New York Jets at Miami Dolphins: 2017 Week 7 NFL Pick

New York Jets (3-3) at Miami Dolphins (3-2)

These two teams both have decent records, but neither one is good. The Jets’ wins have come over the Dolphins, the Browns, and the Jaguars, with the latter two victories coming by just a field goal. They rank just 29th in first down rate differential at -5.04% and still rank dead last in my roster rankings. The Dolphins, meanwhile, have wins over the Chargers, Titans, and Falcons, but their win over the Chargers was only because the Chargers missed two makeable field goals and their win over the Titans was because of a return touchdown and because Matt Cassel was starting. Their victory in Atlanta was impressive, but they still lost the first down battle and they rank dead last on the season in first down rate differential at -6.44%. They also rank near the bottom in my roster rankings, though their defense has been a lot better since linebacker Lawrence Timmons returned to the team.

Timmons played a big role in the Dolphins’ victory in Atlanta last week, by far the Dolphins’ best team performance of the season. You’d expect a victory like that to shift this line in Miami’s favor, especially with the Jets losing at home to the Patriots, but this line has actually moved from -4.5 in favor of Miami to -3 in the past week, pretty significant line movement. Neither one of these teams is good, but the Dolphins are about 2 points better, so we’re getting some line value with the host at -3. This line suggests these two teams are about even, which isn’t quite accurate.

The Dolphins are in a tough spot with a Thursday night game against the Ravens on deck, as favorites are 59-92 ATS before Thursday Night Football since 2008, but the Jets aren’t in an easy spot either, as they host the Falcons next week. The early line has them as 7 point home underdogs and teams are 30-70 ATS since 2012 before being home underdogs of 6 or more, as it’s tough for teams to be completely focused throughout the week when there’s a tough home game on deck the following week. The Dolphins should be the right pick here, but there’s not enough to bet on them confidently here unless this line drops below 3.

Miami Dolphins 17 New York Jets 13

Pick against the spread: Miami -3

Confidence: Low

Miami Dolphins at Atlanta Falcons: 2017 Week 6 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (2-2) at Atlanta Falcons (3-1)

The Falcons lost at home before their bye to the Bills back in week 4, but that was largely because they lost the turnover battle by 3. They lost the turnover battle by 3 the previous week as well and still managed to pull out the close victory in Detroit. Despite their 3-1 record, the Falcons are actually -5 in turnover margin, 5th worst in the NFL. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis though and it’s actually very impressive that they’ve been able to get off to a strong start despite a poor turnover margin. In terms of first down rate differential, the Falcons rank second at 5.22%.

The bye week came at a great time for the Falcons, who were a little banged up before the bye. They were without right tackle Ryan Schraeder and top edge rusher Vic Beasley in their games against Detroit and Buffalo and then they lost Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, their top-2 receivers, during the Buffalo game. Sanu remains out, but he’s the least important of those 4 players and Jones, Schreader, and Beasley are all set to return this week. At close to full strength, the Falcons are arguably the best team in the entire NFL and have a good chance to return to the Super Bowl if they can play turnover neutral football and avoid more major injuries.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, are one of the worst teams in the league. They were 10-6 a year ago, but that was because they had a very easy schedule (with 5 games against the Jets, Rams, 49ers, and Browns) and because they went 8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They were already set to take a step back this season record wise, but then they lost quarterback Ryan Tannehill for the year with injury and signed Jay Cutler out of retirement to replace him. Cutler has looked terrible through 4 games and should be benched for backup Matt Moore, who was solid in limited action in place of an injured Tannehill in 2016.

The Dolphins are 2-2, but those wins came over the Chargers and the Matt Cassel led Titans and they easily could have lost both games, while their two losses were not close (by a combined 34 points). The Chargers game was decided by a pair of missed field goals, either one of which would have won the Chargers the game, while the Titans game was decided by a fumble returned for a touchdown. They’ve produced just 60 first downs and 3 offensive touchdowns this season, while allowing 76 first downs and 7 offensive touchdowns, and they rank dead last in first down rate differential at -7.86%.

The Falcons are favored by 12.5 points, but this line should probably be higher, given that this game is between one of the worst teams in the league and arguably the best. The only reason I’m not putting money on the Falcons is because this is a terrible spot for them, with the Super Bowl rematch in New England on deck. Double digit favorites are 56-75 ATS before being underdogs since 2002 and the Falcons could definitely overlook the Dolphins with New England on deck. The Dolphins, meanwhile, have an easy game against the Jets on deck, so they should be 100% focused. Underdogs are 105-66 ATS since 2012 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs. The Falcons should win this game by at least two touchdowns, but I can’t be confident in them because of the spot they’re in.

Atlanta Falcons 28 Miami Dolphins 13

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -12.5

Confidence: Low

Tennessee Titans at Miami Dolphins: 2017 Week 5 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (2-2) at Miami Dolphins (1-2)

The Titans had a week from hell last week, as they lost 57-14 in Houston in a game in which they lost quarterback Marcus Mariota with an injury. It was an eerily similar game to their 38-17 loss in Jacksonville in week 16 of last season, when Mariota broke his leg. Those are the only two losses by more than 10 points for a Tennessee team that has generally played well over the past couple seasons. They were even able to win at home against the Texans without Mariota week 17 last year.

