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.

Prediction: 7-9, 2nd in AFC East

Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2016 NFL Wild Card Round Pick

Miami Dolphins (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

The Dolphins made the playoffs for the first time since 2008 thanks to a 10-6 record, but they still have a lot of problems and are not as good as their record suggests. Many of their wins were close, while many of their losses were not. 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 this year in terms of opponents’ combined record. In some order, the Rams, 49ers, Jets, and Browns were the worst 4 teams in the league this season 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, their other victory by more than a touchdown came against their opponents this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who they beat 30-15 back in week 6. The Steelers are also the only playoff team the Dolphins have beaten. When you look at the Dolphins’ season, it’s 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). The Dolphins’ week 6 home victory over these Steelers was easily the best game they’ve played this season and a major outlier in their season on the whole.

This game will be in Pittsburgh and the Steelers will have Ben Roethlisberger healthy for the whole game, after he was knocked out midway through the game last time, but if the Dolphins can repeat easily their best game of the season they have a good shot in this one. Much more likely, they’ll be unable to repeat their best performance of the season, especially given all of the injuries they have. Since that week 6 victory, the Dolphins have lost both safeties, Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus, and talented center Mike Pouncey for the season with injury, while top cornerback Byron Maxwell and starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill will also be out for this game. The Steelers, meanwhile, aren’t missing any key players that played in the first matchup and are definitely in the better injury situation overall. This one seems like it’s going to be a Pittsburgh blowout, but I’m not confident laying 10 points with them.

Pittsburgh Steelers 31 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -10

Confidence: Low

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (13-2) at Miami Dolphins (10-5)

In a league with few top level teams, the Patriots have to stand out atop the league. Not only are they the Patriots and they’ve done this before, but they rank 1st in the NFL in first down rate differential and point differential, despite not even having quarterback Tom Brady for the first 4 games of the season. They rank 5th in points, first in points allowed, 8th in first down rate, and 3rd in first down rate allowed. Their +22 offensive touchdown margin is double any other team’s offensive touchdown margin except the Dallas Cowboys (+17).

However, this line moved from 6 to 9.5 in the past week as a result of the Patriots’ 41-3 victory over the lowly Jets, so I think the Patriots’ hype is a little bit out of control right now. The Patriots have had a pretty easy schedule since Brady returned, with their only even somewhat tough games coming at home against the Seahawks, on the road in Denver, at home against the Ravens, on the road in Buffalo, and at home for the Bengals. Other than the Seahawks, the Dolphins might be the toughest team they’ve faced since Brady’s return, so I don’t think the Dolphins should be 9.5 point home underdogs, especially since the Broncos were just 3.5 point home underdogs two weeks ago. The Patriots could win big again here (9 of their 13 victories have come by double digits), so there’s not enough here for me to bet money against them, but this should be a closer game than this line suggests.

New England Patriots 27 Miami Dolphins 20

Pick against the spread: Miami +9.5

Confidence: Low

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills: 2016 Week 16 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (9-5) at Buffalo Bills (7-7)

These two teams finish their regular seasons in pretty much completely opposite fashions next week. While the Bills get an easy road game in New York against the lowly Jets, the Dolphins have to go home and host the New England Patriots. Teams are 73-58 ATS since 2012 before being 4.5+ point road favorites, which the Bills should be next week, and 43-93 ATS over that time period before being 4.5+ point home underdogs, which the Dolphins should be next week. In addition, the Dolphins are in a much worse injury situation.

The absence of starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill is obvious, even if backup Matt Moore is one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league, but they’re also without top cornerback Byron Maxwell, who has really been playing well in recent weeks. The Bills will be without left tackle Cordy Glenn, but they are definitely in the better injury situation overall. Even before injuries are taken into account, the Bills have played slightly better than the Dolphins this season, entering 15th in first down rate differential, as opposed to 20th for the Dolphins.

When this line opened at 3.5, I was hoping it would eventually come down to 3 by gametime. Instead, the opposite happened, as the line has since jumped to 4.5. I would have put money on the Bills as 3 point home favorites, but I’m not nearly as confident in them as 4.5 point home favorites, especially given that about 3 in 10 games are decided by 4 points or fewer. The Bills could easily outplay the Dolphins all game, but allow a late backdoor cover to give the Dolphins the cover. I’m still taking Buffalo, but it’s a low confidence pick.

Buffalo Bills 23 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -4.5

Confidence: Low

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

Miami Dolphins at New York Jets: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (8-5) at New York Jets (4-9)

The Dolphins pulled off the home upset victory last week over the Cardinals, despite being without a trio of key defenders, linebackers Kiko Alonso and Jelani Jenkins and defensive end Mario Williams, all of whom return this week. It was a game they should have lost though, as the Cardinals lost 7 points on special teams, thanks to a missed field goal and two missed extra points, one of which was blocked and returned for 2 points. The Cardinals had the 21-15 edge in first downs and won the first down rate battle by +6.52%.

