Three off-seasons ago, the Dolphins undertook an aggressive rebuilding strategy. After years of mediocrity, somehow winning between 6 and 8 games in 9 of the previous 10 seasons, the Dolphins rapidly parted ways with players, either for financial reasons and/or to acquire future draft assets, with the intention of playing young players, accumulating significant draft capital, rolling forward significant amounts of cap space to the future, and probably picking up high draft picks of their own over the next couple seasons, with a roster that lacked established players. Among others who went out the door, the Dolphins traded away long-time starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill and even traded away recent first round picks Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick for future first round picks, to help them accumulate as many future assets as possible in order to try to build a consistent contender a few years down the line.
Now, three years later, the results have been a mixed bag. The Dolphins have actually done more short-term winning than expected, going 5-11, 10-6, and 9-8 over the past three seasons, narrowly missing the post-season in back-to-back years and having their first back-to-back winning seasons in two decades. However, all three of those teams were not as good as their record suggested. Their 5-win team in 2019 won all of its games by 8 points or fewer, with an average margin of defeat of 19.3 points per game in their 11 losses, leading to them finishing dead last in point differential and 30th in overall efficiency.
In 2020, the 10-win Dolphins benefited from a very easy schedule, as well as an unsustainably high turnover margin (+11), opponent’s field goal percentage (3rd lowest at 73.91%), and 3rd/4th down conversion rate allowed (33.02%), which was actually lower than the 34.07% conversion rate they allowed on 1st/2nd down (4th highest in the NFL). They were significantly improved in efficiency rating from the year before, but still finished slightly below average, 21st in the NFL, even before schedule adjustments were taken into account.
Last season, the Dolphins started just 1-7 before getting an easy stretch of games that featured 5 teams that finished 5-12 or worse, a team starting a 4th string quarterback, and a team playing on a short week after an overtime game, a 3-25 ATS cover spot all-time. Even with that stretch of wins, the 9-8 Dolphins still finished with a negative point differential at -32 and a negative overall efficiency, ranking 25th in the NFL. Their defense was impressive, ranking 11th in efficiency, but their offense continued to have significant problems, ranking 26th.
On top of that, the Dolphins made the curious decision to fire the head coach who had for the past three seasons gotten the most out of underwhelming rosters, replacing Brian Flores with unproven 49ers offensive assistant Mike McDaniel. Flores’ Dolphins teams always exceeded their talent level and got significantly better as the season went on, but there was reportedly a disagreement between Flores and ownership/front office over quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, with Flores preferring the team go in another direction this off-season, ultimately leading to Flores being let go and Tagovailoa being kept.
The Dolphins did continue to cash in the future assets they accumulated in their rebuild this off-season though, adding to this roster in a significant way, particularly on offense. In free agency, they signed a pair of above average starting offensive linemen in Terron Armstead and Connor Williams, several running back options in Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert, and Sony Michel, and a starting wide receiver in Cedrick Wilson. They didn’t have a draft pick in the first two rounds of this year’s draft, but that’s because they traded both picks for Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill, giving him a 4-year, 120 million dollar extension in the process and making him the highest paid wide receiver in the league.
The Dolphins could afford to not have an early pick in this year’s draft because they had nine picks in the first two rounds in 2020 and 2021 combined and are slated to have another two first round picks next year, as a result of all of the draft capital they accumulated during the their rebuild, and all of the cap space they rolled forward during their rebuild allowed them to add Hill on a massive contract, in addition to giving significant contracts to Armstead (5 years, 75 million), Williams (2 years, 14.035 million), Wilson (3 years, 22.05 million), and Edmonds (2 years, 12.1 million), among other minor contracts.
All in all, the Dolphins have done a good job supplementing their young core with veteran free agent additions and now rank 4th in the NFL in average annual salary of their roster, which correlates heavily with a team’s winning percentage, but questions still remain, particularly around the 2020 and 2021 draft classes, including, most notably, Tua Tagovailoa, the 5th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and the quarterback whose questionable long-term projection led to the internal disagreement that resulted in a coaching change.