Mariota’s injury isn’t as serious as last season, as he only has a hamstring pull, but his mobility will be severely limited in this one, if he can even play. Given that they’re playing the Dolphins, they may opt to hold him out. The Dolphins are one of the worst teams in the league and should be 0-3 right now, if not for 2 missed makeable field goals by the Chargers week 1. They rank dead last in first down rate differential at -9.07%, despite a relatively easy schedule (Chargers, Jets, and Saints). They can beat them with a run heavy offense and Matt Cassel under center.

The Titans are also in a good spot as teams tend to bounce back off of blowout losses, going 54-29 ATS since 2002 after a loss by 35 or more. Teams tend to be overlooked, undervalued, and embarrassed after big losses like that and they tend to bounce back as a result. That being said, I can’t take them with any confidence as 3 point road favorites, even as bad as the Dolphins are. I have this line calculated right at -3, with Tennessee’s uncertainty at quarterback factored in, and I wouldn’t want to bet anything on the Titans even if Mariota does end up playing, given how limited he would be. This is one of my lowest confidence picks of the week.

Sunday Update: Marcus Mariota is out for the Titans and the line has shifted to -1.5 in favor of the Dolphins. Even with Matt Cassel out there instead of Mariota, I have this line at -2.5 in favor of the Titans, so we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Titans, even if it’s between the field goals. The Dolphins are a terrible team and are in a tough spot in what will be a week 5 home opener for them. Teams are 27-55 ATS since 1989 in week 3 home openers and the Dolphins have already played games in Los Angeles, New York, and London before returning home to Miami, where they have little homefield advantage anyway (27-42 ATS since 2008, including 12-27 ATS as favorites). The Titans had a bad week last week, but are still a talented team and they should be able to execute a run heavy offense well enough to bounce back from a blowout and win this game. This is still only a low confidence pick, but it’s worth a small bet on the money line at +105.

Tennessee Titans 19 Miami Dolphins 17 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +1.5

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints vs. Miami Dolphins: 2017 Week 4 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (1-2) vs. Miami Dolphins (1-1) in London

The Saints are only 1-2, but they’ve had a tough start to the season, facing the Vikings in Minnesota week 1 when Sam Bradford was still healthy, the Patriots back at home in New Orleans week 2, and then a 2-0 Panthers team in Carolina last week, where they won by 21 points (34-13). Carolina was banged up offensively, but the Panthers had been playing excellent football on the defensive side of the ball, so that was a pretty impressive win. The Saints picked up first downs at a 11.66% higher rate than the Panthers in that game.

Now the schedule gets significantly easier for the Saints, as they enter their bye week with a trip to London to play a Dolphins team that is easily their weakest opponent of the season. The Dolphins won 10 games and made the playoffs last season, but they played arguably the weakest schedule in the league and won 8 of their 10 games by 7 points or fewer, including near losses against the Jets, 49ers, Browns, and Rams. Those were arguably the four worst teams in the league last season and the Dolphins struggled with them. They also lost 4 regular season games by a combined 81 points and lost by 18 to the Steelers in the playoffs.

Making matters worse, the Dolphins lost starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill for the season before week 1 and had to bring in the previously retired Jay Cutler, who has been a noticeable downgrade so far this season. The Dolphins won in Los Angeles against the Chargers week 1, but that’s because the Chargers have no homefield advantage and because the Chargers missed two makeable field goals. Last week, the Dolphins lost to the lowly Jets by 14 points in New York. They enter the week dead last in the league in first down rate differential (-9.17%) and they haven’t had a tough schedule.

The Saints are arguably the best team the Dolphins have faced so far this season because they’re finally getting guys back that have been out. Not only is the Saints schedule getting easier, but their roster is getting more talented too, so they could be a smart bet going forward. Top cornerback Marshon Lattimore returns from a one game absence, while right tackle Zach Strief will return to the lineup for the first time since being knocked out in the first half against the Vikings week 1. They could also get back slot cornerback Sterling Moore back from his one game absence, wide receiver Willie Snead back for the first time this season, and, most importantly, left tackle Terron Armstead back for the first time this season. I have this line calculated at about -7 in favor of the Saints, so we’re getting significant value with New Orleans.

The Saints are also in a better spot than the Dolphins because they get a bye week next week, while the Dolphins have to travel back home to face a tough Tennessee team. That game will actually by the Dolphins’ season opener, as they’ve started their season with a brutal stretch. Their week 1 game was moved to week 11 by Hurricane Irma and since then they’ve had to play games in Los Angeles, New York, and now London in a 3-week stretch, before ever getting to play at home. The Saints could be more focused for this game and are a significantly better team overall, so they should be able to win by a field goal or more. If this line drops to 2.5, I’d move this up to a high confidence pick, but they’re still worth betting at 3.

