewer routes on a more run heavy team, he saw his receiving yardage increase by about 23.3%. He also finished 7th among tight ends on PFF in pass catching grade, after never earning more than a middling grade previously. Gesicki is a one-year wonder in terms of playing like he did as a receiver last season and he’s never been much of a blocker, but he entered the league with a high upside and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue being an above average pass catcher. If he does, he figures to get a significant contract from someone as a free agent next off-season.

That contract might not come from Miami though, as they have pretty solid depth behind him. Durham Smythe and Adam Shaheen added 451 snaps and 367 snaps played respectively last season as primarily blocking specialists and both earned above average grades from PFF in that limited role, not only blocking well, but showing a little bit of potential as receivers for the first time in their brief careers, with Smythe being a 4th round pick in 2018 and Shaheen being selected in the 2nd round in 2017 by the Bears, who eventually shipped him to Miami after he didn’t pan out in Chicago. The Dolphins also used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on Boston College’s Hunter Long, though that might be more of a move focused on the future, with both Gesicki and Smythe heading into the final year of their deals. In the meantime, the Dolphins have a deep tight end group as part of an overall much improved receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

It was also expected that the Dolphins would invest significantly at the running back position this off-season, after rotating through five different starters at the position, but instead they only added veteran backup Malcolm Brown and wanted until the 7th round to select a running back, when they took Cincinnati’s Gerrid Doaks. That is good news for Myles Gaskin, who led this group with 142 carries in 2020 and was the starter for most of the season, and, to a lesser extent, Salvon Ahmed, who was their primary backup down the stretch and also returns for 2021 along with Gaskin.

Gaskin is hardly a proven lead back though, so it was surprising they didn’t even add a more capable complement at some point. A 7th round pick in 2019, Gaskin managed just 3.69 YPC on 36 carries as a rookie, before seeing that average improve to 4.11 YPC on 142 carries in his 2nd season in the league, decent, but unspectacular. Gaskin missed 6 games with injury last season and could see his carry total increase just because of improved health, but he’s a projection to a feature back role and would be best in tandem with another running back.

Salvon Ahmed could be that other back, but he’s highly unproven, as the 2020 undrafted free agent didn’t see his first career offensive touch until week 9 and finished the season with just a 4.25 YPC on 75 carries in 6 games. Malcolm Brown, meanwhile, has never topped the 101 carries in a season he had last season, despite having 6 seasons in the league. His 4.15 YPC average left something to be desired as well, as does his career average of 3.99 across 298 career carries. Given their other options, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see 7th round rookie Gerrid Doaks see extended action at some point. Barring a big breakout season from one of their backs, this figures to be a below average backfield once again in 2021.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Dolphins also needed to add talent on the offensive line this off-season, but they didn’t really do much here either. They used a 2nd round pick on Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg, who can play both tackle and guard, but he’s mostly just a replacement for veteran Ereck Flowers, who finished 32nd among guards on PFF in 14 starts last season, but was salary dumped in a trade with Washington this off-season. They also signed ex-Raven Matt Skura to replace center Ted Karras, who signed in New England as a free agent, but he could also be a downgrade. Fellow veteran signing DJ Fluker, a guard/tackle, is equally uninspiring.

The Dolphins had a trio of rookies see significant action for this group last season, with first round pick Austin Jackson making 12 starts, second round pick Robert Hunt making 11 starts, and fourth round pick Solomon Kindley making 13 starts and the Dolphins will be hoping this young group can take a step forward in year two, but by replacing Flowers with Eichenberg, they have made this group arguably even younger and less experienced than a year ago. 

Jackson has the best chance to take a step forward in year two, not just because of his draft status as the 18th overall pick (Miami’s second of three first round picks in 2020), but because he drastically underperformed his draft slot as a rookie and has a lot of room for improvement, after finishing 84th among 89 eligible offensive tackles on PFF. He still has a high ceiling and could easily be a lot better in his 2nd season in the league, but it might be optimistic to expect more than middling play from him in year two, even if he does take a step forward.

Solomon Kindley also struggled, finishing 76th among 86 eligible guards in 13 starts and, as only a former 4th round pick, there is much less guarantee he ever improves and develops into a starter. He’s probably not even locked into a starting job in year two with 2019 3rd round pick Michael Deiter and a pair of veterans in DJ Fluker and Jesse Davis also in the mix for roles in the interior of this line with Eichenberg and Kindley. 

