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To quote the legendary rapper Rakim’s opening line in his 1987 hit song Paid In Full, I’ve been “thinking of a master plan” all offseason.
The goal is to transform last year’s 10-6 Miami Dolphins into one of the final eight teams competing in the postseason.
All it would take is the right moves to improve Miami’s offense, and to tighten the screws on the defense.
Here’s my vision for the 2021 Dolphins:
1. Trade for Deshaun Watson
The Dolphins should prepare themselves for a bidding war for Watson’s services, especially if the New York Jets are involved. Last thing Miami can afford is to spend the next decade in the AFC East with the third- or fourth-best quarterback in the division.
Watson is on a Hall of Fame trajectory, and as long as he remains relatively healthy, and a team puts the right pieces around him, there’s little doubt he’ll remain one of the NFL’s top-25 talents for the next decade. Miami has spent the past two decades searching for a quarterback like this. Well, here’s your chance. Seize the opportunity, if presented, even if a Watson trade costs the equivalent of four first-round picks.
2. Get Tua to settle in
There’s no shame in continuing to build this run-past-option-based offense around Tua Tagovailoa if a Watson deal can’t be done. Tagovailoa should show significant improvement in Year 2 as a byproduct of having a regular NFL offseason, and his focus should be on developing better chemistry with his playmakers.
3. Trade down from pick No. 3
The Dolphins’ best shot at maximizing the No. 3 pick, which they acquired from Houston in the Laremy Tunsil-Kenny Stills trade, in this year’s draft is to flip it into more assets by targeting a team that’s infatuated with BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, the three quarterbacks not named Trevor Lawrence who are also projected as first-round selections.
Moving the No. 3 pick to a team like the Panthers for Carolina’s 2021 first- (No. 8), second-round pick (No. 39), and a 2022 second-round pick gives Miami a chance to land three NFL starters for one draft pick. The Dolphins need to find two teams (maybe Philadelphia and Carolina) that are in love with the same quarterback, and hope they aspire to leapfrog Atlanta, which owns pick No. 4. A quarterback bidding war benefits Miami.
4. Bid big on a pass rusher
Von Miller and Melvin Ingram already call South Florida home during the offseason, so a substantial offer that features $25-30 million in guaranteed money from the Dolphins should get their attention as free agents.
Miller and Ingram are the type of pass-rushing demons who could transform the NFL’s sixth-best defense into the league’s best because they have the ability to beat offensive tackles 1-on-1, and produce sacks and pressure without blitzing. Yannick Ngakoue and Jadeveon Clowney should also be considered, especially since their struggles in 2020 might drop their asking price a bit.
If the Dolphins are willing to pay Kyle Van Noy $12.5 million a season they need to consider adding a superior pass rusher for the same price because Van Noy’s 2021 salary doesn’t become guaranteed until March 21, and Miami can use the cap space releasing him creates to sign a better edge player.
5. Build an offense around Najee Harris
Miami’s offense would take a significant step forward with Harris as the featured back, and ensuring they land him would be my top priority in the 2021 draft. That’s why I’d use the No. 18 pick to select the former Alabama standout, who ranks first in school history for rushing (3,843 yards), and first in touchdowns scored (57).
And if there was any threat of a team selecting Harris before Miami, I’d trade up to secure his services. Other backs will do just fine, but Harris is the type of player an NFL team can build their offense around.
6. Cut Jakeem Grant and Clayton Fejedelem
Making Grant a post-June 1 release and waiving Fejedelem might weaken Miami’s special teams unit, but the Dolphins could do plenty with the $6.5 million in cap space these releases would produce.
Those moves would get the Dolphins to $30.5 million in cap space this offseason. I’d target free-agent receiver Isaiah McKenzie, a South Florida native who returned a punt for a touchdown against the Dolphins in the 2020 regular-season finale for the Bills, as Grant’s replacement.
7. Feast on second-tier free agents
The financial landscape created by the $20 million reduction to the salary cap will force teams to make tough decisions on decent players with bloated salaries because half the league’s teams lack the cap space to even sign their draft class. I suspect this might reset the free-agent market and force more players to take shorter, prove-it deals.
If I’m the Dolphins, I’d target recently cut starters, or often injured free agents like Indianapolis safety Malik Hooker, hoping to land a bargain like they did in 2013 when Miami signed cornerback Brent Grimes to a one-year, prove-it deal coming off his Achilles tendon injury.
8. Improve the interior of Miami’s O-line
The Dolphins need to create better running alleys for their tailbacks, and the easiest way to do so would be to improve team’s output at center and guard.
Ted Karras is a free agent, but the Dolphins could draft a young player with more upside between rounds two to four of the draft and his entire rookie deal would likely be as much, or close to what Karras will likely command annually as a free agent.
I’d also be open to drafting a top-shelf offensive tackle early, and moving Robert Hunt inside to right guard while experimenting with Jesse Davis or Michael Deiter as the team’s center.
9. Add multiple playmakers on offense
The Dolphins have three receivers — DeVante Parker, Preston Williams and Lynn Bowden Jr. — I’d be willing to commit to for the 2021 season.
The rest will need to compete with two rookie receivers to earn their spot on Miami’s 53-man regular-season roster. Not only would I target Alabama receiver Devonta Smith with my first first-round selection, but I’m selecting another player with run-after-catch ability — Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge, North Texas’ Jaelon Darden, Louisville’s Tutu Atwell, South Carolina’s Shi Smith and UCLA’s Demetric Felton — in the later rounds.
Whether or not the Dolphins select Smith, or sign McKenzie as Grant’s replacement, I’m drafting two receivers who have run-after-catch skills, and the ability to take the top off a defense.
10. Draft a quarterback early on Day 3
Assuming that Tagovailoa won’t miss games because of an injury would be irresponsible considering his NFL and collegiate career, and there’s little doubt that Ryan Fitzpatrick’s days in Miami are done. He’ll either sign elsewhere, or retire.
Jake Rudock and Reid Sinnett are the only other quarterbacks on the roster, and the Dolphins can, and should do better. Florida’s Kyle Trask, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and Georgia’s Jamie Newman could all be groomed to become decent backups for Tagovailoa.