General manager Chris Grier has crafted arguably the most talented Dolphins roster this century, built around a series of blue-chip acquisitions: Tyreek Hill, Terron Armstead and Jalen Ramsey and several savvy draft picks, especially Xavien Howard, Jaylen Waddle, Jaelan Phillips and Jevon Holland.
But this season, in some ways, will be a referendum on seven decisions by Grier and Mike McDaniel, who has considerable input on offensive personnel decisions. Exploring those seven:
▪ Having Austin Jackson run unopposed at right tackle.
Ever since the Dolphins drafted him 18th overall in 2020, the front office has been enamored with his athleticism. Even when it became clear that he wasn’t a long-term solution at left tackle, the Dolphins convinced themselves that he could be a long-term right tackle -- especially in a zone blocking scheme that accentuates athleticism and good footwork among linemen.
Because he protects the left-handed Tua Tagovailoa’s blind side, Jackson’s job is easily among the 15 most important on the team.
The fact Jackson missed all but 1 ½ games last season with ankle injuries didn’t deter Grier or McDaniel. They decided not only to stick with Jackson as the starter, but also eliminate the player (Brandon Shell) who realistically could have beaten him out this season. (Shell retired in August after signing with Buffalo.)
And the only established, in-his-prime tackle signed by Miami in free agency (Isaiah Wynn) was quickly moved to guard.
The decision to stick with Jackson is risky in the sense that he hasn’t been able to stay upright and hasn’t performed consistently when he’s healthy. But it’s also understandable that a team wants to give a skilled first-round pick one final chance to be a starter.
In an alternate universe, the Dolphins would have pursued a more established right tackle, such as Kaleb McGary, who stayed with Atlanta for $34.5 million over three seasons.
When Dolphins fans watch Jackson, they see a huge question market. When the Dolphins see him, they see a nimble, superior athlete who merely needs experience and good fortune medically.
“Took a big mental observation of last season to see where I really needed to be at,” Jackson said this week. “I’m really excited. No rust here; just ready to go.”
▪ The decision to bypass adding a top left guard.
Grier famously told reporters this offseason that “you guys are probably more worried about” the offensive line “than we are.”
Even through a poor rookie season and an inconsistent and injury-interrupted second season, the Dolphins remained steadfast that Liam Eichenberg possesses all the skills needed to succeed as a guard in this system.
“Liam showed some really good signs of playing well for stretches after adjusting to the system and being asked to do stuff he had never done before,” Grier said this offseason. “We actually joked before one of our games when he got hurt, a coach and a GM of another team came over and was like, ‘Man, losing Eichenberg hurt, because he said he’d been playing really well for you.’ So it’s encouraging to hear that from others.”
PFF didn’t agree, ranking him 75th of 77 guards last season, and in the bottom five for run blocking and pass blocking.
And the Dolphins seem to have doubts, judging by the fact that Isaiah Wynn - who hasn’t played guard since college six years ago - has played only guard for Miami and has been competing with Eichenberg at left guard. McDaniel declined to say which player would start at left guard against the Chargers; Wynn started the final two preseason games and appears to be the front-runner.
Eichenberg said a rib injury sustained in the first preseason game set him back. He missed the final two preseason games.
Among others, the Dolphins in March bypassed left guard Isaac Seumalu, who signed a three-year, $24 million deal with Pittsburgh after being named a Pro Bowl alternate with Philadelphia last season.
Wynn at guard seemed like a shot in the dark, a safeguard against Eichenberg stumbling or getting injured (which happened). Perhaps it will work. But Wynn said guard is essentially a new position for him because he hasn’t played it in so long.
▪ The decision not to bid much for Dalvin Cook and not to bid more aggressively for Jonathan Taylor.
Cook, a Pro Bowler the past four seasons, would have come to Miami for a deal in the $8 million range; Miami offered nothing remotely close to that.
The Dolphins’ thinking on Cook progressively changed over time, from very interested in February and March - when they called the Vikings about a trade - to not interested at all when he was a free agent in August.
With Taylor, the Dolphins and Colts exchanged ideas about trade packages (whether you call them offers is semantics), but two things were clear: 1) The Colts asked for things that Miami never seriously considered offering: either a first-round pick or multiple second day picks or a combination of a player (Jaylen Waddle and Robert Hunt were raised by the Colts) and picks.
The Dolphins seemed comfortable with giving Taylor the pricey longterm contract that he sought, but weren’t comfortable giving up a first-rounder or even multiple second-day picks.
The thinking here is that the Dolphins need as many special players offensively as they can get to compete in a loaded AFC, and Cook and Taylor offered opportunities to do that. It’s a decision Miami might ultimately regret, but one they can revisit (with Taylor) before the Oct. 31 trade deadline if they choose.
For now, they’re gambling Raheem Mostert, Salvon Ahmed, De’Von Achane and Chris Brooks will be enough, with Jeff Wilson Jr. out four games.
