The Miami Dolphins’ rebuilding project has moved along right on schedule, probably even ahead of it, but now comes the next challenge.
After being one of the surprise teams in the NFL in 2020 when they improved from 5-11 to 10-6, the Dolphins will be looking to take the next step this season and secure a playoff berth for the first time since 2016.
Head coach Brian Flores has proven since he arrived in 2019 after being a longtime assistant with the New England Patriots that he can coach, but the question is whether the roster is talented enough for Miami to duplicate or surpass its success of last season.
The most important question facing the Dolphins heading into the 2021 season is at quarterback, where teammates and coaches expressed confidence that fifth overall pick Tua Tagovailoa could take a big step forward in his second season as rumors of the team’s interest of embattled Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson persisted.
The strength of the team, though, once again figures to the defense, which returns most key players from a unit that led the NFL in 2020 in both takeaways (29) and third-down stops (31.8 opponent conversion rate).
Tagovailoa undoubtedly looks like a better quarterback in 2021, with a solid showing in training camp and two good outings in the preseason, but how much better he’ll be in the regular season remains to be determined.
Tagovailoa did have a 6-3 record as a starter in 2020 after taking over for veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he ranked 30th and 31st among 35 qualifiers in average yards per attempt and per completion.
To be fair, Tagovailoa was coming back from the serious hip injury that cut short his brilliant career at the University of Alabama and didn’t have the benefit of a normal offseason or preseason because of the COVID-19 protocols in place.
To help Tagovailoa — and the offense in general — the Dolphins added speed at wide receiver in the offseason by signing former Houston Texans first-rounder Will Fuller V as an unrestricted free agent and selecting Tua’s former Alabama teammate Jaylen Waddle with the sixth overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. In addition, another speedy wide receiver, Albert Wilson, is back after opting out last season.
They’ll join DeVante Parker, the team leader in receptions the past three seasons, on a very deep group of wide receivers.
The Dolphins also have a lot of depth at tight end, led by Mike Gesicki, whose 703 receiving yards last season ranked fourth-best at the position.
While the running back corps of Myles Gaskin, Malcolm Brown and Salvon Ahmed lacks a clear No. 1 option, the biggest concern on offense is the line.
The Dolphins have used five draft picks on offensive linemen over the past two drafts; that includes projected starters Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt and Solomon Kindley, all taken in the 2020 draft, and 2021 second-round pick Liam Eichenberg.
As an indication of the concerns up front, the Dolphins acquired two offensive linemen via trade, getting tackle Greg Little from the Carolina Panthers and center/guard Greg Mancz from the Baltimore Ravens.
Though he spent some time coaching special teams, Flores was mostly a defensive assistant in New England, so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise the Dolphins defense has become the strength of the team.
That unit is anchored by a ball-hawking secondary led by All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard, who last season became the first NFL player since 2007 to reach double digits in interceptions. Howard is back after the Dolphins agreed to restructure his contract this summer after the cornerback requested a trade in an Instagram post.
The secondary also includes cornerback Byron Jones, who had two interceptions last season after the Dolphins made him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL (for a time) when they signed him as an unrestricted free agent in March of 2020.
The Dolphins also have safety Eric Rowe, who shut down every tight end not named Kelce or Waller last season, as well as promising rookie second-round pick Jevon Holland, who had four interceptions in training camp after getting nine picks in two seasons at Oregon before he opted out in 2020.
Before drafting Holland, the Dolphins selected University of Miami edge defender Jaelan Phillips with their second of two-round picks with the idea he could help the pass rush.
Another key newcomer is veteran Jason McCourty, who has experience at cornerback and safety and played for New England the past three seasons.
Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah led the team in sacks with nine in 2020, while linebacker Jerome Baker had seven while ending up as one of only two players in the NFL (along with Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White) with at least 100 tackles and seven sacks.
9-8. An awful lot went right for the Dolphins to finish with their 10-6 record in 2020, and it might be too much to expect for that to happen again, particularly when it comes to the ability to create turnovers. Tagovailoa absolutely should be better in his second season, but there’s no guarantee it’s going to be a huge leap, particularly with all the questions on the offensive line.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
QB — Tua Tagovailoa, Jacoby Brissett
RB — Myles Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed, Malcolm Brown
WR — DeVante Parker, Preston Williams
WR — Will Fuller V (suspended for Week 1), Jakeem Grant, Mack Hollins
SLOT — Jaylen Waddle, Albert Wilson
TE — Mike Gesicki, Adam Shaheen, Durham Smythe, Cethan Carter, Hunter Long
LT — Austin Jackson, Greg Little
LG — Solomon Kindley, Robert Jones
C — Michael Deiter, Greg Mancz
RG — Robert Hunt
RT — Jesse Davis, Liam Eichenberg
LDE — Emmanuel Ogbah, Adam Butler
NT — Raekwon Davis, John Jenkins
RDE — Christian Wilkins, Zach Sieler
OLB — Jaelan Phillips, Brennan Scarlett
ILB — Jerome Baker, Sam Eguavoen
ILB — Elandon Roberts, Duke Riley
OLB — Andrew Van Ginkel
CB — Xavien Howard, Nik Needham, Trill Williams
CB — Byron Jones, Noah Igbinoghene
SS — Eric Rowe, Brandon Jones
FS — Jason McCourty, Jevon Holland, Clayton Fejedelem
SLOT — Justin Coleman, Elijah Campbell