The Miami Dolphins have had a solid offseason, becoming a more financially fit franchise, and producing a stellar draft, one that added some playmakers and continues to build in the trenches.
But those roster moves made this offseason don’t ensure that the Dolphins closed the gap between themselves and the Buffalo Bills, the reigning AFC East champions, who dominated Miami in the 2020 regular-season finale, an embarrassing 56-26 loss with a postseason berth on the line for Miami.
During the 2021 NFL draft the Dolphins added the team’s highest-rated pass rusher (Jaelan Phillips) and safety (Javon Holland), and the second-highest rated receiver (Jaylen Waddle) and tight end (Hunter Long) on their draft board.
However, Miami didn’t properly address two clear-cut needs — tailback and center — heading into the draft, and those shortfalls could haunt the team this upcoming season if some youngsters don’t step up.
Here is a projection of the Dolphins’ depth chart after the draft, examining each unit’s strengths, weaknesses and needs heading into the offseason program:
QB (4): Tua Tagovailoa, Jacoby Brissett, Jake Rudock, Ryan Sinnett
This entire franchise’s progression rests on Tagovailoa’s shoulders, and whether or not Miami’s new co-offensive coordinators can build a run-pass-option offense around him that works in the NFL. The hope is that Tagovailoa, who had a 92.5 passer rating, which ranked him 23rd in the NFL last season, improves on his decision-making and operates the offense faster.
Brissett, who joined Miami after signing a one-year deal this offseason that could pay him $7.5 million, is a capable backup. But he’s a mediocre starter based on his 49 career games played. Brissett owns a 12-20 record in 32 starts. He has thrown for 6,459 yards with 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and has a 59.6 career completion percentage. Rudock and Sinnett should be viewed as training camp arms, with each battling it out for the role as Miami’s third quarterback. Their biggest competition is developmental quarterbacks on another team’s roster.
RB (6): Myles Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed, Malcolm Brown, Patrick Laird, Jordan Scarlett, Gerrid Doaks (R)
Gaskin and Ahmed propped up last year’s inconsistent rushing attack, collectively contributing 903 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 217 carries. But more is needed for Miami’s RPO-based offense to find the next gear. If Gaskin had been healthy for all 16 games he was projected to produce 1,616 all-purpose yardage on 20 touches a game.
Brown, who is entering his seventh NFL season, is a decent complimentary back. Last season with the Rams the 27-year-old gained 419 yards on 101 carries and caught a career-high 23 receptions, turning those catches into 162 yards. Miami envisions him as the best option to gain the tough to get yards. Laird and Scarlett will compete with Doaks, who finished his collegiate career at Cincinnati with 1,712 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns on 331 carries, to determine which four or five tailbacks remain on the 53-man regular-season roster. Injuries could thin this unit out, so adding a veteran tailback like a Le’Veon Bell or Duke Johnson before training camp starts should be strongly considered.
WR (11): DeVante Parker, Will Fuller, Jaylen Waddle (R), Preston Williams, Lynn Bowden Jr., Albert Wilson, Allen Hurns, Jakeem Grant, Robert Foster, Malcolm Perry, Kirk Merritt
This is one position that seems fairly stacked if all the veterans who have battled injures the past few seasons return, make it onto the 53-man roster and remain healthy. But history is not on Miami’s side in the health equation of this discussion, especially when it comes to Parker, Williams and Fuller.
Fuller, who was signed to one-year deal worth $10.6 million with incentives this offseason, is the deep threat and playmaker Miami has lacked since Kenny Stills was traded. Wilson and Hurns’ return from being COVID-19 opt outs should enhance the unit’s depth, especially if Wilson has fully recovered from the hip injury he suffered in 2018.
Waddle, this year’s first-round pick who averaged 18.9 yards per reception at Alabama, and Fuller provide Miami’s offense two scary speedsters who will force the issue coverage wise, occupying safeties and preventing teams from crowding the line of scrimmage.
Grant remains Miami’s return specialist, but has done little to prove he’s a reliable NFL receiver. So his future with the team isn’t on solid footing, especially if Bowden and Perry take a step forward in their second NFL season. Wilson, Grant and Hurns could easily be cut or traded to create cap space.
TE (6): Mike Gesicki, Durham Smythe, Hunter Long (R), Adam Shaheen, Cethan Carter (H-back), Chris Myarick
Gesicki built on his promising 2019 season, catching 53 passes for 703 yards and scoring six touchdowns last season on his 85 targets. But the majority of that production came with Ryan Fitzpatrick as his quarterback. Gesicki, who this season will be playing on the final year of a rookie deal paying him $1.3 million, needs to develop better chemistry with Tagovailoa to continue his ascension.
Gesicki, Smythe and Shaheen set a franchise record for productivity from the tight end position in 2020, and with their former position coach (George Godsey) being named Miami’s co-offensive coordinator, don’t expect that position’s involvement to lessen. Carter, a free agent Miami signed, should provide decent blocking from the H-back position and solid special teams contribution. Long, who caught 89 passes for 1,297 yards and scored nine touchdowns during his 36 starts for Boston College, was taken in the third round this year to be the eventual replacement for Gesicki or Smythe, who will be paid $2.18 million this season, the final year of his rookie deal.
OL (15): Tackles — Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt, D.J. Fluker, Larnel Coleman (R), Jonathan Hubbard, Robert Jones (R); Guards — Solomon Kindley, Jesse Davis, Laim Eichenberg (R), Adam Pankey, Durval Queiroz Neto; Centers — Matt Skura, Michael Deiter, Cameron Tom, Tyler Gauthier
The Dolphins are seemingly giving the offensive line yet another makeover to address the unit’s continued struggles to open up running lanes. Miami’s banking on improvement from all the 2020 rookies entering their second year. Skura, who started 51 games for the Ravens before suffering a serious knee injury, replaces Ted Karras, who departed to New England as a free agent. And Ereck Flowers, last year’s starting left guard, was traded to Washington for the pick that landed UMass offensive tackle Larnel Coleman in the 2021 seventh round.
