In his five years as Dolphins owner, Stephen Ross has tried to invigorate his fan base with every marketing ploy under the South Beach sun. He’s enlisted celebrities as minority owners; he’s publicly pushed the league for primetime games; he’s experimented with shameless promotions—remember the Florida Gators’ reunion when Tim Tebow visited with the Broncos?
As swathes of empty seats at Sun Life Stadium last year showed, snazzy marketing hasn’t worked. When it comes to relevancy in South Florida, the Dolphins are trending more toward the Marlins than the Heat. This spring the Florida legislature was unwilling even to put Ross’ request for funding for a new stadium to a public vote.
Ross’ negotiations with state officials might have had a different tenor were his club not coming off its fourth consecutive sub-.500 season. By now the real estate tycoon has undoubtedly learned that in pro football, winning is like location: It’s everything.
So the Dolphins’ plan appears to be shifting from building a sexy franchise to building a successful football team. Last year Ross hired a new coaching staff led by former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin and implored his front office to spend the draft’s eighth overall pick on Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill. That directive suggested long-term rebuilding.
This year Ross seems to have hit the accelerator. He gave his much-maligned general manager, Jeff Ireland (who is in the final year of his contract), the green light to make the league’s biggest splash in free agency. Ireland signed former Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace for $30 million guaranteed, inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe from the Ravens for $14 million guaranteed and outside linebacker Philip Wheeler from Oakland for $13 million guaranteed. In the draft Ireland traded the 12th and 42nd picks to move up and take Oregon’s high-risk, high-reward hybrid edge defender, Dion Jordan, third overall.
Eagles fans can attest that winning the offseason doesn’t necessarily translate when the games start. Mediocrity has been this team’s specialty the past four years. Can the Dolphins turn it around?
Strong cases can be made for and against the Mike Wallace signing. For: Wallace is a first-rate playmaker with the speed to keep defensive coordinators up at night, and the most conspicuous problem with Miami’s offense last season was an utter lack of speed in the passing game. Against: A $30 million guarantee is too much to pay for a guy who finished 34th in the league in receiving yards last year, with 836. Wallace’s unrefined route running also makes him too inconsistent to build an offense around. And the fact that a model franchise such as the Steelers would let such raw talent walk suggests he may be the next Alvin Harper—a receiver who thrives as a No. 2 but can’t make the leap to top billing.
There’s also a double-edged discussion of what Wallace’s presence means for the rest of Miami’s offense. Defenses will be compelled to play safety help over the top, which means fewer eight-man boxes facing Dolphins running backs and more one-on-one matchups for the other receivers. In particular, expect wideout Brian Hartline to prosper. Re-signing the 26-year-old for $12.5 million guaranteed was arguably Ireland’s savviest move of the busy offseason. Hartline showed improved speed and quickness last season, particularly on deep-intermediate out routes. He’s not dynamic enough to be a No. 1 receiver, but he can blossom into a sensational No. 2—especially now that he’ll be facing simpler coverages and, presumably, running a more diverse route tree.
Wallace may not have the skill set that Philbin’s system demands, and Philbin presumably wants to run a version of what he oversaw in Green Bay. There, he had an array of interchangeable receiving weapons: Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones and Jermichael Finley all could line up inside or outside or go in motion. Wallace is almost strictly an X receiver—aligned far outside on the line of scrimmage—which means there is less flexibility in the way ancillary weapons like Brandon Gibson, Armon Binns and tight end Dustin Keller can be employed. This is a concern, given that these guys are somewhat limited isolation route runners who need the benefit of system-created mismatches.
The best weapon Philbin had in Green Bay was a superstar quarterback. Ryan Tannehill isn’t that—yet—but he is a lot better than his rookie numbers and comparative Q rating suggest. The 6-4 one-time college receiver can make accurate, strong throws on the move. Don’t be surprised if the Dolphins feature Tannehill’s mobility with more rollouts and even some read-option this season. Most encouraging is Tannehill’s poise, both in reading defenses pre-snap and in his willingness to stand firm when making tight-windowed throws in the pocket. These are two vital characteristics of elite quarterbacking.
