Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Miami Dolphins.
While the Dolphins managed to meet expectations this season, they weren’t all that high, to begin with. Of course, most people would anticipate a down year when your starting quarterback goes down with a torn ACL in the first practice of the year.
The injury to Ryan Tannehill caused the team to sign Jay Cutler out of retirement to play QB, and while it made sense at the time, considering Cutler’s previous success under head coach Adam Gase, it was pretty clear that the Dolphins didn’t have much hope for the rest of 2017.
On the other hand, they did go 4-2 to start the season. But injuries took their toll, and the team went 2-8 after that, with a Monday Night upset of the New England Patriots being the only true bright spot.
Credit should be given to the defense though. Considering all the injuries, finishing 16th in total defense should be viewed as an accomplishment, especially since they were just 29th in 2016. With all the young talent on that side of the ball, the Dolphins should be encouraged for the unit’s future.
Still, the offense was pretty lethargic, mostly in the running game, where they were the fourth worst in the league. Gase has brought in Dowell Loggains, who was promoted to replace him as the offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, so things could improve, though the Bears offense was even worse than the Dolphins this season.
The Dolphins are in a weird spot as of now. They’re strapped for cap space, which means they can’t actively look to fill needs without cutting ties with some high priced talent. The draft is available as well, but that would make the team even younger than they are now.
But hey, if Tannehill can return to how he was in 2016 and the defense can take another step forward, they could be competitive. The offensive line needs a complete revamp before then, however. If not, Tannehill might end up back on injured reserve.
Current number of draft picks: 8 (#11 in the first round)
Cap space: $9 million
Notable free agents
Jarvis Landry, WR: Is Landry one of the best receivers in football? You’d think that would be the case if only his receptions are taken into account. In four seasons, he’s averaged 100 catches per season. That’s insane, and he reached a career high this year with 112, tops in the NFL.
What kills Landry’s value is the lack of touchdowns he had in the past. While he hit another career high of 9 in 2017, he only had 13 in his first three seasons. The Dolphins were a lot better about using him in the red zone this season, but he’s clearly an intermediate threat in the receiving game instead of a vertical one. But with the right team, maybe Landry could shed that limitation.
Jay Cutler, QB: Cutler played like someone who had retired from football to become a commentator and got haphazardly lured back for an 8-figure salary to replace an injured starter. Which is what actually happened.
Brought in to substitute for an injured Tannehill, Cutler sleepwalked his way through the season, throwing for just 2,666 yards (those last three digits are pretty scary). He did throw 19 touchdowns but also had 14 interceptions with a completion percentage of 62%. With Tannehill set to come back, Cutler can comfortably scamper to the announcer’s booth where he belongs.
William Hayes, DE: Hayes stands as one of the biggest enigmas in the NFL. The Dolphins had him play only 271 snaps in ten games this season before he went on injured reserve with a back injury, picking up just 19 total tackles and one lone sack. However, Pro Football Focus gave him an 85.6 grade in 2017. What gives?
Well, Hayes is extremely efficient as both a rotational pass rusher and a run stopper. In spite of limited playing time, he averaged just over 40 tackles and 5 sacks during his time with the Los Angeles Rams. The Dolphins traded for him this season but ended up giving more playing time to rookie Charles Harris. While he will be 33 before the start of the 2018 season, he could thrive in a full-time role with another team.
Koa Misi, OLB: Misi has had a promising career continually derailed by injuries, and the problem may have finally caught up to him. At his peak, he averaged around 65 tackles per season and a PFF grade of 80.2. Nothing spectacular, but dependable for a starting linebacker.
However, Misi hasn’t played a full 16 games since his rookie year in 2010, only playing in 3 last season and none this year due to a neck injury. There’s speculation that it could be a career ender. With Eric Wood‘s recent retirement for the same reasons fresh in players’ minds, it’s hard to stomach.
Michael Thomas, S: Thomas isn’t a widely known name, but he’s one of the best at what he does: special teams. PFF named him the top special teamer in the league this season, and it’s not just for tackling, though he had 11 total on kick and punt coverage, tied for 20th overall in 2017, and has had at least 10 in the last four seasons.
He’s an excellent jammer on punt returns and also is versatile enough to play multiple positions for the various special teams units. Reliable special teams play is crucial in today’s NFL, and Thomas could easily earn a decently sized contract for his consistent production.
G: What killed the Dolphins offense more than anything else this season was their awful blocking. They allowed 33 sacks total, and the interior line was the primary culprit more often than not. Injuries forced the team to use five different guards, but that doesn’t excuse the poor performances. Right guard Jermon Bushrod is a free agent anyway. Maybe they’ll go for Quenton Nelson in the first round.
T: The offensive line doesn’t get much better with the tackles. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James was the only consistent blocker for the Dolphins in 2017, but cutting him would give the team $9 million in cap space, double what they currently have. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil took a step back in his second season, while backup Sam Young is a free agent.
LB: Lawrence Timmons going MIA early in the season could’ve been a lot more disastrous, but he ended up playing 14 games this year. He and Kiko Alonso were uneven though, and Misi’s injury situation also leaves a hole next to the two. Rookie Raekwon McMillan will get a chance to prove himself, but another option could be good for competition.
CB: While Xavien Howard and Cordrea Tankersley weren’t perfect in their first season together, there’s enough potential for them to grow with slot corner Bobby McCain as a trio. Still, there’s not much depth behind them.
WR: If Landry departs in free agency, DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills would be the only two reliable targets for Tannehill in the passing game. Given their cap situation though, the Dolphins may have to hit up the draft for a replacement.
TE: None of the four tight ends currently on the roster did much in 2017, especially Julius Thomas. Anthony Fasano is also a free agent. Don’t be surprised if the Dolphins use a day-2 draft pick to fill the void.
RB: Trading Jay Ajayi away to the Philadelphia Eagles seemed like a questionable move at the time, but Kenyan Drake ended up showing some admirable skills as the starting running back, leading the team with 644 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns. Still, he may not be able to carry the load on his own.
QB: Cutler will be giving the starting job back to Tannehill to most likely restart his retired life, but there will be a hole at backup. Matt Moore and David Fales are both free agents, leaving Brandon Doughty as the only other signal caller on the roster. Given that there are some concerns about Tannehill anyway, the Dolphins could look to the draft for a developmental prospect.
K and LS: Long snapper John Denney, the longest-tenured player on the Dolphins roster, is a 39-year-old free agent. So is kicker Cody Parkey, who was mostly solid in his first year with the team, missing just two field goals, though he did miss three PATs.
Best player/building block
Reshad Jones, S: For a long time, Jones was perhaps the most underrated player in the league. Despite years of consistently great play, he only made his first Pro Bowl in 2015, making it again this season. In spite of that, he’s arguably one of the most efficient safeties in football.
Jones led the team and all safeties in the NFL in total tackles with 122. He also had 2 interceptions and 5 pass breakups. PFF gave him a grade of 81.5, which was mostly brought down by his middling pass coverage. His run-stop grade of 90 was second among all safeties behind Harrison Smith of the Minnesota Vikings, however.
Ndamukong Suh, DT: Suh is very divisive among football fans for being, well, a dirty player. But his production as a defensive tackle is worthy of respect. He was tied for fourth on the team with 48 total tackles and tied for second with 4.5 sacks. PFF gave him a grade of 91, 5th among all interior defenders. Suh has averaged a grade of 90.9 since signing with the Dolphins three seasons ago. Dirty or not, he’s one of the best in the league at his position.
AFC East: New York Jets
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
NFC East: New York Giants
NFC North: Chicago Bears
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: San Francisco 49ers