In the span of just a few months this offseason, the Miami Dolphins have suddenly, stunningly, become a new organization, a new franchise. In January, there was the promotion of Chris Grier to GM, a move deemed by many observers to be long overdue. Grier, the son of legendary former New England personnel exec Bobby Grier, would likely have been hired by another team had Miami not promoted him. As was the case with Mike Tannenbaum a season ago, the team acted decisively to keep its most talented front office employees in the fold, before they could be hired away by someone else.
This year, rather than going for the big splash in free agency, the Dolphins instead landed the one coach coveted by just about every other team that had a vacancy. Adam Gase brings a fresh, youthful approach to the job, and is already drawing rave reviews from many of the players. Look for a lot more big plays down the field on offense from the Dolphins this season. New defensive coordinator Vance Joseph looks to add more enthusiasm and nastiness to what was a beleaguered unit a year ago.
No matter how talented a team's front office and coaching staff may be, however, that talent means little without better players, and Miami has come out of the blocks fast to open this offseason. After agreeing to terms with former Buffalo/Houston defensive end Mario Williams, Miami will now have the first overall pick of the 2006 draft and the second overall pick of the 2010 draft in its starting lineup, and figures to have an absolutely ferocious defensive line in 2016. The cornerback position, a disaster for Miami the past few seasons, got an infusion of youth, size and physicality when the team acquired Byron Maxwell from Philadelphia in a cost-cutting move by the Eagles. The 6'1", 207 lb Maxwell will be a much more physical adversary on the outside against opposing teams' receivers this season.
The team's other big problem on defense, linebacker, was addressed in the same trade that brought Maxwell, with former Oregon Duck Kiko Alonso. If Alonso can stay healthy, he brings the kind of speed and range Miami has lacked at the linebacker position in recent years. To be sure, the Dolphins still have a lot more work to do, but unlike past seasons, they've been able to sign talented players at a relative bargain, and make no mistake: Mike Tannenbaum is just getting started. When free agency begins this week, you can be sure there will be more players brought in, as the team works to upgrade at guard, as well as at running back, if Lamar Miller signs with Houston, as is being reported.
Okay, so the Dolphins brought in a few guys and didn't overpay for them? They really didn't have much choice this time around, after inking Ndamukong Suh to a monstrous contract last offseason. But there's more. Tannenbaum, easily one of the brightest minds in all of football, apparently understands what ails this team, and how to fix it. Going all the way back to the Marino era, in the late 1980's, one of Miami's most glaring problems has been having to try and cover up bad players with great players. If you compare a team's players to poker chips, unless you have a scouting department that's head and shoulders above that of most other teams', you're typically only going to have two or three bona fide 'blue chip' players on your roster at any given time. As those players age, and/or become too expensive, they must be replaced, hopefully by other players that at least approach in talent the ones not re signed. Next in line are the 'red chip' type players; these guys are available year in and year out, both in the draft and as mid-level free agents. The key is being able to evaluate how well their skill set translates to your team, whether what they do well makes them good targets to pursue. Red-chip players comprise the bulk of every team's lineup and are therefore the backbone of the roster. Finally, we have the 'white chip', or lowest denomination of players -- late round draft picks, UDFA's and street free agents. These guys tend to be role players, backups and special teamers while being groomed to hopefully challenge for a starting job at some point. Miami's problem over the years is that they've had far, far too many white chips while not having nearly enough red ones. We saw this in the late 80's and early 90's when the Dolphins would bring in players like linebackers Hugh Green and E.J. Junior. Talented though they were, those premium players simply couldn't mask the deficiencies throughout the rest of the defense. In 2015, Miami had the league's highest paid offensive line, with three former first-round draft picks, in Albert, Pouncey, and James. Yet, with two of the worst starting guards in the NFL, the line struggled to keep its quarterback upright. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
These moves have been met with some criticism by some members of the fan base, who, as always, have a tendency to become emotionally attached to their favorite players. Some argue that we should have kept Olivier Vernon, rather than sign a 31 year old defensive end who will likely be gone from the team, and the league, by the time Miami can contend for a title. We disagree with that assessment; in our opinion, Vernon hasn't come close to being a twelve to fifteen million dollar a year player. Williams is much stronger and more physical, stacking opposing blockers and ballcarriers like firewood against the strong side run. Miami sorely needs a player like Mario Williams, for the same reason Baltimore, and later the New York Jets, kept Ed Reed on their respective teams during the latter part of his career: because this team needs to learn how to win, how to close out games. The Dolphins need to be able to slam the door with impunity in the face of opposing teams' offenses, and Williams will help them do just that.
This flurry of transactions serves as a warning shot across the bow of the rest of the AFC East. Slowly but surely, Philbin's finesse dance troupe is giving way to the maulers and brawlers of the Tannenbaum/Grier/Gase triumvirate. Yes, it's still early, and yes, we've heard all this before, but the Miami Dolphins, from top to bottom, will be a substantially stronger, deeper and more talented team this season. It's an exciting time to be a Dolphins fan.