Ranking the 10 Biggest Upgrades Miami Dolphins Made This Offseason

Thomas Galicia@thomasgaliciaFeatured Columnist IVJuly 24, 2014

Ranking the 10 Biggest Upgrades Miami Dolphins Made This Offseason

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    It was clear to anyone following an 8-8 2013 campaign that upgrades were needed with the Miami Dolphins

    I personally would've rather had gone for a complete overhaul of the front office and coaching staff; however, the Dolphins decided to be a bit more subtle with making their tweaks over the offseason. 

    The results of these upgrades won't be known until we see this team take the field; however, there are quite a few reasons for optimism in Miami. The Dolphins were aggressive in addressing their true needs both during free agency and the draft, and they did bring in a new general manager to help usher in these changes. 

    Here's a look at the 10 biggest upgrades the Dolphins made this season. I'll start with the first five upgrades, of which I'm on the fence over whether or not they truly are upgrades (I'll have to see the results first). This will be followed by the five that I can say without a doubt are upgrades right now.

10. Dennis Hickey over Jeff Ireland

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Is this really an upgrade? 

    The fact that I'm asking that question is the reason why this is at No. 10 on the list. Depending on who you ask, it's either a step in the right direction or a lateral move. 

    At worst, this is a lateral move, which might seem horrible if you absolutely hated Jeff Ireland, but it isn't exactly the worst thing in the world. Ireland made his mistakes, but the team was competitive (on a game-to-game basis) throughout his tenure. For all of his draft-whiffs, he did find talent that comprises this roster. 

    Even if from a talent-evaluation standpoint, this is a lateral move, there is the upgrade that Hickey and head coach Joe Philbin are on the same page, at least that's been the word from Miami throughout the offseason, per a February article by ESPN.com's James Walker. 

    I'm not a Philbin supporter myself, but if the coach and general manager are on the same page, it might make for better results on the field. 

    Am I sold on Hickey? Not 100 percent but I could see where some look at him and see an upgrade. I see the status quo, but at the very least, the status quo is the worst-case scenario with him.

9. Moving Koa Misi to Middle Linebacker

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    On the surface, this upgrade seems like an easy one. 

    The Dolphins had one of the worst linebacking corps in the NFL. In the 4-3 scheme employed by the Dolphins, the middle linebacker (known as "MIKE") serves as the defensive quarterback, calling out the plays and alerting his teammates of what he observes the offense doing prior to the snap.

    For a good reference point on how it should be done, Google Zach Thomas and see what his teammates, coaches and opponents had to say about his skills in doing exactly that. 

    The middle linebacker for the Dolphins was Dannell Ellerbe, a good player, but one who came from a completely different system.

    He played inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, more similar to a strong-side linebacker (known as "SAM"). In his first season as the MIKE linebacker, Ellerbe ranked 50th among middle/inside linebackers with a grade of minus-13.5, including a grade of minus-15.4 against the run, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

    That's pretty bad. Meanwhile Koa Misi was the SAM linebacker in the Dolphins' scheme and was the lone bright spot among the linebackers. PFF graded him out at 14th among outside linebackers with a grade of 5.6.  He graded out at 9.2 against the run, and while his grade against the pass was negative, it wasn't horrendously stuck there. 

    The Dolphins are now switching the two players, moving Ellerbe to SAM, while Misi becomes the MIKE. The thought is that it should make for a better overall unit. 

    One problem: Putting a SAM linebacker at MIKE is what got the Dolphins into this situation in the first place. Yes, both are linebacker positions, and plenty of players can play both, but they are two different positions. 

    Misi does have experience switching positions, as he was a defensive end in college before the Dolphins moved him to linebacker upon drafting him. It took him a while, but he made the adjustment well. Based off of that history, it should work. 

    Also worth noting: This won't fix the other problem in the linebacking unit, the weak-side or "WILL" linebacker. That's still Philip Wheeler, unless Jelani Jenkins or Jordan Tripp can make some noise (Tripp could play some middle linebacker as well, depending on how he develops).

8. Cortland Finnegan over Nolan Carroll

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    If you go based off of last season's results, this was a downgrade. 

    But before you blow up the comments section, there's a reason I included this. 

