Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Up today: the Dolphins, whose new coaching staff won’t make much of a difference without a few upgrades on defense. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
RB Lamar Miller, DE Derrick Shelby, WR Rishard Matthews, FS Louis Delmas, ILB Kelvin Shepard, OLB Spencer Paysinger
Players that must be re-signed
Miller, Shelby, Matthews. The Dolphins have two franchise-level players on their defensive line in Ndamukong Suh and Olivier Vernon (unless another team decides to play chicken with Miami’s decision to give Vernon the transition tag), but things are a bit undefined outside of that. Cameron Wake turned 34 in January (he’s the team’s oldest defensive player) and tackle Earl Mitchell didn’t play his best last season. Shelby has become a great all-around end and will get paid handsomely by some team—the Dolphins may find themselves priced out given the cap numbers for Suh and Vernon, but they’d better give it their best shot.
Matthews grabbed a career-high 43 catches for 662 yards and four touchdowns last season, and he’s a good second option to Jarvis Landry for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. And while the Dolphins hope Jay Ajayi, the 2015 fifth-rounder out of Boise State, is their future at running back, it was Miller who was more productive last season as Ajayi struggled through hamstring and rib injuries early on. Ideally, Miami would have an estimable one-two punch in Miller and Ajayi.
Most important position to improve
Cornerback. The Dolphins hired Bengals defensive backs coach Vance Joseph to be their new defensive coordinator in January, and there’s a solid connection between that move and Miami’s pressing need for better performance at the cornerback position. Joseph earned a ton of respect around the league for his work with Cincinnati’s pass defenders—the Broncos wanted him to have the DC job that went to Wade Phillips last year (which worked out pretty well for the Broncos, we’d say), but Joseph was able to accept this position after his Cincinnati contract ran out.
Sadly for Joseph, there are no Aqib Talibs or Chris Harrises here. Only Brice McCain allowed an opponent passer rating lower than 100 among Miami’s starting cornerbacks in 2015, and McCain just signed with the Titans after being released by Miami. Between them, Brent Grimes and Jamar Taylor allowed 12 touchdowns to just four interceptions, and all four of those picks belonged to Grimes, who will turn 33 in July. Taylor, taken in the second round of the 2013 draft out of Boise State, doesn’t have a single interception in his three-year career. Safe to say the Dolphins could be undergoing a total rebuild on the perimeter of their secondary in the coming years.
Other positions to improve
Linebacker, guard. Koa Misi had a pretty good season last year at the weak- and strong-side linebacker positions, but his $4.878 million cap hit in 2016 needed to be addressed with the franchise up against the salary cap, and the two sides are reportedly working on a restructured deal. Middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and outside man Jelani Jenkins have proven to be entirely replaceable. Youngsters Zach Vigil and Spencer Paysinger have shown some potential, but that unit needs more starter talent now.
The Dolphins are fairly set at center with Mike Pouncey and at tackle with Branden Albert and Ja’Wuan James, but their guard play is a big problem. Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas allowed a whopping 18 sacks and 81 total pressures in 2015. Those numbers are bad for tackles who deal with speed rushers on nearly every down—for guards with this much talent around them, it’s inexplicable. Both players are young, but it may be time to either cut the cord or let the kids sit for a while behind some veteran players. New coach Adam Gase said at the combine that his staff has some ideas on how to help Turner and Thomas, so there’s that.
Overall priority this off-season
Get Ryan Tannehill to the next level. Just as the Dolphins hired Joseph directly because of his work with cornerbacks, they hired Gase because of his history working with quarterbacks, from Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler in Denver to Jay Cutler in Chicago. Of course, Miami hired Joe Philbin because of his work with Aaron Rodgers and that ended in disaster, but Gase seems to have a bit more to offer. He’ll install his own offense, call his own plays and work closely with Tannehill to iron out the rough spots in his game.
Not that Tannehill had a bad season in 2015—he completed 62% of his passes and threw 24 touchdown passes with just 12 interceptions—but there are times when his mechanics fail him, and he still struggles under pressure, though not as much as his critics think. Tannehill has the arm to make any throw, he’s mobile, and he’s a hard worker. What he has needed all along is the kind of coach who understands a quarterback’s place in the modern NFL passing game, and Gase has proven to have that knack.
“I think he needs a guy that’s going to have his back, that he feels comfortable with right out the gate,” Gase said of Tannehill in January. “And I’m going to be working directly with him.”
That’s a good start, and if Gase can take Tannehill the rest of the way, the entire Dolphins team will be better for it.