Offseason to-do list for the Miami Dolphins
Growing up in the New York area, I’ve been told the New York Jets have been jinxed these past 46 years because Broadway Joe Namath sold his soul to win Super Bowl III. Unbeknownst to Jets fans everywhere, that deal apparently has included the entire franchise.
While it’s been 46 years since the Jets won their last Super Bowl, it’s been 41 years since their rival, the Miami Dolphins won their last one, Super Bowl VIII in Texas.
The similarities are intriguing. While the Jets had a Hall of Fame QB who overshadowed everything green and white, the Dolphins had a Hall of Fame head coach who overshadowed the entire state of Florida.
His name was Don Shula, and he won 257 games with Miami, including 11 division titles, 17 playoff games, five AFC Championships, two Super Bowls, and coached the only perfect season to date.
Since Shula left after the 1995 season, the franchise has won a total of two division titles and three playoff games under nine different head coaches. That list includes legendary names like Jimmy Johnson and Nick Saban.
This is why, with a young $100 million QB under center, the next head coach hire for owner Stephen M. Ross must be the single-biggest and most important off-season decision he and his front office will make.
Interim HC Dan Campbell appears to be the kind of tough-as-nails coach every team can use, but he is not the next Shula. The next Shula is actually a Shula, and his name is Mike Shula.
Mike Shula was actually a finalist for the Miami job in 2007. He did not get it. Cam Cameron did. Bad decision. Cameron went 1-15 that season, and was booted out of town soon after.
Nine years later, Miami has another chance to make it right. Ross, G.M. Dennis Hickey, and V.P. of Football Operations Mike Tannenbaum will get an opportunity to hire a coach who can uplift the very spirit of the franchise and their long-suffering fan base—many of the same fans who remember the “good old days” when another Shula roamed the sidelines.
Mike Shula’s time has come, and he deserves a shot. At 50, he’s in the prime of his career, and his recent results should actually outweigh his name recognition. That might not have been true in 2007, but it is now.
Shula was the Carolina Panthers QB coach in 2011 when he helped rookie QB Cam Newton win the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
In 2013, Shula was named the Panthers offensive coordinator, and under his guidance, Cam Newton has grown into one of the premier players in the NFL. Carolina has won the NFC South all three seasons, and are still undefeated as we head to Week 15. Can another Shula be a major part of the next undefeated season in league history?
As far as their players are concerned, Hickey and Tannenbaum spent the 2015 offseason spending a lot of ownership dollars—over $200 million, to be precise—in order to build a contender through free agency. Problem is, championship teams are built mostly through the draft, and that’s where the organization has suffered the most over the years.
Under Hickey, the only two players he’s drafted who appear to be a big part of the future are receivers Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker. Landry is steadily becoming a force, both at receiver (PFF’s 17th ranked WR) and at kick returner (PFF’s top-ranked kick/punt returner, recently named to our Pro Bowl team).
Parker, meanwhile, has just started to provide a glimpse of the talent he possessed at Louisville over the past two games with a combined +3.1 game grade.
Unfortunately, unless the Dolphins can find some spare cash in the offseason, free agent WR Rishard Matthews must be replaced. Matthews has been an underrated performer, with a career +10.5 grade since being drafted in the seventh round in 2012. This season has been his best. Matthews is PFF’s 33rd ranked WR (79.4), ahead of players such as Demaryius Thomas, Brandin Cooks, and Randall Cobb.
Not being able to afford a player like Matthews is actually the big dolphin in the room when it comes to constructing a championship roster in Miami. As of today, the Dolphins are already $5 million dollars over the cap for 2016, which gives them the worst cap space this offseason in the NFL, per www.overthecap.com.
In order to become cap compliant, Miami will most likely have to either cut or restructure the following contracts:
– TE Jordan Cameron: PFF’s 45th-ranked tight end can save the team $7.5 million next season.
– CB Brent Grimes: PFF’s 72nd-ranked cornerback can save the team $13.5 million over the next two seasons, including $6.5 in 2016.
– WR Greg Jennings: PFF’s 115th-ranked receiver can save the team $4 million next season.
– OLB Koa Misi: PFF’s 17th-ranked linebacker can save the team $8 million over the next two seasons, including $3.7 in 2016.
– DT Earl Mitchell: PFF’s 98th-ranked defensive tackle can save the team $6.5 million over the next two seasons, including $2.5 in 2016.
That’s approximately $24 million dollars in cap savings from just these five players—four of which have underperformed so far this season.
By the way, the Dolphins can also save $8.4 million if they decide to move on from OLB Cameron Wake, whose contract is set to expire after next season. Wake will turn 34 in 2016, and will be coming off an ACL injury.
If the Dolphins do create the necessary space, they will have to bring in more talent up-front to help protect QB Ryan Tannehill and open up holes for their rushing attack.
