2019 NFL preview: Whether they're tanking or not, Dolphins will probably be bad

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Tanking is a dirty word in the NFL.

Teams in other sports have done it, and had success. Plenty of Major League Baseball teams have bottomed out in an attempt to build something good; the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros stripped their rosters down and eventually won titles. The most famous NBA tanking case, the Philadelphia 76ers, haven’t reached the Finals yet, but they have improved after punting some seasons.

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It’s hard to find a definitive instance of NFL tanking, at least over a full season (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did likely tank in the second half of Week 17 years ago, benching starters and blowing a lead, to ensure the No. 1 pick and Jameis Winston). Did the Browns tank over their 1-31 stretch in 2016-17, or were they just that bad?

No matter. You’ll never find an NFL team admit it’s tanking, even though they privately might believe it’s not the worst idea. Which makes the Miami Dolphins interesting.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

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There were no shortage of stories out of Miami this offseason that claimed the Dolphins would tank this season for a high draft pick and a top quarterback in 2020. Nobody with the Dolphins ever said that publicly, but that narrative got rolling anyway. The Dolphins’ offseason plan didn’t pour cold water on the tanking idea.

The only free agent the Dolphins signed who got more than $3.5 million per season was quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a 36-year-old journeyman. Miami stockpiled extra picks for the 2020 draft. The Dolphins traded for Josh Rosen, the quarterback the Cardinals took 10th overall a year ago, but at the price of a second-round pick it was a fine investment. Rosen won’t stop them from taking Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa first overall next year, if they wish.

The Dolphins won’t use the word “tank,” which is a curse word in NFL circles. But clearly the Dolphins aren’t planning to be competitive in 2019 with new coach Brian Flores.

“Everyone keeps saying [we’re] tanking and we’re going to go and be crap,” Dolphins general manager Chris Grier said in March, via the Miami Herald, when asked what his reaction would be if the Dolphins win eight games in 2019. “So I don’t know what we’ll be. If these guys go out and we have some good young players and they play well and we win eight games, we go, ‘All right, we’ve won eight games and we’ve got right now 11 or 12 picks for next year with the draft still approaching.’

“We made the change. We talked about building the foundation and building it up the right way. So that’s all it is. There’s no tanking.”

Would tanking be so bad? The Dolphins understand their roster isn’t good enough to beat the Patriots in the AFC East. Quarterback rules in the NFL and, Rosen aside, Miami doesn’t have one and hasn’t since Dan Marino retired. Is it better to go 6-10 and not have a shot at Tagovailoa (or Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Georgia’s Jake Fromm or whoever emerges as the No. 1 2020 prospect) or go 1-15 and find a quarterback to get the franchise out of the abyss?

Even if the Dolphins are trying, they won’t be very good. The offensive line is bad, the receiving corps is thin and the defense lacks much top-end talent, defensive backs Minkah Fitzpatrick and Xavien Howard excepted. Whether the Dolphins start Fitzpatrick or Rosen, neither can save this team.

Hopefully Flores gets patience. He is widely respected, perhaps someone who can break the mostly disappointing string of Bill Belichick assistants who become head coaches. Flores was a good defensive coordinator — his Patriots defense shutting down the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII was a masterpiece — and players appreciate his leadership style. He seemed to be a great hire.

But Flores (who got a five-year contract, whatever that means) will need time. A lot of it. That seems to be part of the franchise’s plan.

New Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores could have a long first season. (Getty Images)
New Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores could have a long first season. (Getty Images)

It’s hard to get too excited. Ryan Fitzpatrick was the biggest signing, and he might not start. The Dolphins traded pass rusher Robert Quinn and quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The draft was solid; first-round pick Christian Wilkins, a defensive tackle from Clemson, should be a keeper. Sending a late second-round pick for Josh Rosen was a smart gamble. The Dolphins seem to have a long-term plan, though it won’t help them win games now.

Grade: D

The NFL is a passing league and the Dolphins’ strength is their secondary. Cornerback Xavien Howard signed a five-year, $72.3 million deal this offseason. Minkah Fitzpatrick, last year’s first-round pick, looks like a future star and his versatility is a huge asset. Reshad Jones is aging and had a weird 2018 in which he once refused to report back into a game because he was being platooned, but he still has the capability of being one of the NFL’s best strong safeties. Bobby McCain is a solid slot cornerback (who can also play outside and got reps at free safety in OTAs) and T.J. McDonald has started 75 games at safety in the NFL. Miami should cover well.

How much time do you have? While there are plenty of issues, the offensive line stands out. The Dolphins’ line wasn’t good last year, then let right tackle Ja’Wuan James leave for Denver in free agency. Laremy Tunsil is a promising left tackle, and the rest of the line is mostly journeymen or unproven commodities. The Dolphins’ only offensive line pick in the first five rounds of the draft was third-round guard Michael Deiter. Fixing the line will have to wait until 2020.

Josh Rosen is an interesting case. Many draft experts liked him coming out of UCLA. Then he struggled mightily as a rookie. Was that due to a Cardinals coaching staff in over its head? Or was Rosen overrated before the 2018 draft?

