Miami Dolphins 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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. 

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

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.

Grade: C

Running Backs

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.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

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.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

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.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

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.

Grade: B

Linebackers

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.

Grade: B-

Secondary

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.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

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.

Offensive Score: 69.64

Defensive Score: 73.20

Total Score: 71.42 (4th in AFC East)

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (4-11) at New England Patriots (12-3)

The Dolphins have been a tough team to predict this season. On one hand, they’ve undoubtedly been better since committing to veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting quarterback before week 7, winning 4 games in what once looked like a potential 0-16 season and ranking 19th in first down rate differential at -1.08% over that stretch, led by an offense that ranks 12th in first down rate at 36.35% over that stretch. On the other hand, they have the worst supporting cast in the NFL around Fitzpatrick and have consistently ranked dead last in my roster rankings, despite solid quarterback play. When Fitzpatrick plays well, the Dolphins can be a competitive team, but when he doesn’t they’re the worst team in the league and Fitzpatrick hasn’t been consistent throughout his career.

That makes this game tough to predict against the spread, with the Dolphins being 16-point underdogs in New England. If Fitzpatrick can play well, the Dolphins should be able to keep this relatively close and at the very least should be in position for a backdoor cover late in the game. If Fitzpatrick can’t play well, this will be a blowout for New England, who has 6 wins by 21 points or more this season. My calculated line is New England -17.5, so I’m leaning towards the Patriots for pick ‘em purposes, but I have no interest in betting anything of significance on this game. 

Update: The more I think about this the more I want to upgrade the Patriots to a low confidence pick. They historically do very well in week 17 games and it feels like the Patriots are once again starting to click before the post-season. The large spread and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s tendency to randomly have big games prevent me from betting on New England, but they should be the right side.

New England Patriots 30 Miami Dolphins 10

Pick against the spread: New England -16

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Miami Dolphins: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (1-13) at Miami Dolphins (3-11)

Both of these teams have had miserable seasons, with a combined 4 wins between the two teams. The Bengals only have one win, but they’ve been a more competitive team than the Dolphins, with just 6 double digit losses, compared to 9 for the Dolphins, and a point differential of -148, compared to -194 for the Dolphins. In terms of first down rate differential, the Bengals hold the edge at -3.91% to -7.19%. That’s despite the fact that the Bengals have faced a significantly tougher schedule, with a 57% opponents combined winning percentage, as compared to 47% for the Dolphins. 

The Dolphins have been better in games started by veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, rather than young quarterback Josh Rosen, with a 4.47% better first down rate in Fitzpatrick’s 11 starts as compared to Rosen’s 3 starts, but the Bengals have also been better in games started by veteran Andy Dalton, rather than young quarterback Ryan Finley, with a 4.41% better first down rate in Dalton’s 11 starts as compared to Finley’s 3 starts. The Bengals have also benefited from the return of left tackle Cordy Glenn in recent weeks and overall actually rank 24th in my roster rankings, while the Dolphins rank dead last. 

With that in mind, we’re getting good line value with the Bengals as just 1-point road favorites, as I have this line calculated at Cincinnati -4. The Bengals are also in a better spot. This isn’t a particularly meaningful game for either team other than being a relatively easy opportunity to pick up a rare win, but the Dolphins could completely look past the Bengals with a trip to New England on deck, while the Bengals have a much easier game on deck at home against the Browns. The Dolphins will almost definitely be double digit underdogs next week and teams are are just 33-64 ATS since 2008 before being double digit divisional underdogs. I thought about making this my Pick of the Week, but couldn’t bring myself to make arguably the most meaningless game of the week my top pick. I do like the Bengals a lot this week though.

Cincinnati Bengals 24 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati -1

Confidence: High

Miami Dolphins at New York Giants: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (3-10) at New York Giants (2-11)

The Dolphins still rank 31st in the NFL in first down rate differential at -6.92%, but that’s skewed by some horrific performances early in the season. Since committing to Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting quarterback after week 6, the Dolphins rank a somewhat respectable 19th in first down rate differential at -0.76%, led by an offense that ranks 11th in first down rate at 36.17%. Fitzpatrick still doesn’t have much of a supporting cast, especially on defense, which remains one of the worst units in the league, but the Dolphins have been far from the worst team in the league in recent weeks.