The Dolphins have PFF’s 24th-ranked pass blocking grade and are dead-last as the 32nd-ranked run blocking unit.
The main weakness is at guard, as both LG Dallas Thomas (81st) and RG Billy Turner (75th) rank in the bottom eight for PFF.
Thomas has been an absolute bust since being drafted in the third round in 2013, while Turner has only been slightly better as Hickey’s third-round pick a year later.
Back-up OG Jamil Douglas, a fourth-round pick this past draft ranks 39 out of 41 centers for PFF. He’s been equally weak at both center and guard.
If Miami can finally form a workable unit, it will be then up to Tannehill and RB Lamar Miller to make plays.
Tannehill was given a four-year, $77 million extension this past May. He arrived as the first draft choice of the new Joe Philbin era in 2012.
With the help of coordinator Mike Sherman, Tannehill’s head coach in college, his first two seasons were promising, as his PFF overall grade increased from +16.5 as a rookie to +24.7 in year two.
Sherman was then fired after the 2013 season, and since then, Tannehill’s numbers have dropped from +9.2 last season to a disappointing -1.7 so far this season. Strange, considering the surplus of weapons brought into the system to aid Tannehill and the offense. One has to wonder now whether Tannehill is the problem, not a solution.
With veteran QB Matt Moore set to become a free agent this off-season, it will be interesting to see if Hickey and company will add a younger option to push—and possibly even compete with—Tannehill. My choice is Miami native Geno Smith. Smith has all the tools, and a change of scenery, especially back home, could be exactly what the doctor ordered. Not so coincidentally, two of Smith’s top three PFF single-graded games came in his only two starts against the Dolphins in Miami, including his career-best game (+4.8) in Week 17 last season.
If the Dolphins have the cash, running back Lamar Miller should be their top free agent priority. He’s having his best season to date as PFF’s fourth-ranked RB (85.1), and he turns 25 next season with a lot left in the tank.
Because of their money issues, the Dolphins might just let Miller walk, though. They do have a talented back-up in fifth-round rookie, Jay Ajayi. Ajayi would have been drafted higher, if not for a knee injury prior to the draft. He is equally adept in the running game as he is in the passing game (50 receptions at Boise State last season), which makes him a valuable inexpensive commodity. Ajayi was placed on IR to start the season due to a rib injury suffered in the final preseason game. When he returned in Week 9 at Buffalo, it didn’t take him long to make his mark. The main issue with relying on Ajayi is his physical running style, which has caused the recent injury issues. So, if Miller were to depart, Miami needs an insurance policy to pair with Ajayi.
On defense, considering the Dolphins run a four-man front, they will need extra cash to re-sign two valuable underrated line performers in ends Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby. Vernon is PFF’s fifth-ranked edge defender (89.8), while Shelby ranks 19th (82.3). Both rank higher than more notable players like Ezekiel Ansah, Elvis Dumervil, and Brian Orakpo.
Two wild-cards to keep an eye on next season are former first-round let-downs, DEs Quinton Coples and Dion Jordan. Coples played out of position for the most part in the Jets 3-4 scheme, and could find a home in Miami if he has the will and desire to prove he belongs. Jordan will return from a one-year suspension for substance-abuse. For the third overall pick in the 2013 draft, Jordan has not played more than 33 snaps in any of his 26 career games, and has an overall PFF cumulative grade of 0.0. You can’t get more average than that.
At linebacker, the Dolphins need to find themselves another Zach Thomas. Kelvin Sheppard, the 84th-ranked linebacker this season for PFF, has been nearly useless, and will be a free agent, paving the way for an upgrade.
Outside of safety Reshad Jones, who currently ranks as PFF’s fourth-best for the position (88.4), the Dolphins have big issues in the secondary. Their pass coverage grade is 27th in the league, as the other six members of this unit rank outside PFF’s top 45. Fellow safety Louis Delmas could return, but he’ll be coming off his second ACL injury in a nine month span. Even the steady Brent Grimes appears to have lost a step at 32—another reason why the Dolphins need to either restructure his deal, or cut him.
As we take a peek at their current draft status, Miami’s first-round pick could land anywhere from four to 19.
Since there are no Brandon Scherffs in this year’s draft class, Miami will likely have to go the free agency or trade route to acquire a starting caliber guard.
Unless they reach in the first round for a Reggie Ragland or Myles Jack, the Dolphins will likely wait until the later rounds to choose their middle linebacker too, just like they did when they drafted Thomas in the fifth-round in 1996.
With all of the uncertainty along their defensive line as they head to the offseason, and considering how important edge rushers are to a four-man front rotation, combining the fact that the top talent in this year’s class will come from that position, with a little luck, the Dolphins could land themselves a gem.