Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
Part of the beauty of the NFL is its unpredictability. Fortunes can change without warning from season to season. Sometimes a team can improve dramatically over the course of a single season.
However, what happened with the 2016 Miami Dolphins was extreme. They went from being one of the worst teams in the NFL to a playoff team overnight. It made no logical sense.
Make no mistake, the Dolphins were horrendous through five weeks. There were zero signs a big breakthrough was going to happen in Week 6. A last-minute loss in Week 1 at Seattle was somewhat encouraging, but nothing else to start the season was. In Week 2 the Patriots – with Jimmy Garoppolo starting at quarterback – had a 31-3 lead before the Dolphins made the score close late. The Browns, who would start 0-14, would have won at Miami in Week 3 had their kicker been a little better. Miami won that game – again, against the lowly Browns at home – in overtime. In uncompetitive losses to the Bengals and Titans the Dolphins had 16 first downs … in both games combined.
Rookie coach Adam Gase looked like he might be in over his head. He has admitted to making early-season mistakes. Miami had nothing on offense and not much more on defense. The Dolphins looked every bit as bad as the 49ers or Browns.
Then it just changed. No warning. No sneaky underlying positive signs that would lead anyone to believe there was a revival coming. The Dolphins just came out in Week 6 and were a different team from then on. Go figure.
Miami blasted the Steelers 30-15 in Week 6. The Dolphins won nine of 10 games, and even an injury to Ryan Tannehill didn’t slow them down. They made the playoffs. It was one of the weirdest, most sudden transformations you’ll ever see in the NFL.
Also, it’s probably unsustainable. The streak was tied together with a lot of close wins (8-2 in games decided by seven points or less), mostly against terrible teams. Of the eight wins after the Steelers game, the Dolphins didn’t beat a team with a winning record. Four wins came against the Bills and Jets, three coming by 4 points or less. They barely held on to beat a terrible 49ers team at home. Their three best opponents after Week 6 were the Ravens, Patriots and Steelers in the playoffs, and they went 0-3 and were outscored by 71 points.
That makes the Dolphins tough to read going into this season. No matter the strength of schedule, winning 10 games in the NFL is hard. It doesn’t happen by accident. Gase did a great job turning things around, and I think he’ll be a fine coach. There’s legitimate blue-chip talent on offense and defense. They’re getting their quarterback back from a knee injury. Still, there’s good reason for skepticism. Las Vegas agrees; the Dolphins over/under win total is just 7.5. One thing that won’t be in the Dolphins’ favor is the schedule. They had the seventh easiest schedule last season, according to Football Outsiders. This season, according to Warren Sharp’s schedule strength metric that uses Las Vegas over/under projections, the Dolphins have the seventh toughest schedule. That’s a big jump up in competition.
The last time we saw the Dolphins, they were getting blasted in a wholly uncompetitive playoff loss at the Steelers. But, making the playoffs at all after that horrific start was a great accomplishment. Now what do we expect from the Dolphins this season?
Unlike many other offseasons, the Dolphins didn’t make a big headline signing in the offseason. They re-signed their own guys like receiver Kenny Stills, linebacker Kiko Alonso and safety Reshad Jones, often to overpriced deals (but that’s a problem for their salary-cap manager down the road). But they didn’t bring in anyone to make a splash. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons got $12 million over two years, and nobody else got more than $5.65 million. The Dolphins did trade for tight end Julius Thomas and defensive end William Hayes. Thomas is a good gamble, and Hayes is a solid veteran. The biggest loss this offseason might be left tackle Branden Albert, but Miami will just kick Laremy Tunsil out to left tackle. The interior of the offensive line looks like a problem though. The draft might produce a few immediate contributors. Defensive end Charles Harris was a solid first-round pick. The Dolphins made low-level, smart signings and didn’t lose much. Are we sure this is the Dolphins we’re talking about? Grade: C-plus
The Dolphins seemed to find an offensive attack that fit last season, which is a credit to Adam Gase. Ryan Tannehill was asked to throw the ball far less, and he became much more efficient. Tannehill had career bests in completion percentage, touchdown percentage and passer rating. Using a slow-tempo attack and leaning on Jay Ajayi in the run game seems to be a better formula for the Dolphins.
