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Miami Dolphins Offseason Moves Have Made Them an AFC Contender

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistMay 23, 2015

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) and tackle Jason Fox (74) congratulate running back Lamar Miller (26) after Miller scored on a 97-yard touchdown run during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

A certain stigma has developed around the idea that one team can win the offseason.

It seemingly began back in 2011 with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles signed a slate of big-name players to try and become Super Bowl champions immediately. They failed, and quarterback Vince Young was unfortunate enough to utter the words "dream team," which would live on in infamy

Young thought the Eagles had put together a dream team, and two years later similar sentiments were made about the Miami Dolphins. In 2013, the Dolphins spent a huge amount of money on Mike Wallace, Tyson Clabo, Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler, Brandon Gibson and Brent Grimes.

After just two seasons, Wallace and Ellerbe have been traded away, at a cut price too, while Clabo, Gibson and Wheeler found their ways to different rosters. Only Grimes remains on the roster as a starter.

When similar sentiments were made about the Dolphins' moves this offseason, it's no surprise that they were immediately shot down. History repeating itself is always a safe bet to make for an analyst, because more often than not it's the popular move.

The Cleveland Browns will continue to be bad, and the New England Patriots will continue to be good. If you're wrong, you'll have plenty of people to share the blame with you. You won't stand out.

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That kind of thinking can infect your thought process and make it difficult to look objectively at individual moves a franchise makes. Because of it, you can be certain that the Dolphins won't receive a huge amount of acclaim for their moves this offseason.

For whatever reason, it's become a widely accepted idea that successful teams don't spend significant money in free agency. It's why Ted Thompson received so much widespread acclaim when it was recently pointed out that Julius Peppers was the only player to play for another team on his roster.

Celebrating teams that build through the draft and vilifying teams who make big investments in free agency requires you to conveniently ignore the big moves that successful teams have made and will continue to make.

Each team that made the Super Bowl last season, the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots, relied on a large number of players in key roles who were acquired outside of the draft.

PlayerTeamAcquiredSnaps in 2015
Rob NinkovichNew England PatriotsFree Agent1,040
Darrelle RevisNew England PatriotsFree Agent1,032
Brandon LaFellNew England PatriotsFree Agent932
Patrick ChungNew England PatriotsFree Agent857
Michael BennettSeattle SeahawksFree Agent851
Cliff AvrilSeattle SeahawksFree Agent736
Marshawn LynchSeattle SeahawksTrade728
Brandon BrownerNew England PatriotsFree Agent591
Michael HoomanwanuiNew England PatriotsFree Agent480
Danny AmendolaNew England PatriotsFree Agent466
Kevin WilliamsSeattle SeahawksFree Agent445
Tony McDanielSeattle SeahawksFree Agent413
Akeem AyersNew England PatriotsTrade390
Tim WrightNew England PatriotsTrade357
O'Brien SchofieldSeattle SeahawksFree Agent341
LeGarrette BlountNew England PatriotsFree Agent107
Pro Football Focus

The Seahawks and Patriots haven't been perennial Super Bowl contenders throughout their history. The current regimes running each franchise have been able to build their teams into contenders by combining free-agent additions, trade acquisitions and draft picks.

Each avenue offers failures, but they also offer success stories. It's not about ignoring one avenue, it's about hitting enough in each to maximize the talent on the roster.

Mike Tannenbaum should feel like he has followed suit with his moves this offseason. He inherited enough key pieces to build around from a team that almost made the playoffs last year. He only needed to address the right areas to push the Dolphins forward. Forward toward a playoff team and potentially a contender.

The moves the Dolphins made this season were about elevating the roster, not rebuilding it.

Quarterbacks

Re-signing Ryan Tannehill was a massive coup for the Dolphins as a franchise because they got him on a relatively cheap contract. Tannehill signed a $96 million deal in Miami. The 26-year-old quarterback has had an impressive career to this point, but most crucially he proved to be a good fit with Bill Lazor last year.

Lazor's offense relied on Tannehill's ability to make quick decisions from the pocket, while consistently throwing the ball to underneath routes.

The quarterback's touch, accuracy and timing with his receivers underneath proved to be very impressive. It was when he pushed the ball down the field that problems arose. Even though those problems were often exclusively allocated to the quarterback, many of the issues arose from his receivers' struggles.

When charting Tannehill's throws, it became clear that his receivers repeatedly failed at the catch point. A problem that cost the quarterback a huge amount of yardage on downfield throws.