Teams also tend to struggle off of a home upset victory like that, going 61-80 ATS since 2012, as teams tend to be overrated and overconfident in that spot. However, we’re actually still getting good line value with the Dolphins because they lost quarterback Ryan Tannehill with injury, which dropped this line from 3.5 to 2.5, despite Miami’s upset victory. That might not seem like a big swing, but 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal so it’s a very significant point. Considering backup Matt Moore is one of the better backups in the league and the Dolphins are significantly healthier around the quarterback now than they have been for most of the season, I think the line is very fair.

With that in mind, I’m actually taking the Dolphins as the Jets have to turn around and go to New England next week, where they will almost definitely be double digit underdogs. Teams are just 41-66 ATS since 2012 before being double digit underdogs and the Jets could easily overlook the Dolphins with arguably the biggest game of their season on deck. Because Moore hasn’t made a start since 2011, there’s not enough here for me to be confident enough in Miami to put money on them, but they should be the right side. Even a field goal road victory covers this spread.

Miami Dolphins 20 New York Jets 16

Pick against the spread: Miami -2.5

Confidence: Low

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

Arizona Cardinals at Miami Dolphins: 2016 Week 14 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (5-6-1) at Miami Dolphins (7-5)

The Dolphins were shockingly blown out in Baltimore last week, the Ravens’ biggest win by point total since 2009. That almost definitely figures to be the worst game of the Dolphins’ season when all is said and done. Besides last week, they’ve played pretty well and are still a capable team that ranks 18th in first down rate differential. The Dolphins’ loss last week actually puts them in a good spot this week. That might sound counterintuitive, but teams are 92-54 ATS since 2002 off of an against the spread loss of 28 or more (the Dolphins lost by 32 as 3.5 point underdogs).

It makes sense when you think about it, as teams tend to be overlooked, undervalued, and embarrassed in that spot. On top of that, the Dolphins have a very easy game on deck as they head to New York to take on the Jets next week, a game in which they will almost definitely be road favorites. Home underdogs like the Dolphins are here (by 2 points) are 79-44 ATS since 2002 before being road favorites, as teams tend to be very focused in a tough home game before an easy road game.

The Dolphins could easily bounce back with a strong effort this week, but all that being said I’m picking the Cardinals as long as this line is under a field goal. The Cardinals are at the top of my underrated teams list. Despite their 5-6-1 record, they’ve won the first down rate battle in 10 of 12 games and they could easily be 9-3 right now, as they could have beaten New England, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Minnesota if one or two fluky things had gone their way (missed field goal against New England, punt return against Rams, blocked punt against Seattle, pick six against Minnesota).

The Cardinals actually rank 1st in first down rate differential. They ranked 1st in that metric last year as well. Carson Palmer is having a down year and they aren’t the same on either side of the ball without injured left tackle Jared Veldheer and injured defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, but they still have a strong defense and running game and are one of the better teams in the league in a year where there are very few top level teams. Even if the Dolphins bring a strong effort, the Cardinals could win by a field goal on the road, especially with the Dolphins missing center Mike Pouncey, linebackers Kiko Alonso and Jelani Jenkins, and defensive end Mario Williams with injury.

Arizona Cardinals 23 Miami Dolphins 20

Pick against the spread: Arizona -2

Confidence: None

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

Miami Dolphins at Baltimore Ravens: 2016 Week 13 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (7-4) at Baltimore Ravens (6-5)

This line at 3.5 in favor of the hometown Baltimore Ravens suggests the Ravens are a slightly better team than the Dolphins. I think it’s the opposite. Both teams come into this game relatively healthy compared to most of the season, with the Dolphins getting left tackle Branden Albert and left guard Laremy Tunsil back this week, while the Ravens get cornerback Jimmy Smith back. However, the Dolphins rank 12th on the season in first down rate differential, while the Ravens rank 19th in that metric. This line should be around 2.5, which might not seem like a big difference from 3.5, but it is, considering about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal. The Ravens are certainly no strangers to field goal games, as 4 of their 11 wins in the past 2 seasons have come by exactly a field goal. That makes sense, as the Ravens have a great defense, but a struggling offense. That’s not exactly a recipe for big blowout wins. The Dolphins are a quality opponent, so, if the Ravens win, it’ll likely be by a field goal or less.

The Dolphins are also in a much better spot than the Ravens, as they host the skidding Cardinals next week, while the Ravens have to turn around and go to New England, where the early line has them as 10 point underdogs. The Dolphins will be favored next week at home for the Cardinals and underdogs are 94-61 ATS since 2012 before being favorites when their opponents will next be underdogs. On top of that, teams are 41-63 ATS since 2012 before being double digit underdogs, as upcoming big games like that tend to be a distraction for a team. As favorites, teams are 37-62 ATS since 2002 before being double digit underdogs. Combining the two, underdogs are 48-20 ATS since 1989 before being favorites when their opponents will next be double digit underdogs. I like the Dolphins a lot this week.

Baltimore Ravens 17 Miami Dolphins 16

Pick against the spread: Miami +3.5

Confidence: Medium

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]