By: Chip Turner
The celebrations are dying down, the Lombardi Trophy is safely stowed away, and the 2020-21 NFL season has come to an end. For the 47th straight year, the Lombardi Trophy will not be displayed in Miami, and Dolphins fans are tired of hearing the word “patience.”
Alas, that’s what is required when an organization is torn down to the foundation, as the Dolphins were in 2019. The team took a huge step forward in 2020, and despite a thorough dismantling at the hands of the Bills to close the season, the future looks bright.
Read the above paragraph again, and then think about this: On November 2, 2019, the Miami Dolphins were 0-7. Over the next 14 months, they went 15-10, defeating the 2017-18 Super Bowl Champs, the 2018-19 Super Bowl Champs (twice), the 2019-20 NFC Champs, and gave the 2019-20 Super Bowl Champs a heck of a fight.
In the final game against Buffalo, their lack of depth, talent and experience was exposed, but that’s okay. The Dolphins were, and are, one of the youngest teams in the NFL, and 2020 was a big step in getting that elusive trophy back to Miami.
So what are the next steps? To start this three-part analysis, let’s look at each position group on offense, and measure them up against the two teams that played this past weekend. This looks to be the most interesting Free Agency period in years, and Miami has plenty of draft capital to take a big step forward.
Quarterback is decidedly the most important piece of an NFL team, as illustrated by Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady being the last two QB competing for the championship this past Sunday.
Let’s get this out of the way: The jury is still out on Tua Tagovailoa.
Let’s also get this out of the way: You don’t know if Tua’s the guy. Yes you, the fan who thinks he’s seen all he needs to see, who may or may not have played organized football, or Madden, and has already decided that Tua is going to be a complete bust or a Hall Of Famer.
You don’t know, and neither do I, and neither does any journalist, talk show host, or YouTube personality. So maybe, just maybe, let’s stop tearing each other to shreds over it. Because we don’t know yet.
What I do know is that there were times in 2020 when Tua absolutely looked like the QB Dolphins fans waited on for 20 years, and there were also times he looked completely overwhelmed and hesitant. I also know that his rookie performance wasn’t good enough to get the job done. I know it, the coaches know it, and most importantly Tua knows it.
There seems to be concern that figuring out if Tua is the future of the franchise will take another seven years. I seriously doubt that; Brian Flores has definitively shown that if something is proven to not work, he’ll move on. If the only reason the Dolphins are not working offensively is Tua, I have no doubt that he will be replaced sooner than later; most certainly before another six years go by.
Let’s see how his second year in the league turns out.
2021 Outlook: Barring something remarkable happening between Miami, Deshaun Watson and the Texans, Tua is the Miami Dolphins starting QB in 2021. I do not believe Ryan Fitzpatrick will return.
This group had to come next, because some guy named Fred from Dubuque read the above part about the QB position and bellowed aloud, “I’m tired of Tua apologists!” He probably said this to an audience that consisted of his goldfish and a few plants, but Fred needed to get that off his chest.
You might want to skip this next part, Fred. Tua didn’t have a lot to work with in 2020, and the Dolphins WR corps was one of the weakest spots on the entire roster.
Part of it was due to injury, part due to COVID opt-outs, part due to no offseason, and part due to a sheer lack of talented depth at the position. When all of that comes together, you end up with Lynn Bowden Jr. and Isaiah Ford being two of the best three WR options for the most important Dolphins game of the past several years. I’m a fan of both players, but that’s not going to cut it for a championship-level team. Both Tampa Bay and Kansas City are loaded with weapons at WR; Miami has a long way to go to be mentioned in that category.
2021 Outlook: DeVante Parker likely stays as one of the primary WR options, with several additions through the draft and free agency. I am of the opinion that Jakeem Grant, Isaiah Ford (Restricted Free Agent) and Allen Hurns will be looking for a new team in 2021; possibly Albert Wilson as well. While one of the popular names in Free Agency seems to be Allen Robinson, Curtis Samuel is likely a better scheme fit.
We can say this about the Dolphins RB position in 2020; the Dolphins tried to make it work. Unfortunately, the additions of Jordan Howard and Matt Breida were nowhere near as fruitful as expected. Breida was used sparingly, and Jordan Howard made Dolphins fans look back fondly on Kalen Ballage’s 1.8 yards per carry average…over half a yard more than Howard could muster per carry in 2020.
Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed were pleasant surprises, but it’s not a good sign when the second-leading rusher on your team (Ahmed) was signed off the street in October. Both Kansas City and Tampa Bay have multiple weapons at RB, and Miami simply isn’t anywhere near their class.
2021 Outlook: This was the second year in a row Miami struggled to run. I expect Gaskin back, as his season was surprisingly productive. The only other two backs under contract are Ahmed and Patrick Laird, and they have a combined $3,000 dead cap number. That is not a typo. While I expect Miami to be active in Free Agency, I’m not certain the team will meet Aaron Jones’s asking price. The cure to the Miami Dolphins RB ails might be a cheaper free agent acquisition to go along with a RB option in the draft.
So here’s a question that’s been bouncing around in my head for a little while now: Why didn’t Miami extend Mike Gesicki’s contract this past year? He gave every indication that he was breaking out in 2019, and then had an even better 2020. At his position, he was fifth in the league in yards with a half-dozen touchdowns. He’s clearly become a top-ten tight end in the league, so why did Chris Grier and Brian Flores extend Adam Shaheen instead?
More thoughts on this in the future.
At present, Gesicki is the best receiver of a trio of TE on the Dolphins roster. Smythe and Shaheen are also capable receivers, and both are better blockers than Gesicki. One thing that stood out for both Super Bowl teams was their tight ends. Travis Kelce was arguably the best receiver at any position last year, and Gronkowski is one of the best to ever play it. While the Dolphins TE corps is far from a weakness, they don’t have a singular weapon at the position who can block and receive like either of those two.
2021 Outlook: I don’t think much changes at the TE position for 2021; Kyle Pitts and Pat Friermuth are enticing draft prospects, but the Dolphins have considerably more pressing needs.
The Super Bowl clearly illustrated the importance of offensive line play to team success. In 2020, Miami invested heavily in their offensive line, resulting in moderate growth. Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt and Solomon Kindley were drafted to join free agent acquisitions Ted Karras and Ereck Flowers, and the OL improved from previous years.
Unfortunately, the OL has been a complete train wreck for several years, so that means it went from “complete train wreck” to “okay, this still isn’t a good OL.” There’s still work to be done, although growing pains were expected from three rookie starters. Austin Jackson is one of the youngest players in the NFL, Robert Hunt took time to transition to RT, and Kindley was a pleasant surprise at RG.
2021 Outlook: I’d expect more acquisitions for the line; the only players under contract other than last year’s draftees are Flowers, Jesse Davis and Michael Dieter. Flowers will be back because of his contract and Davis will likely return due to his ability to play both tackle and guard, but I don’t believe Dieter will return. The Dolphins have expressed interest in re-signing Karras, but neither he nor Flowers were particularly adept at run blocking.
It would not surprise me to see the team spend assets on the OL both in free agency and early in the NFL Draft. The verdict on moving Robert Hunt from Right Guard to Right Tackle is still out; he progressed nicely late in the season, but it’s not clear he’ll ever be able to handle speed rushers on the outside by himself. The addition of a Right Tackle would allow Hunt to kick back inside and solve multiple issues.
Up Next: Part Two – Defense.