Minimum Lost ReceptionsLost Yards
Total:37501
Under 10 yards:1884
10 - 19 yards:11163
20 - 29 yards:494
30 - 39 yards:269
40 - 49 yards:291
NFL.com

The above numbers don't account for potential yards after the catch. They only measure from the line of scrimmage to the point where the receiver failed to bring in an accurate pass. Incredibly, seven of those 37 lost receptions would have resulted in touchdowns.

Losing statistical production for Tannehill is something that he has endured throughout his whole career.

His receiving corps has repeatedly let him down, despite the heavy investments in Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace. While dealing with an unreliable group of receivers, Tannehill was also working behind inadequate offensive line play up until last season.

Even his line last season wasn't above-average, but Tannehill was able to execute Lazor's offense so well that it appeared adequate.

Through charting, it became clear that Tannehill is a very smart quarterback with the accuracy and athleticism to show off that intelligence despite playing under pressure. He threw an interceptable pass once every 28.1 pass attempts in 2014, a ratio that ranked among the best in the NFL.

Running Back

Lamar Miller wasn't trusted to be a bell cow last season.

The Dolphins coaching staff appeared to be concerned about him wearing down as games went on. He only crossed 20 total touches twice, while averaging 13.5 carries per game. Because of their reluctance to rely on Miller, it seemed likely that the Dolphins would invest in a complement to him during the offseason.

Most of the offseason came and went, while Miller remained the only viable starter on the Dolphins roster. They added Jay Ajayi late in the NFL draft, but cartilage concerns with his knee make it unclear if he will ever be a viable team contributor.

If Ajayi can play through his problematic knee, then the Dolphins will have a very impressive combination of backs, with LaMichael James, Damien Williams and Mike Gillislee as intriguing backups.

Relying on Ajayi is unrealistic, though, hence why he fell in the draft. Therefore, it seems more likely that Miller's usage rate will be forced to go up this season. Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald reported that Miller's weight has taken a significant leap this offseason:

Adam Beasley @AdamHBeasley

Lamar Miller says he's up to 225 pounds. Was 218 last year.

An extra seven pounds shouldn't take away from Miller's speed. That speed, as well as his vision, is what makes him a perfect fit in Lazor's offense. He is able to consistently exploit the space that the scheme naturally creates for him to work in.

Miller is just 24 years of age. He should be entering his prime after a 1,099-yard season in 2014.

Receiving Options (Wide Receivers + Tight Ends)

Releasing Brian Hartline and trading away Mike Wallace meant that for the second time in Tannehill's short career, the Dolphins are making major alterations to their receiving corps.

Hartline's inability to consistently create separation and produce explosive plays made him a poor fit in Lazor's offense. He wasn't effective enough as a possession receiver to make up for those flaws. Wallace offered some explosiveness, but he repeatedly failed to make plays on the ball in the air and was a very limited route-runner.

To replace Hartline and Wallace, the Dolphins have brought in a mixture of youth and experience. That youth and experience offers a lot more talent than the players they are replacing.

Greg Jennings is the veteran receiver who was signed in free agency. He is coming off the worst season of his career, as his effort and ball skills suffered in Minnesota last season. Despite his struggles, he should be expected to rebound because he is a precise route-runner and only 31 years of age.

His versatility and physical talent should allow him to age well in Miami as an ideal fit in Lazor's offense.

Even with his seniority, Jennings isn't guaranteed a starting role in Miami. Both Devante Parker and Jarvis Landry have the potential to be Tannehill's high-quality possession receivers. Landry impressed as a rookie playing the slot last season. He could move outside this year, but it makes more sense for him to stay inside.

With Landry inside, Parker and Kenny Stills are the most likely starters outside. Parker was the team's first-round pick in 2015. He has a versatile skill set with impressive size, athleticism and natural receiving ability. Stills is less versatile, but more explosive, with similar natural ability as a receiver.

Stills should be an immediate upgrade over the departed Wallace as the team's primary deep threat.

The only significant loss the Dolphins passing game suffered this offseason was that of tight end Charles Clay. Clay was signed to a Buffalo Bills' offer sheet that the team couldn't match. The Dolphins could afford to let him leave because of Jordan Cameron's arrival.

Cameron is one of the most talented NFL tight ends. He has health concerns, but on the field he should be considered an upgrade over Clay.

The former Cleveland Browns player has very impressive size and athleticism, with the ball skills to take advantage of those things. From the inside of the Dolphins' offensive formations, he will be able to consistently stretch the defense, creating space for his teammates and creating his own big plays.

Offensive Line

If any unit is most likely to derail the Dolphins' attempt to become a relevant postseason team again this year, it's the offensive line.

Before last season, Dennis Hickey, who was running the team at the time, addressed the team's offensive tackle problem with two big investments. Former Kansas City Chiefs star Branden Albert was brought in during free agency to be the team's starting left tackle, while a first-round pick was spent to bring Ja'Wuan James in as a starting right tackle.

