3 areas of need for Dolphins following offseason departures
The Miami Dolphins have gone seven straight years without a winning record (2008), and 16 years since their last playoff win (2000). Desperate for change, the organization has handed out some of the most lucrative contracts in the league via free agency the past few seasons. Mike Wallace and Dannell Ellerbe (2013) headlined arguably one of the league’s worst offseason-spending sprees for any team in recent memory—a disaster that left Miami strapped with nearly $20 million in dead money.
Most troubling for Dolphin fans is the fact that the team has traded/released players that have gone on to excel as a part of other organizations. Remember when Sean Smith and Vontae Davis were the starting cornerbacks in Miami? How about when Karlos Dansby was roaming the middle of the field? Should we even mention Wes Welker?
The Dolphins’ philosophy has been letting their own players walk and (attempting) to replace them through free agency (first) and draft (second). 2016 has been no different—here are a few key positions that Miami must address immediately:
1. Running back
Lamar Miller signed a four-year, $26 million ($14 guaranteed) contract with the Houston Texans in a move that surprised few following the team. Despite being PFF’s fifth-highest-graded running back in 2015 and ranking near the top of the league in average yards per carry since being drafted in 2012, Miller was underutilized time and time again in Miami.
Miller carried the ball 20 times in a game just once in 2015, and carried less than 10 times in six different games. In fact, when Miller carried the ball at least 13 times, the Dolphins were 6-1, a testament to how valuable of a role he played on the team.
Miami has insisted that they view 2015 fifth-round pick Jay Ajayi as a three-down back, but their four-year, $18 million proposed contract to restricted free agent C.J. Anderson suggested otherwise.
Anderson broke onto the scene in 2014 and was PFF’s fourth-highest graded running back that year, essentially putting the team on his back over the final eight weeks of the season. Anderson was far less effective in 2015, but ultimately the Denver Broncos matched his contract and retained his services.
After letting Miller walk and swinging and missing on Anderson, the Dolphins turned their attention to Chris Johnson, only to watch him re-sign with the Arizona Cardinals. Alfred Morris then went on to sign with the Dallas Cowboys, leaving Arian Foster, Stevan Ridley, and LeGarrette Blount as the top backs remaining on the market.
With the number of free-agent running backs dwindling, the Dolphins may now be forced to turn their attention to the draft to fill the void. Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott would be an ideal fit for the franchise in the first round; however, he may not be on the board when they pick at 13 (a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles dropped them five spots).
2. Defensive end
Shortly after the Dolphins’ pulled the transition tag off star defensive end Olivier Vernon, the New York Giants signed him to a monster five-year, $85 million ($52.5 guaranteed) contract. Miami was willing to let Vernon walk (they will receive a composition pick next year) after they signed former Texans/Bills DE Mario Williams to a more manageable two-year, $17 million contract.
Vernon was ranked as PFF’s highest-graded 4-3 defensive end in 2015, and had one of the most impressive eight-week stretches in our grading system since we began back in 2007. Vernon posted a cumulative overall grade of +2.4 in 2012, -1.5 in 2013, and a +13.7 in 2014 before exploding with a +54.9 cumulative overall grade in his contract-year of 2015. With this in mind, it’s understandable why Miami was hesitant to pay such a hefty price for such a cap-strapped team.
The questions arise for his replacement, Mario Williams. Regarded as one of the most explosive rushers off the edge since entering the league as a rookie in 2007, Williams was a shell of himself in 2015, grading out as PFF’s 44th 4-3 defensive end out of 48 possible qualifiers. Williams expressed displeasure with the scheme fit in Buffalo on more than one occasion, and it appeared as though he constantly lacked effort throughout the year.
With Vernon leaving as a free agent and 34-year-old Cameron Wake coming off a torn Achilles, Williams will need to regain his form of year’s past for the Dolphins defense to have a shot of success in 2016. Another concern for the Dolphins is that Williams and Wake have typically played the same position throughout their career (left defensive end). In 2015, Wake rushed the passer from the left on 97.9 percent of passing plays, while Williams was 90.8 percent. It will be interesting to see how the duo works together and fit into new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s scheme.
The Dolphins later signed defensive end Andre Branch to a one-year, $3 million fully-guaranteed contract. Branch, who played 616 snaps with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014, graded out poorly with a -12.0 cumulative PFF grade, suggesting Miami may need to address the position in the draft unless they feel as though Dion Jordan (third-overall pick in 2013; suspended all of 2014) can be counted on for production.
The Dolphins acquired cornerback Byron Maxwell (along with LB Kiko Alonso) in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for first-round picks (eighth to Philadelphia, 13th to Miami). When the new league-year became official, Miami then released Brent Grimes, who was due $8 million in 2016.
The Dolphins’ cornerbacks (and secondary as a whole) were among the worst in the NFL in 2015 (25th-ranked pass-coverage unit). After starting off the year strong, Grimes was torched time and time again by elite wide receivers, most notably Brandon Marshall of the New York Jets.
His replacement, Byron Maxwell, struggled mightily in his first year after signing a six-year, $63 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015. Maxwell was PFF’s 54th-ranked cornerback out of 81 qualifying players who saw at least 50 percent of snaps in 2015.
Maxwell is five years younger than Grimes, and has shown flashes of quality starting-cornerback potential in his career (albeit, in Seattle opposite Richard Sherman), but regardless, the Dolphins still need to address the position early in the 2016 NFL draft. Vernon Hargreaves III (Florida), Mackensie Alexander (Clemson), and William Jackson III (Houston) are three names to watch for when Miami is on the clock with the 13th pick.