Deiter played just 23 snaps last season after finishing 79th among 82 eligible guards in 15 starts as a rookie, but he still has theoretical upside. Davis has made 56 starts over the past 4 seasons (31 at tackle and 25 at guard), but has never been more than a replacement level player and is now heading into his age 30 season. Similarly, Fluker has also never been more than a replacement level player in 96 career starts (40 at tackle, 56 at guard) and is now heading into his age 30 season.

Additionally, the Dolphins could start either Eichenberg or Davis at right tackle and move Robert Hunt inside to guard. Hunt might have been their best offensive lineman in 11 rookie year starts at right tackle though, even if he finished just slightly above average on PFF, so the Dolphins may want to leave him there. Whether it’s at guard or tackle though, Hunt still projects as a long-term starter and could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, though that’s not a guarantee.

New center Matt Skura, meanwhile, is probably locked into a job, just because the Dolphins lack a better option. Skura has made 51 starts over the past four seasons, but the 2016 undrafted free agent has never been more than a middling starter. He’s an underwhelming addition for a team that had the assets needed to upgrade this group this off-season, but that will instead be relying on a mix of very young, inexperienced players and middling at best veterans. Even with a lot more skill position talent around the quarterback this season, the Dolphins’ offensive line woes could inhibit this offense significantly unless their young players step up in a hurry.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

The Dolphins’ defense ranked 5th in points per drive allowed last season, but they benefited from one of the easiest schedules in the league and, as mentioned earlier, they were unsustainably good on third and fourth downs. Even though they allowed the 4th highest conversion rate in the league on 1st and 2nd down at 34.07%, the Dolphins led the NFL with a 33.02% conversion rate allowed on 3rd and 4th downs, somehow allowing a lower conversion rate on third and fourth downs than first and second. The Dolphins ranked just 12th in first down rate allowed, 15th when schedule is taken into account, but third and fourth downs are significantly more important downs, which allowed the Dolphins to rank where they did in points per drive.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that something like that is sustainable. There is zero correlation year-to-year in how much a team outperforms on third and fourth down as compared to first and second down and, beyond that, first and second down performance tends to be much more predictive on a year-to-year basis than third and fourth down performance, by a factor of about 2.5. That means that the Dolphins are likely to be about as good on third and fourth down as you would expect based on their first and second down performance and that their performance across all downs is probably more likely to be closer to their 29th ranked conversion rate allowed on first and second downs in 2020, as opposed to their 1st ranked conversion rate allowed on third and fourth downs.

The Dolphins had the financial flexibility and draft capital to make significant additions to this group this off-season, but they don’t look significantly better overall, which is concerning given they are starting from a lower base point than most realize, based on their easy schedule and their unsustainably good performance on third and fourth downs. In fact, one of the Dolphins moves this off-season was to reverse course on a big signing from last off-season, releasing edge defender Kyle Van Noy only a year and 15.075 million into a 4-year, 51 million dollar deal.

Van Noy was only a middling player in 2020 and he was more of a hybrid edge defender/off ball linebacker, dropping into coverage on 50.8% of his pass defense snaps, but he played 811 snaps in 14 games, so releasing him isn’t a small move. Additionally, the Dolphins also reversed course on their signing of fellow edge defender Shaq Lawson, who actually did play relatively well in the first year of a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal, finishing as PFF’s 29th ranked edge defender on 571 snaps in 14 games.

The Dolphins at least got linebacker Benardrick McKinney in a trade with Houston for Lawson, but losing Lawson and Van Noy still opened up a significant amount of edge defender snaps for the Dolphins. To fill those snaps, the Dolphins used their other first round pick on University of Miami’s Jaelen Phillips and will also likely use 2019 5th round pick Andrew Van Ginkel in a larger role, after he saw 479 snaps last season. 

Van Ginkel showed a lot of promise against the run last season in that role, after struggling on 197 rookie year snaps in 2019, and, like Van Noy, he can drop into coverage a little bit as well, but he has yet to show much as a pass rusher, with just 6.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 7.7% pressure rate in his career. He could remain an above average run defender, but he’s a projection to a larger role and I wouldn’t expect much pass rush from him.

Emmanuel Ogbah was the only edge defender that the Dolphins signed last off-season who remains, with Lawson and Van Noy already gone. Signed to a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal, Ogbah was well worth it in year one, leading the team with 9 sacks, 13 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate. That’s by far a career best though, for a player who has just 27 sacks, 35 hits, and a 9.4% pressure rate in his career, and he continued being an underwhelming run defender, as he has been throughout his career.