The Giants aren’t the worst league in the league either, but they’re a lot closer to it, ranking 25th in first down rate differential on the season and 26th since week 7 at -3.38%. They’re playing hard with backup quarterback Eli Manning under center, as they want the long-time Giant to end his tenure with the team on a high note, but they’re missing some key players. Right guard Kevin Zeitler is missing his first game of the season, tight end Evan Engram is missing his 6th game in a row, safety Jabrill Peppers is missing his 3rd game in a row, and the Giants cut top cornerback Janoris Jenkins this week. I wouldn’t bet on the Dolphins, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Final Update: This line has moved up to 3.5 in most places. The Giants shouldn’t be favored by more than a field goal against anyone and the Dolphins haven’t been the worst team in the league since turning back to Ryan Fitzpatrick. I wouldn’t go crazy with this bet, but about 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer, so we’re getting good protection with Miami if they can’t pull the upset.

New York Giants 24 Miami Dolphins 23

Pick against the spread: Miami +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Miami Dolphins at New York Jets: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (3-9) at New York Jets (4-8)

At one point, the Dolphins seemed like they might not win a game all season, but they’ve managed 3 wins in recent weeks. They still rank dead last in first down rate differential at -7.40%, despite those wins, but they’ve been better in recent weeks, ranking 21st in first down rate differential since week 7 at -0.66%. Their defense has continued to struggle over that span, ranking 25th in first down rate allowed at 37.25%, but their offense has actually ranked 12th in first down rate at 36.59%, coinciding with the insertion of Ryan Fitzpatrick back into the starting lineup. With Fitzpatrick under center, this is a much more competitive team.

The Jets have also been better in recent weeks, actually ranking 12th in first down rate differential since week 7 at +1.35%, but that has everything to do with their schedule over that stretch. Somehow, the Jets have played their past 6 games against opponents that rank 24th or worse in first down rate differential and they’re just 3-3 in those games. Overall, they’ve faced the second easiest schedule in the NFL, with an opponents winning percentage of 42%, significantly worse than the 52% winning percentage schedule that the Dolphins have faced.

The Jets get another easy opponent this week with the Dolphins coming to town, but the Jets are favored by 5.5 points and they haven’t played well enough against easy opponents to justify being favored by this many points over anyone, especially without injured safety Jamal Adams, who is arguably their best player on either side of the ball when healthy. I have this line calculated at Jets -4, with the Jets just slightly better than the Dolphins in my roster rankings.

The Jets are also in a bad spot, having to turn around and play a much tougher game in Baltimore on a short week next week. Not only do favorites only cover at about a 44% rate before Thursday Night Football, but favorites also struggle mightily before being double digit underdogs, which the Jets almost definitely will be next week. Since 2008, favorites are 24-49 ATS before being double digit underdogs. There’s not quite enough here for the Dolphins to be worth betting, but that would change if Jets running back Le’Veon Bell is ruled out with an illness and/or if this line moves up to 6.

Update: Bell has been ruled out for the Jets. The line is now 5 in most places, but that’s not a big deal because 5 isn’t a key number. As long as this line remains above 4, I like the Dolphins for a small bet, against a Jets team that is missing its top offensive and top defensive player.

New York Jets 22 Miami Dolphins 20

Pick against the spread: Miami +5

Confidence: Medium

Philadelphia Eagles at Miami Dolphins: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (5-6) at Miami Dolphins (2-9)

The Eagles have had back-to-back bad offensive performances in home losses to the Patriots and Seahawks, scoring a total of 19 points combined in the two games. There are a couple reasons not to expect that to continue into this week, however. For one, the Eagles offense is much healthier now. The Eagles get back right guard Brandon Brooks, who has been out since the first quarter of the Seahawks game, and right tackle Lane Johnson, who has been out since the first quarter of the Patriots game. Those are two of the best players in the league at their respective positions. They’ll also get back top wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who missed the entirety of both games, and fellow starting wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who missed the Seahawks game. 

Even with those two bad offensive performances taken into account, the Eagles rank 19th in the NFL in first down rate 34.78%, so, when healthy, they’re not a bad offensive team by any means and their defense, which ranks 8th in first down rate allowed at 33.83%, is able to keep them in most games even when they don’t have a good offensive performance, as just one of their 6 losses has come by more than 8 points.