Albert signed a five-year contract worth $46 million. He proved to be worth that investment during his first season, but a torn ACL brought it to a premature end.

He also tore his MCL, but the Dolphins are expecting him to be ready for Week 1. While Albert is expected to be healthy and available, it's unsure if he can be fully effective immediately. When Albert was absent at the end of last season, James moved across to be the team's starting left tackle.

James was a fine starter on the right side, but he struggled dramatically on the left side. If Lazor's offense can keep James and Albert in the starting lineup, they should be able to compensate for the team's obvious flaws on the interior of the line.

The Dolphins starting guards are projected to be Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner. Turner is a college offensive tackle who transitioned inside at the professional level. He barely played as a rookie, but has the skill set to excel at right guard in Lazor's offense.

It's the left guard spot that creates concern for the Dolphins.

Thomas is entering his third season and played extensively last year. He has so far proven to be an inadequate starting option both on the inside and outside. Jamil Douglas is the only viable competitor for his starting spot; he is a rookie who was selected in the fourth round of this year's draft.

Little can be expected from Douglas, but if he can fit in the team's running game, the Dolphins should be able to accommodate him in the starting lineup.

Credit: NFL.com

The Dolphins primarily run behind zone blocking, meaning that their offensive linemen need to be athletic and comfortable working in space. On this play, with a defensive tackle lined up directly over him, Daryn Colledge must show off the ability to immediately engage the player, while shuffling his feet laterally.

Because the Dolphins run so much from shotgun formations than your typical NFL offense, the defensive line often has to play with more hesitation when facing them.

Credit: NFL.com

That hesitation aids Colledge on this play, as his assignment appears to allow his focus to be drawn into the backfield. With Ryan Tannehill and Knowshon Moreno executing an option, the offense also has an extra blocker to work with as the edge defender on the opposite side of the field is left unblocked.

In terms of degrees of difficulty, this wasn't a tough play for Colledge. It's the kind of play he would be expected to make, but tougher assignments in the running game do emerge.

Credit: NFL.com

On this play, defensive lineman Chris Canty is aligned across from the left guard position again, but he is slightly shaded to the inside. This can be seen more clearly by the pair of lines drawn into the image, as the yellow line goes through the left guard's helmet and the red line goes through Canty's.

This slight positioning detail makes Colledge's block more difficult because he needs to get to the other side of Canty to properly execute his assignment.

Credit: NFL.com

Canty was late off the snap on this particular play, which allowed Colledge to get around him with relative ease. Because the defensive lineman couldn't get off his block after moving with his momentum across the field, Lamar Miller was able to cut back to a wide running lane for a big play.

This is the kind of execution that the Dolphins expect from their guard spots, but didn't get on a regular enough basis last season.

If left guard is the only spot the Dolphins have to carry upfront, they can manage it. As long as the fit in the running game is right, the Dolphins can rely on double-teams and play action to keep the guard out of one-on-one matchups and too much space to help him in pass protection.

While considering that the Dolphins have other significant weaknesses on their roster, the Dolphins offensive line is clearly their biggest concern.

It could be a strength if Albert is fully healthy and they get solid contributions at the left guard position, but it could also be a disaster as they are one injury away from having three weak spots on the whole line. If Turner fails to live up to his potential, that number could quickly become four.

Defensive Line

Ndamukong Suh is obviously the biggest addition to the Dolphins roster this year.

Suh is always going to be compared to two players: Mike Wallace and Albert Haynesworth. He will be compared to Wallace because he is this offseason's headline player like Wallace was in 2011. He will be compared to Haynesworth because of the position he plays and the contract he signed.

Realistically, though, those comparisons should be expected to end there.

Unlike Wallace, Suh isn't a narrow skill set player with limited positional value. He is a legitimate top-two or top-three player at his position and a top-five NFL defensive player. He can take over games on his own as an interior defensive line presence, while elevating his teammates with his versatile skill set.

Haynesworth could also dominate games, but Haynesworth's downfall was a result of his off-field approach to the game. Suh doesn't appear to have the same motivations as the former Washington player. Haynesworth was always bordering on the wrong side of the weighing scales, while Suh has been a prime physical specimen throughout his relatively short career.

The 28-year-old has played his whole career on a huge contract, so the new money shouldn't impact his intensity and commitment to excelling on the field.

Adding Suh to a line that already boasts Cameron Wake, Earl Mitchell and Olivier Vernon gives the Dolphins arguably the best starting front four in the NFL. With second-round draft pick Jordan Phillips as well as young defensive ends Derrick Shelby and Terrence Fede, the Dolphins should have a strong rotation too.

