2021 Dolphins Offseason Preview

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Hayden Winks
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My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top -- cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures -- and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).

Dolphins 2020 Recap

Dolphins2020
Dolphins2020

The Dolphins were one of the surprise teams of 2020, beating their win total by 3.5 games (3rd). Brian Flores was a coach of the year candidate by year’s end after leading a defensive unit that finished third in passing EPA and sixth in points allowed. Miami was aggressive, blitzing at the second-highest rate (41%) and mixing in a variety of coverage shells. Offensively, Ryan Fitzpatrick was much better than Tua Tagovailoa, who struggled reading the field leading to fewer vertical routes. Tagovailoa needed more talent around him to succeed, including in the ground game. Fixing Miami’s No. 25 rushing EPA offense will be an offseason priority. Given their draft and cap capital, the Dolphins are in a good spot both short- and long-term. How high the ceiling is will fall on Tagovailoa’s shoulders.

Dolphins 2021 Offseason

Notes

Dolphins Cap Space

$22.8 million (10th)

Dolphins Draft Picks

1.03, 1.18, 2.36, 2.50, 3.82, 4th, 6th, plus compensatory picks

Dolphins Departures

QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, C Ted Karras, Slot CB Nik Needham, Slot WR Isaiah Ford, RB Matt Breida, LB Elandon Roberts, LB Kamu Grugier-Hill

Dolphins Cut Candidates

FS Bobby McCain ($5.7M cap savings), SS Eric Rowe ($5.0M), WR Albert Wilson ($2.9M)

Dolphins Depth Chart

Position

Base Offense

Notable Backups

Personnel

11

% of Passes

65%

QB

Tua Tagovailoa

WR

DeVante Parker

Allen Hurns

WR

Preston Williams

Albert Wilson

WR (Slot)

Lynn Bowden

Jakeem Grant

TE

Mike Gesicki

Durham Smythe

RB (Early Down)

Myles Gaskin

Salvon Ahmed

RB (Third Down)

Myles Gaskin

LT

Austin Jackson

LG

Ereck Flowers

C

???

Solomon Kindley

RG

Jesse Davis

RT

Robert Hunt

Jesse Davis

Offensive Coordinator: Ex-OC Chan Gailey’s offense was stale once Tua Tagovailoa was named the starter. The vertical passing game was non-existent, which could be a play-calling issue, a Tagovailoa issue, or a weapons issue. We’ll see if co-coordinators Eric Studesville and George Godsey can light a fire under the 2020 No. 5 overall pick. Studesville (the 2018-20 run-game coordinator) and Godsey (the 2019-20 tight ends coach) have a combined two years of offensive coordinator duties, so this is a total wild card promotion. Last year, the Dolphins played ball control (25th in neutral pace on the 18th deepest air yards per pass attempt) with lots of two-tight end looks (30% of his pass attempts came in 12-personnel which would’ve been fourth over the entire season). Promoting a run-game coordinator and a tight ends coach to co-offensive coordinators make it seem like that won’t be changing.

Passing Offense: Tua Tagovailoa wasn’t trusted in 2020, probably because he missed so many reads (see below) and was coming off major hip surgery without a normal offseason. The end result was Tagovailoa finishing 31st out of 38 quarterbacks in passing EPA and 31st in completion percentage over expected (-1.2). His tape still showed plus accuracy and enough arm strength to succeed, but he needs to have more on his plate, throw downfield more often, and improvise more to reach his top-10 ceiling. Adding more pass-catchers to the mix will certainly help, too. Here’s who he threw to last year: DeVante Parker (44 targets), Mike Gesicki (43), Jakeem Grant (35), Lynn Bowden (35), Durham Smythe (21), Mack Hollins (17), and others. Only the first two are NFL-caliber starters. Expect receiver and slot receiver to be big items on the wish list. Perhaps Presont Williams (foot and ACL) can contribute more often in 2021 after two-straight seasons of eight games each.

Rushing Offense: The Dolphins were the least efficient rushing team in the NFL per my stat PPR Points Over Expected Per Game, and the running backs and offensive line played into that. Miami was starting two rookie offensive tackles in 2020. First-round LT Austin Jackson understandably went through rookie-year growing pains as a 21-year-old but has high-end traits, and second-round RT Robert Hunt had promising tape in his 12 starts. The interior is headlined by 2015 first-round LG Ereck Flowers who has maxed out as an average starter. The other two interior spots are upgrade opportunities with C Ted Karras heading to free agency and right guard featuring UDFA journeyman Jesse Davis and 2020 fourth-rounder Solomon Kindley. That’s where offensive line capital will be spent on. At running back, the Dolphins have three-down option Myles Gaskin, but an upgrade is likely coming.

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Position

3-4 Base Defense

Notable Backups

Coverage

Cover 1

% of Plays

???

CB

Xavien Howard

CB

Byron Jones

CB (Slot)

Noah Igbinoghene

SS

Eric Rowe

Brandon Jones

FS

Bobby McCain

LB

Jerome Baker

DT (1T)

Raekwon Davis

DT (3T)

Christian Wilkins

DT (5T)

Emmanuel Ogbah

DT (5T)

Shaq Lawson

OLB

Kyle Van Noy

Andrew Van Ginkel

Defensive Coordinator: The Dolphins Defense was fun to watch under coach Brian Flores, an aggressive Bill Belichick disciple. Miami was second in blitz rate (41%) and did more near the line of scrimmage pre-snap than just about any team in the league on tape. The goal was to get the quarterback to panic with pressure while letting his high-end coverage corners win on the boundary. It was a beautifully-executed structure that led to allowing the sixth-fewest points in the league. Flores will get the most of his talent and more is coming now that the word is out that he’s creating a winning culture in Miami. Expect pressure to be at the root of all 2021 game plans, and hopefully some of it can be created without the blitz this time around.