Ogbah came into the league with a high upside as the 32nd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and he isn’t a complete one-year wonder, showing signs of being an above average pass rusher in 2019, leading to the Dolphins signing him to that aforementioned deal, though that came in an injury plagued season, when he had 5.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 10.8% pressure rate in 10 games, so he’s still pretty unproven. He could continue being an above average pass rusher, in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, and he could see an even bigger snap count after playing 792 snaps last season, in what looks like an overall thinner group this season, but Ogbah also comes with some potential downside.

The Dolphins will also get Vince Biegel back from a torn achilles that cost him all of 2020 and he figures to be able to carve out a rotational role in this thinner group. How he plays in that role is a bit of a question, but he did earn an above average grade from PFF on 627 snaps in a very thin group in 2019, playing well against the run and totaling 2.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.7% pressure rate, so he does come with some upside. He’s also a former 4th round pick, but he only played 124 snaps in his first two seasons in the league, which is his only NFL experience aside from 2019, so he’s a complete one year wonder coming off of a significant injury, so it’s hard to project him to more than a rotational role. This isn’t a bad position group, but there are concerns as well.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

On the interior, the Dolphins lost free agent Davon Godchaux, who signed a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal with the Patriots and replaced him by signing former Patriot Adam Butler to a 2-year, 7.5 million. One to one, Butler is a downgrade from Godchaux, which shows in their contracts, but Godchaux was limited to 172 snaps in 5 games by injury last season, so his loss won’t affect them that much and all Butler will need to do to be an upgrade is stay relatively healthy. In Godchaux’s absence, Christian Wilkins, Raekwon Davis, and Zach Sieler led the way with 637 snaps, 538 snaps, and 532 snaps respectively and all three return and all figure to see playing time in a four man rotation including Adam Butler.

Wilkins and Davis have the most upside of the group and will likely start and lead the way in snaps, after being selected in the first round in 2019 and the second round in 2020 respectively. Wilkins has earned slightly above average grades from PFF in back-to-back seasons to begin his career, across snap counts of 730 and 637 respectively, and has the higher upside overall, as he could still develop into one of the better interior defenders in the league over the next few years, but Davis had a promising rookie year as well, across 538 snaps. Both figure to at least be capable starters in 2021 with the upside for significantly more if one or both break out.

That leaves Sieler and Butler to play reserve roles, but they still figure to see significant snap totals. Sieler was a bit of a surprise last season, as the 2018 7th round pick of the Ravens saw just 135 snaps in his first two seasons combined and was already on his second team, but when Godchaux went down, that freed up playing time for him and he held up pretty well, earning a slightly above average grade from PFF across 532 snaps, especially impressing as a pass rusher with 3.5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate. He’s a one-year wonder who might not repeat last season’s performance, but he also could have permanently turned a corner and will remain a solid rotational player. Either way, he’ll be counted on for a significant role, particularly in sub packages.

Butler, meanwhile, is also primarily a sub package option. In New England, he never exceeded 481 snaps in a season and played on a pass snap 74.2% of the time, in 4 seasons after being signed by the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Butler totalled 15 sacks, 9 hits, and a 7.2% pressure rate in 63 games, including 4 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.5% pressure rate in a career best year in 2020, but his inability to hold up against the run kept him from ever earning more than a middling overall grade from PFF for a season, including a 112nd ranked finish out of 139 eligible among interior defenders in 2020. He could be a decent part of a rotation, but the Dolphins will need either Wilkins or Davis to break out for this to be more than a middling group.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

As I mentioned earlier, the Dolphins made a swap this off-season of edge defender Shaq Lawson for Benardrick McKinney. The deal also featured a swap of late round picks, but those were largely irrelevant to the trade, which was otherwise a rare swap of above average veterans. I mentioned the Dolphins will miss Shaq Lawson off the edge, but McKinney does fill a need in the linebacking corps, where the loss of Kyle Van Noy will also be felt, as he played off ball a significant amount. 

McKinney missed all but 4 games with injury last season, but prior to last season, he earned an above average grade from PFF in all 5 seasons of his career, with a career best 9th ranked finish in 2018 and a 25th ranked finish in his most recent full season in 2019. On top of that, he had only missed 2 of a possible 64 games over the past two seasons and was largely an every down player, averaging 64.2 snaps per game, and, still only going into his age 29 season, he has plenty of bounce back potential if he can avoid another fluke injury. 

McKinney also has a little experience as a rusher off the edge and blitzing at a high rate, rushing the passer on 24.4% of his pass snaps for his career, which understandably made him appealing to a Dolphins team that likes to blitz their off ball linebackers and to occasionally line them up off the edge. McKinney has not fared as well as a pass rusher as he has against the run or in coverage though, totaling 11.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 11.0% pressure rate, despite frequently being an extra rusher, so it’s fair to wonder if he should just be used as more of a traditional linebacker, but that’s unlikely in Miami.

