There's no getting around the fact that the Miami Dolphins have needs this offseason. And, no one is shying away from those needs. The team has to find weapons to help rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. They have to find help for All Pro defensive end Cameron Wake. They have to find ways to better cover wide receivers. They need help.
But, what is the top need this offseason. Is it adding a receiver to give the Dolphins a deep threat? Is it adding a tight end to become a weapon in the middle of the field? Is it a pass rushing threat, to get to opposing quarterbacks opposite Wake? Is it someone to help the secondary? Which is it?
Obviously, all of those are needs. And all of them have to be addressed somehow this offseason. But, how? When? With whom?
The Case for Wide Receiver
The Dolphins went into last season with all the experts declaring the team had the worst wide receiving corps in the league. They came out of the season with a Pro Bowl alternate (Brian Hartline), a solid performance from a slot receiver being played out wide (Davone Bess), and a bunch of cameo appearances from role players who could never lock down the third wide out position. Hartline has an ability to get open deep and can make some impressive catches - but he is not a game changing wide receiver. Bess can be one of the best slot receivers in the game, if he is playing in the slot. After that, the Dolphins are relying on whomever feels like playing that week.
Once teams figured out that they needed to shift coverage to Hartline, the Dolphins passig game regressed. Tannehill did his best to adjust, but in the end, trying to force the ball to the seventh different "number three" receiver on the season could only get the team so far. Once Bess was injured, opponents really could have just ignored every other receiver on the field, covered Hartline and the tight ends, and be done with it. Near the end of the season, the Dolphins were moving running back and kick returner Marcus Thigpen into the slot receiver position, because they had no other choices.
The Dolphins have to find a receiver this offseason. At least one. Probably two. And possibly three. Landing someone in free agency, and picking one early in the draft is probably the best plan to address the need.
The Case for the Tight End
Did you read the wide receiver section? Well, replace Hartline with Anthony Fasano and Bess with Charles Clay, and you pretty much have the story of the tight ends for the Dolphins. The team spent a third round pick last year on Michael Egnew, but the rookie was unable to get on the field until the end of the season, when enough injuries had mounted that activating him was almost a necessity, simply to have a full roster on game day.
Fasano is a solid, possession type receiver. He's going to make the grabs you need, but he's never going to be a threat in the receiving game - even though he did lead the Dolphins in receiving touchdows this year. The Dolphins still don't seem to be sure what to do with Clay, using him as a fullback and a tight end, wanting him to block, but trying to force passes his way as well. Another year of development - and concentration as a tight end - could be critical to Clay's success in the future.
Egnew is obviously the enigma of the group. If he develops this offseason, he could be the seam threat the Dolphins need. If he doesn't, he will continue the line of tight ends to come out of Missouri, who can't make it as a tight end in the NFL.
Whatever the answer is to the Egnew question, the Dolphins should still be looking to upgrade the position this offseason. As the New England Patriots have shown everyone, having multiple receiving threat tight ends is not a problem. And, really, it's not even a luxury. Fasano is getting older, Clay is still learning the position, and Egnew is a complete mystery. The fourth tight end, Jeron Mastrud, is simply a blcoking tight end. This is an area the Dolphins need to upgrade to keep up with teams like the Patriots.
The Case for Defensive End
Cameron Wake is a beast. Hold him, double team him, trip him, and somehow, he still pressures the quarterback. He had a career high 15 sacks this year, was named to the Pro Bowl, and was a First Team AP All Pro selection. Wake is one of the top pass rushers in the game.
And that's the problem. The Dolphins' pass rush is Wake, and then everyone else. Jared Odrick, despite his Pee-Wee Herman sack dance, is really a defensive tackle playing on the end. The defensive tackles, Paul Soliai and Randy Starks, are able to generate pressure up the middle and get to the quarterback, but their number one job is to eat up blockers in the middle to free up the linebackers.
Miami has some potential pass rush threats developing. Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby both showed flashes, with Vernon getting more and more playing time as the year progressed. But, those were flashes. If the Dolphins have the ability to land a big time pass rusher to line up opposite Wake, it's something they have to do. Waiting for Vernon or Shelby to develop, while playing Odrick out of position, will waste the best years of Wake's career. He already has more sacks in his first four years with the Dolphins than any player in team history - including Jason Taylor. The Dolphins owe it to Wake to address the issue, and, if they want to win in this league, they owe it to themselves to find Wake some help.
The Case for Cornerback
Heading into the preseason, the weakness in the Miami defense was known to be the secondary. Then the team traded away Vontae Davis, and things looked bleak. Richard Marshall, who had outplayed Davis during training camp and the preseason, was the team's starter, and he held that spot until he ended up on injured reserve. After that, the team was left with Sean Smith, Nolan Carroll, cornerback-turned-safety-turned-cornerback Jimmy Wilson, and the cast of free agent signees the team used to address the position.
In a league dominated by quarterbacks and the passing attack, relying on a hodge-podge of cornerbacks is not going to lead to a successful defense. While Smith shows flashes of great play, he also shows flashes of disapointment. Carroll has talent, but asking him to be a starting cornerback, matched up against a team's first or second wide receiver, for the entire game is not going to be an effective use of Carroll. Wilson has the ball skills to be an effective safety, and really could do well back there, if the Dolphins can get to the point where they don't need him at cornerback.
Miami needs to address cornerback this offseason. It's a critical need for the team, and one that cannot be overlooked this offseason.
Which case wins?
It really is tough to pick one, and say that's the definitive answer. Adding a cornerback is important, but if you don't add to the pass rush, it's really not going to be of much help. Is offensive line going to suddenly jump into the fray, if Jake Long is not re-signed?
Personally, I think it comes down to one thing - scoring points. Look at last weekend. In the Divisional round of the playoffs, teams scored 35, 31, 28, and 28 - and those were the four losig teams' scores. The NFL is an offensive league. The rules make it easier to put up points, and the Dolphins have to get back in the race to the endzone. Which brings us to the most important area to address this offseason - wide receiver.
I don't like putting that, because it seems like the easy answer. But, in the end, it's the only answer that makes sense to me. If this team could only address one position this offseason, wide receiver is the one.
Clay and Fasano can last another season at tight end. Wake has shown he can have success without another threat, and there's a chance Vernon could be the pass rusher the team needs. Cornerback will get better with Marshall's return, assuming the team re-signs Smith. But, Hartline and Bess need someone else. Maybe Armon Binns, who looked decent near the end of the season, before the number 19 curse bit him, could help. But the position still needs more. Even if the team lets Long walk, the offensive line without him this year was not horrible - it wasn't great, but it was at least decent.
Wide receiver has to be addressed. There's nothing else this team needs as badly. Weapons around Tanehill will make the quarterback, and the Dolphins, better. From there, who knows where this team could end up.