Satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once said, “Nothing is more conducive to peace of mind than not having any opinions at all.”
Sports fans should be so lucky.
Most Dolphins fans and writers follow the sport because they have opinions. This inevitably brings debate which can be both good and bad.
It’s good because it invites investigation and usually people learn something while trying to defend a position.
But constant argument, especially with sports fans, often means being constantly critical. Sometimes I feel like I spend my life trying to pound things into the brains of people who simply don’t want to hear them. It’s very wearing, especially when you are trying to do it to someone you like.
So I woke up this morning and made a decision.
Not today, folks. Today it is going to be my mission to make Dolphins fans feel better about their team and, by proxy, about themselves.
And with that introduction I bring you ten (mostly) positive thoughts about the Dolphins as the first phases of free agency are completed and we head into the next period in the NFL year.
1. A young and high-potential safety
Buried in the news that the Dolphins signed flashy free agent Mario Williams and the trade for Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso was another virtually ignored signing that may have had far reaching long-term implications.
The first real free agent acquision of the new league year was actually that of Isa Abdul-Quddus. Abdul-Quddus is a 26-year old safety who went undrafted in 2011 to New Orleans. He fought for a roster spot and stuck for three years with the Saints followed by two years with the Lions.
Abdul-Quddus was the third safety on the Lions last year, locked in behind starters Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo. He’s a young, improving player who has simply been waiting for his chance to enter a starting lineup. Indeed, he started the second half of the year and Pro Football Focus rated him higher both in coverage and as a run defender than both Quin and Ihedigbo.
"He's pretty active most games," coach Jim Caldwell said before the week 17 game in Chicago. "He's out there on the field typically trying to find a way to get to the ball as quickly as he possibly can. But he throws his body, and he's a smart football player."
Abdul-Quddus is an in-the-box safety and will be a good compliment to the rangy Reshad Jones. Between the two the Dolphins will have one of the better safety tandems in the league. More importantly, they have a young player on the rise in Abdul-Quddus, the type a team that is truly committed to rebuilding needs to find.
2. An underachieving but talented defensive end
Another signing which got a bit more attention but which was still under valued was that of defensive end Andre Branch. When the Dolphins lost young defensive end Derrick Shelby, you couldn’t blame fans and media for wondering if the franchise undervalued a player who was down to do the dirty work of setting the edge and defending the run play after play. But Branch is such a player.
Branch was drafted out of Clemson in the second round by the Jacksonville Jaguars. To give you some idea of how athletic he is, most scouts considered him to be a fit as a 3-4 rushing outside linebacker even though he is 6’5”, 265 lb.
There’s no denying the fact that Branch was a disappointment who never lived up to his draft status in Jacksonville. PFF didn’t mince words after his rookie season in 2012.
“Andre Branch is a bust. He was not productive in 2012, has shown to be susceptible to injury and is now playing a backup role under a new regime. Branch was also inconsistent and soft in college. He’s a second-year dud in 2013 and beyond.”
Indeed, things did not improve significantly in that time period.
But at just 26 years old, Branch certainly has the raw talent and athletic ability to bloom. He is a gifted athlete with size who needs a team to harness that ability. Teams have to find those kinds of players if they wish to achieve sustained success. If the Dolphins can bring Branch to life, they’ll benefit for many years to come.
3. A veteran assistant coach known as one of the best
And that, of course, brings us to how they’re going to do that. Part of the rebuilding process is putting in the hard work in the film room to identify and bring in undervalued talent. But that’s only half the equation and, arguably, the less important half.
Players, especially young players, need proper coaching to continue to ascend and reach their potential. And the Dolphins hired one of the most respected defensive line coaches in the business last week in Jim Washburn.
Washburn is best known as the man who coached Albert Haynesworth when he was the defensive line coach with the Tennessee Titans from 1999 to 2010. He also coached Ndamukong Suh when he was the assistant defensive line coach in Detroit from 2013-2015.
Some have suggested that the Dolphins brought Washburn in to help Suh and there might be something to that. But in watching Suh’s tape from last year I can tell you that Suh was the least of the Dolphins problems. By the end of the year he was as dominant as he’d ever been. His major problem was that it was too easy for teams to avoid him.
In a Week 17 loss to the Dolphins, the relatively weak New England Patriots rushing offense handed the ball off to running backs 26 times. Every single run was to the opposite side that Suh was on. Previous games showed a similar pattern where the Dolphins allowed 2,019 rushing yards, ranking them 28th in the league.
The data highlight the biggest problem that the Dolphins had – poor play from the defensive tackles on the other side of the line. By the end of the season, that primarily meant rookie second round draft pick Jordan Phillips and second year man Deandre Coleman.
The Dolphins have to get more out of the other younger members of the Dolphins defensive line like Phillips, Branch, Coleman, Damontre Moore and Terrence Fede. And Washburn is exactly the type of coach to do it.
With 18 years of experience coaching in college including in such places as SMU, Arkansas and Houston, Washburn has a good idea of how to get the most out of young talent.
Upon being hired by the Detroit Lions in his last coaching gig, linebacker Stephen Tulloch spoke for many when he said, “Jim Washburn will make this defense that much better ... he's a legend.”
