Five questions for the Dolphins in OTAs, from Tua Tagovailoa to Vic Fangio’s defense
The Dolphins move to the third and final phase of their offseason workout program — organized team activities and mandatory minicamp — on Monday, the next step in the gradual process to the 2023 NFL season.
For the next three weeks, the team will hold six voluntary practices that allow for 7-on-7, 9-on-7, and 11-on-11 drills between the offense and defense. This culminates in the team’s three-day mandatory minicamp from July 6 to 8. Practice will be open to reporters for the first time on Tuesday, giving an initial glimpse at a team that has high expectations for the upcoming season.
Here are five questions for the Dolphins as they start OTAs:
How is Tua in Year 2 of Mike McDaniel’s offense?
After a breakout season in which he led the NFL in passer rating in 2022, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa enters his fourth season with a familiarity he hasn’t experienced in years. For the first time since high school, Tagovailoa will play under the same offensive scheme and play-caller in consecutive years.
This time last year, the Dolphins were laying the groundwork for a new offense and some likened it to learning a foreign language. Now, the continuity should allow Tagovailoa to start OTAs with a solid foundation, progressing with concepts that brought much success last season while also experimenting with wrinkles to expand the offense in 2023. And while all team drills are noncontact, OTAs will be notable as Tagovailoa’s first set of team drills since his 2022 season effectively ended after a diagnosed concussion last Christmas Day.
“It’s been a lot better of an offseason knowing that I don’t have to learn a new system, I don’t have to learn new formations, new motions, new snap points, new cadences,” Tagovailoa said in April. “It’s good to know that I already have a year under my belt within the offense. There’s always going to be nuances, but it’s not like a drastic change.”
Is there an update on players who missed 2022 with injuries?
The Dolphins were struck with several notable injuries in 2022 that tested the team’s depth. And while Miami will benefit from the high-profile addition of cornerback Jalen Ramsey and other signings, the return of multiple key players who were injured last season could also bolster a talented roster.
Asked in March about the status of players such as safety Brandon Jones, cornerback Nik Needham and defensive end Emmanual Ogbah, general manager Chris Grier said that “everything’s kind of fluid on that ... it’s not rushing them back. It’s just making sure they come back ready to go.”
Ogbah said on Tuesday that the team is “taking it easy on me” even though he has been medically cleared from a torn triceps injury he sustained last November. In January, Jones, who tore his ACL in October, said he was hoping to be running by the start of OTAs. Needham, who tore his Achilles in October, said he was aiming to return to full participation by the start of July. And cornerback Trill Williams, who tore his ACL last August, said he should be ready for OTAs but will probably wait until training camp to return to the field.
The serious nature of each player’s injury and the Dolphins’ cautious approach likely means none of them are on the field until training camp. But McDaniel could have updates on each player as Miami begins team drills.
Who steps up as WR3?
One of the more intriguing position battles this spring and summer is the competition for the third wide receiver spot behind Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Though Hill and Waddle were Tagovailoa’s go-to pass-catchers in 2022, wide receiver Trent Sherfield and tight end Mike Gesicki left in free agency, leading a void of more than 100 targets for Miami to replace. There’s a host of candidates with various skill sets.
The Dolphins signed Braxton Berrios and Robbie Chosen in free agency and they have the most production of the group vying for the No. 3 spot. Berrios is an All-Pro return specialist but has the profile of a prototypical slot receiver. Chosen, formerly Chosen Anderon and Robbie/Robby Anderson, has been one of the best deep threats in the NFL but has logged most of his snaps as an outside receiver.
Erik Ezukanma was one of the standouts in training camp last year, but he was a healthy scratch for the majority of his rookie season as he adjusted to a new position than the one he learned during the summer. And while there has been speculation about Cedrick Wilson Jr.’s future in Miami — Grier acknowledged teams have called about a potential trade — he earned his three-year, $22 million from the Dolphins by being one of the league’s most productive slot receivers with the Dallas Cowboys.
Though River Cracraft doesn’t have the career production of many of his counterparts, he should be viewed as a dark horse candidate. He and McDaniel have ties from the San Francisco 49ers and he gained the trust of coaches early last season. Cracraft was quickly signed from the practice squad and caught two touchdown passes in the first three weeks of the season before Sherfield took control of the No. 3 wide receiver role.
What first impression do the rookies make?
For the second consecutive season, the Dolphins had a league-low four picks in the NFL Draft. However, there’s optimism Miami could get early contributions from its rookie class.
Second-round pick Cam Smith, the team’s top selection, has the athleticism and physicality to be a standout corner and he is expected to work on the outside before learning the nickel back position. Before rookie minicamp, Smith said he wouldn’t shy away from the challenge of matching up against Hill and Waddle. In McDaniel’s first season, he limited the reps of many veterans in offseason practices, so Smith could get a trial-by-fire introduction to the NFL during the next few weeks.
Third-round pick De’Von Achane was a player who McDaniel coveted at running back and with Achane’s 4.32 40-yard dash speed, McDaniel should have a multitude of ways to get him the ball. Elsewhere, rookie Elijah Higgins’ transition from wide receiver to tight end and what position the team plays offensive lineman Ryan Hayes is also notable.
Does Vic Fangio’s defense hit the ground running?
For as well as the Dolphins’ offense played when Tagovailoa was in the lineup last season, the defense may face greater expectations in 2023. Although Miami ranked 24th in points allowed season, it has a defense that features All-Pro talent, rising stars and quality depth on all three levels of the unit. And now, Fangio, one of the preeminent defensive minds in the NFL, is overseeing the group.
The Dolphins are still in the early stages of installing a defense that will be philosophically different from previous years. But Fangio, who didn’t coach last season in what he called a “sabbatical,” has concocted new coverages he’s hoping to unveil in his return to the league. OTAs will be the start of a fascinating head-to-head between him and McDaniel as play-callers.