Kenny Stills and the Dolphins are starting over under new coach Brian Flores
No team has ever played in a Super Bowl in its home stadium. The streak will assuredly continue this season as the game heads to Hard Rock Stadium.
The Miami Dolphins are in all-out rebuild mode after one final desperate 2018 push by head coach Adam Gase and top football executive Mike Tannenbaum fell short. Those two were dismissed following a 7–9 record. General manager Chris Grier survived the purge and was given the juice to hire his own head coach.
That choice was ex-New England defensive coordinator Brian Flores. He comes from a franchise that hasn’t needed to worry about the quarterback position since Tom Brady emerged in 2001. The Dolphins have spent almost two decades seeking a replacement for Dan Marino, which helps explain why Miami hasn’t won a playoff game since the year before Brady led New England to the first of its six Super Bowl titles. The search continues in 2019 with a curious front-runner to fill the massive shoes left behind.
Tank for Tua? Jump for Justin? Nope. The mantra of the 2019 Miami Dolphins is now Rah for Rosen. All signs initially pointed toward the Dolphins clearing the decks of expensive veterans and stumbling through the year to put Miami in the best position possible to land one of the top quarterbacks projected in the 2020 draft like Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon’s Justin Herbert. The Dolphins may still be on that track. Rosen, though, will have every opportunity to show he’s the man for the job after being acquired from Arizona for a second-round draft choice during the 2019 draft.
The Dolphins didn’t pursue Rosen in the 2018 draft, standing pat with the No. 11 selection and choosing Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. So why the change of heart? It’s believed that Gase — who enjoyed considerable power over personnel decisions — wasn’t as enamored with Rosen as others who now have a significant say in the organization. Neither was new Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury, for that matter, and Rosen is now the only first-round quarterback since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970 to spend only one season with the team that drafted him.
That one year is one Rosen would rather forget. The Cardinals had the NFL’s worst record (3–13) as Rosen was rushed into the starting lineup in Week 4. Negative narratives about suspect leadership skills began to circulate. Grier says that the Dolphins did their homework and that the speculation bashing Rosen’s character was “B.S.”
“We didn’t go out saying he has to be a franchise quarterback for us,” Grier says. “He’s a very talented young player and still has a lot of upside. For us, the value was tremendous that we couldn’t afford to pass up.”
The unit’s strength is a wide receiver crew led by Kenny Stills, a quality deep threat who is one of five NFL wide receivers with at least six touchdown catches in each of the past three seasons. Grier is hoping the Dolphins get more out of DeVante Parker, Miami’s 2015 first-round selection, than Gase did. Whether because of injuries or inconsistency, Parker became such a forgotten part of Gase’s offense that the Dolphins were expected to let him leave in free agency before the coaching change led to his re-signing.
New offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea, who left his post as New England’s wide receivers coach to follow Flores to Miami, may try to use Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant more extensively in the slot and create Julian Edelman-style mismatches.
O’Shea doesn’t have Rob Gronkowski to work with at tight end. In fact, the signing of Dwayne Allen away from New England was curious since Miami invested second- and fourth-round picks on Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe, respectively, in 2018 and re-signed Nick O’Leary last December to a one-year deal. Gesicki added 13 pounds this offseason (he weighed 253 when checking in for Miami’s offseason program) in hopes the added bulk would help him build upon a modest 22-catch rookie campaign.
Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage will battle to lead the running game. Drake was a disappointment last season, losing snaps to Frank Gore and failing to build on what was a promising 2017 campaign. Ballage’s size (237 pounds) and pass-catching skills could give him a niche backup role.
Unfortunately for both Rosen and the RBs, Miami’s offensive line remains — to put it kindly — a work in progress. Laremy Tunsil has emerged as a quality left tackle, and Daniel Kilgore (center) and Jesse Davis (right guard) return as competent albeit unspectacular starters. But the Dolphins may be using a third-round rookie at left guard (Michael Deiter) and head into the summer without a proven option at right tackle.
Flores comes from a franchise where the collective pass rush is better than the sum of its individual parts. He’s hoping for a similar situation in Miami, as the Dolphins emerged from the draft with no difference-makers at end following the offseason departures of Cam Wake (Tennessee) and Robert Quinn (Dallas). It’s now or never for Charles Harris, a 2017 first-round pick who must show he isn’t a slow-footed bust. Harris actually mustered fewer sacks in 2018 (one) than during his rookie campaign (two).
Ndamukong Suh never turned into the offense-wrecking interior force the Dolphins hoped when making him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history four years ago. The Dolphins hope they have found one now in 2019 first-round pick Christian Wilkins, who notched six sacks and 15 tackles for a loss during his dominant senior season at Clemson. Wilkins will play alongside the returning Davon Godchaux as the Dolphins seek to improve the league’s 31st-ranked run defense.
Flores loved versatility in his Patriots linebacker corps but has only one proven player (Kiko Alonso) who fits the bill in Miami. Middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan must improve in pass coverage; Jerome Baker needs to increase his run-stopping prowess.
The secondary is sound. Xavien Howard will return from a knee injury that sidelined him the final month of the 2018 season and ruined his chances for postseason honors. With 11 interceptions in his past 17 games, Howard is motoring toward a huge contract entering the final year of his rookie deal. Fitzpatrick should remain at safety and team with veterans T.J. McDonald and Reshad Jones. Bobby McCain, Cordrea Tankersley and ex-Patriots spot starter Eric Rowe will fight for the remaining snaps at corner.
This is one area where the Dolphins are actually in good shape, although new unit coach Danny Crossman has big shoes to fill replacing the departed Darren Rizzi (New Orleans). Grant should reassume both punt and kickoff return duties, although Drake remains an option on kickoffs. Backup safety Walt Aikens is one of the league’s top multi-purpose special teams performers. Jason Sanders was the NFL’s most accurate rookie kicker, converting 18-of-20 field goal attempts. Matt Haack broke a franchise record with 35 punts downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. That mark, though, also reflects an offense that broke down too often for sustained success.
This year is all about 2020 and beyond — and team owner Stephen Ross has admitted it. Before the draft, Ross publicly allowed that even two years might not be enough to complete the makeover he hopes will turn Miami into a viable Super Bowl contender with sustainability into the future. The only way that happens is if Miami finds a difference-maker under center. Rosen has one year to impress. Otherwise, the Dolphins will enter next offseason with a lot more cap room and draft picks but still no answer at the game’s most important position.