New Orleans Saints 31 Miami Dolphins 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: Medium

Miami Dolphins at New York Jets: 2017 Week 3 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (1-0) at New York Jets (0-2)

Both of these teams are in tough spots here this week. The Dolphins travel to London to face the Saints next week and teams understandably seem to struggle before London trips, going 11-21 ATS all-time. Making matters worse, they had to play on the west coast last week and had their home opener moved to week 11 because of Hurricane Irma. They’re in the middle of a stretch where they have to go to Los Angeles, New York, and London before they get to play a home game back in Miami.

The Jets, meanwhile, could be sluggish after travelling to Buffalo and Oakland to start their season. Teams that have their home opener week 3 are 26-53 ATS since 1989. Miami’s travel schedule might not catch up with them for another week or so and the Jets have had a rough start to their season both in terms of travel and on field performance.They have allowed 16 more first downs and 6 more offensive touchdowns than they’ve gained so far this season, both worst in the NFL. They’re arguably the least talented team in a decade.

It’s hard to pick the Jets under any circumstances right now, but I do think this line is a little high at 6.5. I have it calculated at 5, purely because I don’t think the Dolphins are good enough to be favored by this many points against anyone. They won last week in Los Angeles against the Chargers, but that’s because the Chargers blew numerous chances to win it. That being said, I have no interest in betting on them right now unless we’re getting serious line value. This could easily be a 7 or 10 point Miami victory, even if they don’t play very well. This is a no confidence pick.

Miami Dolphins 24 New York Jets 20

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +6.5

Confidence: None

Miami Dolphins at Los Angeles Chargers: 2017 Week 2 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (0-0) at Los Angeles Chargers (0-1)

This game is a first for both teams. For the Dolphins, it is their first game of the season, as their week 1 game was re-scheduled to week 11 because of Hurricane Irma. For the Chargers, it is their first game in their new city, as the previously San Diego Chargers are now in Los Angeles, playing in the Stubhub Center until they can move into their new stadium in a few years. Fan attendance was an issue in San Diego, which is part of why they moved. That shows up in the box score, as the Chargers are just 8-16 ATS at home over the past 3 seasons.

However, it’s very possible that they have even less support in their new city. They will not only have to share the city with the Rams, but also with 2 basketball teams, 2 hockey teams (within an hour drive), 2 baseball teams (within an hour drive), and countless other entertainment options. Stubhub Center is a stadium designed for soccer that holds 27,000 (less than half of all other NFL stadiums) and the Chargers are still having trouble selling out, even for a home opener. The fans that do come are not necessarily going to be interested in the home team, so I really don’t see the Chargers’ homefield advantage improving from their 2-hour move north.

Even if we assume a normal 3 point homefield advantage for the Chargers, we’re still getting some line value with the Dolphins here as 3.5 point underdogs, as I have these two teams about even in my rankings. Ordinarily I’d have the Chargers a few spots ahead of the Dolphins, but the Chargers will have to play without talented cornerback Jason Verrett, who concerningly will sit out with knee pain after just 1 game back from the torn ACL that ended his 2016 season. That’s a major injury that casual bettors aren’t likely paying attention to. Casual bettors likely also underestimate the difference between a line of 3 and a line of 3.5, as about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal.

The Dolphins are also in a better spot than the Chargers given that they play the Jets in New York next week. Teams tend to be very focused before an easy road game like that, with no real distraction on the horizon. Teams are 92-70 ATS since 2012 before being 4+ point road favorites (the Dolphins are -6 on the early line). The Chargers, meanwhile, host the Chiefs next week in a game in which they could be home underdogs. Favorites are just 64-97 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs when their opponent will next be favorites. Even if the Chargers are not underdogs next week, their upcoming game has a lot more potential to be a distraction than the Dolphins’ game does. This is a low confidence pick for now, but if this creeps up to 4 or 4.5 I may reconsider.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Miami Dolphins 23

Pick against the spread: Miami +3.5

Confidence: Low

Miami Dolphins 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Dolphins made the playoffs last season for the first time in quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s career and just the second time since 2002, but Tannehill was not able to play in the playoff game after a late season knee injury that cost him the final 3 regular season games and their playoff game. Prior to the injury, Tannehill was having arguably the best statistical season of his career, completing 67.1% of his passes for an average of 7.70 YPA (both career highs), 19 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

He finished the season 15th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, the second best rank of his career, and has finished 11th, 17th, and 15th respectively in each of the past 3 seasons. Tannehill hasn’t quite lived up to expectations as the 8th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but he has stabilized the quarterback position for this franchise, after they started 16 different quarterbacks from 2000-2011, following legendary quarterback Dan Marino’s retirement after the 1999 season. Tannehill had made 77 straight starts to begin his career before getting hurt last season.