Now he’s doing it for the Dolphins.
4. A young and recovering star linebacker
Speaking of young players with potential, optimism amongst Dolphins fans has reigned since the acquisition of Kiko Alonso and with some justification. Alonso was traded from the Eagles along with Byron Maxwell for five spots in the first round where the Dolphins have moved back from 8 to 13. That’s the equivalent of a third round pick according to charts used by some NFL experts.
But many believe that the compensation was mostly for the acquisition of Alonso. Maxwell came with a large financial commitment from the Dolphins and some have suggested that the Eagles should have paid them to take on the contract. That’s an exaggeration, of course. But all things considered, Maxwell wasn’t worth much in a trade.
Alonso was the key to that deal and he could be a great pick up for the Dolphins. But the key caveat will be “if he remains healthy.”
He’s still young at 25 years of age and he’s on his rookie deal. The drawback is that since a wonderful rookie season when he was the only defensive player nominated for NFL Rookie of the Year was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, he’s had two ACL tears. The first of those came in 2014 and caused him to miss the entire season. The second was a partial tear of the same ligament in the second game of 2015.
It’s important that Dolphins fans be patient as they evaluate Alonso’s performance this year. As we all know, medical advances have done wonders for players in Alonso’s situation. It used to be that the only debate when a player tore an ACL was when the retirement party would be. Things are different now.
A 2010 study found that one third of the players who suffered an ACL injury still did not return to the NFL after the surgery. The ones who made it back needed an average of 11 months of recovery before playing again.
Even then players often don’t feel 100% until their second season after recovering from such an injury. Indeed, well known orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews has said that it may take more than a year for some athletes to get the strength back in their quads alone. Some NFL players believe they are not 100% back from knee surgeries until as many as three seasons after the injury.
The bottom line is that Alonso may turn out to be a wonderful young player for the Dolphins. But don’t be too disappointed if that doesn’t materialize this year.
5. Running back not necessarily a need
I see much consternation amongst Dolphins fans about the team’s running back situation. But personally I see no reason to panic. Though I can’t blame the Dolphins for seeking proven alternatives, I stand by my evaluation that the two backs they have in Jay Ajayi and Damien Williams are good enough. Neither need be capable of carrying the full load as Adam Gase will undoubtedly favor the multi-back system that he ran in both Denver and Chicago.
Nevertheless, many Dolphins fans seem to be worried and I’ve seen some thoughts floated that the Dolphins might draft Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott.
I very much doubt that will happen as my gut tells me that Elliot will be gone before the Dolphins pick. Although there are some who think that it is a mistake to draft a running back that high, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Elliot isn’t the reason why the Eagle traded up.
Many have looked at where Todd Gurley was drafted last year and figured that is the highest Elliot will go, putting the Dolphins in a position to draft him. Gurley is a wonderful runner but Elliot is a smooth, all around athlete that can do it all: run block and catch. He’s not just a running back. He’s a weapon.
I might add that after years of being de-valued, the running back position is experiencing something of a renaissance this year. C.J. Anderson, Matt Forte, Chris Ivory, Chris Johnson, Doug Martin, Lamar Miller, and Bilal Powell to name a few all got signed in a decent market this year
The Eagles have already traded running back DeMarco Murray and they have reportedly made it known that remaining running back Ryan Mathews is also available. Though Andy Reid often threw the ball an inordinate amount of the time as the Eagles head coach, he relied much more heavily on the run when current Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was his offensive coordinator in Kansas City.
Expectations are that he will carry that philosophy over from the Chiefs. But that can’t happen if he trades his starting running backs away. The bet here is that he has Elliot in mind as a replacement and will draft him at eighth overall.
6. Guard may not be as big a deal as fans are expecting
Similarly, I see a lot of hand wringing over the situation at offensive guard amongst members of Dolphins Nation. As things stand, the Dolphins will start two of the following four players: Jamil Douglas, Billy Turner, Dallas Thomas and the recently signed Jermon Bushrod and Kraig Urbik.
In some ways I understand the feeling amongst the fans. Bushrod is a good soldier but he’s a broken down war horse who the team wont want to count on to start 16 games. Douglas, Turner and Thomas were a disaster at various times last year, and Urbik was released from Buffalo.
I’d like to point out two things that I hope will make Dolphins fans fell better.
First, the problems at guard last year might not have been entirely driven by lack of talent. In reviewing the tape, it wasn’t the physical limitations of the players that resulted in the poor play. It was the mental breakdowns.
Virtually any time a player blitzed up the middle or stunted involving either of the guards of Douglas at center, the protection broke down. Players were almost paralyzed by anything unusual that came their way. In this respect, I’d like to suggest that the change in the coaching staff could be of benefit.
Chris Foerster is a veteran offensive line coach with 22 years of professional experience in the league including one year spent with the Dolphins in 2004. There’s every reason to believe that he’ll do a better job with the offensive line and that there won’t be a repeat of the disaster of last year.
Second, there’s every chance that the Dolphins are planning to draft an offensive guard. Though not strong at the top, there will be opportunities to find starting offensive guards in the middle to lower rounds of the draft.