▪ The Bradley Chubb trade and contract.
In acquiring the 2020 Pro Bowler from Denver and giving him a five-year, $111 million extension, the Dolphins chose to overlook the fact that he missed 24 games due to injuries from 2019 through 2021 and that he had no sacks in seven games in 2021.
The eight games in Miami produced modest results (13 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Far more is needed to justify the $63 million in guaranteed money in his new Dolphins deal and the $27 million cap numbers every season from 2024 through 2027.
“They have got to get Bradley Chubb going off the edge,” ESPN analyst Booger McFarland said. “Their most important player outside of Tua Tagovailoa is going to be Bradley Chubb, because they have got to get him to be what they paid him to be, which is a dominant edge rusher. Because ultimately, you’ve got to get Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, get these guys on the ground and you’ve got to have a pass rush to do that.”
▪ The backup quarterback decision.
The Dolphins knew they needed someone reliable to back up Tagovailoa, who has had nine different injuries over the past six years in college and the NFL.
Yet they bypassed the most established available backups (Andy Dalton, Gardner Minshew, Taylor Heinicke) and convinced themselves that Jets backup Mike White - with his intelligence and fleeting glimpses of excellence (against the Bengals and Bears) - would be a better and cheaper fit than several more established backups.
Ultimately, they saved money by guaranteeing White $4.5 million over two years while Carolina guaranteed Dalton $8 million over two.
Of the nine most prominent quarterbacks who signed to be backups this past offseason, White’s 75.7 passer rating was the worst last season, behind Dalton (95.2), Sam Darnold (92.6), Heinicke (89.6), Jarrett Stidham (89.2), Jacoby Brissett (88.9), Marcus Mariota (88.2), Minshew (83.4) and Jameis Winston (79.6).
Among quarterbacks that threw at least 100 passes last season, only Joe Flacco, Dolphins No. 3 QB Skylar Thompson and Zach Wilson had a lower passer rating than White’s 75.7, which was up slightly from his 75.1 in his only prior NFL season. The Dolphins believe White is far better than those numbers, despite an uneven offseason. I’m not convinced.
▪ Gambling on David Long Jr.’s durability instead of signing a different inside linebacker to pair with Jerome Baker.
From a talent and fit decision, the Long signing makes sense, and the contract was good value (two years, $11 million). By all accounts, he’s an upgrade over Elandon Roberts in terms of speed and pass coverage skills.
Pro Football Focus ranked Long 14th among all linebackers last season, including fifth against the run. Per Next Gen Stats, Long tackled opposing ball carriers for a loss or no gain on 6.6 percent of his run defense snaps last season, the second-highest run stuff rate in the NFL (minimum 200 snaps against the run).
He allowed a solid 87 passer rating in his coverage area in 2022, compared with 112.8 for Roberts.
But Long’s history of soft tissue injuries is troublesome, and Miami hasn’t had great luck with players with a history of injuries (Tagovailoa, Terron Armstead).
Hamstring injuries sidelined Long for seven games in 2021 (the opener and six in November/December) and kept him out for the final five games in 2022. Titans coach Mike Vrabel called Long a “repeat offender” with injuries.
If hamstring problems shelve Long for significant time, there might be some remorse about not instead signing Alex Anzalone (three years, $18.5 million), Lavonte David (one year, $7 million) or Denzel Perryman (one year, $2.6 million), among others. For now, give Miami the benefit of the doubt on this one because Long - when healthy - should be Jerome Baker’s best running mate during his time here.
▪ Giving short shrift to the tight end position.
Of all the questions on this list, this one causes me the least concern because tight ends targets are limited in a Tyreek Hill- and Jaylen Waddle-led offense.
But Mike Gesicki’s loss can’t be totally shrugged off. The Dolphins converted 45 percent of third down passes with Gesicki in the game. They converted 35 percent of their third-down passes with Gesicki on the bench.
Dolphins players caught 20 touchdowns in the red zone last season and Gesicki caught five of them. Though 6-6 Tyler Kroft is serviceable, there’s nobody in the tight end room with Gesicki’s receiving skills.
Kroft has five TD receptions total over the past six years. Gesicki had five last season even with his role drastically reduced.
When the agents for two top free agent tight ends asked the Dolphins about whether they would bid for their clients in March, the Dolphins responded they didn’t want to spend much at the position.
So there was no Dolphins push for Dalton Schultz (one year, $9 million), Hayden Hurst (three years, $22 million), Foster Moreau (three years, $12 million) and Austin Hooper (one year, $3.5 million).
A late run at Irv Smith was rebuffed when he took a low-money deal ($1.75 million) from Cincinnati.
So next February, when the story is written on this Dolphins season, it’s likely that some of these seven decisions will make the script. The Dolphins must hope they were right on most of them.