Despite that, the Dolphins didn’t actually seem to miss him when he was injured, as backup Matt Moore is one of the best in the league. Moore started 22 games from 2009-2011 and was solid, but hadn’t started a single game from 2012-2015 behind Tannehill, so there was some skepticism that Moore could continue his solid play, especially since he had drawn little interest as a free agent in the 2013 and 2015 off-seasons. Moore proved the skepticism wrong, completing 68.3% of his passes for an average of 8.21 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 4 starts. Even going into his age 33 season, Moore remains a very capable backup, giving the Dolphins a pair of capable quarterbacks.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Even though they have a pair of capable quarterbacks, the Dolphins were significantly worse than their 10-6 record suggested last season and it’ll be tough for them to make the post-season again unless they improve. They went 8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, meaning they had just two wins by more than a touchdown, while 4 of their losses came by 13 points or more. That’s despite the fact that they had the easiest schedule in the league in terms of opponents’ combined record. In some order, the Rams, 49ers, Jets, and Browns were the worst 4 teams in the league in 2016 and the Dolphins played all 4 of them, including the Jets twice. The Dolphins won all 5 of those games, but just 1 of them came by more than a touchdown (a 34-13 win week 15 in New York), meaning they had a tough time beating some of the worst teams in the league.

Ironically, aside from that win over the Jets, their other victory by more than a touchdown came against the team that eventually eliminated them in the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the Dolphins beat 30-15 back in week 6. The Steelers were also the only playoff team the Dolphins beat all season. The Dolphins’ 2016 season featured a lot of close wins against bad teams and big losses against capable or better teams (15 point loss vs. Cincinnati, 13 point loss vs. Tennessee, 32 point loss vs. Baltimore, and 21 point loss vs. New England). That week 6 game with the Steelers was a total outlier when you look at their whole season and that was proven in the Dolphins’ 30-12 loss in Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs. Winning the way the Dolphins won last season is not sustainable.

That being said, the Dolphins were noticeably improved on both sides of the ball from 2015, when they finished 29th in first down rate differential and were lucky to even win 6 games. After finishing the 2015 season 24th in first down rate and 27th in first down rate allowed, the Dolphins improved to 18th and 19th respectively in those two metrics, unspectacular and not quite playoff caliber, but still significantly better. The Dolphins’ slightly improved passing game was part of it, but their biggest improvement came on the ground.

Their YPC didn’t significantly improve, as they went from 4.35 yards per carry in 2015 (9th in the NFL) to 4.50 yards per carry in 2016 (8th in the NFL), but they went from dead last in the NFL in carries with 344 in 2015 to 18th with 405 in 2016. Their passing attempts, meanwhile, fell from 588 (17th) to 477 (31st), as they showed much more balance on offense. They lost starting running back Lamar Miller in free agency last off-season, but second year back Jay Ajayi had a breakout year in his absence.

Despite being a healthy scratch week 1 and totalling just 31 carries in his first 5 games of the season, Ajayi finished the season in 4th in the league in rushing yards, rushing for 1272 yards and 8 touchdowns on 260 carries (4.89 YPC). He was Pro Football Focus #3 ranked running back overall and their #2 ranked back in pure rushing grade, behind only Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. Ajayi is just a one-year wonder and fell to the 5th round in 2015 because of long-term concerns about the stability of his knee, so he’s not a lock to repeat his 2016 season, but he’s still one of the best young running backs in the league.

Ajayi also doesn’t do much in the passing game, catching just 27 passes for 151 yards in 2016, so either Damien Williams or Kenyan Drake will be their primary passing down back. Williams served in that role last season, playing 161 snaps and catching 23 passes for 249 yards and 3 scores, but the 2014 undrafted free agent has just 152 career touches and Drake went in the 3rd round in 2016 and has much more upside. Drake hasn’t been a starting running back since high school, backing up a number of talented running backs at Alabama, but has great athleticism for his size at 6-1 216, great hands out of the backfield, and can return kicks. After just 42 touches as a rookie, he should have a larger role in 2016, but the Dolphins also rarely pass to their backs, which will limit his role.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Part of the reason why the Dolphins rarely pass to their backs is because they have a trio of talented wide receivers in Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and Kenny Stills, who all topped 700 yards last season. They were just one of three trios of wide receivers to do so (Michael Thomas/Brandin Cooks/Willie Snead and Pierre Garcon/DeSean Jackson/Jamison Crowder), despite the fact that the Dolphins had the 2nd fewest pass attempts in the league. Most thought Stills would sign elsewhere for more money this off-season as a free agent, but his market didn’t develop as he expected and he ended up taking a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal back with the Dolphins. With Landry, Parker, and Stills only going into their age 25, 24, and 25 seasons respectively in 2017, it’s very possible this trio could be even better this season.

Landry is the best of the bunch. The 2014 2nd round pick has caught 288 passes for 3,051 yards and 13 touchdowns in 3 seasons in the league and has finished 16th, 14th, and 9th among receivers in the last 3 seasons respectively. The Landry is best on the slot, but can also play some outside receiver and is on the field for pretty much all passing plays. He’s primarily an underneath receiver (10.6 yards per catch) and isn’t a touchdown threat, but his 288 catches over the past 3 seasons are tied for 4th in the NFL over that time period, behind Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Demaryius Thomas and tied with former LSU teammate Odell Beckham. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Landry should get a lucrative deal somewhere in the next calendar year. After the money they committed to Stills this off-season, it’s unclear if Miami will offer Landry what he wants to stay.

