Long-time Miami fans know all about one-year NFL wonders — those teams that overachieve one season only to fall back the next. That’s because the 2008 Dolphins fall in that category, plummeting from an 11–5 record and playoff appearance that year into a seven-season playoff drought that finally ended last season.
There is legitimate reason to believe the 2017 Dolphins can avoid the same fate thanks to the culture built by second-year head coach Adam Gase and a front office that has assembled Miami’s most talented roster since the days of perennial postseason contention. However, one player the team will likely be without this season is quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who re-injured his knee early in training camp.
The Dolphins hope that continuity elsewhere is the key to success. Miami retained its two priority free agents in wide receiver Kenny Stills and defensive end Andre Branch. Defensive end Cameron Wake, linebacker Kiko Alonso and safety Reshad Jones all earned lucrative contract extensions. Miami added projected starters at middle linebacker (Lawrence Timmons), tight end (Julius Thomas), left guard (Ted Larsen) and safety (Nate Allen and T.J. McDonald) via trade and free agency. The draft yielded immediate contributors as well. The key now is whether all this can help Miami push New England for the AFC East crown.
When quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s season ended in Week 14, Miami’s hopes for a deep playoff run were dashed as well. After a rough start partially caused by growing pains in Gase’s system, Tannehill rebounded to enjoy the best season of his career. Tannehill’s biggest improvement came on the deep ball. He tied for the NFL lead with seven completions of 50-plus yards, and his 7.7 yards-per-completion average was a personal best.
The Dolphins and Tannehill opted against surgery on his partially torn ACL under the belief that rehabilitation and strengthening the muscles around his knee could prevent further damage. But Tannehill reinjured the knee early in training camp and is likely done for the season. Instead of opting for backup Matt Moore, Gase reached out to Jay Cutler, who signed a one-year, $10 million deal on Aug. 6 to delay his broadcasting career and take Tannehill’s place as Miami’s starting quarterback. Gase was Cutler’s offensive coordinator in 2015 when both were with the Bears.
As for the rest of the offense, Gase pushed heavily behind the scenes for Dolphins management to re-sign Stills. Those words carried heavy weight. Stills caught a career-high nine touchdown passes and averaged 17.3 yards per reception, which ranked third in the league. Jarvis Landry should be the next Dolphins wideout to cash in. Heading into a contract year, Landry remains the primary target. He was among the league leaders in third-down grabs while becoming the sixth receiver in Dolphins history with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Miami is counting on DeVante Parker to make more of an impact entering his third NFL season. If he doesn’t, the Dolphins may pass on exercising the fifth-year option in his rookie contract.
At tight end, Thomas should provide a boost in the passing game provided he avoids the injury problems that made him a high-priced free-agent bust in Jacksonville. Anthony Fasano, who played in Miami from 2008-12, returns primarily as a blocker with Dion Sims having left for Chicago.
The running game progressed from a concern in the preseason to a strength by the end of the year. Jay Ajayi, who was left at home for the Week 1 opener because of a bad attitude, changed his tune and quickly surpassed Arian Foster as Miami’s lead back. Ajayi finished with 1,272 yards. The next step for Ajayi is consistency. He finished with 79 or fewer yards in 12 games, including Miami’s first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh.
Ajayi should benefit from what the Dolphins believe will be an improved offensive line. Miami could have stuck with Branden Albert at left tackle but instead traded him to Jacksonville under the belief 2016 first-round pick Laremy Tunsil is ready to man the spot. To his credit, Tunsil has avoided the off-field problems that caused him to slide from being a potential top-five pick to No. 13 in his draft class. The Dolphins hope a stem-cell procedure on Mike Pouncey’s hip can help keep their oft-injured center on the field. Although one of the league’s most talented players at his position, Pouncey has missed 19 games the past four seasons, and his days with the Dolphins are numbered if he can’t stay healthy. Larsen (left) and Jermon Bushrod (right) are expected to man the guard spots, but both could have competition from 2017 fifth-round pick Isaac Asiata. The Dolphins picked up the fifth-year option on right tackle Ja’Wuan James, who appears primed for a breakthrough.
Some of Miami’s defensive struggles in 2016 — the Dolphins ranked 29th in yards allowed and were gouged for an average of 140.4 rushing yards per game — came from personnel deficiencies in the back seven and growing pains adjusting to a Wide-Nine scheme. The Dolphins are hopeful new coordinator Matt Burke, who was promoted from linebackers coach after Vance Joseph left to become Denver’s head coach, can maintain continuity while adding his own wrinkles to the attack. The Dolphins also have given Burke better pieces to work with than Joseph had. Timmons’ signing means Alonso can shift from middle to weak-side linebacker, where he could make an even bigger impact. Finally overcoming the injuries that ruined his previous two NFL seasons, Alonso led Dolphins in tackles (115) and spearheaded a seven-game stretch in which Miami forced 19 turnovers. The Dolphins expect Koa Misi to rebound from a neck injury to man the strong-side linebacker spot, although he could face a challenge for that starting role from 2017 second-round pick Raekwon McMillian.
The Wide-Nine did bring out the best in Wake and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Wake recovered from a torn Achilles tendon and dispelled the early season notion among Dolphins coaches that he should be a role player in his mid-30s, notching 10.5 of his 11.5 sacks after returning to the starting lineup in Week 6. On the opposite side, the mistake of overpaying for end Mario Williams was mitigated by the emergence of Branch, who had 5.5 sacks. Charles Harris, the team’s 2017 first-round pick, will quickly be worked into the pass-rush rotation. One year after Miami made him the highest-paid defensive tackle in NFL history, Suh finally started to show why thanks to a change in scheme that allowed him to play more aggressively rather than read and react. Suh’s 72 tackles ranked third among all interior linemen. The Dolphins now want upgraded play next to him.
Miami’s starting cornerbacks are a far cry from the days of Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain, but Byron Maxwell did pick up his game considerably after an early season benching. Maxwell led all NFL cornerbacks with four forced fumbles. Xavien Howard showed promise as a rookie with the steady Tony Lippett playing in nickel situations. Jones was enjoying a brilliant season at strong safety before getting hurt in Week 6 and landing on injured reserve. He will likely play alongside Allen until at least midseason, which is when newcomer McDonald’s drug suspension ends.
Andrew Franks must improve his 76.2 field goal percentage, but the second-year kicker came through in the clutch last December with game-winners against Arizona and Buffalo. Matt Darr ranks among the NFL’s best young punters despite a 3.3-yard dip in net average last season. The coverage units led by safety Michael Thomas are sound, while the return game should continue receiving a lift from Landry and 2016 draft picks Kenyan Drake and Jakeem Grant.
During an offseason trip to London, Landry boldly proclaimed Miami would sweep the Patriots in 2017. Doing so for the first time since 2000 might be the only way the Dolphins can end New England’s quest for a ninth straight division crown. A second straight wild-card berth is a more realistic expectation, but only if Cutler can make a smooth transition wtih his new team.