The second reason I don’t expect the Eagles’ offensive struggles to continue into this week is that their competition is getting much easier. After facing a pair of teams with 3 losses between them, the Eagles now get a Dolphins team that has just two wins all year. The Dolphins aren’t going 0-16 like many assumed they’d be a lock to do when they struggled at the start of the season, but even with their two wins they still rank dead last in first down rate differential (-9.08%), point differential (-183), DVOA (-47.9%), and in my roster rankings. The Eagles have faced the 8th toughest schedule in the NFL in terms of DVOA thus far this season, so this is a welcome change. 

This line is pretty high at Philadelphia -10, but I’m not concerned about laying this many points. The Dolphins have already lost 7 games by double digits this season and a whopping 22 dating back to the start of the 2017 season. The Dolphins are at home this week, but with the Dolphins in the middle of a lost season in which they never actually had any intention of competing, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the majority of the crowd supporting the visitor. The Eagles are also in a great spot, with an easy home game against the Giants on deck, a game in which they are currently 8 point favorites on the early line. Big favorites tend to take care of business without any upcoming distractions on deck, as favorites of 6+ are 106-69 ATS since 2014 before being favorites of 6+ again. This isn’t a huge play, but I like the Eagles enough to bet on them.

Philadelphia Eagles 31 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia -10

Confidence: Medium

Miami Dolphins at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (2-8) at Cleveland Browns (4-6)

Even though the Browns got off to a 2-6 start, there was some optimism they could go on a second half run and compete for a playoff spot in the weaker AFC. That optimism came from the fact that their schedule, which was one of the toughest in the league in the first half of the season, suddenly became one of the easiest in the league in the second half of the season. The Browns also looked to be trending towards being closer to 100%, with players like cornerback Denzel Ward, safety Damarious Randall, and running back Kareem Hunt returning after missing significant time in the first half of the season.

The Browns’ second half is off to a good start in the win/loss column, as they’ve won a couple of home games against a pair of easier opponents, the Bills and Steelers, to improve to 4-6. However, they’re now very much trending away from being 100%. After losing defensive end Olivier Vernon to injury in the game against the Bills, the Browns lost safety Morgan Burnett to injury in the game against the Steelers and also lost defensive end Myles Garrett and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to suspensions of indefinite length and one game respectively, for their roles in the on field brawl with the Steelers at the end of the game. The absences of Vernon and Garrett are the biggest, as not only are they two of the better defensive ends in the league, but the Browns also completely lack depth behind them. 

The good news for the Browns, at least for this week, is that their schedule is about to get even easier, with the Dolphins coming to town. The Dolphins have managed a pair of wins, but they still rank dead last in the NFL in point differential (-166) and first down rate differential (-8.72%), as well as in my roster rankings. They’re better offensively with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, but they completely lack talent around him on both sides of the ball. Still, it’s a question whether or not the Browns can cover this 10.5-point line. Without Garrett and Vernon, I have the Browns calculated as just 9-point favorites. It’s hard to be confident in the Dolphins at all without a lot of line value, but they’re my pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Cleveland Browns 34 Miami Dolphins 24

Pick against the spread: Miami +10.5

Confidence: None

Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (6-3) at Miami Dolphins (2-7)

The Dolphins have won back-to-back games after getting off to a horrendous 0-7 start, but they still rank dead last in the NFL in first down rate differential at -8.98%. Even in last week’s win in Indianapolis, they lost the first down rate battle by 6.40%, winning by 4 in a game in which Colts backup quarterback Brian Hoyer threw three interceptions. The Dolphins are undeniably a better team with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, but they still rank dead last overall in my roster rankings. Five of their seven losses have come by double digits this season and getting blown out is a trend that actually dates back a few seasons for them, as they have 20 double digit losses since the start of the 2017 season. 

This could easily be another big loss for the Dolphins, with the Bills coming to town. The Bills rank 7th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +3.90% and, while they’ve faced an easy schedule (31st in opponent’s DVOA) their schedule doesn’t get any harder this week. My roster rankings have the Bills 17th, but that still makes them 9-point favorites on my calculated line, so we’re getting good line value with the Bills at -6.5. I’ll need to know the status of Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes before committing to betting on the Bills because he’s their top defensive lineman and didn’t practice on Friday, but the Bills should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes either way.

