What's New for the Dolphins in 2013-14?
Teams rarely undergo as much personnel change as the Dolphins undertook during this offseason. Using data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), we see that players that accounted for over 9,000 snaps during the 2012 season are either no longer on the team or will take dramatically reduced roles compared with a year ago. Many more players will either switch positions or otherwise have a significant role change.
My napkin math (which is aided by information from Pro Football Focus, as above) estimates that up to 55 percent of the team (by snap counts) is subject to personnel change or role change. This amount of turnover is far more than twice what I have personally found to be normal in the second year of a new coaching regime.
Let's go over some of the most dramatic changes.
The attached picture does not simply show a single player for effect. I have included rather a picture of two plays that exemplify some of the changes undergone in the wide receivers unit.
Though clearly the addition of Mike Wallace grabs the most attention, the Dolphins made another large change to the unit when they signed free agent Brandon Gibson and subsequently shipped Davone Bess to the Cleveland Browns.
The two plays attached may give us a clue as to why the Dolphins did that. Brandon Gibson at 6'0" and 210 lbs is a much larger target than the 5'10" and 190-pound Bess. This is attractive to a head coach Joe Philbin because he likes to send his slot receivers out vertically along the sidelines or up the seam into the middle of the field. Smaller and/or less athletic traditional slot receivers would not necessarily pose as much of a threat on such routes.
In the top part of the picture, you see the 6'3" and 216-pound receiver Marvin McNutt lined up in the slot to the top of the screen. He will run out to the sideline and then vertically to the end zone on a 4th-and-4 against the New Orleans Saints. This was the play on which he scored a 56-yard touchdown.
However, sometimes the switch can backfire. The second play was actually a rare occasion when the Dolphins put Mike Wallace into the slot. The play call was very similar to the one that scored a touchdown against the Saints, but the coverage dictated the routes be modified slightly.
With the safeties in a two-deep zone look, quarterback Ryan Tannehill was tasked with throwing the football to Wallace in between the zones along the sideline, rather than attempting to break through the defense vertically as Pat Devlin later did against the Saints.
In this case against the Buccaneers, Mike Wallace could not execute and finish the catch even though the football was on target. This is a play that a smaller, more execution-savvy player such as Bess would have easily finished.
However, it is important to note that had the defense given a different look, you would have seen Mike Wallace take off up the field vertically with Tannehill attempting to hit him in stride, and a player like Wallace can scarcely be covered in such situations. So, by making changes such as this to the receivers unit and its tendencies, the Dolphins are taking a calculated risk.
The Offensive Line
The Dolphins made only one major personnel change along the offensive line this offseason, but it resulted in two major changes compared with the unit that played most of the 2012 season.
The Dolphins allowed left tackle Jake Long to sign with the St. Louis Rams and chose to sign veteran right tackle Tyson Clabo in his place. This, in turn, forced right tackle Jonathan Martin to move to left tackle.
The full consequences of the move remain to be seen, but on paper this would seem be a downgrade to the unit's run-blocking abilities. Jake Long was a noted run-blocker during his time with the Miami Dolphins, whereas at his age and in his final seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, Clabo had become a one-dimensional pass-protector.
The Running Backs
Interestingly enough, pass protection may have been one of the primary reasons for the move. The Dolphins coaches have made it clear they do not necessarily like the approach of having to have one designated back come onto the field on all third-down and/or passing situations. Reggie Bush was a notoriously bad pass-protector when forced into such duties.
Lamar Miller was criticized for his pass protection as a rookie, but the problem was mostly mental. He had a hard time keeping up with his individual duties during plays, especially in the Dolphins' fast-paced offensive approach. In his second year, he knows the offense much better and is making fewer mistakes. He pass-protects from the backfield very capably.
It remains to be seen whether the Dolphins can run the ball as efficiently with Miller as they did with Reggie Bush. However, the Dolphins have their wish in that they have a back they can trust to execute just as well when the offense hurries into passing mode and needs extra protection, as he does when asked to run the football.
One of the very biggest and most dramatic changes the Dolphins underwent in the offseason came in the form of two brand new every-down linebackers in Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe. The team dismissed the previous duo of Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett.
The team undertook this dramatic change because of the more aggressive tendencies of Wheeler and Ellerbe. Both players showed success blitzing the passer and otherwise making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.
That made them an immediate fit for defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle's scheme, because of his tendency to begin third downs and passing downs with a double-barreled blitz look from his two linebackers. You can see this tendency in action in the attached picture. Both linebackers are often expected to aggressively place themselves at the line of scrimmage showing blitz, regardless of their final responsibility on the play.
In the play featured in the attached picture, Wheeler (top-most linebacker) came on the blitz while Ellerbe (bottom-most linebacker) faked the blitz and then pulled back into coverage. The idea is to keep the offense guessing as to what will happen once the ball is snapped, which can create spacing advantages in the pass rush. In order to make this scheme work best, you need players who regularly show aggressive tendencies.
The Pass Rush
The Dolphins traded up to the third overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft in order to select Oregon outside linebacker Dion Jordan.
This should change the overall effectiveness of the pass-rush packages the team attempted to use during the 2012 season with rookie third-round pick Olivier Vernon.
The Dolphins mistakenly went into the 2012 season believing that Vernon could be a pass-rush specialist, despite his lack of pass-rush production and efficiency at the University of Miami.
Vernon came out of college with very strong hands and a good motor, which had helped him play the run very well at the college level. He also had a lot of athleticism and showed comfort with assignments out in space. What he did not show was strong ability to rush the passer from over a tackle.
Despite this, the Dolphins were attracted to Vernon for the role of pass-rusher on passing downs opposite Cameron Wake because they like him to operate in space with his hand off the ground, and to at times confuse the offense by pulling back into a zone coverage. Vernon proved surprisingly adept at working in space and in coverage; however, he still did not rush the passer very well.
So, the Dolphins have supercharged the role by grabbing Jordan to fill it. Jordan is not only more fluid and dangerous in coverage than Vernon was coming out, he has the length, athleticism and pure pass-rush ability that Vernon lacked. He is the prototype for the schematic role the Dolphins had in mind for Vernon a year ago.
The Dolphins play a lot of off-man coverage in their defensive scheme. A year ago, Sean Smith struggled with those duties as his body was too big and bulky to move as quickly and fluidly as a player needs to in that particular style of coverage.
So the Dolphins made a switch. They allowed Smith to walk as a free agent and signed Brent Grimes in his place. Grimes is a much smaller player with great quick-twitch abilities and explosiveness. He should prove a better schematic fit for off-man coverage.
However, the team did not stop there. It also cut corner Richard Marshall, who proved a poor fit as a perimeter corner in the Dolphins' scheme. Last year, they had claimed corner Dimitri Patterson off waivers from the Cleveland Browns. They appear intent on allowing Patterson to take Marshall's place.
This has its drawbacks. Neither Patterson nor Marshall has shown himself very good in coverage from the field boundary. The Dolphins will have Patterson move inside to the slot when the team brings out its nickel personnel package, but that still leaves Patterson guarding the perimeter in base packages.
It remains to be seen whether this change proves beneficial.