After starting the 2016 season 1-4, first year Head Coach Adam Gase managed to 10-6 record which earned the Miami Dolphins their first play off appearance since 2002. The Dolphins found future starters in LB Kiko Alonso who they picked up in a trade while first round pick Laremy Tunsil exceeded expectations at left guard and looks set to be the franchise LT for the foreseeable future. QB Ryan Tannehill enjoyed one of his best campaigns as he was helped by a solid ground game, spearheaded by emerging star RB Jay Ajayi.
2017 will be the 2nd year of the Adam-Gase Dolphins era but also the first and potentially only season of the Jay Cutler-era in Miami. Adam Gase will link up with his old QB from Chicago after QB Ryan Tannehill went down injured during the preseason, reaggravating his left knee which caused him to miss the final 4 games of 2016. Cutler has top-10 arm talent and it will be interesting to see how he fares alongside the young play-makers that Miami has high hopes for: LT Laremy Tunsil, WR De’Vante Parker, RB Jay Ajayi, CB Xavien Howard, DE Charles Harris and LB Raekwon McMillan (all 24 or under). This young group of draft picks from the past three drafts could form the nucleus of the Dolphins going forward and 2017 will be a big year as they look to cement their places in this new era in Miami Dolphin football.
After Front Office decided not to operate on Tannehill’s ACL injury, the QB went down in a bundle just a few days into training camp, re-injuring the same left knee that caused him to miss the final 4 games of 2016. Some sources have stated that Tannehill’s knee could be a ticking time bomb. Jay Cutler is one of the most talented QBs in the NFL, he has exceptional arm talent and can push the ball with velocity and accuracy to any point on the field. But Cutler makes poor decisions and has been prone to “switching off” for stretches during his career when he has not bought into what the Offensive Coordinator is preaching. Gase and Cutler are extremely close from their time in Chicago and Gase made Cutler look like a franchise QB in a 2015 injury-savaged Chicago Bears season where he was throwing to Marquess Wilson, Zach Miller, Marc Mariani and Josh Bellamy. If Gase can keep it simple for Cutler and allow his arm to shine through, the Dolphins might just have upgraded the QB position in the pre-season. Back up QB, Matt Moore is a top-3 back up in the NFL and helped the Dolphins reach the playoffs late last season.
Miami’s WRs are among the premiere groups in the league with a plethora of young talent. 2014, 1st round pick DeVante Parker has flashed the ability to be a pro-typical No.1 WR for the Dolphins while Jarvis Landry has emerged as the NFL’s best slot receiver. Kenny Stills was re-signed for big money this past offseason and is the vertical threat and speedster that every offense needs. He forces opposing defenses to keep two safeties backed up and thus opens up the underneath routes for TEs and slot WRs. Leonte Carroo and Jakeem Grant will be competing for snaps and roster spots while promising rookie Isiah Ford was forced to undergo potentially season-ending knee surgery in the preseason.
At TE, the team brought in veteran Anthony Fasano who is one the best run blocking TEs in the NFL (a big help for Jay Ajayi). Miami also traded for Julius Thomas who scored 24 TDs in 2 seasons with Adam Gase in Denver. Some fear that his best days are behind him but others think Thomas could turn into the reliable check-down target Miami has missed from the TE position the past 5 years.
The Miami Dolphins have arguably their most talented skills position group of this millennium. RB Jay Ajayi emerged as a star in 2016 and the Dolphins will hope to see more consistency from the RB. He showed tackle-breaking ability at times last year and became the entire focal point of Miami’s offense for stretches in 2016. Kenyan Drake showed he has big play potential in 2016 while Damien Williams is the ideal third down back and threatens to take plays the distance on screens and catching the ball out the backfield.
