Once among the perennial elite, the Dolphins have been largely irrelevant for quite a while now, without a playoff win since Dec. 30, 2000. While the fans are long past impatient, owner Stephen Ross leaned toward a youth movement in the offseason. “I wouldn’t want to be getting old veterans to win that year and then get back to where we were,” Ross says. “I want to build something that is going to be a dynasty that people want to see year in and year out.”
That’s not to say Ross spent the past several months sitting idle. Yes, he kept his embattled coach, Joe Philbin, and Philbin kept both of his coordinators, Bill Lazor on offense and Kevin Coyle on defense. But the front office was overhauled, with former Jets executive Mike Tannenbaum hired to oversee an operation that still includes general manager Dennis Hickey. And the team may have as many as 10 new starters, including the prize of the free-agent market, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who signed a six-year, $114 million contract with nearly $60 million guaranteed. “This is obviously a great day,” Suh said at his introductory press conference. “And there’s obviously many more to come after that.”
How soon? We’ll see.
It got largely lost due to the team’s lack of overall progress, but the Dolphins did make gains on offense last season, with their best yardage ranking (14th) since 2008 and best points ranking (11th) since 2001, which happen to be the franchise’s last two playoff seasons.
They should make more strides, now that Lazor has had more than a year to implement his schemes — with some use of the read option — and increase the unit’s tempo, something that didn’t occur as planned last season. Much of that will fall on Ryan Tannehill, who seems to be a quarterback on the rise. That’s one of the reasons the Dolphins rewarded him with a six-year contract extension in May that could be worth as much as $96 million and is guaranteed to pay him no less than $45 million. “The good news is he’s gotten better every year,” Philbin says.
That’s supported by the statistics, as the third-year player posted his highest passer rating (92.8) largely due to a dramatic increase in completion percentage (60.4 to 66.4). And yet, his yards-per-completion continued its decline, from 11.7 as a rookie to 11.0 in his second season to 10.3 in his third. While it wise for the Dolphins to play to his strengths, Tannehill still needs to become more accurate with his deep throws to make the Dolphins a truly dynamic attack.
He won’t be trying to connect with Mike Wallace anymore. After two expensive and uneven seasons, Wallace was sent to Minnesota to make way for a younger, cheaper core. Miami will have three receivers in their regular rotation who are under 24 years old, including Kenny Stills, a speedy import from New Orleans who had 63 catches on 85 targets last season, compared to 67 on 115 for Wallace.
Stills’ presence on the outside, along with the development of first-round pick DeVante Parker, should allow Jarvis Landry and new tight end Jordan Cameron to exploit the middle. As a rookie, the hard-working Landry showed terrific instincts and good hands, catching 84 passes, albeit for just 9.0 yards per catch. That number should increase, if Tannehill can sit back in the pocket a little longer — he took 46 sacks, down 12 from the previous season but still too high. It’s remarkable that Tannehill has started every game in three straight seasons.
Branden Albert solidified the left tackle spot prior to a season-ending knee injury, so his return to full health is critical. With Albert, center Mike Pouncey (newly signed to a lucrative extension) and right tackle Ja’Wuan James (coming off a good rookie season), Miami appears settled at three spots. The guard spots are in flux; the Dolphins may need fourth-round rookie Jamil Douglas to step in immediately.
They’ll be blocking for Lamar Miller, who had some ups and downs after taking over as the primary ball carrier. Miller, however, finished strong with 270 yards in the season’s final two weeks. Now the question is whether he can handle an even greater load; he averaged 5.1 yards per carry but never had more than 19 attempts. There’s questionable depth at the position.
Coming off a tumultuous season — with players questioning the coordinator (Coyle) — the Dolphins invested heavily in Suh to instill some fear in opposing offenses. While he’s created controversy with some of his on-field antics, there’s never been any question about Suh’s ability, not only to disrupt running and passing plays but also to make his teammates better. A few of his teammates are already pretty good, notably defensive ends Cameron Wake (57.5 sacks over the past five seasons) and Olivier Vernon (18 sacks over the past two seasons), cornerback Brent Grimes (coming off two straight Pro Bowls) and safety Reshad Jones (who had a bounce-back year). And defensive tackle Earl Mitchell should be a solid complement to Suh, holding up blockers and helping to stuff the run.
But plenty of others will need to exceed expectations for the Dolphins to improve from their 2014 rankings (20th in points, 12th in yardage). That starts with the entire linebacker group. Koa Misi is serviceable in the middle, and Jelani Jenkins was a positive surprise as a fourth-round pick in 2013. But there’s no clear playmaker in the group, especially after the Dion Jordan experiment failed. Jordan, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft, was a disappointment for two seasons and will miss the 2015 campaign due to a failed drug test.
In the secondary, veteran safety Louis Delmas returns after ACL surgery, and either Jamar Taylor or Will Davis will need to emerge as a consistent complement to Grimes at corner to allow newcomer Brice McCain play the nickel. Miami allowed opposing quarterbacks to compile an 89.7 passer rating last season, with 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions — not the league’s worst, but not contender material.
Two seasons into his NFL career, Caleb Sturgis still hasn’t cemented his status, not after making 77.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 20-of-33 from 40 yards or more. If he’s not better, he’ll likely be replaced. Brandon Fields didn’t have his best season, with his lowest percentage (36.2) of punts inside the 20-yard-line since 2009, and he was in danger of being released prior to restructuring his contract. Landry was the primary punt and kickoff returner last season and — a couple of hiccups aside — did decent work. Ideally, though, the Dolphins would like more of a burner at those spots to save Landry for his receiving duties. So that search will continue.
The Dolphins have been stuck in the middle, or just below, for so long that it’s hard to predict anything better than a .500 finish. But if Tannehill can make another leap, and Suh can energize what was at times a listless defense, there’s potential here to squeak out 10 wins. Philbin may need that many to retain his job, even though Ross signed the coach to an extension through 2016 to remove the perception of lame-duck status. “There has to be improvement,” Ross added, after the announcement. “I’m looking to make the playoffs, and I think Joe is looking to make the playoffs.” Otherwise, this team may look even more different in 2016.