Bottom line, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time wringing my hands over the lack of guards until I see how things develop over the course of the offseason and into the preseason.
7. Size may be on the menu for Miami at cornerback
The acquisition of tight end Martellus Bennett by the New England Patriots is going to have consequences for the other teams in the AFC East. Bennett will now be paired with All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski and he’ll now be the second option at best and more probably the third or fourth. Nevertheless, Bennett has the ability to cause a lot of defenses headaches and will be motivated in what will be a contract season for him.
Like the rest of the AFC East, the Dolphins are going to have to have big defensive backs to cover the 6’6” Bennett and the 6’7” Gronkowski, not to mention Jets WR Brandon Marshall amongst others. No Dolphins fan will want to see a repeat of the kind of domination that Marshall showed over the 5’9” Brent Grimes in single coverage last season.
If the Dolphins draft a cornerback, as is widely expected, look for them to go for size at the position. That means Jalen Ramsey and Eli Apple at 6’1” and perhaps Artie Burns and William Jackson II, both at 6’0” will have the edge while Vernon Hargreaves and Mackensie Alexander won’t fit as well at 5’10’.
8. The obsession with compensatory picks is a bad thing
This one isn't really positive. As someone who has been writing about football for almost 20 years (man, I’m getting old), I have never seen a fan base more obsessed with the idea of accumulating compensatory draft picks than the Dolphins this year. With virtually every rumor of an interest of the team in a player, one of the first questions to inevitably be asked is, “Is he a free agent or was he released and will be cost the Dolphins a compensatory pick?”
Compensatory draft pick determinations are based on the salary, playing time and postseason honors of the free agents each team lost during the previous offseason. Not only do the teams that collect multiple compensatory picks (and picks in higher rounds) have to remain relatively inactive in free agency, they have to have significant losses. If you have significant losses, you better feel pretty good about what you have remaining on your roster to fill those holes to sit on your hands in free agency.
I don’t believe that building a team through the acquisition of compensatory picks is a viable strategy. Consider the case of Olivier Vernon. Most Dolphins fans seem to believe that the team will receive a pick at the bottom of the third round for the loss of the defensive end. But does anyone really believe that what amounts to a high fourth round draft pick is good compensation for the loss of a 25 year old ascendant talent at one of the most important defensive positions in football?
I’m not suggesting that the Dolphins should have shelled out the money to re-sign Vernon and the pick will be nice to have if you can’t do that. But, as is the case in every similar situation, it will never make up for the loss of talent to the team.
Turning the tables leads to a similar path of logic. Should the team fail to sign a free agent that it considers to be a significant talent because it may lose a compensatory draft pick? Never. Similar to the situation with Vernon, the talent gained will always be more than the worth of the draft position that you are giving up.
Compensatory draft picks are meant to be a consolation prize, not a reward with which teams will normally come out ahead.
9. Steps are being made to try and clarify the catch rule
The NFL's 32 owners are going to be busy when they convene in Florida next week for their annual meeting given the number of proposed rule changes that need to be considered.
One rule that is not changing despite a mass of confusion is the catch rule.
One of the most memorable quotes of the 2015 season was uttered by frustrated Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy after a playoff game against Arizona in January.
“I don’t know what the hell a catch is anymore,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Despite this statement and many like it, the NFL persists in believing that the relevant people associated with the league understand the rule. They believe that the problem might simply be in communicating the rule more clearly to fans and to the game broadcasters who influence opinion.
The league might continue to delude itself but the rest of us are more apt to believe the evidence of our eyes.
The good news is that, despite their declarations, the league might be taking steps to clarify the situation for the referees on the field. The first of those was having Dean Blandino on the phone for replay reviews to inject some consistency into the interpretation.
In January, during the divisional round playoff game between the Packers and Cardinals to which McCarthy is referring above, Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught a pass while going to the ground. He lost possession when he hit the ground, and the official on the field determined that Fitzgerald had caught the ball.
Unlike previous calls which had been reversed in such a situation, this one stood as the referee (and Blandino) ruled that “indisputable visual evidence” to overturn the ruling on the field that Fitzgerald had the ball long enough to become a runner was lacking.
The situation caused confusion because it was exactly the same as one that existed in the playoffs the previous season. In that case, the ruling was incorrectly reversed and Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was ruled to have not made a crucial catch. It arguably cost them the game.
The truth is that though the league never acknowledged that the Bryant ruling was incorrect, the Fitzgerald catch was effectively an admission of it.
Bottom line, the key to clarifying the catch rule isn’t educating the fans and broadcasters. It’s educating the referees. Once that’s done, the standard will be consistent and complaints will tail off.
10. The Jets will likely be back to having garbage at quarterback
Ryan Fitzpatrick and the New York Jets are in a stalemate as they negotiate a contract with him in free agency. If he decides to go to the Denver Broncos – which all things being equal I’d bet money he will just to spite the Jets at this point, the Jets look like they’ll go with Robert Griffin III or Geno Smith.
Have a nice day, Dolphins fans.
This column was written by Tom Shannon. Follow him on Twitter: @bearingthenews
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