Jerome Baker, who led this group with 868 snaps last season and who will also play every down with McKinney, also was used in that fashion last season, rushing the passer on 23.9% of his pass snaps. Baker finished last season with 7 sacks, but that is a bit of a misleading total, as he added just 4 hits and a 12.6% pressure rate, despite almost always being an extra rusher. He also struggled against the run and earned a middling grade overall from PFF. 

The 2020 season was an improvement over 2019 for Baker, where his terrible run play landed him 87th among 101 eligible off ball linebackers overall, even though he held up in coverage and as a pass rusher, but Baker has still yet to live up to the potential he showed across 678 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2018. Perhaps he’ll take a step forward in his 4th season in the league in 2021, but he will need his run play to improve significantly for that to happen.

The Dolphins run a hybrid defense that uses more 3-4 base concepts than 4-3, so they don’t often line up with three off ball linebackers at the same time, but their depth options could still become a factor at some point if injuries strike. The Dolphins had several free agent departures in the linebacking corps this off-season, but they did retain Elandon Roberts, keeping the former Patriot for a second straight season on a one-year deal. 

That comes despite the fact that he struggled mightily in limited action last season, finishing dead last among 99 eligible linebackers on PFF on 402 snaps. Roberts was at least a capable run stuffer in New England in the first 4 seasons of his career, but he never earned more than a middling grade overall and his career high 558 snaps came in a 2017 campaign in which he finished 90th among 99 eligible linebackers on PFF. He’s not a horrible insurance policy, but he would likely struggle if he had to see significant action, especially in coverage.

The Dolphins also signed Duke Riley in free agency to serve in a depth role, but he’s pretty underwhelming as well. A third round pick in 2017 by the Falcons, Riley is already on his third team and the only season of his career in which he didn’t finish below average on PFF was the 2019 season, in which he played just 29 snaps. Like Roberts, he isn’t terrible depth, but he would likely struggle if he had to see significant action. With the addition of McKinney, this is a solid group overall, but they don’t have a terribly high upside.

Grade: B-

Secondary

By far the Dolphins’ best defensive player in 2020 was top cornerback Xavien Howard, who led the league with 10 interceptions, finished as PFF’s 2nd ranked cornerback overall, and made a case to be named Defensive Player of the Year, joining winner Aaron Donald and runner up TJ Watt as one of three players to receive a vote. Howard has always had great potential if he could stay healthy and put it all together, but even still his 2020 campaign, coming in the fifth season of the 2016 2nd round pick’s career, was a surprise.

Howard did record 7 interceptions in 2018 as well, but he also allowed a terrible 16.2 yards per catch average and was frequently beaten deep, leading to him ranking just 19th among cornerbacks on PFF, despite an elite interception total. Even that was by far the best year of his career prior to 2020 though, as he had totaled just 5 interceptions in his other 3 seasons, had consistently received middling grades from PFF in those 3 seasons, and had missed 24 games in a 4-year stretch as well. 

It’s possible Howard could repeat his dominant 2020 campaign again, but it’s more likely his history of inconsistency and injuries rears its head again and he comes short of last season’s performance. That could easily still mean he’s an above average cornerback and a capable #1 cover cornerback, but it’s unreasonable to assume he’ll be as good as he was again last season, especially with the Dolphins facing a much tougher schedule of passers this season. In many ways, he reminds me of Stephon Gilmore, who won Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, before taking a step back against a tougher schedule in 2020, but with more of an injury history and less of a history of consistent success than Gilmore.

With Howard likely to take a step back in 2021, the Dolphins will be counting on more from their other starting cornerback Byron Jones, who was a bit of a disappointment in the first year of a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal he signed with the Dolphins last off-season, coming over from the Dallas Cowboys. In many ways, more was expected of Jones than Howard going into 2020 and the fact that his contract made him the highest paid cornerback in the league at the time, a noticeable increase from the 5-year, 75.25 million dollar extension the Dolphins gave Howard following the 2018 season, shows that the Dolphins probably expected a little more out of him as well. 

Jones finished 7th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2018 and 17th in 2019, joining Stephon Gilmore as the only cornerback to finish in the top-17 in both seasons at a position where consistent high level play is tough to come by, so it was understandable the Dolphins paid Jones what they did, but Jones fell to 57th among cornerbacks on PFF in his first season in Miami in 2020, a big disappointment given how big his contract was.