Originally billed as a can’t miss #1 pick and the kind of quarterback the Dolphins might be interested in outright tanking for, Tagovailoa suffered a serious leg injury late in his final collegiate season and fell to the Dolphins at 5th overall, after they accidentally won more games than expected in 2019. The Dolphins eased Tagovailoa in as a rookie behind veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, but Fitzpatrick drastically outplayed Tagovailoa, completing 68.5% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while Tagovailoa completed just 64.1% of his passes for an average of 6.26 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, with the same supporting cast, while finishing 33rd out of 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF.
In 2021, Tagovailoa began the season as the starter, got a new #1 wide receiver in rookie 6th overall pick Jaylen Waddle, and played a little bit better himself, but he still completed 67.8% of his passes for an average of just 6.84 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while ranking 25th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF. He outplayed backup Jacoby Brissett, who completed just 62.7% of his passes for an average of 5.70 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 5 starts in place of an injured Tagovailoa, but more missed time with injury doesn’t help ease the durability concerns that Tagovailoa entered the league with and, even when on the field, he has yet to establish himself as even an average starting quarterback. He’s also shown a lack of mobility, averaging just 3.04 YPC on 78 career carries, something that was a strength of his in college before the injury and something that may never return.
The Dolphins are hoping that with an offensive minded coaching staff and an above average supporting cast, two things he has lacked in the past, Tagovailoa will be able to put it all together in year three, still only his age 24 season, and there’s a good chance he at least takes a step forward statistically even if he doesn’t improve significantly just because of the additional help he has now, but if he doesn’t make noticeable improvements himself, it’s hard to see this team legitimately contending for anything beyond a wild card spot.
The Dolphins are claiming this is Tagovailoa’s team, but they did hedge that claim a little bit by adding another experienced veteran to replace Jacoby Brissett as the backup, signing veteran journeyman Teddy Bridgewater to a 1-year, 6.5 million dollar deal. Bridgewater’s contract suggests he’s a true backup, but he’s completed 66.5% of his passes for an average of 7.26 YPA, 71 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions in his career, while starting 63 games in 8 seasons in the league, so he at least gives them a good replacement in the somewhat likely event Tagovailoa gets hurt and it’s possible Bridgewater could even prove to be an upgrade or potentially take Tagovailoa’s job down the stretch if he struggles. Tagovailoa at least has potential and they have a good backup for him, but there’s a good chance the Dolphins get below average quarterback play again.
I mentioned earlier that Jayden Waddle was Miami’s #1 wide receiver in his first season in the league in 2022, after being selected 6th overall by the Dolphins in the 2021 NFL Draft. Waddle needed 140 targets (11th in the NFL) to barely surpass the 1,000 yard mark with a 104/1015/6 slash line (1.75 yards per route run), but he still averaged 7.25 yards per target on an offense that otherwise averaged 6.15 yards per pass attempt and he was PFF’s 19th ranked wide receiver overall.
In a better receiving corps in 2022, Waddle probably won’t see the same target share, but he’s likely to become more efficient on a per target basis, with less attention from the defense and another year of experience under his belt. He looks like he’ll be well worth the high draft pick the Dolphins invested in him and could easily develop into one of the best wide receivers in the league long-term, even if development is not always linear.
The Dolphins didn’t bring back any of the other three wide receivers (Devante Parker, Mack Hollins, Albert Wilson) who played more than 200 snaps for them last season, opting to wipe the slate clean, which makes sense, as they found upgrades at the position and only let go of one wide receiver who played more than 200 snaps and averaged more than 1.04 yards per route run last season, Parker (539 snaps, 1.48 yards per route run), who they received an equivalent of a 5th round pick in draft compensation for when they traded him to the New England Patriots.
Tyreek Hill is an obvious upgrade on all of them, even if the Dolphins are paying an enormous price between salary and draft picks to make him their #1 receiver. There’s some concern that he’s not going to be playing with Patrick Mahomes anymore, with whom he averaged a 91/1294/11 slash line per 16 games, but Hill averaged a similar yards per route run average in 2 seasons with Alex Smith (2.32) as he did in 4 seasons with Mahomes (2.30) and he’s finished in the top-17 among wide receivers on PFF in all 6 seasons in the league, so he should continue to produce with Tagovailoa, albeit probably not at quite the same level, especially with Waddle still likely to get a big target share. Hill will also probably start to decline in the next 2-3 seasons, which makes acquiring him even riskier, but he’s only in his age 28 season, so I wouldn’t expect that drop off to come this season.