But Tannehill won’t become Aaron Rodgers until he becomes dramatically more consistent, especially on plays that require tougher post-snap decisions. The fact that his passer rating last season on play-action (which almost always has a simple either-or read) was 121.4, and that his rating on non-play action was 67.7, suggests he’s not yet comfortable going deep into multiple full-field progression reads.
Of course, it will help Tannehill’s development if he’s well protected. Some see Miami’s pass blocking as suspect now that last year’s second-round pick, Jonathan Martin, will replace Jake Long at left tackle. They shouldn’t. It’s hard to imagine any player struggling in pass protection as much as Long did last season—especially a blocker with such light feet as Martin. Yes, Martin ran hot and cold as a rookie right tackle, but that’s partly because he’s so much better suited for the left side.
Filling Martin’s old spot is former Falcon Tyson Clabo, a gritty run-blocker and a hit-or-miss pass-blocker (that is, a standard right tackle). Inside, next to Clabo, will be either John Jerry or free-agent pickup Lance Louis. Both have been fringe starters at right tackle and guard. Louis has quicker feet, but Jerry’s superior run-blocking ability makes him the front-runner for the starting job (assuming he keeps his weight in check—he’s listed at 335). At left guard, the tenacious but temperamental Richie Incognito figures to start, though his leash is shorter than ever, as he’s in the final year of his contract and facing fresh competition from third-round pick Dallas Thomas. Whoever ultimately fills Miami’s guard spots will benefit from playing alongside Mike Pouncey, an extremely bright, athletic and fundamentally sound 24-year-old center.
The Dolphins are prepared to regularly give help to their transforming front five. They drafted a 285-pound blocking tight end, Dion Sims, in the fourth round and also signed ex-Bears H-back Evan Rodriguez to compete with underappreciated Charles Clay. Both are good fits in a system that demands versatility from the fullbacks and backup tight ends. Also in the mix is Michael Egnew, who disappointed as a third-round pick last year but has competed with Clay this offseason. Finally, there’s fullback Jorvorski Lane, a hard-nosed 258-pounder who came on strong as an interior lead-blocker last season.
Lane’s playing time might hinge on what style best fits new starting running back Lamar Miller. The 2012 fourth-round pick out of Miami flashed good quickness and acceleration as a rookie, which suggests he might be best suited running out of single-back sets. But he also showed an occasional lack of decisiveness, suggesting he may benefit from having a blocker chaperoning him to the point of attack. None of this will matter if Miller doesn’t improve his blitz pickup—Philbin and Tannehill lauded his progress in that regard in June—and if he can’t be trusted to help protect the QB, the Dolphins’ other options, neither ideal, are big-but-finesse oriented Daniel Thomas and fifth-round rookie scatback Mike Gillislee.
The signing of Ellerbe and Wheeler, the drafting of Jordan, the franchise-tagging of defensive tackle Randy Starks and the decision to bring in risky cornerback Brent Grimes from the Falcons rather than re-signing the more stable but expensive Sean Smith makes it clear that the defense will be attack-oriented. Last season coordinator Kevin Coyle employed a diverse mixture of 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 hybrid nickel fronts that gave opponents a lot to process. This season, expect Coyle to amplify that approach. Ellerbe and Wheeler are extremely fast downhill attackers who are also comfortable dropping into space. Their athleticism allows for quicker recovery in their redirection, which means there’s more room for aggression in their pre-snap disguises. This is also true with Jordan, assuming the talent he showed at Oregon translates to the NFL. The only question is whether Ellerbe and Wheeler will have the same high football IQs as their predecessors, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. Neither newcomer has been the featured piece of an NFL defense.
While Ellerbe, Wheeler and Jordan will figure in a lot of disguised looks, Miami’s pass rush will still be spearheaded by defensive end Cameron Wake. The 31-year-old ex-CFL star had a career-high 15 sacks in 2012; what’s more, he forces blockers into an inordinate number of holding penalties—20 over the last two seasons. Wake always comes off the weakside edge, where he can rely on his initial quickness and chase speed.