Whether or not the Dolphins give Landry top receiver money could largely depend on what Devante Parker does this season and whether or not he looks like a long-term #1 receiver. The 14th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Parker could be the Dolphins’ most improved receiver in his 3rd year in the league in 2017. Last season looked like a potential breakout year for Parker too, given how he finished his rookie season (22 catches for 445 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 6 games), after being hobbled by a foot injury early in the season. However, Parker ended with just 56 catches for 744 yards and 4 touchdowns in 15 games in 2016, solid numbers, but not what many were expecting.

Nagging injuries were a big part of the problem again, as he dealt with back and hamstring problems throughout the season. Even though he’s only actually missed 3 games with injury in 2 seasons in the league, injuries have had a big effect on his career thus far. The Dolphins called out Parker’s conditioning and said he needed to be in better shape to avoid these lingering injuries and so far he seems to have responded well, showing up to off-season practices in much better shape and making impressive plays. If he can keep it up, he could push for a 1000 yard season in 2017.

Stills was the Dolphins’ de facto #2 receiver last year, playing the 2nd most snaps on the team among wide receivers (795), so he could see a smaller role in 2017 if Parker has a breakout year, but the Dolphins didn’t pay him to sit on the bench and the Dolphins run enough 3-wide receiver sets for everyone to have enough playing time. Even as the 3rd receiver last year, Parker played 736 snaps. A 2013 5th round pick, Stills has been up and down in his career, grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in 2013 and 2015, but above average in both 2014 and 2016.

His best season in the league was in 2014, when he caught 63 passes for 931 yards and 3 touchdowns and finished 23rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus as a member of the New Orleans Saints. However, he was strangely traded to the Dolphins for a 3rd round pick and a backup linebacker after that season and then struggled in his first season in Miami (27/440/3) before bouncing back in 2016. Despite having 4 years of experience under his belt, he is still going into only his age 25 season, so his best football could still be ahead of him. He was a solid re-signing at 8 million annually. Tannehill has to be happy that all 3 of his top receivers are back in 2017.

Tannehill also has to be happy that the Dolphins added a potential receiving threat at tight end this off-season. While Tannehill had one of the best wide receiver trios in the league, Dolphin tight ends caught just 55 passes last season. Jordan Cameron was the starter to begin the year, but caught just 8 passes in 3 games before going down for the season with injury. In his absence, blocking tight end Dion Sims and journeyman MarQueis Gray were the primary tight ends and they put up slash lines of just 26/256/4 and 14/174/0 respectively.

Cameron retired this off-season because of concussions and Sims signed with the Bears in free agency, but the Dolphins traded for ex-Jaguar Julius Thomas and will be hoping he can have a bounce back year. Thomas put up slash lines of 65/788/12 and 43/489/12 in 2013 and 2014 respectively with Peyton Manning and the Broncos, landing him a 5-year, 46 million dollar deal from the Jaguars, but his numbers fell to 46/455/5 and 30/281/4 respectively in two seasons in Jacksonville, which led to him being traded for a late round pick this off-season.

Owed 7.1 million non-guaranteed in 2017, Thomas likely would have just been cut if the Jaguars couldn’t find a trading partner, but Dolphins’ head coach Adam Gase was his offensive coordinator with the Broncos and saw him as worth a trade, after he agreed to a 2-year, 12.2 million dollar restructured contract. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus just once in 6 seasons in the league, doesn’t run block well, and has played in just 53 of 96 possible games in his career, but he figures to be better than what the Dolphins had at tight end last season with upside for more. He’ll especially be a threat in the red zone, given that the big 6-5 256 pounder has 33 touchdowns in 53 career games. Off-season reports have been encouraging, but staying healthy once the games count is going to be the key for him.

Thomas wasn’t the Dolphins’ only veteran tight end addition, as they also signed journeyman Anthony Fasano to a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal. It’s a reunion, as Fasano spent 2008-2012 with the Dolphins, but he isn’t nearly as big of a name as Thomas. He also isn’t a threat in the passing game, coming off an 8-catch season in Tennessee, with just one season of 40+ catches in 11 seasons in the league. However, he’s still a talented run blocker, even going into his age 33 season. He finished last season #1 among tight ends in run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus on 533 snaps and has been an above average run blocker in 8 of the last 9 seasons. He’ll play exclusively in two-tight end sets and will primarily be a run blocker. It’s an improved receiving corps, even over last year’s solid group.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

While the Dolphins have good talent at the offensive skill positions, they have had issues on the offensive line in recent years. Things were a bit better upfront last season, but the Dolphins have used 3 recent first round picks on the offensive line (2011, 2014, and 2016) and still have a couple glaring holes. That speaks to their inability to develop offensive linemen drafted in the later rounds and their inability to find adequate starters in free agency. Recent first round picks Mike Pouncey (2011), Ja’Waun James (2014), and Laremy Tunsil (2016) will start this season at center, right tackle, and left tackle respectively, but they have depth issues and nothing resembling a competent starter at either guard position.

