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Fixing the Miami Dolphins for 2018

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Atlanta Falcons v Miami Dolphins Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images

The 2017 Miami Dolphins are not the team we expected to see after the 10-6 team that earned a playoff berth last season. Injuries, struggles, and personnel changes ravaged the team, not to mention a hurricane that cost the team a bye week and forced them to relocate to California for a week before starting their season and not having a game at Hard Rock Stadium until after the Florida Panthers held their home opener. It has been a strange season - and one that is not yet over, with two games to play and, if things break correctly, a meaningful game in Week 17 for the playoffs.

That said, it is time to start looking at how the team can improve for the 2018 I do not believe the Dolphins are as bad off as many fans seem to think. They have holes, and they have to make changes, but they can take a step forward again next year with a few fixes.

Return of injured reserve players:

The Dolphins will see many starters return when next year kicks off. There will be rust and rehab, with plenty of rest, early in the offseason program, training camp, and the preseason for all of these players, but their return will be a huge bonus for the roster. Miami currently has ten players on the injured reserve list, headlined by starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill and rookie middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan. Also on the list are tackle Ja’Wuan James, defensive end William Hayes, safety Nate Allen, linebacker Lamin Barrow, wide receiver Isaiah Ford, cornerback Tony Lippett, linebacker Koa Misi, and center/guard Anthony Steen. Misi’s neck would still be a question mark heading into next year, and the eight year veteran could end up retiring if he cannot get cleared to play. Allen, Barrow, Steen, and Hayes are scheduled to be free agents in 2018, though the Dolphins could re-sign them. Other than that, the Dolphins should see all of their players ready for the start of 2018.

Free Agents to be

Miami has many players on expiring contracts this year, with some of them likely to be re-signed. Here is a list of the players heading to the open market as of right now.

Walt Aikens, cornerback
Nate Allen, quarterback
Lamin Barrow, linebacker
Jake Brendel, center*
Jermon Bushrod, guard
Jay Cutler, quarterback
John Denney, long snapper
David Fales, quarterback**
Anthony Fasano, tight end
Terrence Fede, defensive end
Williams Hayes, defensive end
Neville Hewitt, linebacker**
Mike Hull, linebacker*
Jarvis Landry, wide receiver
Jordan Lucas, cornerback*
Koa Misi, linebacker
Matt Moore, quarterback
Cody Parkey, kicker
De’Veon Smith, running back*
Anthony Steen, center/guard*
Michael Thomas, safety
Alterraun Verner, cornerback
Damien Williams, running back
Sam Young, tackle

* Exclusive rights free agent
** Restricted free agent

Looking at the list Aikens and Fede should be re-signed for their ability to play special teams, along with Denney’s role as the long snapper. Hayes makes sense to bring back as he was playing really well, especially against the run. Thomas needs to be re-signed, Young should be re-signed as the swing tackle, and Williams makes sense to bring back as the depth behind Kenyan Drake. Parkey probably gets re-signed as well as he has been a good addition for this year.

For the restricted free agents and exclusive rights free agents, most of them should probably be tendered and brought back. They provide the team with depth, and there is some talent there, such as Lucas on special teams and Steen as a depth center and guard.

The obvious name that will be the biggest discussion is Landry. The talk all season has been on why the Dolphins had not already re-signed their 2014 second-round pick. The team has always said they wanted to get a new deal completed, and Landry has said he wants to stay in Miami. Reports last week indicated the Dolphins and Landry’s representatives had either started negotiations, or were preparing to do so, though the deal may have to wait until the start of the 2018 league year in order to get everything underneath the salary cap. It does not appear Landry is going anywhere, with just the two sides wanting to come to an agreement.

Salary cap space

The Dolphins are not in the salary cap hell some seem to think they are. Last week, the league told teams the cap for 2018 would be between $174 million and $178 million. That number could still climb higher, and it will not be solidified until March. Currently, according to OverTheCap.com, the Dolphins have 42 players under camp for the season, with a cap number of $162.8 million. That gives the team space of around $12 million to $16 million before making any roster moves. That would likely provide the team with the space needed to sign draft picks and have money for operations during the season.

The team can make plenty of cap space through contract restructuring and cuts. Players like Ndamukong Suh ($26.1 million cap number) and Ryan Tannehill ($19.8 million) could create space for the team if they are willing to rework their contracts, and the team is willing to defer some of the money into later years by changing base salary into a signing bonus (Suh is scheduled to have a $16.985 million base salary in 2018 and Tannehill will have $17.475 million).

Roster cuts could hit players with little or no dead money next year, including Ja’Wuan James ($9.341 million in space created), Mike Pouncey ($7 million in space), Cameron Wake ($8.125 million), and Julius Thomas ($6.6 million). Of those, James, Pouncey, and Wake all make sense to try to rework their contracts, while Thomas seems to be a sure-bet to be released. Ted Larsen could save the team $1.1 million, while Stephone Anthony would be $1.5 million in space if he were to be released.

Miami will be creative this offseason to free up some cap space.

