The Miami Dolphins ended the 2013 NFL season just one game out of a playoff berth. They also ended the year on a two game losing streak, meaning they were once again sitting at home in January, the fifth straight year without a post season appearance. For the team with the third highest winning percentage in regular season history, this kind of futility is unacceptable and has fans - and team owner Stephen Ross - demanding a change.
Some of that change came over the offseason, with Mike Sherman out as the offensive coordinator and former Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor in to replace him. The team also looked to put the bullying saga of last season behind them, allowing Richie Incognito and John Jerry to hit the free agent market (Jerry signed with the New York Giants while Incognito has yet to join a club), while trading tackle Jonathan Martin to the San Francisco 49ers and firing coaches and trainers.
The offseason also saw a change at the top of the front office for Miami, with general manager Jeff Ireland departing the team on a "mutual agreement" (and subsequently joining the Seattle Seahawks as a pre-draft consultant), with Dennis Hickey, the Director of Player Personnel for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, moving down to Miami to take the personnel reins.
Throughout all of the changes in South Florida, the NFL calendar continued to March forward, first with free agency, where the Dolphins added players like tackle Branden Albert and cornerback Cortland Finnegan, while re-signing cornerback Brent Grimes and defensive tackle Randy Starks. Two months after free agency began, we have finally reached the next event on the NFL calendar, tomorrow's start to the NFL Draft.
While Miami has had a successful free agency period, addressing several needs both in new additions and in re-signings, there are still areas the team must target throughout the Draft's seven rounds. We break down the top remaining areas of concern for the team today:
1. Offensive Line:
The Dolphins need to address the offensive line, and they likely need to do it with multiple picks. The real question simply becomes, how much confidence do Hickey and head coach Joe Philbin have in the players already on the roster. Will The newly signed Jason Fox, versatile backup Nate Garner, last year's surprise Sam Brenner, or 2013 draft pick Dallas Thomas be able to fill either the right tackle or the right guard position? Who will man the left guard spot?
Most of the draft analysts and mock drafts have predicted the Dolphins will attack this need with their first round pick - with Zack Martin, Cyrus Kouandjio, and Morgan Moses the most common names at the spot. Many of those same projections see the team using two of their first three picks on the line, doubling down on their top need.
Will Miami really spend multiple picks on the offensive line? We will find out for sure this weekend, but it should be considered likely at this point.
There are two issues with this need - money and position. The Dolphins spent a ton of money on upgrading the linebacker corps last year with Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, only to see them disappoint in their inaugural season in aqua. They could both bounce back this year, after getting used to playin in defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle's system and next to each other, but the Dolphins should still be considering an upgrade over their upgrade.
Both Ellerbe and Wheeler have large salary cap numbers, so they are not going anywhere this season, but they could move around between the three linebacker positions - or the bench. The second issue comes down to, where do the Dolphins upgrade? Could they add a middle linebacker, kicking Ellerbe to the weak-side and splitting time between Wheeler and Koa Misi at strong-side? Could they add an outside linebacker, effectively replacing Wheeler, move Misi to middle linebacker and Ellerbe outside? Could they simply rearrange the three starters? Or, could they promote second-year linebacker Jelani Jenkins into the rotation?
Lots of questions, without many answers at this point. Whatever the answer is, linebacker is a need and the Dolphins should look to address it one way or another.
3. Tight End.
This one is a little hard to call a "need" in the sense that Miami needs to fill a position in which they do not have a player. The Dolphins have a starting tight end in Charles Clay, and they have two developmental backups in Michael Egnew and Dion Sims. The position looks decent from a depth chart point of view.
That does not change the fact that this is a need, however. As soon as teams figured out Clay was a weapon, they simply rotated coverage to take him out of the game plan last year. The New England Patriots went so far as to put Aqib Talib on Clay, effectively shutting down the tight end. Adding a second, seam-threatening option from the tight end position could be exactly what quarterback Ryan Tannehill needs. Sims and Egnew could become that player, but aggressively grabbing one of the top flight tight ends, like Eric Ebron, Jace Amaro, or Austin Seferian-Jenkins, could be on Miami's radar.
Miami allowed Chris Clemons to leave via free agency this year, replacing him with Louis Delmas from the Detroit Lions. A big-hitter with an attitude, Delmas gives Miami an imposing duo with Reshad Jones next to him, while the team has depth with everything-secondary Jimmy Wilson and last year's Patriots game hero Michael Thomas. Delmas, however, only signed a one-year contract and the Dolphins need to find a long-term solution. Grabbing a safety on the second- or third-day of the Draft would give the team a developmental option to sit behind Jones and Delmas this year, before potentially moving him into the starting lineup in 2015. The team could even consider a first-round pick, like Calvin Pryor from Louisville, if all of the first-round targets for the above needs are selected prior to Miami's choice.
5. Running Back
Similar to safety, this is a need looking forward to 2015, rather than needing an answer today, meaning this is a later round pick for the team. The Dolphins will likely start free agent signing Knowshon Moreno this year, with Lamar Miller as the second option. As of now, Daniel Thomas will fill the third spot, while Marcus Thigpen, Cameron Marshall, and Mike Gillislee fill in somewhere behind them.
Just like Delmas, however, the Dolphins only signed Moreno for one year. Add in the disappointment that has been much of Thomas' career (between injuries and low production), and Miami should be in the market for a running back. It may not be a "need" in terms of have-to-have this year, but it should be a need on the board for consideration during the second half of the Draft.
Other areas of consideration:
Cornerback - The team seems ready to let Jamar Taylor and Will Davis, both products of the 2013 Draft, play bigegr roles this year. The two of them will battle, along with Cortland Finnegan, for the starting cornerback slot opposite Brent Grimes. A rotation of Taylor on the boundary and Finnegan and Davis in the slot could make sense for the team, and allow both the younger players to see the field more than their injury filled rookie campaigns allowed. Drafting another cornerback to fill out the depth of the position must be an option for Miami.
Wide Receiver - Adding another option to the passing game - assuming the team can keep Tannehill upright this year - should always be a consideration. There have been lots of rumors about the Dolphins wanting to dump Mike Wallace this year, but, given the explosiveness he brings - and the money he is owed - that's not going to happen. Adding a compliment to the Wallace, Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson trio - or even someone to compete with Gibson - would be a smart play by Miami, and give them an option if they do decide in the future that Wallace is too expensive.
Defensive Tackle - The Dolphins are set this year with Starks, Jared Odrick, and the newly signed Earl Mitchell, as the three man rotation for the two defensive tackle positions. The future, however, could have Miami considering a defensive tackle, as Odrick is scheduled to be a free agent after this season, and Starks' re-signed this year for two seasons, meaning he's back on the free agent market in 2016. Grabbing a developmental defensive tackle here would give the club some time to prepare him for the starting role if Odrick or Starks do not return.
Quarterback - Absolutely a luxury pick at this point, with Matt Moore, Pat Devlin, and Jordan Rodgers all on the roster behind Tannehill, but I believe in always drafting a quarterback. Maybe this isn't the year to do it, given that Moore is on the roster for one more year before the backup position opens up, but adding someone in the late rounds - like Clemson's Tahj Boyd, Georgia's Aaron Murray, or Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas - could give the Dolphins some time to develop the rookie before needing to use him as an insurance policy for Tannehill.