Two of the Dolphins' biggest signings of 2013 are also two of their biggest question marks for 2014.
Much was made of the Miami Dolphins' offseason moves, from signing wide receiver Mike Wallace, to letting left tackle Jake Long and running back Reggie Bush walk away, to swapping in linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler by releasing Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett.
Some of the moves paid off, like re-signing veteran receiver Brian Hartline and bringing in cornerback Brent Grimes. Some of the team's biggest issues, however, can be traced back to decisions that were made in March and April.
In fact, some of those issues are at positions where the Dolphins spent a lot of money this offseason, leaving a tricky decision on the Dolphins' hands this offseason.
The Dolphins are still in the playoff race for this season, but it's never too early to look at where the team has to improve.
Much was made prior to the season about whether Lamar Miller or Daniel Thomas would, or should, have a bigger role in the offense. Truth be told, it hasn't mattered. Both have been remarkably inconsistent in multiple facets of the game.
Whether it's hitting holes with conviction, making blocks in pass protection, decision-making at the line of scrimmage or anything else, neither has revealed himself as the resolute answer at the position.
Pro Football Reference
Thomas has been the object of scorn for quite some time, and rightfully so. According to Pro Football Reference, Thomas has been the league's second-worst back in Yards Per Attempt (YPA) at 3.61 among backs with more than 350 carries since 2011—Thomas' first year in the league.
Miller didn't do much to stave off Thomas, in terms of workload. In fact, Miller had less than 20 yards rushing in four games this season, and in each of those games, he averaged less than three yards per carry.
Both Thomas and Miller might do better with a better offensive line in front of them (more on that later), and the seismic midseason shifts on the line probably didn't help much either, but Reggie Bush managed to fare well behind a similar line last year.
Besides, running the ball isn't the only area where the Dolphins backs have struggled. Miller and Thomas have both been exposed in pass protection, and while they haven't always been put in the most favorable positions (Thomas blocking Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams seems like a bad idea no matter how you slice it), they haven't done much better in favorable situations, like blocking cornerbacks off the edge.
Against the Patriots, Miller was beat off the offensive right side for a sack, but it should never have happened. Miller had as much time as he could have asked for in order to make the block, but Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington was able to blow past him without much blowback from Miller.
Of course, the running game won't get much better unless the Dolphins stay committed to it. They've done so for stretches this year, with six games of 25 or more carries, but not so much at other times, going four games with 15 carries or fewer.
As part of an organizational commitment to create more disruption in the passing game, including more turnovers, the Dolphins brought in two athletically gifted linebackers who can blitz the quarterback.
Before the season began, the outlook for these two was not so bad.
What do the stats say about the Dolphins LB switcheroo? Take a look: pic.twitter.com/GUUPzKL5HK— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) March 13, 2013
* Click the photo for a full-size image
The numbers support the Dolphins' decision, from a strategy standpoint. According to Pro Football Focus, Ellerbe and Wheeler graded out as much better pass-rushers than Burnett and Dansby last year. It looked like they would end up being great fits for the defense, but while it hasn't been all bad for them, Pro Football Focus also grades them out as the two worst players on the Miami defense.
Interestingly enough, though, Ellerbe and Wheeler have not been sent on the pass-rush as frequently as one might think, given the logic behind signing them. Wheeler has rushed the quarterback 121 times on 917 snaps, and Dansby has done so 72 times on 878 snaps.
Granted, they have rushed the passer more than any Dolphins player not on the defensive line, but their output has only generated a combined 1.5 sacks.
"@The_Fuzzy_Biff: Meanwhile, in Arizona, Karlos Dansby has best year of his career...."» LOL. He'll be a free agent too. (side eye look)— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) December 23, 2013
There's only one problem with moving on from Ellerbe and Wheeler, and their $13.825 million problems. That's the amount of cap space the two linebackers are on the hook for in 2014. Ellerbe would count for $7.425 million of that, and Wheeler would count for $$6.4 million, according to Spotrac.
Cutting them may not be the best answer anyway. Maybe another year in the system will help them acclimate better. After all, Wheeler has been tossed around from one defense to another for the past three years and Ellerbe has never played in a 4-3 defense prior to this season.
The keystone of it all is Miami's offensive front.
You could argue that the Dolphins could overcome any number of their other shortcomings if they could only prevent Ryan Tannehill from being sacked at such a ridiculous rate. The Dolphins offensive line has allowed 58 sacks, which works out to be 9.5 percent of the Dolphins' pass plays, both of which lead the NFL.
Contextualizing the impact of those numbers isn't hard. One only has to look back at Miami's losses to the Baltimore Ravens (four sacks in the fourth quarter), Buffalo Bills (two fourth-quarter sacks in Week 7—one a sack-fumble that gave the Bills a chance to win; seven sacks in Week 16), New England Patriots (zero sacks and 17 points in the first half, six sacks and zero points in the second half) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (no sacks in first three quarters, two sacks on final drive) for examples of how the Dolphins' porous pass protection may have directly led to losses.
Against the Bills on Sunday, Tannehill was sacked seven times (a season high) and pressured on 50 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
"They had some good blitzes designed," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said of Buffalo. "Some of it was execution, some of it was scheme. It's certainly easy to blame [the offensive line]. I'm not blaming them for the whole lack of offensive performance."
He won't, but others might. The trend is disturbing.
The bigger concern is the toll that it will take on Tannehill in the long run.
Tannehill's day is done. Lucky guy.— Adam Beasley (@AdamHBeasley) December 22, 2013
It wouldn't be a stretch to surmise that repeated blows could pile up and leave Tannehill prone to injury. He was taken out of Miami's game against the Bills with an apparent knee injury, and while it proved to be a minor scare, it may also be a sign of things to come.
Two new guards are a must to help the Dolphins' struggling running game, but an injection of talent at tackle should also be in consideration. The only spot where the Dolphins seem truly set on the offensive line is at center.
Look On The Bright Side
Despite all these needs, the Dolphins have hope.
Why? Because they have an answer at the game's most important position: quarterback.
Here's another thought. Because Tannehill is still in his rookie contract, the Dolphins can afford to be more aggressive with their spending now. That is an advantage that the team can surely leverage in its favor. The Dolphins tried to do so last offseason with several big-name signings, and they still have roughly $19 million in cap space for the 2014 season, so there's still room to make some moves.
Now, the Dolphins have their blueprint.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.