Don't Sleep on the 2017 Miami Dolphins

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJuly 5, 2017

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill celebrates a touchdown during a NFL football game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)
Winslow Townson/Associated Press

The Miami Dolphins are that other team in the AFC East.

That may beat being the New York Jets, who haven't won the division since 2002, or the Buffalo Bills, who haven't done so since 1995, but the Dolphins have escaped from the New England Patriots' shadow just once since New England launched its dynasty a decade and a half ago. 

And that was way back in 2008, when Miami edged out the Pats to win the division with an 11-5 record. It was also a year in which legendary Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played just one game.

When Brady has been healthy, New England has won 13 consecutive division titles. 

Brady is indeed healthy now, and not facing a suspension like he was last year. The Pats won 14 of their 15 games with him at the helm in 2016 (including Super Bowl LI), and most of that came without superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk is back, and they've added potential key contributors Brandin Cooks, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead and Kony Ealy. 

So yeah, the Patriots are overwhelming Super Bowl favorites entering training camp, which explains why we still aren't talking about the Dolphins. 

That, however, is a mistake. 

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Because the Dolphins are good. I'd venture as far as to say that they'd have a strong shot at winning a division crown next season if they played in the AFC South, NFC East or NFC West, and they'd give division favorites like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons runs for their money in the AFC North, AFC West, NFC North and NFC South, respectively. 

Wrong division, wrong time. 

What makes the Dolphins good? It starts with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who rather quietly was experiencing a breakout season before a knee injury cost him the final three games of his 2016 campaign. The fifth-year No. 8 overall pick was always a good-not-great NFL starter before completing a career-high 67.1 percent of his passes, averaging a career-high 7.7 yards per attempt and posting a career-best 93.5 passer rating in 2016. 

Tannehill also got hotter as the season progressed. Three of his final five games were magnificent (70.3 percent, eight touchdowns, one interception, a 9.7 yards-per-attempt average and a 131.6 rating in three victories over the San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals), and he posted a 103.4 rating altogether during that run. 

Plus, he was at his best in key spots. Tannehill had 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 119.9 passer rating in the red zone, which was head-and-shoulders above his NFL starting quarterback counterparts. And he had a much stronger rating in the second half of games (99.4) than in the first half (87.2).

Highest-rated passers in the red zone, 2016
QuarterbackTeamRating
1. Ryan TannehillDolphins119.9
2. Andrew LuckColts113.8
3. Tom BradyPatriots112.4
4. Tyrod TaylorBills111.9
Min. 40 attempts

It helped that the 28-year-old Texas A&M product started getting a lot more support in 2016. He was sacked a silly 184 times during the first four seasons of his career, which was the third-highest sack total in NFL history for a quarterback in his first four years. His receiving corps was at best a work in progress during that stretch, and the Dolphins rushing attack ranked below the league median in three of those four seasons (and the middle of the pack in the other one). 

But for the first time in his career, Tannehill was sacked on fewer than 30 occasions last year (29). The Miami offense ranked in the middle of the pack with a sack rate of 5.9 percent. Recent first-round picks Laremy Tunsil and Ja'Wuan James are showing promise as bookend offensive tackles, they brought in solid veteran Ted Larsen to shore things up at guard and three-time Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey is on track to return from the hip injury that cost him the majority of his 2016 season. 

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

A young receiving corps is also coming into its own and has become one of the deeper pass-catching units in the league. Pro Bowler Jarvis Landry is only 24 but is coming off a second consecutive 1,100-yard campaign, 25-year-old Kenny Stills is coming off a nine-touchdown season, 2015 No. 14 overall pick DeVante Parker had a strong sophomore year with 56 catches for 744 yards and they bolstered that group with the acquisition of 29-year-old two-time Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas in the offseason. 

And then there's 24-year-old Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi, who averaged 6.7 yards per carry in the second half of one-score games and put together three 200-yard performances on the ground, becoming just the fourth player in NFL history to rush for 200-plus yards more than twice in a single season (the other three: Earl Campbell, O.J. Simpson and Tiki Barber).

Most yards per carry in the 2nd half of one-score games, 2016
PlayerTeamYPC
1. Jay AjayiDolphins6.7
2. Matt JonesRedskins6.1
3. Mark IngramSaints5.8
4. Isaiah CrowellBrowns5.4
Min. 35 attempts

They're stacked, and Tannehill knows it. 

“Honestly, I can say it’s definitely the most talent we’ve had with the receiving corps, bringing everyone back, having a second year together in the same offense,” he said recently, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. “That’s going to be huge for us. Adding Julius Thomas and Anthony Fasano, veterans who have played a lot of football, is [big]. Bringing back Jay [Ajayi], Kenyan Drake. Keeping most of the offensive line together, adding a few pieces. Putting Laremy Tunsil back at his natural position. That’s going to be huge for us. You start to stack all those pieces together and we have a good unit."

Of course, they'll have to keep their opponents from scoring once in a while as well. And the defense, which ranked below the league median in terms of yards and points allowed last season, is far from perfect. But the secondary was hit hard by injuries in 2016, with starters Byron Maxwell and Reshad Jones and rookie second-round corner Xavien Howard all missing extended periods. 

Those three are back, they've added some experience in the middle with former Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons (who's getting splendid reviews thus far), they've added talent to the pass-rush with offseason acquisition William Hayes and first-round pick Charles Harris, and they've still got two defensive linemen named Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake (10 Pro Bowls between them, including 2016 appearances for both).

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

When it comes to adjusted games lost—a formula Football Outsiders uses to quantify the impact injuries have on each team—the Dolphins D was the eighth-most-injured defensive unit in the league last season. If that defense can stay healthy this time around, it'll be good enough to at least work as an asset rather than a liability. 

But it all comes back to Tannehill, who appears to be fully recovered from that December knee injury. Rarely do teams excel in this era without strong play at quarterback, and the Dolphins will only go as far as Tannehill takes them. He's riding the ideal trajectory, though, and Jackson reported in the same piece cited above that respected quarterback guru Jeff Christensen believes Tannehill will become a top-eight WBby the end of the 2017 season. 

If that happens, we won't want to overlook the Dolphins—even if they remain a runner-up in the mighty AFC East.

      

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.