Cedrick Wilson was more of an under the radar signing, but he could prove to be a good value and is likely locked in as the #3 receiver behind Hill and Waddle. Wilson was just a 6th round pick by the Cowboys in 2018 and was mostly buried on the depth chart to begin his career, but he got to play more in 2021 when injuries struck and finished the season with a 45/602/6 slash line and an above average 1.74 yards per route run, bringing his career average up to 1.56. Wilson is a projection to a season long starting role, but the Dolphins won’t need much from him behind Hill and Waddle and he should at least be a capable #3 wide receiver.
To replenish depth, the Dolphins used a 4th round pick on Texas Tech Erik Ezukanma, who has upside, but probably would be overstretched if forced into a significant rookie year role. The Dolphins also still have holdover Preston Williams, who only played 175 snaps last season, but has a decent 1.36 yards per route run average in three seasons in the league and has been kept from significant action by injuries more than anything, playing just 24 of a possible 49 games in his career, since going undrafted in 2019. He’s not a reliable option because of his durability issues, but could easily provide solid depth.
The Dolphins also have a good receiving tight end in Mike Gesicki. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Gesicki struggled in his first two seasons in the league, averaging just 1.04 yards per route run, but he’s improved significantly in the past two seasons, posting slash lines of 53/703/6 and 73/780/2 respectively on 1.60 and 1.45 yards per route run respectively, while finishing 7th and 13th among tight ends on PFF in pass catching grade. Gesicki will probably have a smaller target share this season with the Dolphins having more wide receiver talent, after he ranked 3rd among tight ends in targets last season with 112, but he should remain an above average receiving option.
The Dolphins obviously view Gesicki still as a big part of their offense going forward, keeping him as a free agent on the 10.931 million dollar franchise tag, a number they’ll likely need to exceed annually on an extension to keep him around long-term. He’s not much of a blocker, but he’s still an asset to this team. The Dolphins also brought back a pair of blocking tight ends Durham Smythe (717 snaps) and Adam Shaheen (371 snaps). Neither do much in the receiving game, with career averages of 1.10 yards per route run and 1.11 yards per route run respectively, and neither excel as blockers either, but both are at least solid blockers who figure to remain involved in this offense.
The Dolphins also used a 3rd round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on tight end Hunter Long, but he could only get on the field for 90 snaps as a rookie, buried on the depth chart, and that could remain the case for him again in 2022, with the same three tight ends still ahead of him. This looks like a much improved receiving corps, with Tyreek Hill elevating this group significantly and forming arguably the best wide receiver duo in the league with Jaylen Waddle, with tight end Mike Gesicki as a more than capable 3rd option.
The Dolphins also had problems at the running back position last season, which was part of the reason why they finished 31st in the NFL with 3.55 YPC, along with terrible blocking by their offensive line. Like at the wide receiver position, the Dolphins cleaned the slate at the running back position this off-season, bringing back lead back Myles Gaskin, but not retaining any of the five other running backs who had at least a carry for this team last season, and then bringing in three veterans in free agency in Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert, and Sony Michel to compete with Gaskin for roles in a very unsettled backfield.
Gaskin struggled in the lead back role, averaging just 3.54 YPC on 173 carries, and the 2019 7th round pick has just a 3.79 YPC on 351 carries for average for his career, but his blocking has at least been a big part of the problem, with 64.4% of his rushing yardage coming after first contact. He’s also was their primary passing down back last season and has been decent as a receiver in his career, as his 1.20 career yards per route run average is about average for a running back, but with three newcomers being added, it’s unclear how much usage Gaskin will get, either as a runner or a pass catcher.
Edmonds was the highest paid of the trio of newcomers on a 2-year, 12.1 million dollar deal and is probably the favorite to lead this position group in carries and receptions. Size is an issue for a 5-9 208 pounder who has never surpassed 116 carries or 159 offensive touches in a season, but he’s averaged 4.66 YPC and 1.19 yards per route run in four seasons in the league since being drafted by the Cardinals in the 4th round in 2018 and has a good chance to get a career high usage, even in a crowded backfield.