    While Nolan Carroll had a much better 2013 than Cortland Finnegan, Finnegan is a better fit for the system than Carroll is, and he does have a few more years of experience where he has shown himself to be a pretty good cornerback. 

    Those few years might have been quite a few years ago, but think about this: Carroll only showed real promise last season, which was his fourth with the Dolphins. In the seasons before, he was either known for being tripped up or for being a complete joke. 

    He did a fine job last season, but that's still only one season. The rest of the league's lack of interest in Carroll outside of the Philadelphia Eagles shows that there's still much to be desired there. 

    Is it a true upgrade? Not really but keep this in mind: Finnegan will bring leadership to the locker room, especially to a position that outside of him and Brent Grimes, is young.

7. Louis Delmas over Chris Clemons

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    Whether this counts as an upgrade or not depends on one thing. 

    Do you value consistently decent play, or do you want a shot at a big play in exchange for a small risk? 

    Chris Clemons gives you consistently decent play, but in terms of creating big plays, he has lacked that skill in his time with Miami. 

    Louis Delmas is more likely to give you the big play, but there is a risk with his injury history. 

    I'd rather have the chance at making a big play than just settle for consistently decent, so I'm on board with Delmas over Clemons being an upgrade.

6. Earl Mitchell over Paul Soliai

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    I've always been a Paul Soliai fan. I loved what he brought to the defense, as well as how hard he worked to become one of the best nose tackles in the NFL. 

    Wait, did I say nose tackle, a position that, in Miami's 4-3 defense that prefers 3-technique defensive tackles, doesn't exist? 

    It's weak argument once you consider that Soliai did so well with the Dolphins while playing out of position for the past two years, but yes, this is an upgrade. The Dolphins found someone in Earl Mitchell (the best signing of the offseason) who can play within the system quite well. 

    Bill Polian, ESPN analyst and all-time great general manager, gave the Mitchell signing an "A" (subscription required), stating: 

    Mitchell has become a real inside force and one of the most productive penetrators in the NFL at generating consistent inside pressure. He is a much better athlete than most guys who play his position, and his effort is outstanding. He is a one-gap penetrator with good quickness and really works to finish the play. He is young and will only get better.

    Keep in mind that Mitchell is also four years younger than Soliai, and like Soliai, played out of position in Houston (he was a nose tackle in their 3-4 scheme, when naturally he's a 4-3 defensive tackle).

5. John Benton over Jim Turner as Offensive Line Coach

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    It's not often you can point to one aspect of a team and say, "that's it, that's where the problem is," but in the case of the Dolphins with their offensive line, you can easily do that. 

    Last season the offensive line coach was Jim Turner, who was terrible at his job. I'm not saying that because of "Bullygate" (which is why the Dolphins fired him) but because I saw an offensive line that continued to regress in each of his two years there. 

    The Dolphins' offensive line was better the day before Turner took over as coach than they were the day he left. He was incompetent at his job, and it's a shame that that couldn't be the reason that he was fired, since it would've been the sane and logical thing to do. 

    So to call John Benton, his successor, an upgrade would be like saying that The Reuben is delicious: It's an opinion that you can safely call a fact without offending anyone. 

    Benton spent the last eight seasons with the Houston Texans, a team that at that time ran the same zone -blocking scheme Miami has been attempting to run since 2012.

    The scheme has worked well for the Texans, just ask Arian Foster or Ben Tate. Notice how Matt Schaub didn't "crap the bed" due to poor offensive line play; he did that on his own (but when he was good, notice how he was barely hassled in the pocket). 

    This is a coach and scheme that made a Pro Bowler out of Wade Smith, who once upon a time was one of the Dolphins' worst draft busts. 

    Benton is more than qualified to coach the offensive line, and Dolphins fans should be thankful that when Bill O'Brien took over as the Texans' head coach, he wanted to clean house. 

    For that's how Benton fell into the Dolphins' laps. Good hire Dolphins!

4. Ja'Wuan James over Tyson Clabo

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Ja'Wuan James was Miami's first-round pick, has not played a single NFL down and is already considered a huge upgrade. 

    The reason for this: Tyson Clabo was pretty terrible last season. 

    Returning to Pro Football Focus' grades, we see Clabo did get a lot better after his first few games, but based off of what your eyes saw, you were never totally comfortable with him. 

    Those first six games are a killer and the main reason why he graded out at minus-5.5. His pass blocking was among the worst in the NFL as well. 

    So can a rookie do better than that? I'm willing to gamble and say yes.

3. Shelley Smith over John Jerry

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    I've never been a huge John Jerry fan. 

    I'm sure you've noticed it in my writings in the past that I've been hard on the guy; however, I've always acknowledged his strength, which is in pass protection. Jerry graded out at 7.0 in that department, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and alongside Mike Pouncey, he was Miami's best pass-blocker on the offensive line. 

    The run blocking was a major problem for him, as he couldn't create any holes and at times had issues containing the blitz. 

    Enter Shelley Smith, who now has Jerry's place on the depth chart at starting right guard. 

    Smith only played in 10 games last season, but he was very effective in each of them. His biggest strength was as a run-blocker, where PFF graded him out at 13.2. His pass-blocking was a minus-6.0, which leaves much to be desired, but I could see some improvement there.

2. Branden Albert over Jonathan Martin/Bryant McKinnie

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    I can just say the sentence in the subheadline of this slide without any evidence to back it up, and it will be accepted as truth by any legitimate sports or science publication, so here it goes: Branden Albert will be an upgrade at left tackle over both Jonathan Martin and Bryant McKinnie. 

    Now for the evidence to back that up, since I actually have to provide that. 

    Albert is a Pro Bowl left tackle who appears to still be in the prime of his career. His blocking was important to the Kansas City Chiefs running game last season, as well as to protecting Alex Smith in the pocket. 

    He has improved in every season he's been in the league, and in the last two years, he has only allowed 5.5 sacks and committed 16 penalties. 

    Those are his statistics in the last two years. Albert is rated fairly highly with Pro Football Focus' metrics as well in both pass protection and run blocking. 

    Now let's compare that to last season. 

    Miami's left tackle spot, which was manned by both Martin and McKinnie, was a disaster last season. McKinnie wasn't too bad, but he wasn't very good either. As for Martin, in six games at left tackle, he allowed 6.5 sacks. 

    Albert played in twice the number of games at left tackle than Martin, and he only allowed one more sack. 

    Convinced that's an upgrade yet? Did you really need to be convinced? 

1. Bill Lazor over Mike Sherman

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    Let me be the first to welcome the Miami Dolphins' offense into the present. 

    It's been a while since they've been there, so they may have forgotten what the present is like, but they have the best guide to have to introduce them to 2014 in Bill Lazor. 

    Lazor was the Eagles' quarterback coach last season, a season where he coached up Nick Foles into being historically great. Now he gets Ryan Tannehill, a player whom everyone had pegged as the better player than Foles coming out of college and a player who has more physical gifts than Foles. 

    How will this work out? Hopefully great but that alone won't make this an upgrade; how the offense is run will.

    The last two years the Dolphins have employed a West Coast offense that seemed stuck deep in 1994. Lamar Miller, who can be a LeSean McCoy-type running back, was asked to be Edgar Bennett. Michael Egnew, who should be a joker tight end, was forced to be Mark Chmura. 

    Only one problem: Tannehill isn't Brett Favre, and this is 2014. I know it sounds crazy to say this, but, unless you have a surplus of talent, that offense doesn't work in today's game. The defenses have become too sophisticated, built to stop that offense, and it doesn't help when you're not using your imagination to call the plays. 

    Lazor could very well use this West Coast offense as a base offense, but if he adds in a little bit of imagination, we could see something special.

    Mike Wallace wouldn't line up at the same spot on every play, and he would be involved in some screen passes instead of the quarterback bombing it deep to him. Egnew could find a place on this offense, and who knows, he could flourish in ways we'd never imagine. 

    Charles Clay was great in 2013 and could wind up being even better this season. 

    Lazor is the reason why I'm optimistic about this team; that's why he's my top upgrade of the offseason. 

    Coach Philbin, please, don't stifle the imagination that this man might bring to this team!

    Statistics provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.

    Listen to Thomas and co-host Chris Cochran on Dolphins Central Radio. New episodes post every Wednesday on ProFootballCentral.com