It seems everyone is very high on Jay Ajayi after last season, and that makes sense. He had three 200-yard games last season. Here’s the list of players who have at least three 200-yard games in a season: Earl Campbell, O.J. Simpson, Tiki Barber and Ajayi. Heck of a group to be a part of. Still, consistency eluded Ajayi. He had 624 yards on 85 carries (7.3-yard average) in those three 200-yard games, and 681 yards on 191 carries (3.6) in his other 13 games counting playoffs. Aside from the 200-yard games, he cracked 80 rushing yards just one other time. He finished the season with a 16-carry, 33-yard game in the playoffs at Pittsburgh. You can’t just dismiss 200-yard games, of course. But you’d like to see some stability in between the extreme highs and lows. Also, the Dolphins have very little depth behind Ajayi, which could end up being a problem. Miami’s winning streak started when Ajayi had his breakout game, and they focused their offense around him after that. It’s not without risk in 2017.
Ryan Tannehill partially tore his ACL last season. He didn’t undergo surgery, opting for rehab and stem cell treatments instead. The Dolphins say Tannehill is fully healthy, but it will still be worth tracking in preseason and early in the regular season. Other quarterbacks have come back slow from ACL issues. Tannehill made some nice strides last season, and it was unfortunate he went down in Week 14. The assumption is that Tannehill can pick up right where he left off last season, and the Dolphins would gladly take that.
Ndamukong Suh’s salary-cap number this season is $19.1 million, the highest for any defensive tackle in football, far outdistancing Marcell Dareus at $16.4 million. Whether Suh has been worth his historic contract is up for debate, but he’s clearly the Dolphins’ most talented defensive player. He won’t put up monster stats but he can control a game in the middle of Miami’s line with his incredible strength. He said this offseason he thinks about making the Hall of Fame, and it’s not that crazy to think he could end up in Canton. But with each year that passes there’s a fear that Suh’s play will slip, especially since he turned 30 in January. There’s no reason to believe a dropoff is imminent, but it bears watching. The team obviously has a lot invested in Suh.
From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “Jay Ajayi’s breakout 2016 campaign ended with a top-12 finish among running backs. That production came without him being a major threat as a receiver (27 receptions). Can he add that element to his game and become a true three-down threat? While reports during the offseason have him heading in the right direction, seeing proof his receiving skills have improved in the preseason will easily make him a mid-range RB1 and worth a late first-round selection.” [Check out Yahoo’s Pressing Questions for the fantasy outlook on the Dolphins.]
Friends and LSU teammates Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham share a record. Both players have 288 receptions, tied for the most in NFL history through a player’s first three seasons. Landry saw his targets drop last season from 166-131 as the Dolphins passed less, but his yards per catch went from 10.5 to 12.1. Landry posted a 94-1,136-4 line and made his second straight Pro Bowl. He’s an excellent player. The problem for the Dolphins is this is Landry’s contract year. If the team can’t get him signed to an extension, the franchise tag seems to be a good possibility.
CAN SAFETY RESHAD JONES MAKE A BIG IMPACT COMING BACK FROM INJURY?
Jones was fantastic in 2015. He was off to a nice start last season, but he also lasted just six games due to a rotator cuff injury. The Dolphins aren’t nervous about his comeback, considering they gave him a five-year, $60 million extension in March. Jones is just 29 so he should be able to return to a Pro Bowl level. The Dolphins coincidentally took off right after Jones got hurt, but you have to assume Miami will be much better off with one of their best defensive players back.
I like that Jarvis Landry predicted the Dolphins would sweep the Patriots. You can’t just sit around and accept losing while you wait for Tom Brady to retire. However, just because Landry said it doesn’t mean it’ll happen. The tough part of being in the AFC East is you start the season knowing winning the division is a really tall wall to climb. Especially this season. But another wild-card spot is feasible for the Dolphins. Easy schedule or not, winning nine of 10 games in the NFL isn’t easy and last season says a lot about Miami’s upside.
On the other hand, the schedule does get a lot harder. An 8-2 record in one-score games is tough to repeat. Although there’s no reason to believe Ryan Tannehill won’t be fully healthy, it’s still another possible stumbling block. The Dolphins were good across the board last season but not really strong in any one area. Although there’s decent talent on the roster and Adam Gase looks like a good hire, a step back seems probable.
The problem (if you’d call it that) with Adam Gase conducting such a remarkable 2016 turnaround is that he set a high bar in year one. Miami could have some normal regression with fewer wins in close games and a harder schedule, but it’ll be viewed as a disappointment if they don’t make the playoffs again. And considering how unlikely it is for the Dolphins to knock off the Patriots (sorry, Jarvis), they’re probably stuck wading in the wild-card waters and the competition for those two spots in the AFC will be fierce. I can’t pick them for another postseason berth.
32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
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More Dolphins coverage on Yahoo Sports: