The Miami Dolphins surprised everyone last season by making the playoffs for the first time since 2008. After starting 1-4, the Dolphins, possibly sparked by a certain throw, then finished the season 9-2, earning the final wildcard spot. Thanks to that improbable run, fans have bigger, more grandiose expectations for the Dolphins, beginning with the upcoming season. Fans will be disappointed if the Dolphins cannot remain a playoff contender. In order for that to happen, every player will have to step up their game. This article will look at four critical players, beginning on the offensive side of the ball, which will need to have tremendous impacts at their respective positions to keep Miami a contender.
NO QUARTERBACKS ALLOWED
The name most people would expect to top the list is Ryan Tannehill. But he’s the quarterback and saying the quarterback is critical to the success of the team is like saying coffee grounds are critical to making a pot of coffee: it is already understood. There is no reason to discuss the impact Tannehill could/would/should have on the team; we already know. Therefore, we will look at other impact players for Miami’s offense.
To say Jay Ajayi came out of nowhere in 2016 is an understatement. A player whose best game ever was 48 yards, exploded onto the scene with three 200+ yard games, two of which were in consecutive games making him only the 4th running back in NFL history to do so, a total of 1272 yards, the third highest single season total in Dolphins history, and a Pro Bowl berth as icing to the season’s cake. Fans, including myself, lamented when Lamar Miller left in free agency. But while Miller was good, Ajayi was simply better. He didn’t just fill the role of lead back, he burst through the doors of stardom.
But… and there is always a but… the NFL is no stranger to one-hit wonders. Steve Slaton was a 3rd round pick of the Houston Texans in 2008. As a rookie, Slaton rushed for 1282 yards on 269 carries and scored 9 rushing TDs. His NFL career ended after 5 years, totaling only 614 more yards on 187 more carries and only 5 more TDs in the next four seasons. That one promising season became nothing.
Ajayi was good in 2016; even elite at times. Now is the time to show fans and everyone else that he is the real deal. He needs a repeat performance. His performance in 2017 will determine how potent Miami’s offense can be. Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen has stated that Ajayi is working on his receiving skills in order to become a more complete back. But as great as that sounds, the Dolphins need him to be the violent, tackle-breaking rushing machine that he showed he could be in 2016.
Unlike Ajayi, a late round draft pick, Parker was drafted with high expectations he’d become a top tier receiver for Miami. Miami had lacked that big time playmaking receiver ever since they traded Brandon Marshall. Jarvis Landry is the heart and soul of the receiving unit and his energy and desire make everyone around him better. But as good as he is, he doesn’t present the same threat that DeVante Parker can offer. Parker has all the tools, but something had been missing. As a rookie, Parker had surgery to correct an issue with his foot from a previous surgery and missed training camp. As a sophomore, Parker developed a nagging hamstring injury and missed a good portion of camp. It was later reported that head coach Adam Gase and the coaching staff had to admonish Parker for not doing simple tasks such as staying properly hydrated and eating breakfast before practice. That’s not all that surprising given the lack of leadership and awareness from the previous coaching staff. However, it did give the impression that Parker was immature, lazy, or uncaring about his career.
It seems Parker wants to shake that impression and has become much more committed to fulfilling the expectations of him. Both Gase and Christensen have stated that Parker looks great and has been maintaining his body properly, unlike before. Parker has been working out with Tannehill, the rest of the Dolphins receivers, and also former NFL great Chad Johnson this offseason to perfect his craft.
If Parker can reach his tremendous potential, then the Dolphins offense will have that outside receiving threat that can stretch the field, work the middle, and become a red zone threat. He can become that guy who is open even when he’s not open. He will not only make Tannehill’s job easier, but he makes it easier on the receivers around him.
Starting the 2016 offseason, the Dolphins already had a pretty good left tackle in Branden Albert. But the 2016 draft unfolded in such a way that blue chip tackle prospect Laremy Tunsil fell into the laps of the Dolphins. The Dolphins, rumored to be looking at either Eli Apple (had he fallen) or Myles Jack, couldn’t resist taking the 2nd highest player on their board and highest remaining player (rumor was Jalen Ramsey was the top prospect). The Dolphins played Tunsil at left guard most of the 2016 season, but decided 2017 was his time to shine at left tackle and traded Albert to the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason.
I don’t have to explain to any of you what it means to have security on the offensive line. We’ve all had to watch Miami field some of the worst OLs in the league over the past few seasons. We’ve watched bad players at just about every position on the line. Albert was almost taken for granted. He was prone to miss games from time to time, but when he played, the left tackle position wasn’t a concern. Now with him gone, that security is gone with him. Tunsil was a top prospect for a reason. The Dolphins have very high expectations of him, even possibly Hall of Fame expectations. He has every tool to become a very good left tackle. But we’ve all seen offensive tackles enter the league highly touted and fail. Robert Gallery was the 2nd overall pick in 2004. He was a decent guard for a number of years. But he was drafted to be a left tackle. Luke Joeckel was the 2nd pick in the 2013 draft. He was supposed to lockdown the left side of Jacksonville’s OL for years to come. He’s now on a one-year deal with the Seahawks. We all know the story of Jake Long.
The point here is that everyone knew that Tunsil would become the Dolphins left tackle eventually. Well that "eventually" is now. And while it’s expected of him to be good, he is an unknown. We knew what Albert brought to the table and we were comfortable with that. It’s on Tunsil to prove to us and the Dolphins that making the move to put him at left tackle is the correct one. He will face a number of tough edge rushers this season, from Kahlil Mack to Vic Beasley to Cameron Jordan. If he excels, the Dolphins offense will become stable and potent. If not… well, we’ve seen that movie before.
Miami had a good tight end in Charles Clay, who had a breakout season in 2013. The Dolphins thought they could upgrade with Jordan Cameron, and let Clay go to the rival Buffalo Bills. Due to concussions and other factors, Cameron never became that go-to tight end the Dolphins wanted. The Dolphins had decent guys like Dion Sims, but they decided to bring in a player that had familiarity with coach Gase. Thomas erupted like Krakatoa in 2013. A player that previously had exactly one catch for 5 yards finished that season with 65 catches, 788 yards, and 12 TDs. He gave the league an encore with 43 catch, 489 yard, 12 TD season in 2014. All of that was with Peyton Manning in Denver, in the offense led by… Adam Gase. Thomas left in free agency for Jacksonville, where coupled with injuries, a bad quarterback, and an offense that didn’t really know how to use tight ends, he didn’t come close to fulfilling his expectations.
Now, reunited with Gase, the expectations are for Thomas to once again become that receiving threat that he was in Denver. Obviously, it’s probably too much to expect him to duplicate the level of success he had with Manning, an all-time great QB. But it shouldn’t be unreasonable to believe he can exceed what he did in Jacksonville now that he has a better QB and his old coach.
Thomas gives Miami a threat in the one area they haven’t been able to attack with any level of consistency: the intermediate middle of the field. The intermediate middle is anything 10-20 yards from the line of scrimmage and between the numbers. Tannehill has Stills and Parker for anything deep middle, deep outside, or intermediate outside (deep = 20+ yards from LOS). Jarvis Landry takes care of anything in in the short zone (0-10 yards). And now Thomas covers the intermediate. His presence means defenses cannot key in on one particular area. They cannot abandon the intermediate areas in order to dedicate resources to the outside WRs. They cannot constantly play the short passing game. Most importantly, as Gase has recently pointed out, they cannot sell out to stop the run. As much as the previous players mentioned provide threats or protection in their own ways, Thomas can literally open up everything for those players to be even more successful, as well as have success himself.
Miami’s offense is on the cusp of being a very dangerous one. They have all the pieces (crossing fingers for the interior OL) to attack anywhere and everywhere they want on the field. We all know what Tannehill has to do. But it will be up to the four players listed to either step up their game or maintain their game in order for Miami to be a threat not just to make the playoffs, but to win when they get there.