Dolphins Preview: Poised to Make a Giant Leap

Friday August 15th, 2014

Popular opinion has crowned the Patriots AFC East champs every summer for the past decade, and that prediction was right in all but one of those years. The Patriots appear to be the division’s best team again this season, but keep an eye on the Dolphins, who are poised to take a significant leap forward in 2014.

Besides the head coach and quarterback entering their third seasons together, the unprecedented distractions of last year’s bullying debacle appear to be fully in the past. Then again, the weight of those distractions may have been overblown anyway. The Dolphins were 3-4 to begin the season and started 5-2 following Jonathan Martin’s departure. They would have made the playoffs if not for back-to-back division losses to end the season. Credit head coach Joe Philbin for saving a locker room that he admittedly hadn’t been overseeing carefully enough.

But let’s not lose perspective. Despite what Hollywood and the talking heads on TV tell us, football games aren’t won in harmonious locker rooms, but on the field. Granted, the two can be related, but generally what happens on the field drives locker room harmony, not the other way around.

The Dolphins’ leap forward will come from what they’re now capable of doing between the sidelines. Philbin was hired away from Green Bay in large part because of his familiarity with the West Coast spread system, but now the 53-year-old has turned much of the offense over to new coordinator Bill Lazor. At the beginning of the new league year, the 42-year-old Lazor was a mystery man around the NFL. He’d worked with a variety of different systems as a quarterbacks coach during his time in Seattle, at the University of Virginia and in Philadelphia (his most recent stop) over the previous six years, and Philbin’s assistants were being tight-lipped about what system they’d run in 2014. But once minicamps started, it was clear: Lazor is bringing Chip Kelly’s scheme to South Beach.

This is what the Dolphins actually needed last year, when Ryan Tannehill was getting hit as much as any quarterback in the league. (His 58 sacks were 10 more than the next most-sacked man, Joe Flacco.) Since it is based on quick-timing passes, one of the benefits of Kelly’s system is that you don’t need anchoring pass blockers outside. The ball is out before guys like Bryant McKinnie and Tyson Clabo (both dismissed after the 2013 season) can get dismantled.

Admiration for Luck and infatuation with RG3 has distracted football fans from noticing that Tannehill has soundly developed the way good QBs traditionally do.

But just to be sure, first-year general manager Dennis Hickey still revamped the offensive line. He spent $25 million guaranteed on left tackle Branden Albert, used his first-round pick on right tackle Ja’Wuan James and made a solid signing in guard Shelley Smith for two years, $5.5 million. (He later brought in ex-Cardinal/Packer Daryn Colledge, as well.) And with either last year’s third-round pick, Dallas Thomas, or this year’s third-rounder, Billy Turner, emerging as candidates at guard, everything was looking pretty solid up front. Then Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey tore his hip labrum in June.

The loss of the supremely athletic out-in-front blocker hurts Lazor’s space-oriented rushing attack. But even with Pouncey sidelined until likely midseason, the Dolphins can survive as long as Tannehill takes an expected step forward.

Admiration for Andrew Luck and infatuation with RG3 has distracted football fans from noticing that Tannehill has soundly developed the way good quarterbacks traditionally do. He was decent as a rookie, good in Year 2, has the skills to approach greatness in future seasons. Tannehill is willing to make throws from a muddy pocket (a must for any quality pro quarterback), he’s very good on the move (as a runner and a passer) and his decision-making, while still inconsistent, is generally sharp and steadily improving. His only consistent weakness is his deep ball, which he tends to get too much air under. That’s correctable. And, in Lazor’s scheme, it’s also avoidable.

While Nick Foles, Lazor’s QB last season, led the NFL in percentage of pass attempts that flew at least 20 yards (according to Pro Football Focus), the Eagles did not have a deep, vertical passing attack. Many of those 20-plus-yarders were seam throws or defined reads on something like a corner route—throws that the sturdy-armed Tannehill can make.

Mike Wallace on his way to the end zone last December. (Chris Trotman/Getty Images) Mike Wallace on his way to the end zone last December. (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

It will be interesting to see how Miami’s receivers—namely their $60 million one—fit into this scheme. Mike Wallace has boasted excitement for his new role, which will have him running a greater variety of routes and moving all around the formation. But keep in mind, there’s a reason former offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, as well as Wallace’s previous team, the Steelers, did not use the 6’0”, 200-pound speedster in this way. Wallace is not an expert route runner nor is he a natural attacker of the ball. It wouldn’t be surprising if Brian Hartline, a player with more diverse skills, leads Miami in receiving again.

Some have speculated that Hartline, who is due $5.9 million next season, will eventually get replaced by this year’s second-round pick, Jarvis Landry. But if that moment comes, it won’t be this season. Landry figures to compete with athletic, big-bodied slot receiver Rishard Matthews and respectable role player Brandon Gibson (who is coming back from a torn patellar tendon) for the third starting receiver job.

That is, if Lazor elects to use a three-wideout base. If last year’s fourth-round pick Dion Sims continues to show positive signs like he has in camp, Lazor will have the option of featuring a very flexible dual tight end base, with one of these guys working opposite unheralded star Charles Clay, Miami’s only multifaceted weapon. Regardless of the formation, Clay must play an integral role.