Jones was a much more middling player earlier in his career, prior to his final two seasons with the Cowboys, but that was back when the 2015 first round pick played safety, which he did for most of the first three seasons of his career. Most likely, last season was just a fluke down year for a talented player at a notoriously inconsistent position, who is otherwise in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, with just 3 games missed due to injury in 6 seasons in the league. He has a good chance to bounce back in 2021, which should make up for any regression from Howard opposite him. Overall, Jones and Howard are likely to be one of the top cornerback duos in the league again in 2021.

The Dolphins also made a big investment into another cornerback last off-season, using the final of their three first round picks, 30th overall, on cornerback Noah Igbinoghene, and he too was a disappointment. He was limited to just 286 snaps in 10 games, finished 135th among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF, and spent most of the year behind second year undrafted free agent Nik Needham, who also struggled, finishing 112nd among 136 eligible cornerbacks on 617 snaps.

The Dolphins also don’t seem terribly committed to giving Igbinoghene a bigger role in 2021 either, adding a pair of veteran slot cornerbacks this off-season in Justin Coleman and Jason McCourty, who could both see sub package snaps over Igbinoghene. Coleman was an above average slot cornerback in 2017 and 2018 with the Seahawks, but fell off significantly over the past two seasons after signing a big contract with the Lions, culminating in a 2020 season in which he ranked 120th among 136 eligible cornerbacks on 470 snaps, which led to his release this off-season. Only in his age 28 season, Coleman has bounce back potential, but he’s been pretty inconsistent in his 6-year career, so he’s hard to depend on.

McCourty, meanwhile, has been much more dependable throughout his career, but his age is becoming a big concern, now in his age 34 season. McCourty was one of the better cornerbacks in the league in his prime in Tennessee from 2010-2013, excelling against the run, but also holding up in coverage and finishing in the top-22 among cornerbacks in all four seasons and, while he fell off in some injury plagued years from 2014-2016, his career had a second life as a depth cornerback with the Browns and Patriots over the past four seasons and McCourty even finished 22nd among cornerbacks across 474 snaps as recently as 2019 and 14th among cornerbacks across 835 snaps as recently as 2018. 

However, he fell off significantly in 2020, falling to 85th among cornerbacks among 136 eligible across 665 snaps, so he might not have much of anything left in the tank, given his age. He was a worthwhile flyer to take, especially because of his veteran leadership, but he might not see much real action. With Nik Needham, who was a little better on 743 snaps as a rookie before struggling last season, also still in the mix, this is a deep group of cornerbacks, even if they lack a clear 3rd option behind a talented top-two. Igbinoghene has the highest upside of the bunch obviously and, after being one of the youngest rookies in the league in 2020, only turning 21 in the middle of the season in November, he could still develop into an above average player long-term and take a big step forward in year two.

The Dolphins also added to an already deep safety group this off-season, so they may use more three safety sets in sub packages at the expense of three cornerback sets. Eric Rowe and Bobby McCain were both serviceable starters last season, while 2020 3rd round pick Brandon Jones showed some promise on 385 snaps, but the Dolphins still added Oregon’s Jevon Holland to the mix in the second round of this year’s draft and he could push to start as a rookie. With Jones going into his second season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see something of an open competition at the position, but the veterans Rowe and McCain both having to fend off multiple challengers for their starting role, something they could fail to do, allowing higher upside, but higher variance options into the starting lineup. 

Both Rowe and McCain have backgrounds as cornerbacks and have never been more than middling safeties, so it wouldn’t be a surprise for either one of them to see some action at cornerback if needed this season, though neither has been much better there either, with the exception of an above average season on the slot by Bobby McCain in 2017, when he played 664 snaps. The Dolphins have options in a deep and talented secondary that is led by arguably the best cornerback duo in the league.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Dolphins are a popular pick to take a step forward in 2021 and become a contender, but they’re starting from a much lower base point than most realize, given all the things that went in their favor last season that are unlikely to continue. They also didn’t upgrade this supporting cast as much in the off-season as they probably could have, with only their receiving corps looking noticeably better from a year ago and, unless second year signal caller Tua Tagovailoa can take a step forward in his second year in the league, the Dolphins also figure to have worse quarterback this season than last season, when Ryan Fitzpatrick threw about half their pass attempts and outplayed Tagovailoa. 

The wild card here is this team’s youth, which gives them a high upside, especially if Tagovailoa can make a big step forward in his second season in the league, and this coaching staff led by Brian Flores seems like one of the better in the league, which has led to a team that has outperformed their talent level in back-to-back seasons, but a lot needs to go right for this team to make it to the post-season against a much tougher schedule in 2021. I will have a final prediction for the Dolphins at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

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