Talking Dolphins with the Football Outsiders

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Many of you are well aware of the Football Outsiders. They are the guys who statistically break down every play of the NFL season and come up with some very interesting analysis thanks to their innovative stats. Every year, they put out their Football Outsiders Almanac, filled with stats and analysis on every NFL team and player. If you're like me and am a stats guy, then you won't spend a better $20 than on their annual almanac - available at Amazon.com.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Aaron Schatz, the person who wrote the chapter on the Dolphins for their almanac. My interview with Aaron is below. Enjoy - and be sure to come back tomorrow for all kinds of thoughts and reaction on the Dolphins' first week of camp, including Saturday's scrimmage.

Q: In the Almanac, you write that "most scouts think Chad Henne will develop into a solid contributor with a nice long NFL career, but very few believe he’s going to approach superstar status." But where do you personally stand on Henne? And do the Dolphins even need Henne to approach "superstar status" in his career to be long-term Super Bowl contenders?

A: I think he's going to be good, but not great. And no, they don't need him to be a superstar in order to be long-term Super Bowl contenders, as long as they have enough other good pieces around him.

Q: You mention in the Almanac that the Dolphins used extra blockers to protect the QB more than any other team in the league, which led to having their QB hurried on just 12% of pass plays and resulting in a number one ranking in max protect. What do you take from this and do you think it’ll be important for the offense to send out more players in routes rather than keeping them in to protect if they want to be a more effective offensive team?

A: Actually, I'm not sure that's the case. Miami actually was not very good last year out of four-wide sets, when I think it is safe to assume they didn't have extra blockers. They ranked only 23rd in DVOA with 4-5 wide receivers. I think that it is more important to have the receivers who do go out on patterns get open than it is to make sure the tight ends go out on patterns too.

Q: I find it fascinating that rookie Brian Hartline led the Miami receivers last year with a 21.9% DVOA. But I just don’t know what to make of him as he enters year number two. He quietly became Chad Henne’s favorite red-zone target last year. But now the Dolphins have Brandon Marshall as their new number one and Davone Bess firmly entrenched as an elite slot and third-down receiver. So what is your take on Miami’s current receiver situation? And where do you think Hartline fits in this year?

A: Our KUBIAK projections aren't that high on Hartline, but a lot of that is about playing time. I don't think the Dolphins are going to suddenly start throwing the ball a lot more, which means if you give a lot of passes to Marshall, and assume Bess will play basically the same role (a fairly safe assumption, I think), Camarillo and Hartline are left sorting through the scraps.

On the other hand... Are you ready to have your mind blown? Based on the FO similarity scores system, there's a three-way tie for the most similar rookie season to Brian Hartline's 2009: Terrell Owens in 1996, Anthony Miller in 1988, and Ashley Lelie in 2002. That's nice company, or at least two-thirds nice company. Eric Martin, Roddy White, and Nate Burleson all show up on his similarities list too, plus Stephone Paige's second year.

No disrespect for Camarillo, but looking at those similarities as well as their respective ages, I wonder if it just makes sense to install Hartline as the third receiver (not slot, but outside when Bess moves inside) and see what he can do with 60-70 passes instead of the 40 we project.

Any idea with you guys what the heck happened to Patrick Turner? Man, does that look like a mistake.

Q: You mention that the Wildcat with Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams taking the snap (and not Pat White) averaged 4.9 yards per play with a 20% DVOA – which to the casual statistician seems rather good. Do you think the Dolphins will continue to use the formation in 2010 with similar success?

A: I don't see why not. More than any other team, they understand that this is a weapon, not a gimmick. It's a formation with very specific movement and specific play-calls. It is about power as much as trickery, maybe even more so. Honestly, I think there are only two teams in the NFL that should be running this stuff: Miami, because they do it so well, and Cleveland, because they need to figure out how to get the ball in Josh Cribbs' hands and their regular quarterbacks aren't very good.

Q: Moving on to the defense, you talk a little bit about how the cornerback position is among the toughest positions for rookies because of its steep learning curve. Considering that, what were your thoughts on how Vontae Davis and Sean Smith played last year? Though you admit "it’s hard to forecast the growth of cornerbacks based on how they play as rookies," what kind of careers do you see these two having in this league?

A: Uh, they played like rookies? I think Davis takes more chances and Smith is more conservative. I honestly can't predict their careers from here, it's been just one year.

Q: When talking about the defense, you call Karlos Dansby an "active playmaker" and highlight his 17 defeats on running plays, which was second in the league. But you fail to mention Dansby in the opening of your Dolphins section when discussing "difference-makers" on defense. Isn’t it fair to assume that Dansby will likely be the very definition of a "difference-maker" on defense because of his athleticism and versatility – especially compared to the man he will be replacing from 2009?

A: Oh, he'll be a difference-maker this year, sure, but you can't build your franchise around a guy who's 29.

Q: The Almanac has the Dolphins with a 2010 mean projection of 9.2 wins. Where do you see the Dolphins ending up in 2010 – on the high end of the spectrum with 10 or 11 wins or closer to a .500 season?

A: Actually, I see them ending up pretty much at the mean projection. I think this is a 9-7 team, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them win a wild card or go 7-9.


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