Michel and Mostert, meanwhile, came in on cheap 1-year deals, worth 1.75 million and 2.125 million respectively, but both are still candidates for significant roles. Michel is only an early down runner, with 0.84 yards per route run as a receiver in his career, but he has a 4.22 YPC average on 743 carries in four seasons in the league, with 64.8% coming after contact, and the 5-11 220 pounder could be a good power complement to the smaller, speedier Edmonds.
Mostert is kind of the wild card of the group, with the 2015 undrafted free agent starting his career as a special teamer and totaling just 7 carries in his first three seasons in the league, but then breaking out with a 5.65 YPC average on 275 total carries in a part-time role with the 49ers from 2018-2020, before missing almost all of 2021 with injury. Mostert should be healthy for 2022 and is a decent pass catcher as well as an early down option (1.25 yards per route run in his career), but he comes with durability issues at 5-10 195, he still has just 284 career carries, and now he heads into his age 30 season.
Mostert’s impressive play in limited action with the 49ers can’t be ignored, nor can his connection with new Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, who was with Mostert in San Francisco, so he could have somewhat of a role and could be very effective in it as well, but he’s not really a lead back candidate. Most likely, Edmonds and Michel will be the two primary backs as a speed and power complement, with Edmonds being the primary passing down back and Mostert and Gaskin mixing in occasionally and providing depth in case of injury. However, roles are up for grabs in this group and probably won’t be decided until the pre-season. Regardless of how it shakes out, this should be a better group than a year ago.
As I mentioned, poor blocking was a big part of the reason why the Dolphins struggled on the ground last season, as the Dolphins were PFF’s 31st ranked team in run blocking grade. It wasn’t just run blocking though, as they also ranked dead last in PFF pass blocking grade and in pass block efficiency, while allowing the most pressures of any team in the league, and it wasn’t just last season either, as offensive line play has been a big weakness of this team for years.
The Dolphins didn’t completely clean house upfront this off-season, but they added a pair of big upgrades on significant contracts in Terron Armstead and Connor Williams, and have some recent high draft picks that could be better in 2022. Armstead has the higher upside of the two additions, having finished in the top-8 among offensive tackles on PFF in 4 of 9 seasons in the league and in the top-17 in 6 of 9 seasons, but he’s also going into his age 31 season and has had durability problems throughout his career, missing at least some time every season and missing 48 total in 9 seasons in the league.
Armstead hasn’t really shown significant signs of decline yet, but he played just 468 snaps in 8 games last season due to injury and, while he finished 28th among offensive tackles on PFF in his limited action, that was his worst finish since his rookie season. He could bounce back and be healthier in 2022, but the Dolphins are taking a big risk signing him to a 5-year, 75 million dollar deal that makes him the 18th highest paid offensive tackle in the league in average annual salary and effectively guarantees him 46.37 million over the next 3 seasons. He should still be a big upgrade even if he declines significantly, but how much he’ll actually be on the field is always a question with him.
Williams comes much cheaper on a 2-year, 14.035 million dollar deal, but he should still be a huge upgrade for the Dolphins and could be easily a steal on that contract. A 2nd round pick by the Cowboys in 2018, Williams was at least an average starter in all four seasons in Dallas, making 51 starts total, mostly at left guard, and he especially played well over the past two seasons, finishing 12th and 10th among guards on PFF across 16 starts and 14 starts respectively.
Still only in his age 25 season, Williams should remain at least an above average starter for years to come and may even have further untapped upside still. Where Williams will play is a bit of a mystery, as he has only ever played at guard at the professional level, but is being given reps by the Dolphins at center this off-season. He could translate to the center position well, but the Dolphins would probably be better served leaving him at the position where he has already been successful.
If Williams stays at left guard, incumbent Michael Deiter would stay at center. A 3rd round pick in 2019, Deiter struggled mightily as a starting guard as a rookie, finishing 85th among 89 eligible guards on PFF in 15 starts, and then spent 2020 as a reserve, playing just 23 snaps, before moving to center in 2021 and making 8 starts, missing a significant chunk of the season due to injury. Deiter was unspectacular in those 8 starts, but he was significantly better than he was at guard as a rookie and he was significantly better than backups Greg Mancz and Austin Reiter. He’s an underwhelming starting option, but he could be a capable starter and he would allow Williams to stay at his natural position.
