The stormy weather never broke for the 2017 Dolphins -- and it’s not just because Hurricane Irma forced the team to play 16 consecutive games sans bye following the Week 1 postponement. But after a 6-10 finish, the clouds are finally starting to part with an offseason of major personnel changes and the return of quarterback Ryan Tannehill from a knee injury that sidelined him for the entire 2017 campaign.
“We’ve got a good group of guys we’re bringing in free agency that can help make a difference in our locker room,” Dolphins head coach Adam Gase says. “We feel like we’re headed in the right direction.”
The question now is whether the Dolphins are truly moving toward sunny days or destined for more of the dreariness that comes from having failed to win a playoff game for 17 straight seasons and counting.
Despite hosting private visits with the draft’s major quarterback prospects, the Dolphins reaffirmed their commitment to Tannehill by not trading up from the 11th overall spot. A 37-40 career record has left plenty of Dolphins fans wary about whether Tannehill is good enough to shed his “game manager” label. Gase insists that the 8-5 record Tannehill posted in 2016 before initially getting hurt is a sign of things to come.
Gase was particularly impressed by how Tannehill remained engaged through attendance at games and team meetings during the rehabilitation process while Jay Cutler replaced him in the starting lineup with lackluster results. “I feel like [Tannehill] did get better even though he didn’t play,” says Gase, who works intimately with Miami’s quarterbacks as the offensive play caller. “I think we’re going to see some positive things come out of that experience he had to go through.”
In hopes of rekindling some of the magic from their time together in Denver, Brock Osweiler is reuniting with Gase as Tannehill’s backup.
Tannehill will need to find a new favorite target as Miami traded wide receiver Jarvis Landry to Cleveland. Landry had a bumpy working relationship with Gase, who believes Miami can compensate for Landry’s production through a combination of free-agent additions Albert Wilson (Kansas City) and Danny Amendola (New England) joining the returning Kenny Stills, Jakeem Grant and DeVante Parker.
“The ball is going to be spread out more,” Gase says. “That’s really what we’re looking to do and kind of what I’ve done in the past with offenses I’ve been involved in.”
The Dolphins are counting on Tannehill receiving support from running backs Kenyan Drake and newcomer Frank Gore. Although the midseason decision to trade Jay Ajayi raised eyebrows, Drake filled in nicely and quietly led the NFL in rushing from Weeks 13 through 17 with 444 yards on 91 carries (4.9-yard average). Gore, who wanted to wrap up his future Pro Football Hall of Fame career in his hometown, should serve as a capable complement and mentor.
Both the running and passing games need improved play from an offensive line that added veteran left guard Josh Sitton (Chicago) and center Daniel Kilgore (San Francisco). New offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn is expected to get more out of tackles Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James than predecessor Chris Foerster, whose drug binge inside team headquarters and subsequent departure were among the NFL’s biggest embarrassments in 2017. Right guard will be a camp battle between Ted Larsen and Jesse Davis.
The tight end unit looks shaky unless 2018 second-round pick Mike Gesicki is ready to become an immediate contributor. The reality is, as an early entry junior from Penn State, he’s probably not.
Miami began a youth movement last season as one of only three teams to have played at least eight rookies on defense (Oakland and San Francisco were the others). Among the most promising youngsters are cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, both of whom are now projected starters. The Dolphins need Godchaux and fourth-year defensive tackle Jordan Phillips to up their games following Ndamukong Suh’s offseason release. Quality depth is a huge concern as well.
The defensive line did receive some veteran help when Miami acquired Robert Quinn in a trade from the Rams. He will be returning to a more comfortable role as a 4-3 end after playing 3-4 outside linebacker in 2017. Quinn, Cameron Wake, William Hayes and 2017 first-round pick Charles Harris give the Dolphins a potentially potent edge rush that will be even better if Andre Branch rebounds from a disappointing season following a contract extension.
The secondary remains spearheaded by Reshad Jones, who led all NFL safeties in tackles last season with 122. Third-year cornerback Xavien Howard should start to garner Pro Bowl consideration if he can build upon a breakthrough 2017 campaign. Howard enjoyed a strong December with multi-interception games against Denver and New England. The first-round selection of Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick could lead to T.J. McDonald assuming a hybrid safety-linebacker role.
Speaking of linebackers, Miami fielded arguably the NFL’s slowest unit in 2017. The Dolphins are counting on the return of middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, a 2017 second-round pick who missed his entire rookie season because of a knee injury. Speedy 2018 third-round pick Jerome Baker could immediately push Stephone Anthony for his starting outside linebacker job on the opposite side of Kiko Alonso. Free-agent arrival Terence Garvin (Seattle) is a top backup and core special teams player.
Although he may not receive as much media attention as some of his peers, Miami’s Darren Rizzi has established himself one of the NFL’s top special teams coordinators. Since he assumed the role in 2011, the Dolphins trail only Oakland (22) in blocked kicks with 20, including a league-best 10 blocked punts. Miami also led the league in kickoff coverage last season with opponents’ average starting field position at their own 23-yard line. Some challenges must be met to repeat such success. Cody Parkey, who tied Jay Feely’s franchise single-season record 91.3-percent success rate on field goals, left for Chicago on a sizable free-agent contract. The only kicker on the roster post-draft was Jason Sanders, a seventh-round pick from New Mexico. Adding a stopgap veteran may be in the offing if Sanders struggles early. Miami also must replace special teams ace Michael Thomas, who left via free agency. Grant has scoring potential every time he touches the football on punts and kickoffs. Punter Matt Haack is looking to build on a solid season in which he led rookies on kicks downed inside the 20-yard line (30 of 83).
Gase has spent two years clearing out players he didn’t feel fit with his program. Stephen Ross might start thinking about some housecleaning himself if his team remains perennially stuck in the NFL’s middle class (or worse) for the 11th straight year under his ownership. Gase, though, has gotten what he wanted -- a collection of “his guys” on the roster and coaching staff, captained by a quarterback he trusts and the expectation that Gore, Sitton and Amendola will provide leadership that was sorely needed.
“We haven’t had the opportunity to really add a lot of veteran players, and it was probably the right time for us because we’ve got those guys that are in their second and third year,” Gase says. “Having some guys that can make a positive impact and show the right way to do things, that’s really what we needed.” So is recapturing the magic of Gase’s first Dolphins season with another playoff appearance.