The Dolphins have maintained that Rosen won’t be automatically given the starting job over Ryan Fitzpatrick. That makes no sense for a rebuilding team, but that’s their story.

"If [Fitzpatrick] wins the competition, absolutely I'm good with that," coach Brian Flores said, via NFL.com. "I think that would be what's best for the team and what's best for the Miami Dolphins."

Fitzpatrick can get hot for stretches, as he did early last season with the Buccaneers. It would be strange for a team that has no realistic expectation of winning in 2019 to start 36-year-old Fitzpatrick over 22-year-old Rosen, but we’ll see. The Dolphins need to figure out if Rosen is a potential long-term starter, or if he was drafted too high last year.

Since Adam Gase ignored running back Kenyan Drake for three years, we’ll give Drake some shine here. Drake has a 4.7-yard career average but has never had more than 133 carries in a season. He has never missed a game. Gase, despite fielding an offense that was never as good as hoped under his watch, never truly featured Drake. A new coaching staff should want to see what Drake can do in a bigger role. What’s the harm in finding out? Drake is very good as a receiver, with 53 catches last season, and efficient as a runner. It’s time to see what Drake can do as a featured back.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “It’s always a leap of faith to spend premium picks on running backs from losing teams, but Kenyan Drake might prove an exception, a gem from the rubble. He’s always had chops as a pass-catcher (a critical skill if your team isn’t a contender), and the new coaching staff — notably OC Chad O’Shea — comes from New England, an organization that prioritized throwing to running backs. It’s a cheat code, why not use it?

“Drake wasn’t a bell cow at Alabama and the Adam Gase Dolphins were always reluctant to use him as such. Drake’s body type (6-1, 211 pounds) also seems a poor fit for that role. But that doesn’t have to be a kill shot; if the Dolphins will merely make a semi-commitment to Drake, a fun season can follow. And the depth chart behind him is wafer-thin.

“Drake averages a zesty 4.7 YPC for his career, and last year he gobbled up nine yards per reception. He’s always had the ability to score long touchdowns; his average score as a pro covers 34 yards. In fact, Drake shockingly has more 40-plus touchdowns at a pro (six) then he does from the 10-yard line and in (five). Enjoy a notable Drake discount in early Yahoo drafts (ADP around 80); he’s going two rounds higher in high-stakes national contests.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: Miami Dolphins]

The Dolphins were an astonishing 7-1 in close games, ones decided by eight points or less. Of course, for the 7-9 Dolphins, that means they were 0-8 in games decided by more than one possession. The Pythagorean expectation for the Dolphins, which estimates how many games a team should have won based on points scored and allowed, said the Dolphins profiled as a 5-11 team last season. So Miami was lucky last season to get to seven wins. And the roster should be worse this year.

CAN A NEW COACHING STAFF REVIVE DRAFT DISAPPOINTMENTS?

The Dolphins turned some heads by keeping around perennial disappointment DeVante Parker, a receiver who was the 14th pick of the 2015 draft. Defensive end Charles Harris, Miami’s 2017 first-round pick, hasn’t lived up to his draft status either. Tight end Mike Gesicki, a 2018 second-round pick, didn’t show much as a rookie.

It’s time to wipe the slate clean. The new staff has offered fresh starts for everyone, including those high draft picks. Brian Flores has praised Harris (three sacks in 27 games) in particular, and seems ready to give everyone a fair shot. If the Dolphins can see progress from a few of the younger players who haven’t shown much yet, it will be a big benefit in their rebuild.

It’s not fun for Dolphins fans, but the best outcome this season is finishing with the worst record in the NFL. Miami doesn’t want to be 0-16. Everyone remembers those teams forever. Nobody remembers the 1-15 teams. Something better than 0-16 but bad enough to get the first overall pick is the sweet spot. Miami needs a franchise quarterback, just to provide hope. The easiest way to get one is picking first overall in a QB-heavy draft.

Everyone thought the Jets were tanking in 2017, and they won five games. They then had to pay a steep price to trade up to No. 3 in the draft to get Sam Darnold, and still needed the Giants to screw up and pass on Darnold. You can strip down a roster but you can’t tell a group of professionals to lose on purpose. If the Dolphins win just enough games to knock them out of contention for a quarterback they love, and Josh Rosen isn’t the answer, then it’s another year of spinning wheels (and next year we’ll be talking about them tanking for Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence).

The Dolphins could end up as the worst team in the NFL. They’ll spend this season finding out if Josh Rosen is the answer at quarterback, seeing if other young players emerge and hopefully feeling like Brian Flores is the right coach no matter the final record. It’s a key year for Flores to set a foundation for his program, and he’s likely going to have to endure a long rookie season as head coach. The best bet is that the Dolphins finish with a bad enough record to take one of the top quarterback prospects in 2020, and Rosen will get bumped down the depth chart by a new rookie quarterback yet again. This season won’t be pretty, but hopefully for Dolphins fans it’s short-term pain for long-awaited progress.

32. Arizona Cardinals

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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