Passing Defense: Miami played a lot of press man coverage while playing mind games at the line of scrimmage with their linebackers and edge players. It worked well, largely because of CBs Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, both of whom are under contract long term. They are a top-five duo on the perimeter, and they’ll be joined by 2020 first-round slot CB Noah Igbinoghene next season with Nik Needham heading for free agency. Igbinoghene is inexperienced but truly is a rare athlete. The upside is high at corner. Safety is another story. Both SS Eric Rowe ($5.0M in cap savings) and FS Bobby McCain ($5.7M) are potential cut candidates. If Rowe is released, 2020 third-rounder Brandon Jones would slide into the lineup. Between the two, upgrading free safety is a bigger priority. Up front, the Dolphins have quality pass rushers in OLB Kyle Van Noy (6.0 sacks), DE Emmanuel Ogbah (9.0), DE Shaq Lawson (4.0), and DT Christian Wilkins (1.5) at their respective positions. With few pieces leaving via free agency, the Dolphins actually could come close to repeating the top-10 finishes in passing EPA (3rd) and adjusted sack rate (9th).

Rushing Defense: The Dolphins mix their front seven frequently, but I saw a lot of bear front (3-3-5) on tape with five defenders near the line of scrimmage and one off-ball linebacker in the middle of the field. That is 2018 third-rounder Jerome Baker right now with part-time contributors Elandon Roberts and Kamu Grugier-Hill off the books. It’s a spot to upgrade. Up front, Miami is set at nose tackle with 2020 second-rounder Raekwon Davis. The two defensive tackle spots are set, too, with 2019 first-round three-tech Christian Wilkins and 2016 second-rounder Emmanuel Ogbah. Aside from linebacker depth, the Dolphins are set inside the front seven. They were 17th in yards per carry allowed to running backs last year. That’s a fair over/under for 2021.

DolphinsDEF
DolphinsDEF

Dolphins Team Needs

1. Outside Receiver - DeVante Parker is cap controlled for the next three seasons, but he’ll be maximized with more around him and former UDFA Preston Williams is difficult to trust given his injury history. He’s only played eight games in each of his first two seasons. A quick-twitch weapon who can specialize within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage would complement Parker and Tua Tagovailoa’s strengths.

2. Center - 2020 starter Ted Karras is a free agent, and Miami’s offensive interior was faulty all season. Pro Football Focus ranked their run blocking as 30th in the NFL, which closely aligns with my model’s No. 32 ranking in PPR Points Over Expected Per Carry. While center is the main priority, the Dolphins can also address right guard where UDFA journeyman Jesse Davis or 2020 fourth-rounder Solomon Kindley will start.

3. Offensive Guard - Read the paragraph from above.

4. Running Back - Until the Dolphins’ interior offensive line gets fixed, it largely will not matter who is running the ball. Last year, Myles Gaskin (5’10/200) was a near every-down player when healthy, but he was the RB69 out of 74 qualifiers in PPR Points Over Expected Per Game last year. The 2019 sixth-rounder is a versatile backup, not a starter in a perfect world. Miami is very likely to address the position before training camp. A Miami Herald report said there’s “mutual” interest between free agent Aaron Jones and the Dolphins.

5. Linebacker - With slot CB Noah Igbonighene ready to replace Nik Needham, the only real turnover on defense for Miami is with the rotational off-ball linebackers. Depth is needed, and there’s room for a starting upgrade over 2018 third-rounder Jerome Baker who only checks in at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds.

2021 Fantasy Football Rankings

Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.

DeVante Parker (WR3) - It was a tale of two halves for Parker last year. With Ryan Fitzpatrick under center early, Parker averaged 14.8 PPR points on 12.8 expected PPR points, essentially WR3 numbers. But with Tua Tagovailoa starting, Parker only averaged 10.1 PPR points on nearly identical per-game usage (13.2 expected PPR points). That means Parker was far less efficient with the rookie, who is less likely to rip downfield shots that FitzMagic. Adding a deep element to the passing game will be an offseason priority for the coaching staff.

Mike Gesicki (TE1/2) - As a third-year 25-year-old, Gesicki finished as the TE10 per game (10.8 PPR points) on TE13 fantasy usage. Gesicki’s early-career production is in line with other late-rookie contract breakout players at the position. Few players have Gesicki’s athleticism, role, and age going into 2021. All he needs is for Tagovailoa to take a step forward in year two.

Tua Tagovailoa (QB2/3) - In nine starts, Tagovailoa averaged 15.0 fantasy points which made him the QB27 per game. Given the offensive line and receiver depth charts plus the lack of an offseason, that nine-game stretch will likely be the worst we’ll see. The 23-year-old is likely to average more than 6.3 YPA in a better situation, and he has just enough movement skills to add some valuable rushing production (12.1 rushing yards per game with three touchdowns in 2020).

Preston Williams (WR7) - A team-high 29% of Williams’ targets last year came at least 20 yards downfield. He’s the deep threat of the offense when healthy, but he could be a situational player only in 2021 if the Dolphins keep their 12-personnel usage and draft an early-round receiver with either of their two first-round picks. 30% of Tagovailoa’s pass attempts came in two-tight end sets last year.

Myles Gaskin (RB5) - When healthy, Gaskin was a volume-based RB1/2 last year. He finished as the RB11 per game (16.7 PPR points) on, wait for it, RB3 overall fantasy usage. Insane, but the Dolphins were willing to give the starting running back a three-down role. Gaskin is the current starter, but the Dolphins are high up on the running back need list. A high-end free agent or rookie replacement is likely.