Since making the playoffs in 2008, the Miami Dolphins have had three consecutive losing seasons with 2011 being the worst one yet. The ‘Fins finished the year 6-10, but they were better than their record suggested. Although their offense was subpar, they had one of the best defenses in the league and were more than stout against the run, holding opponents to merely 3.7 yards per carry. According to an expected win and loss formula on Pro Football Reference based on the Pythagorean formula, the Dolphins should have went 8-8 and were victims of poor luck.
Looking at their schedule, the Dolphins had a +15 point differential and lost four games by four points or less while winning three games by 20 points or more. They were 18th in the league in passing yards per attempt allowed and also 18th in passing yards per attempt on offense. As far as the running game goes, they were right in the middle (15th) in yards per carry and third in yards per carry against. Turnovers were a big problem, as the Dolphins had a -6 turnover differential due to a huge differential in fumbles. The Dolphins lost 12 fumbles on offense while recovering just three on defense (+3 INT differential).
The Dolphins looked dead at the beginning of the season but like the Arizona Cardinals, they had a much better second-half with the defense being a key catalyst.
2011 Record 6-10
QB Ryan Tannehill, 1st round draft from Texas A&M
QB David Garrard
WR Chad Ochocinco
LB Gary Guyton
RB Lamar Miller 4th round from Miami
RT Jonathan Martin 2nd round from Stanford
LB Josh Kaddu fifth round from Oregon
WR Legedu Naanee
CB Richard Marshall
WR Brandon Marshall traded to Chicago Bears
QB Chad Henne
DE Kendall Langford
CB Will Allen
S Yeremiah Bell
Besides HBO Hard Knocks, the most interesting storyline surrounding the Miami Dolphins is the quarterback competition between David Garrard and Matt Moore. Last season, Moore was above-average with a healthy TD:INT ratio, a decent completion percentage, and a solid quarterback rating of 87.1. While he isn’t an ideal starter, you could do much worse than Moore. He was one of the better quarterbacks in the year last year, because he is accurate and doesn’t get phased while under pressure. Moore took his chances deep on 26.1% of his passes for a 47.5% completion percentage on those throws (the highest in the AFC).
First-round choice Ryan Tannehill is the quarterback of the future in Miami, but he’s not going to be starting this year. Rookie quarterbacks almost always struggle, no matter how good they end up being two years later (Josh Freeman and Matthew Stafford are two examples who come to mind).
So while Tannehill isn’t challenging last year’s starter, former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard is. He missed all of last season with an injury, and he’s 34. On the bright side, quite a few people have said that he looks great in new head coach Joe Philbin’s west coast offense. He was a pretty good QB for the Jags and is one of the strongest QBs in the league. Like Moore, he’s an above-average, unspectacular passer. Garrard has a big arm, but he’s not going to make plays and is rarely ever “great”. However, Garrard is consistently above-average, and it looks like he has the offense down.
At the end of the day, it comes down to health for Garrard. With the way people are talking about his training camp performances, you would think that he’s going to get the job. The Dolphins aren’t going to name a starter until the offense is fully installed, which will probably be sometime after the preseason or late into the preseason. Moore is younger and much healthier, but he isn’t better than Garrard. He proved that he can be a good spot-starter for a talented rookie like Tannehill. Whoever loses the starting quarterback gig will likely be traded to a team that needs a quarterback, and that bodes better for Moore than Garrard due to age and health concerns. Garrard has little trade value and has more value to the Dolphins than anyone else, and he’ll likely get the job. Moore has looked shaky in training camp, but we’ll get a better idea of these two during the preseason. At this point, Garrard is the favorite despite what Moore did last year. As for Tannehill, Philbin is impressed with him.
Reggie Bush’s goal is to lead the league in rushing in the 2012 season. While that isn’t likely, he has emerged as one of the most dangerous backs in the league (finally). He is easily their best offensive weapon after the Brandon Marshall trade, and he averaged a hefty 5.1 yards per carry en route to 1,097 rushing yards. One of the best pass-catching RBs in the NFL, Bush also hauled in 43 passes and had seven touchdowns overall (six on the ground). Backup Daniel Thomas looked awful last season and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, while Steve Slaton is a back the coaches really like.
