1. Miami’s biggest offensive problem last season was not Ryan Tannehill’s injury, Jay Cutler’s divergences, O-line coach Chris Foerster’s infamous video, Julius Thomas’s disappearance or the wide receivers’ inconsistency. It was the offensive line, which head coach Adam Gase never fully trusted. Every 3rd-and-long became a checkdown drill and primer for punting. Gase’s once-potent receiver screen game became ubiquitous and predictable. The ground game became an afterthought.
This team cannot rebound in 2018 if its front five doesn’t improve. Over the offseason, Gase and GM Chris Grier let center Mike Pouncey go, replacing him with seven-year 49er Daniel Kilgore. They supplemented this move by signing 32-year-old guard Josh Sitton. Overall, it’s a downgrade in interior O-line athleticism but, the team expects, an upgrade in reliability. Gase and Grier attempted a similar move at right tackle, shopping expensive 2014 first-round pick Ja’Wuan James. No motivated buyers appeared, leaving the Dolphins to simply hope their gifted tackle plays better. That hope is even thicker on the left side; third-year pro Laremy Tunsil has some of the sprightliest feet in football, but scattershot technique and awareness led to routinely poor play in 2017. There’d probably be serious consideration for moving Tunsil back to left guard, where he dominated as a rookie, but this roster has no other quality tackles. If the incumbent players don’t progress, neither will this offense.
2. With Tunsil and James being the only high-level athletes up front, it could be difficult to execute Gase’s outside zone running game. But it’s important Miami try. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is coming off a yearlong knee injury, is more effective in a complementary role. And the Dolphins’ runners can make plays. Third-year pro Kenyan Drake flashed outstanding improvisational ability down the stretch last season, and perhaps no one in the 2010s has been better at maximizing his blocks than 35-year-old Frank Gore.
3. Another player Gase must consciously emphasize is third-year pro Jakeem Grant, a Tyreek Hill type who can play from the backfield, off presnap motion and even out wide. At 5’7’, 169 pounds, Grant is built more for gadgetry than everydown contributions. Gase has always had a cagey audible system for his unique personnel packages; with Grant in, the Dolphins can show a formation, eye the defense and check into the proper run or pass.
4. Gase hasn’t had a quality pass-catching tight end since arriving in Miami, which has hindered his patented “speed trips” aerial designs, where all three wideouts are to one side and the tight end is aligned by himself on the other. Tight end Mike Gesicki was drafted in the second round to change this. If Gesicki becomes a receiving threat, Miami’s wideouts become more dangerous on downfield route combinations. The weapon to watch is Kenny Stills, who is lethal on deep shots when aligned in the slot closest to the quarterback.
5. Dolphins fans need not worry about losing Jarvis Landry. Danny Amendola, Albert Wilson, Kenny Stills and Jakeem Grant can fill his void in the underneath and screen games. Decisive post-catch runners flourish more in Gase’s quick-strike scheme. Landry, productive as he was, didn’t always maximize opportunities.
6. Just like on offense, Miami’s biggest question on defense is the front line. Financially, dismissing Ndamukong Suh made sense, but his absence still represents a downgrade. And can Miami’s wide-9 edge rushers, Robert Quinn and Cameron Wake, consistently close the pocket? Quinn is supple but has a limited repertoire of moves, which is why the Rams traded him (and his $11.4 million cap number). Wake is 36, which puts him several years past a typical defensive end’s expiration date. You can’t argue that he’s not still highly effective. What small portion of speed he’s lost is camouflaged by refined technique and leverage. It helps that as a nickel down specialist he plays just under 60 percent of the snaps. With Charles Harris and Andre Branch also aboard, the Dolphins have enough quality defensive ends to keep Wake in a rotational role. Harris’s and Branch’s ability to morph from defensive ends to defensive tackles on passing downs also gives second-year coordinator Matt Burke freedom crafting stunts and twists. Uber proficiency in those designer rushes will be needed to overcome Suh’s departure.
7. Instead of plugging gaps and dislodging blockers, Dolphins defensive linemen are taught to fire upfield, even from the nose tackle position. This is why newly acquired ex-Lion Akeem Spence, with his excellent swat move, could play more than intriguing second-year run-clogger Davon Godchaux.
8. Departed linebacker Lawrence Timmons was never known for his awareness. The hope is that replacing him with last year’s second-round pick Raekwon McMillan (coming off a season-long knee injury) will lessen the burden on Kiko Alonso, allowing the streaky six-year pro to play more instinctively. Alonso is effective in “attack” mode but highly inconsistent in “read and react” mode.
9. Burke is not a big blitzer, though he had great success with it down the stretch last year and recognizes that strong safety Reshad Jones is tremendous at slithering in off the edge. Jones will be even more free this year with the arrival of first-rounder Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was drafted to stabilize centerfield.
10. Xavien Howard became a traveling No. 1 corner last season, which is somewhat unusual in a zone scheme like Miami’s. Howard has good ball awareness and recovery skills. Whether he continues to travel could depend on how comfortable 2017 third-rounder Cordrea Tankersley is with moving around. Tankersley shows promise, but route recognition and comeback patterns were problematic for him at times as a rookie. He’ll have to get that righted quickly; second-year undrafted corner Torry McTyer has turned heads in camp and could ultimately capture the No. 2 job.
BOTTOM LINE: These Dolphins are closer to the 10-6 Dolphins of 2016 than the 6-10 Dolphins of 2017, but there are too many questions at too many positions to project them to a playoff spot.
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