With the majority of NFL off-season action behind us, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar grade each team's performance. First division up: the AFC East.
Over the last few years, the Dolphins have been stuck in a competitive purgatory of sorts, never winning more than eight games or less than six. They've moved through coaches and strategies and philosophies in a vain effort to get over the proverbial hump, only to find that the proverbial hump is not only still there, but getting bigger and more formidable by the day.
Generally speaking, the biggest factor working against the Dolphins has been the fact that the Patriots happen to reside in their division. The Dolphins last made the playoffs in 2008, when they were buoyed by the Wildcat formation and Tom Brady's knee injury in the season opener. The franchise's most glaring internal obstacle has been an inability to avoid running with scissors, as was the case in the 2013 bullying scandal—a capital embarrassment reflective of coach Joe Philbin, who seemed to be unaware of what was happening in his own locker room and utterly incapable of managing what he did know.
In 2014, things started to look up. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill took the next step, as the team had hoped he eventually would when they selected him in the first round of the 2012 draft. Tannehill completed 66.4 percent of his passes, throwing for over 4,000 yards for the first time in his career while amassing 27 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. Lamar Miller gained over 1,000 yards on the ground. Mike Wallace was an unusually productive and consistent receiver, catching 10 touchdown passes for the first time since he did it for the Steelers in 2010.
However, the Dolphins' defense was average at best, ranking 17th in Football Outsiders's opponent-adjusted metrics and falling apart at the end of the season. They stood at 5–3 after a 37–0 trouncing of the Chargers on Nov. 2, and then proceeded to stagger to a second straight 8–8 season. That Miami defense allowed 178 total yards against the Chargers, then gave up a minimum of 351 yards and 20 points in their five losses in the season's second half. The season finale may have been the most embarrassing example, as a generally anemic Jets offense curb-stomped the Dolphins' reeling defense for 494 yards and 37 points.
Obviously, this wasn't good enough for general manager Dennis Hickey, who went about changing things drastically as the new league year turned over. Hickey traded Wallace to the Vikings, acquired Kenny Stills from the Saints, signed ex-Browns tight Jordan Cameron and drafted Louisville receiver DeVante Parker—all moves to help Tannehill become even better. The Dolphins also gave Tannehill a major commitment with a six-year, $96 million contract extension that will make him one of the league's highest-paid quarterbacks over the next couple of years, before the funny money common to the new age of long-term NFL contracts starts to kick in.
To bolster that leaky defense, Hickey made the biggest splash of free agency when he signed Ndamukong Suh to a six-year, $114 million contract with $60 million guaranteed. Suh will no doubt be a true force on the defensive line, but have the Dolphins done enough to compete for the AFC East title? They got one early boost even before the summer began with the news that Tom Brady won't play a full 16-game slate. The rest is up to them.
Best acquisition: Ndamukong Suh, DT
The Dolphins paid a king's ransom for Suh, and the salary cap implications will be severe for several seasons. He'll count for just $6.8 million against the cap this season, but that number balloons pretty severely in 2016 at an incredible $28.6 million. The cap numbers will be more than $20 million in 2018 and 2019 as well, and there aren't any escape hatches over the first few seasons if this thing goes south.
At his best, Suh is the rare defensive lineman who can be counted among the NFL's best players, virtually unstoppable even when opposing offensive lines are focused on stopping him above all else. He should make things even easier for Miami's two primary pass rushers: Cameron Wake, who's already a highly-regarded player, and Olivier Vernon, who's a star in the making. Did the Dolphins overpay for Suh? That depends on your definition of value. Hickey saw that his defense needed a severe injection of skill, aggression and attitude. And whatever you may think of Suh, he certainly provides those things.
Biggest loss: Charles Clay, TE
Wallace was Tannehill's most targeted receiver, but his inconsistency drove the Dolphins nuts. Clay has been far more reliable over the years, providing Tannehill with a key target in short and intermediate routes and catching 58 passes for 605 yards and three touchdowns in 2014. He's also a fine blocker. The Bills bought into Clay's potential, signing him to a five-year, $38 million contract with $20 million guaranteed, making Clay the highest-paid tight end in the NFL over the next two years.
The hope in Miami is that Jordan Cameron will replace his production, but Cameron has endured repeated injury issues over the last few years. The Dolphins reflected that in his contract, a two-year, $15 million deal with the second half guaranteed only if Cameron is on the roster at the start of the 2016 league year.
Underrated draft pick: Bobby McCain, CB, Memphis (round 5, pick No. 145)
In an era when most teams start their cornerback height charts at six feet and over, McCain was overlooked in part because he's only 5'9". But he's a smart, resourceful player who plays with speed, control and aggression. He had 43 starts for the Tigers over four seasons and totaled 11 interceptions with three touchdown returns over the last two years. The Dolphins have already proven that they don't have a height bias for starting pass defenders—Brent Grimes is also 5'9"—and it's possible that McCain could fill the role opposite Grimes in time.
“It’s actually pretty crazy because Brent Grimes and Courtland Finnegan—I know the Dolphins just had him and just let him go—they’re actually two of my favorites because they’re smaller guys,” McCain said after he was selected. “But they’re smart guys and they’re really competitive guys. They’re always going to play with a chip on their shoulder and always compete for the football and they’re always going to tackle you and strip you of the ball. They’re going to do the little things right, just like I like to do for myself.”
In the short term, look for him in the slot quite frequently and expect him to compete on special teams. McCain gained over 1,000 yards on punt returns during his collegiate career.
“We’re just really excited about selecting him, a kid that we had a chance to spend some time with at the East-West [Shrine Game],” Hickey said of McCain during his Day 2 draft press conference. “Unbelievable charisma and personality. I definitely felt the passion, the toughness and the love for the game. Over 40 starts, 12 interceptions, can play inside, can play outside for us. He can come in to do a little bit of nickel and play a little bit on the outside, obviously give us something on special teams. So, really excited to have an opportunity to work with him and add him into the mix with our corner group.”
Looming question for training camp: How will the secondary shake out?
The Dolphins put a merciful end to the Cortland Finnegan experiment after one season, and though Brent Grimes can be a true shutdown cornerback at times, he allowed seven touchdowns to go along with his five interceptions in 2014. The rookie McCain will be in the mix, as will Jamar Taylor and new addition Brice McCain, formerly of the Steelers. The Dolphins also took Michigan State receiver Tony Lippett in the fifth round and will attempt to convert him to cornerback. Both Taylor and Will Davis suffered injuries last season, which complicated things within an already suspect cornerback group.
“This is year three,” Philbin said of Davis and Taylor in April. “Neither one played any meaningful time their first year. Last year both of them contributed somewhat and both ended up on injured reserve. They should have enough experience. You know the drill. You’ve been around. You’ve been in the system. Coverages haven’t changed a lot. It’s an important year for them.”
It's an important year for everyone in Miami's secondary, and the division could rest on the success of those cornerbacks.