If Williams moves to center, the Dolphins would either stick with incumbent left guard Austin Jackson or they could move Jackson to right tackle and start Liam Eichenberg, their left tackle last season and a candidate to play the right tackle spot this season, at left guard. Eichenberg was a 2nd round pick in 2021 and has a good chance to remain a starter somewhere on this offensive line in 2022, despite a dismal rookie season in which he was PFF’s 85th ranked offensive tackle out of 88 eligible in 16 starts (14 at left tackle, 2 at right tackle). Eichenberg still has upside though and could prove to be a better fit somewhere other than the blindside, so it’s possible he could be a useful starter for them somewhere this season.
Jackson is also a young recent high draft pick who hasn’t shown much yet, going 18th overall in the first round in 2020, but finishing 87th out of 93 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie on PFF, before spending most of his second season at guard and not faring much better there, finishing 82nd out of 90 eligible guards on PFF. He’s made 28 of 33 possible starts in two seasons in the league, but isn’t guaranteed a role this season and is probably behind Eichenberg in terms of his chances to be a week 1 starter for this team somewhere in 2022, especially if Williams is kept at guard. Jackson still has theoretical upside in his third season in the league and it wouldn’t be hard for him to take at least a little bit of a step forward if he remains a starter, but even in that circumstance he could easily remain a liability.
Right guard Robert Hunt is probably the only Dolphins offensive lineman locked into the same position on this offensive line as a year ago, although the 2020 2nd round pick played right tackle as a rookie and theoretically could be moved at some point if the Dolphins are still struggling to find an offensive line combination that works. Hunt has played pretty well at both positions, finishing in the 43th percentile among offensive tackles on PFF as a rookie in 11 starts and the 58th percentile among guards in 17 starts last season, so it shouldn’t affect him much where he plays and, now going into his third season in the league, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he had his best season yet.
This is still an unsettled group, but Armstead and Williams are big upgrades, Jackson, Hunt, and Eichenberg are recent high draft picks with the upside to be improved in 2022, and Deiter could be a decent starting option or a high end reserve, depending on how things shake out. Depth is a bit of a concern besides that, with their other likely reserves being 2020 4th round pick Solomon Kindley, who has been underwhelming in 15 career starts at guard, and Greg Little, a 2nd round pick of the Panthers in 2018 who has made just 6 starts at tackle in 4 seasons in the league due to injury and ineffectiveness, and both Armstead and Williams come with some risk because of Armstead’s age and injury history and because Williams might be moving to a new position, but this is still a much improved offensive line from a year ago, even if they’re not quite one of the better groups in the league.
Unlike on offense, the Dolphins didn’t make any big additions on defense this off-season, but they didn’t really have to, as they ranked 11th in defensive efficiency last season and retained all of their top-15 in terms of snaps played from a year ago. That doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be as good this year as they were last year though, in part due to the loss of defensive minded head coach Brian Flores, but also in part due to the fact that they had the healthiest defense in the league last season in terms of adjusted games lost, something that is unlikely to continue going forward. With that in mind, the Dolphins needed to add depth this off-season and did so in some key spots.
One of the depth players they added was veteran Melvin Ingram, who they signed on a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal. Ingram is going into his age 33 season and isn’t the every down player was in his prime anymore, but he was still effective in a rotational role with the Steelers and Chiefs last season, playing 590 snaps, totaling 2 sacks, 11 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate, and earning PFF’s 5th highest run defense grade among edge defenders as well. He has an impressive 12.7 % pressure rate for his career and, while he easily could decline in 2022, he also could easily remain an effective part-time player.
Ingram’s addition is one reason this could be a better edge defender group in 2022, but the Dolphins are also hoping for more out of 2021 1st round pick Jaelen Phillips after a rookie season in which he played 603 snaps and had 8.5 sacks, but struggled against the run, pressured the quarterback at just a 9.7% rate, and finished as PFF’s 109th ranked edge defender out of 129 eligible overall. He might not suddenly break out as an above average overall player in 2022, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to take a significant step forward and he has the upside to be one of the better pass rushers in the league long-term.
The Dolphins didn’t add any big outside free agents on defense this off-season, but they did keep edge defender Emmanuel Ogbah on a 4-year, 65.4 million dollar deal and he figures to remain in a significant role, after finishing as PFF’s 22nd ranked edge defender on 755 snaps in 2021. Ogbah originally joined the Dolphins as a free agent two off-seasons ago, but he greatly overperformed his 2-year, 15 million dollar deal and his raise was much deserved, as he totalled 18 sacks, 28 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate in 33 games over the past two seasons combined.