Quality defensive line play can mask mistakes at the second and third level of the defense. With a constantly disruptive pass rush and big bodies to consume blockers upfront, the secondary's mistakes go unpunished, and the linebackers will find their way to the football with greater ease.

In 2014, the Dolphins defense was average according to Football Outsiders' DVOA. The unit was led by a strong defensive line and likely would have been one of the worst units in the league if their front four had just been average. Adding Suh to that group should have a major impact on its overall effectiveness.

Expecting the Dolphins to be a top-10 or top-12 defense in 2015 isn't unrealistic.

Linebackers

Surpassing the team's offensive line, the Dolphins' least talented unit is clearly the linebacker group.

Fortunately, the defense as a whole is set up in such a way that the Dolphins only need those players to be competent and consistent. Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins are the primary starters, with a few players capable of playing the third-most snaps among their linebackers in 2015.

Chris McCain, Spencer Paysinger, Jordan Tripp and Kelvin Sheppard should all see limited or no snaps unless injuries strike either Misi or Jenkins. As with most teams these days, the nickel packages take more prominence than the base defense.

This shifts the focus onto the defensive backs more than the linebackers.

Secondary

Brent Grimes endured a relatively tough season last year.

Grimes is the team's best defensive back and one of the better starting NFL cornerbacks. He gave up too many big plays as a cornerback primarily playing off coverage in 2014. He will be 32 years of age this year, so there is cause for concern, but there's no reason to think he can't be a quality starter again next year.

The Dolphins will have few concerns about their top cornerback. Instead, their focus will be on the player who starts across from him.

One of the most astute additions in free agency this year was Brice McCain. McCain is a veteran cornerback who spent most of his career with the Houston Texans, before emerging for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. He is 28 years old and has played six NFL seasons.

In Pittsburgh, McCain solidified the cornerback spot across from William Gay during the season. He took over as a starter when Cortez Allen failed to live up to his potential.

McCain is a small player without great physical skills to compensate for his size. His physical limitations do prevent him from being a great NFL cornerback, but his discipline, footwork and overall technique make him a viable boundary starter or nickel cornerback. As part of the Dolphins defense, he should be put in position to excel on a snap-by-snap basis.

The veteran appears to be the best option to start across from Grimes, but the interesting aspect of this group is the competition he will face.

Will Davis and Jamar Taylor are antitheses of McCain. Both are talented, young cornerbacks who have failed to establish themselves as quality starters over the first two seasons of their careers. Taylor was selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, with Davis coming to the team one round later.

If neither young player can establish himself as a quality contributor high on the depth chart, veteran Zackary Bowman will likely be turned to.

The cornerback depth chart's dark horse is rookie Tony Lippett. Lippett is a rookie who entered the 2015 draft as both a wide receiver and a cornerback. Despite possibly being a better wide receiver prospect, the Dolphins selected him in the fifth round to be a defender.

Lippett doesn't appear to be an obvious fit in the Dolphins scheme, but he will be an intriguing matchup piece because of his size and athleticism.

Over the middle of the field, the Dolphins are expecting to start Reshad Jones and Louis Delmas. Delmas has never lived up to his hype as a second-round pick and has health concerns. Jones is a proven, quality starter who will be an important piece of the secondary.

This is where Suh's value will be its most notable. His pressure upfront will help to cover matchup issues and/or blown assignments on the back end of the defense.

Mike Tannenbaum has built on Dennis Hickey's good work to significantly improve a team that was on the precipice of the playoffs in 2014.

While you can't simply count victories from season-to-season and add in improvements to heighten expectations, the Dolphins roster does appear to have a gradual growth to it over recent seasons. An emerging quarterback and established key veterans should allow them to compete in what is the lesser conference.

On paper, the AFC side of the Super Bowl bracket appears set to be easier than the NFC once again this season. For that reason, the Dolphins won't feel like they must win their division to be a threat in the postseason.

The Dolphins haven't won the AFC East since 2008. As the Super Bowl winners last season, the New England Patriots will still feel like they are the favorites, but Tom Brady's impending suspension and a roster that has lost some key pieces will offer the Dolphins reasons to be optimistic.

It's not that the Dolphins roster doesn't have obvious weaknesses. It does, but much like last year, they have built their team in such a way that their strengths can mask and carry their weaknesses. That is how they had their limited success in 2014.

By building on their strengths and addressing their weaknesses, the Dolphins did win the offseason this year. They have significantly improved their roster to the point that they should become a postseason team this year.

Even if they don't, this offseason shouldn't be compared to the 2013 offseason. The quality of their acquisitions this year are simply much greater than they were during that season.

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