Thomas had a rough rookie year, but he’s still the No. 2 back over both Slaton and rookie Lamar Miller. In fact, Thomas could be in line for more carries (165 last year), but that 3.5 YPC last year looked ugly. Slaton is still on the road back, and he was considered a very expendable player on the roster. However, he is in line for playing time next season, as the coaching staff likes him. Miami Hurricanes product Lamar Miller looks like the second best back on the team besides Bush, as he runs a terrific 4.4 forty and is probably the fastest back on the team. He should be getting a major role as a rookie, and he is definitely one to watch for in the future.
Wide receiver is a position of concern on the Dolphins roster due to the departure of superstar wideout Brandon Marshall. He was easily their best pass-catcher last season, as he caught 82 passes for 1,227 yards and six touchdowns. Marshall averaged 8.6 yards per target. Only Brian Hartline and Anthony Fasano averaged at least eight yards per target, but neither of them caught 40 passes. In fact, no other Dolphins receiver caught 50 passes last year.
The receiver who came the closest to 50 was Davone Bess, and he was extremely disappointing last season. It never seemed like Bess and Matt Moore clicked, but Bess has been said to be the best receiver at training camp so far. Talent-wise, he is easily the best receiver so this isn’t surprising; encouraging is the right word.
Chad Ochocinco has looked solid in training camp, and he should be the second most targeted wide receiver on the team with Brian Hartline and Legedu Naanee being third and fourth respectively. Ochocinco is trying to prove that he has something left, and he should be about average. Hartline missed minicamp with an appendectomy and has struggled with a hamstring injury this offseason. He’s a question mark after catching just 53% of the passes thrown his way but was stlil the team’s second best receiver last year (not exactly a testament to the players behind Marshall). The alignment should definitely be Bess in the slot and Hartline and Ochocinco playing out wide for the ‘Fins.
Tight end Anthony Fasano is still one of the most underrated TEs in the NFL, because great run blocking by a TE is always overlooked in a league where the great pass-catching TEs are always talked about. Fasano is a great tight end to have, but the problem is that he doesn’t fit the Dolphins offense. This is the final year of his contract, and he just doesn’t fit with Philbin’s fast WCO. He isn’t the best pass-catcher out there, but he is a terrific blocker. Fasano was solid as a receiver last year with five receiving touchdowns, a 59.3% catch rate, and an 8.4 yards per target average.
Athletic backup tight end Michael Egnew has more upside in Philbin’s offense, and the Missouri tight end should be able to usurp Fasano. He isn’t better than the top run blocker, but the ‘Fins want a pass-catcher more than a good blocker. H-Back Charles Clay has been heavily involved with the offense, and expect that to continue as the year wears on. He looks like he could be dangerous lining up at TE, WR, or FB, and the Dolphins really like what he can do. As an H-Back he won’t get many opportunities, but Clay looks like he can make a big play when he gets his chance.
Left tackle Jake Long is one of the best players in the league, but he didn’t enjoy a strong season in 2011. He wasn’t bad, but Long was a bit disappointing in a down year by his other-worldly standards due to some big injuries. He’s said he’s feeling a whole lot better, so get ready for another great season from Long.
At right tackle, second-round pick Jonathan Martin is trying to make the transition from protecting the blindside in college with Stanford. He’s a top talent, but the transition hasn’t been easy. Playing at RT is more run blocking oriented, and Martin looks more like a high upside project player. In fact, Lydon Murtha could be the Dolphins starter at the position if things don’t speed up for Martin.
Artis Hicks beat out John Jerry for the starting right guard spot, as Jerry’s playing weight is too high. The fact that Jerry hasn’t beat out the former Cleveland Browns veteran is discouraging, and things are looking worse for Jerry every single day. At left guard, Eric Steinbach is the primary backup and can also slot into RG if neither Jerry nor Hicks prove to be effective (that wouldn’t be surprising). Richie Incognito is firmly in the starting spot on the left side, with the young and talented Mike Pouncey comfortably slotted in as the center and second best OL on the team.
Even though the Miami Dolphins lost one of the better 3-4 DEs in the NFL in Kendall Langford, the defensive front is still a big position of strength for Miami. Paul Soliai and Randy Starks make up a stout interior, with Jared Odrick and superstar Cameron Wake lined up on the outside. Wake is an absolute monster, and he had an outstanding 24 QB hits and nine sacks last year. What makes things even more scary is that one of the game’s premier pass rushers is actually better as a WDE in the 4-3 than a pass rushing OLB.