Ogbah struggled early in his career with the Browns (7.8% pressure rate across his first three seasons), but the 2016 2nd round pick built off a solid 10.7% pressure rate as a part-time player with the Chiefs in 2019 to break out as a consistently above average pass rusher with the Dolphins over the past two seasons. Ogbah’s run defense remains inconsistent at best, but he’s now proven himself over two full seasons as top pass rusher and, still only in his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect that to change significantly in 2022.
Ingram being added and Phillips likely taking a step forward in year two will probably eat into the playing time of Andrew Van Ginkel the most, after he led Dolphins edge defenders with 801 snaps a year ago. Van Ginkel was just a 5th round pick in 2019 and had played snap counts of just 197 and 479 respectively in two seasons in the league prior to last season, but he showed promise in those limited roles and held up pretty well in an every down role last season, earning average or better grades from PFF as both a run defender and pass rusher. That’s mostly been the case for him throughout his career as well, playing the run well and totaling 10.5 sacks, 26 hits, and a 11.1% pressure rate as a pass rusher. He should remain effective in what should be a smaller role in a deeper position group in 2022.
The Dolphins didn’t make any additions at the interior defender position this off-season, but this should still be a good group, led by 2019 1st round pick Christian Wilkins, who has gotten better in every season in the league and broke out as one of the best players at his position in 2021, finishing 77th, 46th, and 5th among interior defenders on PFF in the past three seasons respectively. He’s a good run defender, but also contributes significantly as a pass rusher, with a career 7.2% pressure rate, including 4.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 8.1% pressure rate last season.
Now in his 4th season in the league, in the middle of his prime in his age 27 season, Wilkins should remain at least an above average starter, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was a year ago, with an upside among the best in the league at his position. The Dolphins made the obvious decision to pick up his 5th year option this off-season, guaranteeing him 10.753 million for 2023, and will now work to lock Wilkins up on a long-term deal, which figures to pay him among the best in the league at his position.
As good as Wilkins was last season though, fellow Dolphins interior defender Zach Sieler actually finished with a higher grade from PFF, ranking 3rd among interior defenders overall, albeit on a smaller snap count of 518. A 7th round pick by the Ravens in 2018, Sieler barely played in his first two seasons in the league, first with Baltimore and then Miami, before a surprise breakout year in 2020, when he was a middling run defender at best, but added a 7.9% pressure rate as a situational pass rusher, while playing 532 snaps total overall.
The Dolphins wisely locked him up long-term last year on a 2-year, 7.63 million dollar extension that takes him through 2023 and that proved to be a steal when Sieler improved even more in 2021, boosting his pressure rate to 9.8% and showing dramatic improvement as a run defender, ranking 6th among interior defenders in run defense grade on PFF, leading to his high overall grade. Even though he’s a well-rounded player, Sieler might never see significantly more than the snap counts of 532 and 518 he’s played over the past two seasons and he might not be as effective if he ever did see a higher snap count, but he’s shown himself as a high level rotational player over two straight seasons now and it would surprise me if he didn’t continue that into 2022, with the upside for potentially more.
The Dolphins are also hoping for more out of 2020 2nd round pick Raekwon Davis, who looked on his way to promising career when he earned a slightly above average grade from PFF across 538 snaps as a rookie, but hurt his knee 5 snaps into his 2021 campaign, missed 3 games, the only significant extended injury absence this Dolphins’ defense had last season, and then upon his return was not nearly the same, finishing the season as PFF’s 143rd ranked interior defender out of 146 eligible across 424 snaps.
It’s not hard to see how Davis could be significantly better in year three if healthier and, even if he doesn’t bounce back to his rookie year form, he should still improve enough to have a noticeable effect on this defense. It’s also possible he could have the best season yet of his career, still only in his age 25 season, with a big athletic ceiling, which would obviously be a big boost for this defense. He’ll likely be backed up again by veteran run stuffer John Jenkins, who is in his age 33 season, but who has consistently been a solid situational nose tackle in his career and who still showed something left in the tank in 2021, albeit across just 176 snaps.