The Dolphins traded up in the second round this year to select Eichenberg, sending the Giants a 2022 third-round pick, because they are convinced he has what it takes to become a rookie starter. He’ll either play right tackle, allowing Robert Hunt to move inside to right guard, or fill one of the guard spots because he has the athleticism needed to get to the second-level, which is what a 340-pound Kindley lacked. How Davis, Fluker and Deiter fit into the remade offensive line is a mystery, but all three players have the versatility to play multiple spots. Deiter and Davis have also been training to take snaps at center.
Edge players (7): Emmanuel Ogbah, Jaelan Phillips (R), Vince Biegel, Andrew Van Ginkel, Jason Strowbridge, Jonathan Ledbetter, Tyshun Render
The Dolphins selected the most compete defensive end in the 2021 draft, taking Phillips, a UCLA transfer who had a resurgent season with the Miami Hurricanes last year (45 tackles, eight sacks and one interception) with the 18th pick. He’ll likely play on the opposite of Ogbah, who had a breakout season last year, producing 42 tackles and nine sacks, in Miami’s 4-3 front.
The Dolphins generated 41 sacks in 2020, but the bulk of those came from blitzing linebackers in Miami’s hybrid 3-4 scheme. The continued development of Van Ginkel, who contributed 42 tackles and 5.5 sacks, should help ease this offseason’s release of Kyle Van Noy, and the trade that sent Shaq Lawson to the Texans for inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney. Re-signing Biegel, who had a breakout season in 2019 before suffering an Achilles tendon injury during the 2020 training camp, fortifies this unit’s depth, and coach Brian Flores talked about McKinney playing as an outside linebacker during Miami’s post-draft press conference.
DT (8): Christian Wilkins, Raekwon Davis, Zach Sieler, Adam Butler, John Jenkins, Benito Jones, Nick Coe, Jerome Johnson (R)
Miami’s struggles against the run last season improved once Davis become a full-time starter. But the Dolphins still need to improve their run defense, which allowed 4.5 yards per carry last season. The addition of Butler, who produced 17 sacks, 23 tackles for loss and 26 quarterback hits in four seasons with the Patriots before signing with Miami this offseason, should help this unit tighten the screws in 2021 if everyone can remain healthy.
Davis, a double-team eating defensive tackle, should improve in his second season, and it is possible that Miami will see continued growth from Wilkins and Sieler. The biggest mystery is who serves as the nose tackle in Miami’s 3-4 front. That might explain why Jenkins, who started five games in 2019, was re-signed after spending the 2020 with the Bears.
ILB (8): Jerome Baker, Benardrick McKinney, Elandon Roberts, Brennan Scarlett, Duke Riley, Sam Eguavoen, Calvin Munson, Kylan Johnson
Baker, who will earn $2.4 million this season in the final year of his rookie deal, has led the Dolphins in tackles for the past two seasons, and excels as a blitzer (seven sacks) and in coverage of tailbacks. McKinney, a 2018 Pro Bowl selection the Dolphins traded for this offseason, has averaged 88 tackles (6.6 a game) in his six seasons, where he started 77 games for the Texans. His addition will ease the workload of Roberts, who returns despite suffering a knee injury late last season.
Van Ginkel and Biegel can also help out if used as inside linebackers. Scarlett, Riley, Eguavoen, Munson and Johnson will compete for backup roles and special teams assignments.
CB (9): Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, Nik Needham, Noah Igbinoghene, Justin Coleman, Jamal Perry, Javaris Davis, Tino Ellis, Terrell Bonds
The Dolphins secondary features two upper-echelon boundary cornerbacks in Howard, who had a 2020 season worth of Defensive Player of the Year honors, and Jones, who the Dolphins signed to a five-year, $82.5 million contract last offseason. If Howard remains healthy and dominant, and Jones takes another step forward in this scheme the secondary should again be the strength of this defense.
Needham had a solid season as Miami’s starting nickel cornerback last year, but he’ll have competition in 2021 due to the signing on Coleman, who has started 29 of the 79 NFL games he’s played in the past six seasons. Miami’s hopeful that Igbinoghene, who was taken in the first round of the 2020 draft, will speed up his development in his second season and become more of a contributor.
Safety (7): Bobby McCain, Eric Rowe, Jevon Holland (R), Clayton Fejedelem, Brandon Jones, Nate Holley, Brian Cole
McCain and Rowe, two former cornerbacks, excelled in their roles in their second full season as safeties in Miami’s scheme. McCain serves as the quarterback and last line of defense for the entire defense, and Rowe locked down most of the tight ends Miami faced with few exceptions.
Holland has the versatility to play both of their roles, and will likely become a starter when he learns the intricacies of Miami’s hybrid defense. Jones, a 2020 third-round pick who contributed 59 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble last year, should continue his role as the traditional strong safety. The rest of the this unit is competing for backup roles and special teams jobs.
Special teams (4): Kicker Jason Sanders, long snapper Blake Ferguson (R) and Rex Sunahara, and Punter Michael Palardy
Sanders had an All-Pro season in 2020, and it landed him a lucrative five-year, $22 million contract extension. The Dolphins replaced Matt Haack, a free agent who signed with Buffalo, with Palardy, a former St. Thomas Aquinas High standout who missed the 2020 season because of a knee injury sustained that offseason. Palardy, who has played in 55 games in his NFL career, has totaled 243 punts for 11,011 yards and a 40.3 net punting average during his career.