On the ground, the Dolphins look very average. There’s not much to be excited about in Lamar Miller, Knowshon Moreno or Daniel Thomas. However, Miller might work in Lazor’s scheme. Much of the running game is built on getting the ball outside. Miller is not a burner, but he’s shown a definite ability to reach the perimeter. He won’t break a ton of tackles, but he knows how to set up blocks and locate hidden yards. His key is to continue improving in pass protection—so that coaches can trust him in hurry-up, which the Dolphins figure to run almost fulltime—and running with more week to week consistency. But there have been too many instances when Miller flat-out disappears.

Disappearing acts have been prominent in Moreno’s career. The free-agent pickup didn’t help his cause by showing up out of shape and undergoing knee surgery in June. Don’t be surprised if Thomas, another unsteady runner but a man with decent vision out of shotgun, winds up getting the main reps behind Miller again.

DEFENSE

Cameron Wake rushing off the edge. (Zach Bolinger/Icon SMI) Cameron Wake rushing off the edge. (Zach Bolinger/Icon SMI)

Quietly, the Dolphins have built one of the better defenses in football, ranking in the top eight in points allowed in each of the past three seasons. Coordinator Kevin Coyle, who has been running the unit since 2012, has built a very similar schematic foundation to the one that’s come to define his former boss, Mike Zimmer, in Cincinnati. That means a mixture of different coverage disguises and rotations paired with diverse, aggressive play from the front seven.

In that front seven, Coyle might actually have better personnel than Zimmer had in Cincy. The zone blitzes require lissome defensive linemen, which he has, starting with Olivier Vernon. The third-year end is coming off an 11.5-sack season and has very respectable run-stopping abilities. Weighing only 268, however, Vernon can be susceptible to power blocks at the point of attack. That’s the same issue Dion Jordan, this defense’s most scintillating athlete, has faced. Jordan, who is suspended the first four weeks for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, increased his weight from 248 to 265 in hopes of becoming an every-down player. But for now he’s poised for hybrid sub-package pass-rushing duties again.

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Jordan should see plenty of one-on-one matchups because offensive lines will be most concerned with Cameron Wake, who predominantly rushes from the weak side. Wake, 32, battled some injuries last season but was still productive. He has developed a nice speed-to-power repertoire to accompany his edge quickness, which is typically how good rushers prolong their stardom.

As for the men applying power up front: Jared Odrick, with his stout lateral strength, is one of the best run-defending ends in football. He can line up at a traditional outside spot or slide over to play a five- or four-technique, which gives Coyle more options for diversifying his fronts. Randy Starks is a similar player. He was expected to hit a wall in his 10th season last year but, working in a rotation with Odrick and Paul Soliai (who has since been replaced by Earl Mitchell), he turned out to be Miami’s most destructive run enforcer.

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Behind the line is a linebacking corps that teeters around the middle of the NFL’s pack but has two uniquely speedy players in Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, who will both play outside this year (veteran Koa Misi moves to the Mike). Ellerbe and Wheeler can be great blitz disguisers because downhill burst allows them to rush the passer from greater initial depth.

Last season, Coyle regularly sprinkled his cornerbacks into the pass-rushing equation. He lost his top blitzer, Nolan Carroll, but he gained a savvier one in Cortland Finnegan. The nine-year pro must first earn a starting job, though. He couldn’t stay healthy in St. Louis last year and was shockingly bad when he did. Being just 30 years old, there’s no reason he can’t give the Dolphins a physicality outside in the base D and over the slot in nickel, where he’d replace converted safety Jimmy Wilson. Jamar Taylor was supposed to provide these services, but the 2013 second-round pick was riddled with health issues last year and has come nowhere close to taking off. If that doesn’t change, he won’t garner playing time ahead of 2013 third-rounder Will Davis, who is also looking to lift off after an injury-riddled rookie campaign.

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Whoever wins the No. 2 job will play opposite Brent Grimes, a very respectable second-tier corner who understands coverage technique and has good ball skills. Grimes’s performance last season earned him a new four-year, $32 million contract ($16 million guaranteed). We’ll find out how much the Dolphins coaching staff shares the front office’s affinity for the 31-year-old by how often they elect to give (rather than Grimes) safety help against No. 1 receivers.

Providing the help would be Louis Delmas, a boom-or-bust player whom Miami hopes can create more big plays than his barely noticeably predecessor, Chris Clemons. Assuming he beats out Jimmy Wilson for playing time, Delmas can be a deep-secondary or box presence, just like returning starting safety Reshad Jones.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Caleb Sturgis missed eight field goals last season, more than all but two other kickers. Brandon Fields has been this team’s punter since the latest Bush Administration. His 42.4 net average last year ranked second in the league. In the return game, Marcus Thigpen has home run capabilities, though he was simply more of a steady field position guy last season.

BOTTOM LINE

If Tannehill continues improving at his current rate, this will be a much better offense in 2014. The defense has long been of playoff caliber.

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