Adam Butler also remains as a sub package interior pass rusher. He’s been decent as a pass rusher in 5 seasons in the league, totaling 17 sacks, 12 hits, and a 6.8% pressure rate in 80 career games, but he struggles so much against the run that he has finished below average overall on PFF in all 5 seasons in the league. The Dolphins would probably rather him be closer to the 452 snaps per season he played with the Patriots before joining Miami on a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal last off-season, rather than the 592 snaps he played last season. He wasn’t a bad free agent signing, but he’s not a particularly useful player, even in a situational reserve role. Fortunately, they should be able to get his snap count down a little bit in a deep position group overall.
The Dolphins bring back starting off ball linebackers Jerome Baker and Elandon Roberts, a good thing because they were a solid duo last season. Baker has been inconsistent against the run in his 4-year career, but he’s earned an average or better coverage grade from PFF in all 4 seasons, he plays almost every snap, 60.8 per game in 48 games over the past 3 seasons, he adds value as a blitzer, with 17 sacks, 19 hits, and a 14.6% pressure rate in 64 career games, and he’s finished average or better overall on PFF in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, including a 35th ranked finish across 971 snaps in 2021. Still only in his age 26 season, I would expect more of the same from the 2018 3rd round pick this season. The Dolphins clearly value him, locking him up long-term on a 3-year, 37.5 million dollar extension last off-season, making him the 7th highest paid off ball linebacker in the league in terms of average annual salary.
Roberts, on the other hand, has been inconsistent in coverage in his career, but has earned at least an average grade from PFF as a run defender in all 6 seasons in the league and won’t have to play much more than a base package role this season, playing just 620 snaps in 17 games as the other starting off ball linebacker last season, with the Dolphins frequently using three safeties in sub packages with one as a coverage linebacker to mask Roberts’ inabilities in coverage. I would expect Roberts to remain a capable, if unspectacular base package player in 2022, with a chance of matching his snap count from a year ago even though it’s a slight career high (372 snaps per season in his first 5 seasons in the league prior to last year).
The Dolphins have veteran Duke Riley as depth, but he’s played just 292 snaps per season in 5 seasons in the league, including just 227 snaps played last season, and has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season, so they used a 3rd round pick on University of Georgia linebacker Channing Tindall to give them another depth option and a potential long-term starting option if he develops. Tindall probably won’t have much of a rookie year role unless injuries strike and he could struggle if forced into action, but he’s not bad depth to have at a decent overall position group.
As I mentioned, the Dolphins frequently used three safeties together in sub packages last season, those safeties being Jevon Holland, Brandon Jones, and Eric Rowe, with the latter two both having the ability to drop down and some coverage linebacker at 6-0 206 and 6-1 208 respectively. Holland and Rowe began the start as every down starters, with Jones as the 3rd safety, but Jones and Rowe flipped roles fairly early on in the season, with Jones ending the season with slightly more snaps played than Rowe, 644 to 638.
Jones is the younger option, being selected in the 3rd round in 2020, but he struggled in the larger role last season, finishing 86th out of 98 eligible safeties on PFF, after playing 385 nondescript snaps as a rookie. Rowe is going into his age 30 season and has never been more than a middling starter in 7 seasons (50 starts in 86 games) in the league, so he probably won’t get his starting job back and Jones has a good chance to be better in his 3rd season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee, so Jones could easily remain a liability.
Holland is also a young safety, going in the 2nd round in 2021, but he had an incredible rookie season and looks on his way to being one of the best safeties in the league for years to come, finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked safety across 893 snaps in 16 games. Development isn’t always linear and he could easily regress a little in 2022 even if he is on his way to being one of the best safeties in the league long-term, which would have a negative effect on this defense, but it’s hard to see him not at least being a well above average starter again, if not one of the best players in the league at his position again, still only in his age 22 season.
The Dolphins also bring back their top-3 cornerbacks Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, and Nik Needham. Howard and Jones are among the highest paid cornerbacks in the league, ranking 6th and 9th respectively among cornerbacks in average annual salary, on contracts of 5 years, 90 million and 5 years, 82.5 million respectively, with Howard being one of the few homegrown talents from before the Dolphins rebuild, a 2016 2nd round pick who they locked up long-term, and with Jones being a big free agent addition two off-seasons ago from the Dallas Cowboys.