Buffalo Bills 26 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -6.5

Confidence: Low

Miami Dolphins at Indianapolis Colts: 2019 Week 10 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (1-7) at Indianapolis Colts (5-3)

The Dolphins won their first game of the season last week, but that wasn’t all that surprising. Winless teams tend to be good bets this late in the season (55-31 ATS in week 8 or later) because they tend to be undervalued and highly motivated to get their first win and the Dolphins were at home facing a Jets team that didn’t rank much higher than them. The Dolphins’ win moved this line from Indianapolis -15 on the early line last week to Indianapolis -11.5 this week, but the Dolphins are unlikely to have that same motivation after winning their first game.

In fact, after basically winning their Super Bowl last week, I expect the Dolphins to be relatively flat, especially with a much bigger divisional game against the Bills on deck. The Dolphins are +7.5 on the early line and teams have a lot of trouble covering before being big home underdogs, going 43-77 ATS before being home underdogs of 6+ since 2014. On top of that, underdogs of 6+ are 59-92 ATS before being underdogs of 6+ again the following week, over that same time period.

The Dolphins being flat would be a big problem because they still rank dead last in both my roster rankings and in first down rate differential (-9.38%) and they have a much tougher matchup this week than last week. The Colts haven’t won a game by more than 7 points this season, but they haven’t lost by more than 7 points either and something tells me they won’t have much of a problem winning against a bottom level team like the Dolphins, who already have 5 double digit losses this season and 20 since the start of the 2017 season.

The Colts have an injury concern with quarterback Jacoby Brissett questionable with a knee injury, but I don’t think the drop off from Brissett to backup Brian Hoyer would be all that significant, especially in a matchup like this. Hoyer led the Colts to a loss in Pittsburgh last week in relief of Brissett, but he also threw three touchdowns on the road against a good defense and led the Colts to a +8.95% first down rate differential, with the game swinging entirely on a 97-yard pick six. With Brissett under center, I would have this line calculated at Indianapolis -14.5 and with Hoyer I would have it at Indianapolis -14, giving us line value either way. Add in the Colts being in a better spot and there’s enough to bet the Colts confidently this week.

Update: Brissett has been ruled out, but this line has dropped to 10.5 to compensate, so I still like the Colts.

Indianapolis Colts 33 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -10.5

Confidence: Medium

New York Jets at Miami Dolphins: 2019 Week 9 NFL Pick

New York Jets (1-6) at Miami Dolphins (0-7)

Remember when the Jets beat the Cowboys a few weeks ago? At the time, it looked like the Jets were turning a corner, beating a quality team in quarterback Sam Darnold’s return from illness, but instead it looks like one of those results that won’t make any sense when we go back and look at the season (remember the Bears beating the Vikings week 4?). In two games since, the Jets have lost by a combined 47 points to the Patriots and Jaguars. 

In four games started by Sam Darnold this season, the Jets have just a 30.97% first down rate and a -4.92% first down rate differential, which would rank 30th and 28th respectively over the course of the full season. Darnold is hardly the problem though, as they had a pathetic 18.01% first down rate in the 3 games he was out. Outside of running back Le’Veon Bell, the Jets don’t have a single above average starter on their entire offense and their defense isn’t nearly good enough to keep them in games, especially without injured linebacker CJ Mosley. Overall they rank just 30th in my roster rankings, ahead of only the league’s remaining two winless teams, the Bengals and the Dolphins.

The Jets get to face those winless Dolphins this week, but they might not have as easy of a time with them as the Dolphins’ other opponents have. The Jets are favored by just 3 points, giving the Dolphins their highest expected odds of winning a game all season. This line shifted from 6.5 on the early line last week and normally I like to fade significant week-to-week line movements, but I have this line calculated at exactly -3. 

The Dolphins have given much better effort in recent weeks, as they try to avoid a winless season for pride purposes, and they are a better team with veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick under center as well. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see them pull this small upset. I’m taking the Jets for pick ‘em purposes because I’ve said I’m not taking Miami this year unless I have a good reason to (which I would have is this line was still 6+), but this is my lowest confidence pick of the week.

New York Jets 20 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: NY Jets -3

Confidence: None