Odrick finally got to play after missing his rookie season, and the former Penn State star did not disappoint with six sacks and eight QB hits in 11 games. He and Wake will be terrorizing pass rushers, along with Randy Starks in the middle. Starks is expected to get a big long-term deal after being used as trade bait the previous offseason. After an incredible year in 2011 that confirmed Starks’s place among the best 3-4 DEs/4-3 DTs in the league, the Dolphins are glad that they never dealt him.
Middle linebacker Karlos Dansby is one of the best in the league, and he was at his best last season for the Dolphins. A terrific run-stopper, Dansby had another 100+ tackle season at the heart of the ‘Fins defense. Even more scary? He’s a whole lot better as an MLB than a 3-4 ILB; watch for a huge year. Along with a top defensive line, Dansby and Kevin Burnett helped shut down the run. Burnett moves to outside linebacker as a WILL and could be in line for another 100 tackle season. Backup MLB Gary Guyton is a solid cover linebacker, and he can play as a backup MLB or backup WILL. Guyton is one of the better backup linebackers in the league.
SAM linebacker Koa Misi never fit as an OLB for the Dolphins 3-4, because he isn’t a good pass rusher. He is, however, a good player in coverage. He is coming off of a disappointing run stopping year, but he’s a good fit on the strong-side. SAM linebackers need to be good in coverage, because they are lined up with the opposing tight end more often than not, and Misi fits that bill.
Incoming cornerback Richard Marshall is going to be starting as a nickel corner for the Miami Dolphins. Nickel corners are becoming a premium position, and Marshall is a corner who is comfortable playing outside or inside. We’ll see if he has the skills for the inside. He gets burned quite a bit, but he’s fast and doesn’t give up many catches; that last trait is especially important for an NCB. Marshall won’t be challenging starter Sean Smith for the LCB spot next to star Vontae Davis, but Smith is coming off of a horrible and very disappointing season in 2011 after playing at a high level in 2010. This is a big year for Smith, and a bounce back would give the Dolphins one of the better cornerback groups in the league.
The Dolphins no longer have veteran 100-tackle strong safety Yeremiah Bell, but they do have Chris Clemons as the new starting SS. The problem is that he barely played last year. Tyrell Johnson, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings, was supposed to be a big challenger against Clemons. He has been a flop so far, so the inexperienced Clemons is the safety. At FS, Reshad Jones was solid last year in 12 games with over 60 tackles and a couple of picks. He has been picking off passes at a high rate this offseason, and there is no question that he is the starter.
This is Joe Philbin’s first NFL coaching gig, and he has come a long way since serving under Kirk Ferentz’s staff at Iowa from 1999-2002. In 2006, Philbin served as the Green Bay Packers offensive line coach after first being hired to the team in 2003. In 2007, Philbin was named the Packers offensive coordinator and consistently helped field one of the best offenses in the NFL. His fast-paced west coast offense is one of the more specific schemes out there, and it works with the right personnel.
So far, it is difficult to gauge how things will be in Philbin’s first year. The Dolphins fan base is one of the strongest in the NFL, so there are usually high expectations associated with the job. The expectations are realistic and relatively low, given the team’s 6-10 finish last year and the state of the receiving corps. A .500 finish is likely the goal for the Dolphins, and it is an achievable one, but it hinges on a bounce back season from Bess and the emergence of another receiver on the roster.
It is almost impossible to pick a possible breakout player on the Dolphins, aside from H-Back Charles Clay. There aren’t any other options to choose from, unless if you’re bullish on wide receiver Roberto Wallace. Clay struggled at some points during training camp, but I don’t think training camp gave a proper scope of his skills. Clay has solid hands and can be a big playmaker. He can create mismatches as the H-Back in Philbin’s WCO, and he only needs a few chances in a game to make on big play. He isn’t going to be a focal point of this offense, but he’s definitely going to get more than the 405 snaps he had last year. Look for Philbin to give Clay more opportunities in games, as they believe he is legit playmaker and have given him plenty of offseason reps to prove it.
2012 Prediction 7-9
I was flipping between 7-9 and 8-8 in my head, because the offensive line and running backs will be better this year. The defense will also be terrific, especially since more players are slotting into more natural positions. The big problem is the passing game, because the winner of the QB battle will have a subpar group of receivers at their disposal. Davone Bess should be good, but Hartline is mediocre and Ochocinco and Naanee are question marks. Chris Clemons is the only true weak link on this defense, because I am one of those people who believes in cornerback Sean Smith’s overall talent and ability to bounce back in 2012. The passing game will hold this team back and cause them to be a game back from a .500 finish.