Howard gives up his share of big plays and has missed big chunks of 2 of his 6 seasons in the league, missing 25 games total in his career, but he’s a ballhawk with at least four interceptions in all four healthy seasons in his career and he’s finished in the top-25 among cornerbacks on PFF in 3 straight healthy seasons, maxing out as PFF’s #2 ranked cornerback in 2020. Still in his late prime in his age 29 season, Howard should remain at least an above average starter this season and, when at his best, his upside is as good as any cornerback in the league.
Jones, on the other hand, has been a bit of a disappointment as a free agent signing, earning middling grades from PFF in two seasons since joining the Dolphins, after ranking 7th and 17th among cornerbacks on PFF in his final two seasons in Dallas. Jones now heads into his age 30 season, so it’s fair to wonder if his best days are behind him or if he may even continue declining in 2022. I would expect him to be at least a solid starter again, but he might not have much upside anymore and his age is definitely becoming a concern. With Jones owed a non-guaranteed 14.1 million in 2023 and the rest of this roster getting more expensive, this could easily be Jones’ final season in Miami, barring a big bounce back year, which would be a surprise at this point.
Needham had a solid season as the 3rd cornerback last season, playing 608 snaps, primarily on the slot (66.9%), earning a slightly above average grade from PFF. He’s a former undrafted free agent though and finished below average on PFF in each of his first two seasons in the league in 2019 and 2020 on snap counts of 743 and 617 respectively, including a 112nd ranked finish among 136 cornerbacks on PFF in 2020, prior to improving in his 3rd season in the league in 2021. It’s possible he’s permanently turned a corner and will remain a capable slot cornerback, but he could also easily regress and become a liability, which is probably more likely, given that he wasn’t drafted.
The Dolphins do have 2020 1st round pick Noah Igbinoghene as a reserve option, but he’s been a massive bust to this point in this career, playing just 364 snaps total in his career, struggling mightily in that limited action, and spending much of his career as a healthy scratch, unable to get on the field, presumably because of poor play behind the scenes. Last season, he played just 78 defensive snaps, with the Dolphins opting to play mediocre veterans Justin Coleman and Jason McCourty ahead of him.
Coleman and McCourty are no longer with the team and the Dolphins don’t have another good option to keep Igbinoghene from being the 4th cornerback, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t struggle if forced into significant action. There are some flaws with this secondary, but it’s a strong group overall, led by top cornerback Xavien Howard and top safety Jevon Holland, who both have the upside to be among the best in the league at their respective positions in 2022 and who elevate this position group significantly by themselves.
Special teams was also a big weakness for the Dolphins in 2021, as they finished 29th in special teams DVOA. Unlike most of their big needs this off-season, the Dolphins did little to address their special teams this off-season, but they do replace struggling punter Michael Palardy with a more reliable veteran in Thomas Morestead, which is a slight upgrade, and they could get more out of Jaylen Waddle in his 2nd season as their primary returner, after he led one of the worst return units in the league last season. Solid kicker Jason Sanders remains, as do their two best core special teamers Duke Riley and Cethan Carter, so, overall, there is potential here and, even if they don’t achieve their full potential, they should still be improved over a year ago.
The Dolphins significantly improved their roster this off-season, but they’re starting from a lower base point than their records in recent years would suggest, as they have consistently overperformed their talent level and their efficiency rating (25th in overall team efficiency in 2021), something that is tough to do consistently anyway and something they’re especially unlikely to continue doing without head coach Brian Flores, who consistently got the most of out this group, but was still controversially let go this off-season.
The Dolphins’ concentrated their off-season additions on the offensive side of the ball which could lead to that unit improving to average from being 26th in offensive efficiency last season, but they still have a significant question at quarterback and, while their defense should remain solid, after ranking 11th in defensive efficiency a year ago and adding some talent this off-season, they’re also unlikely to be as healthy as they were a year ago and could regress without Flores’ leadership.
The Dolphins could still be a solid team on both sides of the ball and they would be a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the not totally out of the question scenario that Tua Tagovailoa breaks out as a legitimate franchise quarterback in year three, given all the talent they have around him, but if that doesn’t happen and this is only a solid team, they could find it tough to even qualify for the post-season in the loaded AFC. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC East