2016 NFL Preview: The Dolphins' new coach has a lot to fix

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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I liked the Miami Dolphins heading into last season. What a mistake that was.

Many seasons I’ll find a team I believe is headed for a breakout. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes, it’s the 2015 Dolphins. I liked how Ryan Tannehill was trending, liked the young skill-position talent, and of course liked adding Ndamukong Suh to a defense that was pretty good two seasons ago.

Even if you weren’t riding shotgun next to me on the bandwagon, nobody believed the Dolphins would be one of the worst teams in the NFL. But they were.

They were miserably coached, a team that seemed to have no plan at all. I’ve never seen a team more insistent on throwing 4-yard passes when it was third-and-5. During a Week 4 loss to the New York Jets at London, the Dolphins looked like a team that didn’t care. Coach Joe Philbin was fired after that. It had to be done.

Interim Dan Campbell got the new coach bounce for a couple weeks, an impressive 38-10 thrashing of the Tennessee Titans and an even more impressive 44-26 win over a Houston Texans team that would end up as AFC South champs. Miami led 41-0 at halftime. That’s the Dolphins team I figured to see in 2015. But that didn’t last long.

Miami lost seven of their last 10, ruining any chance Campbell had at the full-time job. Miami finished 6-10. This offseason the Dolphins hired Adam Gase, and all of a sudden the Dolphins are somewhat interesting again.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

You never know how a coach will react going from a coordinator’s role to the big chair, but Gase has done a fine job in his short time as an offensive coordinator. He led the 2013 Denver Broncos, the highest scoring offense in NFL history. After another strong year in Denver, he went to the Chicago Bears and did a great job with Jay Cutler. In Cutler’s first nine seasons he never posted a rating over 90. In his first year with Gase, Cutler posted a 92.3 rating. I like the hire.

Now Gase has to get Tannehill to a new level. Tannehill improved each of his first three seasons, but hit a wall last year. The coaching mess didn’t help, but he didn’t play well. Tannehill is athletic, and at his best can be relatively efficient. He also is still poor throwing the deep ball, is tentative too often and takes way too many sacks. Based on Gase’s work with Cutler, maybe he can identify what Tannehill does well and put him in positions to succeed. Narratives like that aren’t always entirely accurate, because a first-time head coach has way more to do than work one-on-one with a quarterback all the time. But clearly the Gase hire was made with Tannehill’s development in mind.

Miami doesn’t inspire much confidence after last year’s debacle. But they’ll get a coaching upgrade this season, and we might look back on it as a massive upgrade. There still are some top-end players, like receiver Jarvis Landry, 2015 free-agent prize Suh and underrated safety Reshad Jones. It’ll be interesting to see if Gase can rekindle any of the positive hype Miami had going into last season.

Adam Gase working with Ryan Tannehill (AP)
Adam Gase working with Ryan Tannehill (AP)

The Dolphins brought in many new players this offseason, because that’s what the Dolphins do. They also lost a lot. The Dolphins didn’t give too much in a trade with the Eagles for cornerback Byron Maxwell, who was one of the NFL’s top free agents just a year ago, and linebacker Kiko Alonso. Mario Williams had a horrendous 2015 in Buffalo, but it wouldn’t shock anyone if he bounced back in a new environment. Getting offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil at No. 13 in the draft was a gift. But here’s who left: Defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby, running back Lamar Miller, cornerback Brent Grimes and receiver Rishard Matthews, among others. Maybe some of the additions work out, but that’s a lot to lose in one offseason. Grade: C-

There are many blue-chip players on both sides of the ball. The offensive line has some potential stars if they fit right and stay healthy. 2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker played well late last season and Jarvis Landry is a stud. Ndamukong Suh is a beast, Cam Wake will be back, Reshad Jones should have been an All-Pro last season and just a year ago Byron Maxwell was given $63 million on the open market. And Ryan Tannehill has been a competent quarterback before. Long story short: There’s talent here. Maybe Gase harnesses it.

There isn’t a middle class on this team. There are top-end players and not much depth. The Dolphins are really thin at running back. Jones is great but his 135 tackles last season also reflect how bad the linebackers were. They are good at safety with a ton of questions at cornerback. The left side of the line has the potential to be fantastic, and the right side is cause for worry. Even if the Dolphins’ best players play well, there will be weaknesses for opponents to exploit.

Ryan Tannehill has never gotten any respect, even when he was playing well. Last year his critics were justified, although Tannehill’s play wasn’t deplorable or anything. He was just a middle-of-the-road NFL starter, and the Dolphins need more. This seems like a crossroads season for Tannehill, especially because everyone expects Adam Gase will have a positive impact on him. If Tannehill doesn’t play well and the Dolphins don’t win much, Tannehill will be 29 at the start of the 2017 season with an $18 million salary due and no Pro Bowls or playoff appearances. Then what?

Byron Maxwell was an interesting gamble. He was terrible with the Philadelphia Eagles last season. But he’ll be under a lot less pressure this season and in a different defense. A year ago, everyone was touting him as a top free-agent catch. He’s still just 28. It’s not too tough to imagine Maxwell performing like the player everyone thought he was a year ago. But if Maxwell plays as poorly as he did last season, the Dolphins are in real trouble at cornerback. They need him to rebound.

Cosell: “I thought [Ndamukong Suh] played well. Suh is one of those guys who ends up being disruptive even though he might not make a lot of tackles. He’s a good player.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Dolphins and the rest of the AFC East.]

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Expectations were sky-high for DeVante Parker coming out of Louisville as the 14th overall pick in the 2015 draft. A foot problem held him back, and the Dolphins were reluctant to let him do much in the middle of the year. Parker finally saw regular rotation time in the final six weeks, posting a 22-445-3 line (20.2 yards per catch) over that period. With Rishard Matthews gone to Tennessee, Parker has a starting job all but guaranteed now. He’s an interesting mid-round flier, available around pick 75-90 in most Yahoo leagues.

“Jay Ajayi stands atop the running back depth chart, in part by default. Miami didn’t keep Lamar Miller, and it failed to close the deal on a number of free agents (C.J. Anderson, most notably). Ajayi was ordinary (3.8 yards per carry, seven receptions) in a modest amount of rookie-year work, but he was both a workhorse and a three-down player during his time at Boise State. Ajayi is currently the 22nd back off the board in Yahoo leagues, with an average draft position of 71.5. That’s about the time most fantasy owners start focusing on player upside, content to accept the dangerous floor that might be looming.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Lamar Miller’s yards per carry his four Dolphins seasons: 4.9, 4.0, 5.1, 4.5. Miami routinely failed to get Miller enough touches, one of the many failures of Joe Philbin and his staff. But it’s clear the Dolphins are replacing a talented back. The Dolphins tried to get an established veteran back but didn’t land one. So Jay Ajayi inherits the job. As a rookie last season, Ajayi had 89 yards on 11 carries in his first two games. The rest of the season he had 98 yards on 38 carries. As a rookie he never logged more than nine carries in a game. We have no idea if Ajayi can be a foundation back in the NFL. And third-round pick Kenyan Drake looks more like a change-of-pace weapon than an every-down back. Can the Dolphins patch together a good run game this season?

CAN NDAMUKONG SUH POSSIBLY LIVE UP TO HIS CONTRACT?

Realistically, Suh never was going to be able to live up to his monster deal. I’m not sure any defensive tackle could produce enough to justify a $114 million contract. But I don’t think the Suh contract will end up alongside Albert Haynesworth. Not even close. Pro Football Focus, based on film grades, said Suh had the best season of his career and ranked him No. 27 among all NFL players last season. NFL Films’ Greg Cosell thought Suh had a good season. Suh was pretty much the same player he was with the Detroit Lions, just with an absurd contract. And as such, he took a lot of heat when the Dolphins tanked. But here’s what the Dolphins have, regardless of the salary: A top-flight defensive tackle who can pressure the quarterback and be overpowering against the run, and he’s still in his prime at 29 years old. Suh is not the type of player who will put up big numbers or many highlights, but he has a huge impact on a defense. If we quit fixating on the amount of the contract, Suh was a fine addition to the Dolphins and will continue to be a valuable player for them.

The Jets and Bills have some question marks, so maybe the Dolphins can climb up to second place (my days of picking them to overtake the Patriots are over). If Tannehill returns to his 2014 level, a consistent run game emerges behind an intriguing offensive line and the additions on defense pay off, there’s enough top-end talent for the Dolphins to be much better than anyone expects.

The Tannehill issue has to be worrisome to the organization. They’re in danger of being in the worst possible NFL position, with a quarterback who is just good enough that you can’t dump him but not good enough to win anything with him. Another step back for Tannehill would be rough. And the Dolphins are not a young team. If the Dolphins have a bad season and Tannehill doesn’t look like an $18 million quarterback, Miami would have to go into next offseason wondering if it’s time to blow it all up and start again.

Outside of those two big weeks right after Campbell took over as coach, I didn’t like what I saw from the Dolphins last year. They were a bad, uninspired football team, and I’m not sure it’s going to get too much better. I think this is the last-place team in the AFC East, and I’m pretty sure that’s the consensus. And if the Dolphins do finish last, they have many difficult questions to ask themselves this offseason.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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