Needs

To start working on the Dolphins’ 2018 season, the top needs for the team need to be addressed. To address those needs, the top needs have to be identified. While the coaches and front office will likely rank the needs differently than I do, here is what I see as the top needs for the Dolphins this offseason:

1. Guard
2. Tight end
3. Linebacker
4. Defensive end
5. Running back

Miami has to address the offensive line, especially the guard positions. They also need to find a dynamic tight end to complement the receivers and provide a safety valve for Tannehill. McMillan returning should give the team their starting middle linebacker for 2018, and Lawrence Timmons should return as the strong-side linebacker. Kiko Alonso will also be too expensive to cut, costing the team $13.2 million more than his $2.8 million cap number, so he will be back on the roster, but he could find himself working as the primary reserve, as the Dolphins look to add a coverage linebacker this year. Defensive end becomes a needs as the Dolphins look to get younger at the position, preparing for the day when Wake retires. Finally, running back depth is a need behind Drake, even if Williams is brought back as the primary backup.

Free Agency

I would not expect the Dolphins to be overly active in the free agent market this year. There will be some additions, but maybe not the splashy big name of years past. D.J. Fluker could be an interesting offensive lineman target, a player with potential but was signed to a “prove it” deal last year by the New York Giants, then landed on injured reserve. Could the Dolphins get Fluker, who played well in run blocking this year, on another prove it deal to fill a hole?

Draft

The majority of the Dolphins’ work this offseason has to come during the Draft. Currently, the Dolphins have a first-round pick (projected as 14th overall with two games remaining), a second-round pick, a third-round pick, two fourth-round picks, a sixth-round pick, and two seventh-round picks.

Miami will factor player grades into their draft picks, so they may not necessarily pick straight for needs or in this order. Just looking at the needs and the picks, I would look for the best available tight end or offensive lineman in the first round, then the other in the second round. Add depth somewhere in the third round, likely either another offensive lineman or a defensive end or linebacker. In the fourth or sixth round, add a quarterback to develop and serve as the backup to Tannehill, with the other two picks in those rounds used on an offensive lineman and either another tight end or a running back. In the seventh, select another developmental depth play.

The Dolphins likely will not receive a compensatory pick this year, with the team losing just Dion Sims as a qualifying free agent, but having signed Ted Larsen, Nate Allen, T.J. McDonald, Anthony Fasano, and Lawrence Timmons last year.

Random thoughts:

  • Selecting a left tackle with the first round pick, then moving Laremy Tunsil to left guard could be a consideration for the team. Tunsil played tackle throughout his college career, and he is growing back into the position at the NFL level, but he had a lot of success as a guard as a rookie.
  • Mike Pouncey is expensive and was not as dominant this year as he has been in the past. That said, I would keep him for one more year. Moving him to right guard could be a possibility, but, despite making the Pro Bowl, he was not as good there as he has been at center during his career. Letting him stay at center for another year, a year after his last hip surgery, is probably the right move.
  • Jesse Davis has been a really good addition to the team this year, and he could claim a starting role next year. If the team keeps Ja’Wuan James - likely with a restructured contract - then Davis could be the right guard. If not, Davis at right tackle is an option.
  • Does Anthony Fasano have another year, giving Miami the flexibility to add just one tight end this year, moving ahead with a trio of a rookie, Fasano, and MarQueis Gray? Do A.J. Darby or Thomas Duarte factor into the position group next year?
  • The Dolphins should be fairly well stacked at cornerback next year, with Xavien Howard and Cordrea Tankersley starting, Bobby McCain as the nickel cornerback, and Tony Lippett getting plenty of snaps as well. Re-signing Alterraun Verner as a veteran in the group, or keeping Jordan Lucas and/or Walt Aikens as depth rounds out a solid, young group.
  • Defensive end should be a fairly strong group. Cameron Wake, if he does not retire (and I do not think he will), leads Andre Branch, Charles Harris, and Cameron Malveaux, all of whom have had impacts this year, including Malveaux who has been impressive to the coaching staff. Re-signing William Hayes and Terrence Fede gives the team depth at the position, a run-stuffer (Hayes) and a special teams ace (Fede) as well.
  • Safety becomes a concern if the Dolphins do not re-sign some players. Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald will be the starters, but the team needs to bring back Michael Thomas and could consider re-signing Nate Allen as well. Re-signing Walt Aikens, who was moved to cornerback this year, could give the team some depth at safety as well if needed.
  • Quarterback has been a huge discussion - literally blowing up my mentions on Twitter the last couple of days - but there really should not be any debate here. Ryan Tannehill is the starter for this team. Why the Dolphins having an under-performing 2017 season without Tannehill should not somehow mean the team needs to move on from him in 2018. Tannehill was having a good second-half to 2016 before his injury, and there is no reason to believe he will not have the same success as the team moves into 2018. As I have said before, I am a believer that a team should select a quarterback in the draft every year, or maybe every other year, so they have a player developing in the system just in case injuries occur. The Dolphins should look to add a quarterback late in this Draft, but they do not need to make a move to replace Tannehill.