The revolving door at guard over the past decade and inability to find a consistent starting five is a hot topic of conversation in South Beach. The Dolphins did get it together for stretches in 2016 and 2017 looks set to be a strong showing as Adam Gase attempts to further establish the Dolphins identity as a beat you up, run-first team. This should force opposing defenses to bring a safety into the box and leave Miami’s talented receivers with 1-on-1 match ups. Laremy Tunsil is expected to start at left tackle after a strong rookie showing at left guard. Ja’waun James should again start at right tackle while Dolphins fans will hope with bated breathe that pro-bowl center Mike Pouncey can stay healthy. The two open guard spots could go to either the returning Jermon Bushrod, rookie Isaac Asiata (an old-school bruiser at guard), newly signed Ted Larsen or Kraig Urbik.
The Miami Dolphins will continue to operate a Wide-9 base 4-3 Defense under first year coordinator Matt Burke. Ndakumong Suh headlines a D-line that while strong in pass rushing, has struggled tremendously against the run since switching from a 3-4 after the 2011 season. Suh is a monster inside and routinely commands a double team. This should free up DT Jordan Phillips inside who has flashed great pass rushing potential but has been inconsistent during his first two seasons in the league. Cam Wake is a ferocious pass rusher but struggles to anchor against the run. At DE the Dolphins drafted Charles Harris, who is a smaller 4-3 DE – built in the same mold as Cam Wake. The Dolphins also have free agent signing William Hayes who is excellent at defending the run and returning pass rusher Andre Branch who recorded 5.5 sacks in 11 starts last season. I would keep an eye out for rookie DTs Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor in 2017.
Miami’s projected linebacker corps looks noticeably stronger than at any point over the past three seasons. After a stellar performance at MLB last season, Kiko Alonso is returning and will likely move to play Will. The Dolphins brought over the ever reliable Lawrence Timmons from Pittsburgh who will line up at the Mike. Rookie Raekwon McMillan was slated to start at either SAM or push Timmons for the Mike spot, however, McMillan suffered a torn ACL on a punt return in the first pre-season game. Neville Hewitt will likely compete with Mike Hull for the open spot, if Miami does not bring in a veteran to address the position.
While extremely young and with a ton of potential, Miami’s cornerback group is a major question mark and the potential Achilles heel of this defense. Not much has been done to remedy the group that was shredded and embarrassed by the Steelers in last years wild card match-up. Byron Maxwell will be the teams No.1 CB and likely start next to either 2nd year Xavien Howard (after Tony slippery tore his Achilles). Rookie Cordrea Tankersley is another long physical corner and if all goes according to plan could one day start next to Howard in a promising young duo. Bobby McCain is entering his third year and will compete for the starting nickel corner job.
The Miami Dolphins have a top-5 safety in SS Reshad Jones who excels both in run support and in coverage. Jones is a do-it-all safety who can hang with tight ends in coverage, eliminate deep threats in cover-2 coverage or stay in and around the box – blowing up run plays. Next to him Miami will likely try out Nate Allen (recently signed from Oakland), however, newly signed T.J. McDonald should start at FS from week 9 (he is suspended for the first 8 games).
Players to watch
DeVante Parker – Supposedly the MVP of Training Camp according to most Dolphins beat writers, lingering injuries have hurt Parker’s production during his first 2 seasons in Miami. He has all the physical tools and ability to develop into a No.1, X wide receiver in the NFL.
Laremy Tunsil – It’ll be interesting to see how Tunsil performs at LT in 2017. Make no mistake about it, Tunsil was drafted to be the Miami Dolphins’ franchise LT after falling from a seeming lock to go Top-3 to 13th in the 2016 NFL Draft. Tunsil performed well at LG in ’16 and has the athleticism and strength to excel in both pass protection and run blocking.
Jay Ajayi – Despite suffering a concussion that sidelined him for two weeks, 2017 will be a big year for Ajayi as he looks to establish himself as a legitimate Top-5 NFL RB. The Jay Train will play on a base salary of $615k in 2017, $705k in 2018 and will likely be looking for a contract extension next off season. If Ajayi can establish himself as a premiere RB, that forces teams to load up the box and allows Miami’s speedy playmakers on the outside 1-on-1 match ups, plus opening up play actions for whoever takes snaps at QB in 2018.
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