Miami Dolphins: Which Free Agent Will Have the Biggest Impact in 2013?
The Miami Dolphins have treated free agency like a young child would treat the toy aisle if he or she had been rewarded with $50.
That is, they splurged. They didn't just buy needs, they bought wants. And they're still shopping, too.
After bringing on Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler, Dustin Keller and other depth-providing players, the Dolphins added the high-profile corner they needed in Brent Grimes over the weekend, according to NFL.com. And that's not even the end for Miami. Offensive tackle Eric Winston is still a possibility.
There will be a bunch of new faces on the field for Miami in 2013, and the draft hasn't even occurred yet.
But you've heard the warnings. Teams who go all-in during free agency are rarely still playing football in January. The correct way is to build through the draft. That's how all the legacy teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots do it.
Fair enough. But to assume the Dolphins will flop next season just because of their heavy-spending free-agency burst is foolish. The bottom line is this: The Dolphins signed a handful of quality players. They should all make viable contributions to Miami's on-field product in 2013.
The purpose of this article, though, is to identify which of Miami's free agents will have the greatest impact in 2013.
Let's start with Miami's most curious move this offseason: signing Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler on Day 1 of free agency. It's not curious because of the players' talent levels—both are more-than-capable linebackers who are each coming off strong seasons. It's a curious move because, well, the Dolphins didn't appear to need any linebackers.
Someone else thought otherwise. Miami brought in Ellerbe and Wheeler and cut ties with both Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett mere hours later.
At this point, it's hard to say whether Wheeler and Ellerbe will provide an upgrade at linebacker. They're a younger and more athletic duo than their predecessors, but their inexperience is troubling.
Wheeler is a pass-rushing fiend, coming up with a combined 30 quarterback sacks, hits and hurries in 2012 (subscription required). Ellerbe also showed talent in reaching the quarterback as he recorded five sacks last year. In this capacity, Miami has certainly upgraded its linebackers. But will it be a substantial upgrade?
Staying on the defensive side, Miami's addition of corner Brent Grimes is huge. They wisely signed him to only a one-year deal (although it's probably still a bit more than I would have liked at $5.5 million). Effectively, the Dolphins are telling Grimes to prove that his Achilles injury in 2012 hasn't derailed his career.
If Grimes returns to his 2011 form (when Pro Football Focus had him ranked as the third best corner in the NFL), the Dolphins not only have an immediate starter, they have one of the better corners in the league. If he's any less than 100 percent, the Dolphins likely still have a good player, but one who is less likely to be extended beyond 2013.
Grimes was targeted 56 times in 2011. He allowed only 25 receptions. Quarterbacks had a rating of 62.9 when throwing in his direction. Grimes was a true lockdown corner in 2011.
Unfortunately, Grimes isn't likely to hit those highs again. He will certainly boost Miami's secondary, a unit that was starved for corners last year. But the 30-year-old will have a hard time regaining his previous level of production.
Miami's last defensive addition, defensive lineman Vaughn Martin, is likely to be filtered into Miami's interior rotation. Don't expect much of an impact outside of that role.
On offense, the Dolphins have made a few leaps to improve their passing game. One such move was the signing of Brandon Gibson.
The former St. Louis Rams receiver gives Miami depth at the position, something it sorely lacked last season. Gibson put up average numbers last season, which is why so many gave pause when they learned how much Ireland dished out for him. Clearly he sees something in Gibson.
Gibson gained 691 yards and five touchdowns on 51 receptions in 2012. His size (6'0", 210 lbs) means he's best suited on the outside, which could allow the Dolphins to run more sets with four wideouts. Gibson provides depth and another reliable if unremarkable target for Ryan Tannehill, but nothing more.
Tight end Dustin Keller is a great upgrade over Anthony Fasano. Similar to Grimes, the Dolphins gave Keller a prove-it one-year deal to see if he can stay healthy. If so, Miami has equipped its quarterback with a very good safety blanket.
His numbers were stunted in 2012 due to a couple of injuries, but his stats from 2011 don't lie. He had 815 yards and five touchdowns on 65 receptions. The Dolphins know how talented he is, because he's torched Miami over the years for 395 yards and four touchdowns (via Pro Football Reference).
Keller should give Tannehill more room to attack over the middle of the field and in the red zone. However, his shoddy blocking presents somewhat of a drop off from Fasano.
That leaves us with one final free agent. Mike Wallace was the cream of the crop in this year's free-agency pool, and the Dolphins dropped the big bucks to secure him. There really is no other answer to the question posed by this article. Wallace will have the biggest impact in 2013, hands down.
Wallace possesses otherworldly speed. His ability to blow the lid off defenses is nearly unrivaled in the NFL. Defensive coordinators must be aware of his presence on the field. If he's unaccounted for on any play, you can just about kiss him goodbye.
In terms of deep threats, it doesn't get much better than Wallace. He has a career total of 42 catches that are at least 20 yards downfield. 22 of those were touchdowns. Wallace is the epitome of a game-breaker. He's the kind of deadly threat Tannehill needs.
But the reason Wallace will have the greatest impact isn't necessarily his own game. It's how he'll open up the field for the rest of Miami's offense.
Which free agent will have the greatest impact for Miami in 2013?
Brian Hartline had a breakout year in 2012. He posted his first 1,000-yard season and was Miami's primary target. With Wallace on the field, Hartline just suddenly got more open.
Gibson has only put up decent numbers in his career so far. With a young gunslinger throwing his way and Wallace freeing up space for him to work in, Gibson could have a breakthrough season.
Davone Bess will find more openings across the middle and in the slot with Wallace drawing safeties deep.
Keller will be able to feast on mismatched linebackers and attack the seams while Wallace lures defenders to his location.
Defenses won't be able to constantly crowd the box and play the run with Wallace lined up on the outside. You're welcome, Lamar Miller.
And Tannehill will be able to show off that big arm of his when Wallace is streaking 40 yards downfield.
It may not be unique and you may have predicted the answer as soon as you read the headline, but it's nearly impossible to argue that any free agent will have a greater impact in 2013 than Mike Wallace.
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