Last season, according to Football Outsiders, the Dolphins sent five or more rushers on 31.2% of their snaps when they were in nickel and dime, the fifth-highest percentage in the league. It’s possible they could be more aggressive with their front seven, yet have their blitz frequency drop. Reason being, in 2012 Coyle went with a heavy dose of man coverage. Ostensibly that led to a lot of green-dog blitzes, wherein a linebacker or safety would only rush if the player he was assigned to cover stayed in to block. If Coyle uses more zone coverage this season, there will be a little less freedom in the blitz designs.
More zone concepts make sense based on Miami’s secondary personnel. Grimes is coming off a 2012 Achilles injury after having some knee problems in 2011. He’ll almost certainly be more comfortable playing in off-coverage technique, as he primarily did in Atlanta, because it requires fewer quick-reaction cuts. That’s also what second-round rookie Jamar Taylor primarily played at Boise State, and it would likely be the preferred coverage of heady risk-taker Richard Marshall, assuming the veteran slot corner begins the season as a base-defense starter on the outside. The only true man-corner on Miami’s roster might be third-round rookie Will Davis, who figures to play in dime packages.
Part of what the Dolphins like about Taylor is his ability to blitz from the slot. Corner and slot blitzes are common in Coyle’s scheme (especially when both inside linebackers crowd the A gaps before the snap). Taylor will have a chance to learn from one of the league’s better blitzing corners in Marshall. Usually when a corner blitzes, a safety picks up his receiver in coverage. Reshad Jones, who isn’t a bad blitzer, generally gets these assignments because he’s more versatile than centerfielder Chris Clemons. Third-year pro Jimmy Wilson might compete for more snaps at safety given the coverage experience he gained as a fill-in slot corner last season.
While we’ve mainly focused on Miami’s creative nickel and dime packages, it’s the solidity of the base 4-3, and specifically the front line, that makes this defense work. In short, it’s an extremely tough front to run against. Nosetackle Paul Soliai has great initial movement for a 345-pounder. Defensive tackle Randy Starks and end Jared Odrick are both menacing in one-gap and two-gap assignments, which gives the Dolphins valuable flexibility in how they employ their fronts.
There’s also an intriguing group of second-year backups. End Olivier Vernon is a subtly fluid athlete who can operate in traffic. There isn’t a wow factor to his game, but he has the makings of a fine hybrid outside player. Expect him to take playing time from veteran Koa Misi in sub packages and maybe from Odrick in base. Inside, 2012 seventh-rounder Kheeston Randall has intriguing power, and undrafted but athletic second-year man Derrick Shelby can make noise as a tackle or end.
The only concern is whether Miami’s front can stay strong down the stretch. Last season the Dolphins allowed 3.9 yards per carry over Weeks 1 through 12, but 4.8 in Weeks 13 through 17. If that was on an aging linebacker corps, it further explains Ireland’s spending $27 million in guarantees to replace the 31-year-old Dansby and 30-year-old Burnett with the 27-year-old Ellerbe and 28-year-old Wheeler.
Dan Carpenter is considered one of the better all-around kickers in the league. He bounced back well from a tough 2010 campaign, making more than 81% of his field goals in each of the past two seasons. Punter Brandon Fields ranked sixth in the NFL last year, with a net average of 41.2. In the return game, undrafted second-year pro Marcus Thigpen will handle punts and kicks. Last season he averaged an impressive 12.2 yards per punt return and 27.4 yards per kick and was one of five players to have a touchdown in both categories.
On defense there are new faces, but not necessarily drastic upgrades. On offense, the starting quarterback, running back and left tackle are all entering their second year. Tannehill will have a more intricate system to learn; the back behind him will have to prove that he can contribute week in and week out; and Jonathan Martin will have to play on an island for the first time as a pro. The Dolphins most likely are a year away—but at least there are more reasons for fans to turn up at Sun Life.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.