Laremy Tunsil played pretty well at left guard last season as a rookie, but he will move to his collegiate position of left tackle this season with incumbent left tackle Branden Albert getting traded to Jacksonville this off-season, following a 2016 season in which he finished 65th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Tunsil was the 13th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and was seen as a top-5 talent before a draft day video was released of him smoking marijuana, so he has a lot of upside on the blindside if he can stay out of trouble, but the Dolphins are left with a trio of mediocre veterans, Jermon Bushrod, Ted Larsen, and Kraig Urbik, competing for two starting jobs at guard.

Bushrod made all 16 starts at right guard last season, but he is far from locked into a starting role, considering how bad he was last season, when he finished 69th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. That should not have been a surprise, considering Bushrod had never played guard before and that he’s had just one above average season on Pro Football Focus in 10 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 33 season, things are unlikely to be better for him this season, but he could have to be a starter once again out of desperation.

Neither Urbik nor Larsen are better options. Urbik was a 42-game starter at guard from 2011-2013, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, but has made just 19 starts over the last 3 seasons combined and graded out below average in all 3 seasons, including 66th out of 72 eligible guards on 388 snaps in 2016. He’s also going into his age 32 season and shouldn’t be anything more than a backup. Larsen, meanwhile, is going into his age 30 season and has graded out below average in all 7 seasons in the league. It’s possible the Dolphins try backup center Anthony Steen at guard, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked center out of 38 eligible in his first 7 career starts in 2016 and is unlikely to be better at guard. The Dolphins could also try 5th round rookie Isaac Asiata at some point in his rookie season. That’s how bad things are at guard for them.

Making matters worse on the offensive line, Mike Pouncey, who is an above average center when healthy, is still dealing with hip problems, after being limited to 5 games by injury last season. He also missed 4 games with hip problems in 2014 and hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2012. The 2011 15th overall pick is still only going into his age 28 season and has finished 12th, 14th, and 11th among centers in his last 3 healthy seasons, but it’s fair to wonder if he’s breaking down. If he’s not healthy for the start of the season, Steen would likely fill in again, but Larsen can also play center. Regardless, the interior of their offensive line would be in big trouble if Pouncey can’t get healthy and play like he’s used to.

Rounding out the offensive tackle at right tackle is Ja’Wuan James, the 19th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. James was a surprise pick at the time and struggled mightily as a rookie, but he was much better in 7 starts at right tackle in 2015 before getting hurt and then finished a career high 32nd among offensive tackles in 16 starts in 2016. James is an unspectacular player, but he might be their most dependable offensive linemen in 2017 and could take another step forward in his 4th year in the league. It’s an improving offensive line, but one that still has obvious flaws.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As mentioned, the Dolphins were also noticeably improved on defense from 2015 to 2016, even though they lost one of the best defensive linemen in football, Olivier Vernon, in free agency last off-season. The biggest reason for their improvement was probably the return of Cameron Wake from a torn achilles that ended his 2015 season after 249 snaps and 7 games. Wake finished the 2016 season as Pro Football Focus’ #4 ranked 4-3 defensive end. Prior to his injury, he was one of the best pass rushers in the league year in and year out, finishing in the top-4 at his position on Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons from 2009-2014. However, his return to form was far from a guarantee, given that he’s in his mid-30s. Now going into his age 35 season, Wake is entering the twilight of his career and could have a steep drop off at some point soon, but he hasn’t shown any signs of that yet, even after enduring a brutal injury.

The Dolphins planned for life without Wake this off-season, using the 22th overall pick on Missouri defensive end Charles Harris. The Dolphins also locked up Andre Branch, who led all Dolphin defensive ends in snaps last season with 774, on a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal this off-season, which likely means he’s locked into a starting role, so Harris will begin his career as a rotational reserve. The Dolphins also traded for veteran defensive end William Hayes this off-season, so Harris could spend his rookie year as the 4th defensive end. The Dolphins like to limit Wake’s snaps to keep him fresh though (589 in 2016), so there should be snaps available for all 4 ends.

Even though he was well-paid this off-season, Andre Branch is not that good of a player. In fact, last off-season, he had to settle for a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal from the Dolphins in free agency, after grading out below average in each of his first 4 seasons in the league with the Jaguars. Branch was about a league average starting edge defender in 2016, so he was definitely improved, but it’s still tough to justify the pay increase they gave him. Going into his age 28 season, the 2012 2nd round pick could be a bit of a late bloomer, but they’re paying him like he’s an above average starting defensive end, which is something he’s never been. He also missed 13 games with injury in 4 seasons with the Jaguars, so he’s not durable either. He was one of the bigger overpays of the off-season.

Hayes is a much better player, although he’s going into his age 32 season. Still, he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end on 514 snaps last season with the Rams and was only traded because he wasn’t a good fit for the Rams’ new 3-4 defensive scheme and he was owed 5.75 million. With the Dolphins, he agreed to a lower salary of 4.75 million, so he’s a great value, especially when compared to Branch. He’s primarily been a rotational defensive end throughout his career and has never played over 600 snaps in a season, but he’s also been a top-14 4-3 defensive end in each of the past 5 seasons and should be a valuable part of this defensive end rotation, even though he’s getting older. The Dolphins have a deep group of defensive ends with Hayes and Harris coming in, deeper than last season when Jason Jones was their 3rd defensive end and finished 97th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on 516 snaps.

