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Dolphins free agency and looking toward 2017: Rationally Irrational

Where the Dolphins stand in Winters’ Worldview

Arizona Cardinals v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images


Remember me? It wouldn’t be an insult if you didn’t. It has been a long time since I submitted anything and my Twitter game, while still epic, is not nearly as proliferate as it used to be. Life, right?

I personally like to think that I had a small place as a rational observer of the Dolphins. I would lambaste most of the team, but I always fell short of thinking there was an issue at the quarterback position with Ryan Tannehill as the starter. Still, the constant criticism of Tannehill can’t help but make a rational minded person question their observations.

This past week with the opening of free agency I saw some predictably stupid proclamations about the Dolphins and their QB and decided I was going to go back and watch for a fourth, or more, time each game Tannehill played in 2016. I also checked out a few games from some of the incoming Free Agents and have conjured up some opinions based in no other reality aside my own.

I am totally going to leave you hanging on Tannehill until the end, and this might be a long one, so buckle in and enjoy the ride.

The Dolphins offensive line is still trash. They have two good starters, one of which has the hips of an arthritic 70-year-old, a dumpster fire at right tackle, and no guards of any significance. The bright side is they seem to have stumbled into an anchor at the most important position without a Q in front of it, in Laremy Tunsil.

Let’s talk about Ja’wuan James for a moment, the one big reason you don’t recall how bad he was…the terrible play that was going on around him. He was a drive killer for Miami in 2016. This is a former first round pick and he has not lived up to his draft position, what is even more confusing is he has seemingly gotten worse from year to year. James gets one more chance in 2017 and the hope is that the stench of the Philbin developmental strategy falls away and he can change his trajectory. However, if Miami is considering spending a first rounder on the offensive line, don’t rule out a replacement for James instead of a reach at guard.

Having watched the way Head Coach Adam Gase has deployed the tight ends in his offense and his familiarity with recent acquisition Julius Thomas expectations should be high for this group. That should not stop the Dolphins from looking at a mid-round TE in the upcoming draft. Thomas has two defining attributes, he is an impossible cover for defensive backs and linebackers alike, but he has a hard time putting that skill to use on the injured list. Gase turned a couple of street level free agents into effective weapons last season, imagine what can be done with an in-house option if Thomas cannot play all 16 games in 2017.

The running backs and wide receivers groups are loaded. There is depth and positional flexibility in both groups, these are the areas where you will see the Dolphins really give most teams in the NFL fits trying to match-up and that bodes well for the 2017 season. I will circle back to these groups when we get to the QB as they have a symbiotic relationship.

Now we talk defense, because this unit is still not good, even with recent acquisitions that have elevated the linebacking group and added stability to the defensive line. Stipulating this does not change the fact that the Dolphins still have a long way to go in both areas to improve against the run.

While the nickel package will be even better on third and long with the addition of Lawrence Timmons and the retention of Andre Branch, getting into 3rd and long will remain an issue for the 31st ranked run defense in 2016 unless more additions are made. These are the two groups that are both deepest in this draft and where the Dolphins should be looking to invest their limited draft capital.

The group I am most excited to watch grow this season is the defensive backfield. A late pick at the Safety position is justifiable given the unfortunate circumstances around Isa Abdul-Quddus, the rest of this unit has a chance to be superlative in 2017.

I mentioned development earlier in this piece and I am about to do it again. The normal development curve for cornerbacks is 3-4 years, it is a merciless position that puts those who play it in a spotlight that most players rarely feel the heat of and it can melt down the most talented of prospects. Which is why when I watched Tony Lippett start to mature from a WR to CB filling in for the injured Xavian Howard and then for Byron Maxwell, I saw the hope for good times ahead.

Former defensive coordinator Vance Joseph showed time and again that he can develop DB’s and I think his coaching prowess was on full display in 2016. Can Matt Burke carry on that development?

By the time the Dolphins lined up to play a relatively healthy Pittsburgh offense, Miami was down to one DB who began the season as a starter. Something that two Hall of Fame quarterbacks took advantage of in Miami’s last two games, both loses. Still, you could see the light coming on for Lippett and Howard, you saw Maxwell flash the talent that landed him his big contract as he settled into a system that played to his strengths, you saw the bones of a dominant defensive backfield. Now these players are fully integrated into the system and it is likely that you will see a developmental jump from Howard, Lippett, and Bobby McCain.

It is pretty cool that I am this excited about the unit and I never even mentioned the best safety in football. I am not going to say his name, if you don’t know it, you need a new hobby.

The Dolphins need a kicker, but they should not draft one, just sign five rookie free-agents to the training camp roster and keep the best one, do it thunderdome style, hell turn it into a webisode style reality competition, just fix it.

So, after all of this, I mean literally a thousand words later, let’s talk about what will define the Dolphins 2017 season. Ryan Tannehill was playing better than anyone not named Aaron Rodgers when he got hit low by Calais Campbell of Arizona. The partially torn ACL that resulted, which we all now know does not regenerate, will decide the Dolphins fate. If it holds up and does not limit Tannehill he has a chance to finally reach his full potential, which is not insignificant.

Tannehill already does many things at a high level, his mobility and ability to throw on the move is among the very best in the league. He has the arm to make throws to all three levels and has shown conclusively that the long ball stigma was more aberration than anything to do with is actual ability. The biggest issue that plagued Tannehill coming into 2016 was that of precision on mid-range throws, he has always been accurate, but never the surgeon he was hoping to be as his backup plan to football. That started to change as the 2016 season moved on and his confidence in the playbook grew.

If you go back and watch you can see Tannehill progressively getting more and more aggressive on the mid-range throws. The back foot planted, the hips clearing as his front foot lands pointed up-field, and throws into small windows, especially on 3rd down, becoming more consistent. This is not a new found ability though, this is a direct result of Jay Ajayi bursting onto the scene and forcing defenses’ to respect the run.

Ryan Tannehill will never be Dan Marino, but his ceiling is still something of a mystery. Let’s hope for a healthy 2017 and some answers to this most important question.

This upcoming 2017 season is the franchises most significant in over a decade. This was a playoff team that won 10 games despite being outscored over the course of the season. Of course things like point differential don’t always tell the whole story and if you carefully dissect 2016 it is clear it doesn’t tell you a thing about the Dolphins.

This was a team that grew week to week, not just in execution, but in their own expectations. They overcame the type of injury barrage that sinks most seasons. They found a head coach. They found a way to win football games that in previous seasons would have left all Dolphins fans with the feeling in their stomachs that you get in a rollercoasters big drop. Which is how the best teams in the league do it, the contributions come from everywhere.

The last 18 months have resulted in the best outcomes in years for the Dolphins. The start of Free Agency and the smart management of the Salary Cap have opened a window of contention for the Dolphins in 2017. How long that window stays open is as tenuous as a partially torn ligament, but it is open none the less and last season’s results were encouraging enough that even with New England loading up I must think Miami has a chance. On the other hand, this could end up as a link on Twitter reminding you that most of us who write about football are bad at predicating the future. Speaking of the future, look for me again after the Draft as we all know I will have something to say.