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What are the Dolphins five biggest needs heading into the 2017 season?

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NFL: Miami Dolphins at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Dolphins have had a very interesting season to say the least. After a 1-4 start, the team rattled off six straight wins to sit comfortably at 7-4. Unfortunately, after a loss to the Baltimore Ravens, fans are now having more realistic expectations for the remainder of the season. Adam Gase has his team playing good football, and should finish with a better record than any of the so called “experts” predicted. With just four games remaining in the NFL regular season, it’s time to take a look at what positions the Dolphins will look to fill in the upcoming offseason.

Here are five positions the Dolphins will look to fill in the upcoming 2017 season.

LINEBACKERS

In my opinion, linebacker is the Dolphins biggest area of need heading into the offseason. After last week’s debacle against the Ravens, Miami is in desperate need of a play-making linebacker. Kiko Alonso has played well all season long, and currently leads the team with 97 tackles. He looks a lot more like the Alonso we became accustomed to in Buffalo, prior to his injury. Nevertheless, Alonso is only one player, and remains a liability in pass coverage. During last week’s game vs the Ravens, tight end Dennis Pitta gashed the Dolphins for 9 catches, 90 yards and two touchdowns. Miami has struggled to fill the void left behind after the departure of linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett a few years back. Whether it be in the draft or free agency, Miami will almost certainly bring in a pair of linebackers this offseason.

DEFENSIVE END

Defense is going to be the primary focus this offseason, with linebacker and defensive end among the team’s two biggest needs. Currently, the Dolphins defensive end group is playing good football. Cameron Wake, 34, continues to look like a difference maker. Opposite of Wake, Miami has Andre Branch, who is having a breakout year with the Dolphins. Branch is a free agent next season, and Mike Tannenbaum and company have a big decision to make on the 27-year old defensive end. If the Dolphins are unable to retain Branch, they will have to rely on Dion Jordan, Terrence Fede, Mario Williams, and Cameron Wake in 2017. It is very unlikely that Mario Williams will be with the team next season, given how poorly he has played this year. As for Jordan, the former third-overall pick hasn’t played a snap in several years. With that said, defensive end is a huge priority for the Dolphins heading into the offseason, as the team will look to get younger at a position of need

OFFENSIVE LINE

When healthy, the Dolphins offensive line has looked impressive this season. However, the key word here is “healthy”. Very rarely is the offensive line intact, with Brandon Albert, Laremy Tunsil, and Mike Pouncey all suffering injuries throughout the 2016 season. Bushrod continues to play well at guard, but remains a stop gap until the Dolphins find a younger, more athletic offensive lineman. Over the last ten years, the Dolphins have invested four first-round draft picks in offensive lineman. They have drafted a total of eleven players in the first three rounds of the draft. Miami has invested heavily in offensive lineman, and the return has yet to pay dividends. With the emergence of Jay Ajayi in Miami, the Dolphins will look to continue their ground-and-pound attack. In doing so, the team will look to sign a center, guard and continue to search for much needed depth on the offensive line.

DEFENSIVE BACK

When Miami finalized their trade with Philadelphia, many weren’t quite sure why they would take on Byron Maxwell’s hefty contract. After a slow start, it’s starting to make a lot more sense why the team would acquire his services. At the beginning of the season, Adam Gase benched Maxwell. The former all-pro cornerback came back with a vengeance, shutting down Antonio Brown. Maxwell did the same against Brandon Marshall, among others. He has played well lately, but the Dolphins will ultimately decide whether or not he’s worth the money at season’s end. Opposite of Maxwell, the Dolphins have wide-receiver-turned-cornerback Tony Lippett, who has progressed well in year two of his development. In addition to the aforementioned defensive backs, Miami drafted Xavien Howard in the second round. Although he’s been plagued by injury for a majority of his rookie season, Howard has proven he has the skill-set to succeed in the NFL. Lastly, Bobby McCain continues to play well as the team’s nickel cornerback. No matter how the defensive backs finish out the 2016 season, the Dolphins will continue to search for quality corners, who can make life difficult for opposing wide receivers.

TIGHT END

Over the last several weeks, Dion Sims has stepped up as a pass-catching threat in Adam Gase’s offense. He’s been a threat down the seam, and continues to make plays whenever his number is called upon. Despite being a threat in the passing game, Sims struggles in pass protection. This is something that he must improve on, if he plans on becoming the Dolphins tight end of the future. However, it takes more than just one tight end to run a successful offense, and the Dolphins will almost certainly look for one in the upcoming draft.

What do you think is the Dolphins biggest need heading into the 2017 season?