Unfortunately, they are not nearly as deep at the defensive tackle position. In fact, they have just two defensive tackles on the roster that have ever played a defensive snap in the NFL. Those two players, Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Phillips, will be the starters, but 5th round rookie Davon Godchaux and 6th round rookie Vincent Taylor will likely have to play snaps immediately as reserves unless they add a veteran or two later in the off-season. Both reserves could be overwhelmed as rookies.

Fortunately, Ndamukong Suh is about as dependable and talented as any defensive tackle in the NFL. The #2 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft by the Lions, Suh took a couple years to develop into a complete player, after struggling mightily against the run early in his career, but he has finished in the top-4 among defensive tackles in each of the past 5 seasons, including a #3 finish in 2016. The Dolphins signed him to what was at the time a record deal for a defensive player two off-seasons ago, giving him 114 million over 6 years to come over from the Lions. It was a lot of money, but it’s hard to argue he hasn’t lived up to expectations and defensive salaries have jumped in the past 2 years, so his deal looks a lot more reasonable now. The one concern with him is he’s going into his age 30 season and could start to decline over the next couple seasons, but he’s been as reliable as anyone over the past 5 years and should continue playing at a high level in 2017.

Jordan Phillips is a much shakier player, but was a 2nd round pick in 2015 and could have his best year yet, going into his 3rd year in the league and his age 25 season. Phillips struggled mightily on 430 snaps as a rookie, but finished just above average on 622 snaps in 2016. In an effort to stay on the field more and play every down, Phillips reportedly lost 15 pounds this off-season, dropping from 335 to 320. Still a bigger tackle, Phillips’ strength is always going to be stopping the run, but the Dolphins are counting on him to show more pass rush, with no other reliable interior pass rusher on the roster besides Suh. This defensive line has a couple issues, including Cameron Wake’s age, but they’re a talented overall unit regardless.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Dolphins had a pair of free agent linebackers this off-season in Kiko Alonso and Jelani Jenkins. They let Jenkins sign with the Raiders on a cheap one-year deal, but he was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in an injury plagued season last season, so he won’t really be missed. Alonso, meanwhile, was kept on a 3-year extension worth 25 million in new money as a restricted free agent. He’s under contract for a total of 28.91 million over the next 4 seasons. Alonso was about a league average starting linebacker in 2016, so that deal is a bit of an overpay, especially when you considering his injury history.

A 2nd round pick in 2013, Alonso was one of the best rookies in the league that year, finishing 9th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but he tore his ACL the following off-season and has never been the same. The Eagles traded LeSean McCoy for him after the 2014 off-season, hoping to trade a highly paid veteran running back for a promising young linebacker on a cheap rookie deal, but Alonso was a huge flop in his one season in Philadelphia, finishing 92th out of 97 eligible linebackers on 472 snaps and dealing with lingering knee issues throughout the season. The Eagles then traded him to Miami last off-season.

He was healthy again in 2016, making 15 starts, but was not the same player he was as a rookie. He’s had knee issues since college, so it’s possible he’ll never be the same player again. He’s still a useful linebacker when healthy, but the Dolphins are betting a lot of money that his knees can hold up long-term. They are also moving him to outside linebacker this season, even though he said he wanted to remain in the middle, which is where he’s played throughout his professional career. That could prove to be a mistake.

The reason they’re moving him outside is because they signed veteran middle linebacker Lawrence Timmons to a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. He will replace Alonso inside and Alonso will move outside to replace Jenkins. The problem is Timmons is going into his age 31 season and appears to be on the swift decline. A 2007 1st round pick, Timmons was a great player with the Steelers in his prime and has graded out above average 6 times in 10 seasons in the league, but he’s finished well below average in each of the last 2 seasons, finishing 87th out of 97 eligible linebackers in 2015 and 70th out of 87 eligible linebackers in 2016. He’s unlikely to be better in 2017 and could prove to be a complete waste of money.

The Dolphins used their 2nd round pick on Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan as a potential future replacement for Timmons, but he may need to see action earlier than expected. He could be an upgrade over Timmons by default if he takes over as the starter later in the season. McMillan is also theoretically an option at the other outside linebacker position opposite Alonso, but veteran Koa Misi is the favorite for the job, after taking a paycut to stay on the roster this off-season. Originally owed 4.3 million non-guaranteed, Misi is now owed 1.25 million fully guaranteed.

The reason he had to take a paycut is because he was limited to 127 snaps in 3 games by a neck injury last season. He also hasn’t played all 16 games since his rookie season in 2010, but he had graded out above average in 4 straight seasons prior to 2016, so he has some bounce back potential. The 6-3 256 pounder isn’t good in coverage, but is a tough player against the run, which makes him an ideal fit for the other outside linebacker job because he will come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. Going into his age 30 season and coming off a serious injury, he’s tough to trust, which is why having McMillan as insurance is useful, but he could easily be a useful player for them in a pure base package role. He won’t play much more than 400-500 snaps. The Dolphins have solid linebacker depth, but Timmons seems washed up and Alonso is a constant injury risk, so it’s overall a position group with problems.

Grade: C

Secondary

Along with the return of Cameron Wake from injury, one of the biggest reasons why the Dolphins improved on defense from 2015 to 2016 was the addition of Byron Maxwell. Signed to a 6-year, 63 million dollar deal in free agency by the Eagles two off-seasons ago, Maxwell was a massive bust in his first season in Philadelphia, finishing 75th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Because of that, when the Eagles traded him to the Dolphins last off-season (along with Kiko Alonso and the 13th pick for the 8th pick), it looked like a pure salary dump, as Maxwell was owed 8.5 million guaranteed in 2016. Instead, Maxwell ended up having arguably the best season of his career and being a huge help to a Miami defense that had major problems at cornerback in 2015.

Maxwell finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked cornerback and was a legitimate #1 cornerback, shadowing opponent’s top receivers with regularity. Maxwell is a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level cornerback like that and is already going into his age 29 season, so last season could prove to be a bit of a fluke, but he’s finished above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons and has made 44 starts over that time period. He should continue being a solid starting cornerback for the Dolphins for another couple seasons, though he hasn’t played more than 14 games in a season since 2013.

The Dolphins also had a few young cornerbacks who exceeded expectations in 2016 in Tony Lippett, Bobby McCain, and Xavien Howard. All three return to compete for roles. Lippett, a 2015 5th round pick, actually led all Dolphin cornerbacks in snaps played last season with 863 and wasn’t bad, finishing just below average on Pro Football Focus in the first significant action of his career, but Howard was the starter opposite Maxwell when healthy and is the favorite for the #2 job this season. Howard’s play was comparable to Lippett’s and played much fewer snaps (528 snaps in 7 games), but the 2016 2nd round pick has a much higher upside and could have a solid second season in the league as the opposite starter across from Maxwell if healthy.

McCain, meanwhile, is the favorite for the slot job, where he’s been adequate in his first 2 seasons in the league, on 308 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2015 and then on 620 snaps in a larger role last season. He’s finished below average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons, but just barely and he could be better in his 3rd season in the league. The 5-9 195 pounder isn’t an outside option, but he’s probably their best slot guy. He’ll face competition from Lippett, 3rd round rookie cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, and hybrid defensive back Michael Thomas at a position group that’s suddenly pretty deep.

Thomas is also a starting option at safety. He played 572 snaps last season, primarily at safety. Isa Abdul-Quddus led all Dolphin defensive backs with 951 snaps played last season and finished 35th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, but he was waived this off-season after suffering a potentially career threatening neck injury. Fortunately, the Dolphins do get back Reshad Jones back from injury, after his 2016 season was cut short after 6 games thanks to a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder.

Jones was a top-12 safety on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 2014, and 2015 and ranked 6th before getting hurt last season, so he’s a big re-addition to this defense. Before last year’s shoulder injury, he had never missed any significant time with injury and he is still only going into his age 29 season. He should be a significant upgrade over his replacement Bacarri Rambo, who was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked safety last season. The Dolphins seem very confident in Jones’ ability to bounce back, giving him a 5-year, 60 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his contract and guaranteeing him 35 million over the next 3 seasons. He’s the 3rd highest paid safety in the NFL in average annual salary.

WIth Abdul-Quddus and Rambo no longer with the team, Thomas will compete with free agent acquisition Nate Allen for the starting job. Allen made 69 starts in the first 5 seasons of his career with the Eagles, but he was very up and down as a starter there and he has made just 7 starts over the past 2 seasons with the Raiders and has not looked good in limited action. He also tore his ACL in 2015 and is now going into his age 30 season. He’d be a weak starting option. Thomas, meanwhile, has finished above average just once in 5 seasons in the league and has just 22 career starts. The 5-11 197 pounder best as a versatile reserve and special teamer.

The Dolphins also signed TJ McDonald in free agency, but he’s suspended for the first 8 games of the season for repeated violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. A 2013 3rd round pick, McDonald has started in all 53 games that he’s played in 4 seasons in the league, but has only had one above average season. He’ll probably be their best option when he returns from suspension though and he’s still young, only going into his age 26 season in 2017. This is a solid secondary overall, but their issues at safety opposite Reshad Jones can’t be ignored.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Dolphins made the playoffs last season, but they’re unlikely to be as good in close games (8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2016) and their schedule looks much tougher on paper than last season’s. Reshad Jones’ return helps this defense immensely, but players like Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso, and Cameron Wake could all regress this season. They have solid talent on both sides of the ball and could still compete for a playoff spot, but they will have to play better than they did last season, when they struggled mightily against most of the average or better teams they played.

Final update: The Dolphins get center Mike Pouncey back healthy for week 1, but lost quarterback Ryan Tannehill and linebackers Raekwon McMillan and Koa Misi for the season with injury. Jay Cutler is coming out of his brief retirement to start at quarterback for the Dolphins, which isn’t a huge downgrade, but it’s hit to a team that was already going to struggle to make the playoffs for the 2nd season in a row. Fortunately, the Dolphins get 4 games against the Bills and Jets, both of whom have also lost key players since training camp started.

Prediction: 7-9, 2nd in AFC East