Been a while since I opened up the ol' Phinsider site. I usually crawl into an air-conditioned cave of basketball and baseball between the NFL Draft and the start of pre-season camp. There's really just not much for me to sink my teeth into, other than soaring flights of fancy and random speculation about what the team will or won't do in the upcoming season.
Still, I got the itch to air my thoughts about the general state of the team right now. Since there are no real performances to evaluate, this is all purely subjective feeling on my part, based on players' past performance and my guesses about what the current coaching staff can wring out of them as units.
My simple rating scale:
- Very confident in the unit being above the NFL average, and possibly a top-5 group in the league.
- Pretty confident in the group being average to above-average, provided that we see natural improvement from last season.
- Either/or with the group. Maybe one or two unproven guys, or a lack of depth make me think the group could be either slightly above or slightly below average.
- A bit worried that the unit will be below NFL average.
- Very worried that the group will be a bottom-10 NFL unit.
- Quarterback: 2. Let's come right out of the gate with it. I think Tua is going to show some marked improvement this season. I don't know that he'll be a Pro Bowl-caliber guy, but I think we see him establish himself as a solid NFL starting QB, with room to get even better by season's end. He's recovered from his injury, by all accounts. He's had plenty of time to fill in his knowledge gaps. He's working with a system and coaches who are catering to his strengths. He has a full, normal off-season to get in sync with his teammates. And I like having Brissette backing him up, in case he gets dinged up somewhere along the line.
- Running Backs: 3. This one's iffy for me. I really like Miles Gaskin and his versatility. I think he has the makings of a solid starting RB. After him, though? A lot of unproven guys who might make the jump, but it's still very much up in the air.
- Offensive Line: 3. Also very much a 50/50 unit. I do lean towards this group being improved over last year's rookie-heavy bunch, what with the likely improvement of at least one or two of Jackson, Kindley, and Hunt. And if we're really lucky, center Matt Skura will rediscover his pre-2019, All Pro form. But none of these players has proven anything lately, either because they're only going into their second years, or they've been injured or had brain fart issues. Jesse Davis is reliable, but is really a low-end starter/reliable utility guy; and maybe Eichenberg can max out his potential, but these are just two of several medium-sized "if"s in this group.
- Tight Ends: 2. I like this group. We know what Gesicki can do as a pass-catcher. And Smythe and Shaheen also showed that they can be solid contributors. We have to wait and see about Hunter Long, but he seems like his ceiling is sort of a Gesicki-lite. Not sure there's as much reliable blocking in this group as you'd really want, but I'm good rolling with them into 2021.
- Wide Receivers: 1. This high ranking is a tad of a reach, I'll admit, but I'm optimistic. If a couple things break right - like Preston Williams, DVP, and Albert Wilson being healthy - then this group could be among the elite pass-catching crews in the entire NFL. They would have everything a passing coordinator could ask for: speed, ability to separate, big-bodied guys who can win 50/50 balls, good route-runners. And not just one guy who can do each thing, but multiple guys who can. And if one or two of the more marquee guys sustains an injury? You've got a really talented guy like Lynn Bowden Jr. to get extra snaps and do something electric. I love this group's potential to make Tua's life incredibly easy in terms of targets.
*I'm going off of ESPN's projected depth chart, which is assuming a 3-4 alignment. Since Flores does multiple things, I'll just roll with this, and consider Defensive Ends and Nose Tackle "Interior Linemen", though technically DEs aren't really that. Don't come at me.
- Interior D-Linemen: 3. I love the starting guys here: Wilkins, Sieler, and Raekwon Davis. Maybe no Pro Bowlers in there (Wilkins and Davis may get there at some point), but very solid guys. After that, it gets rather thin. They brought back John Jenkins from Chicago, who was a revelation as a solid contributor two years ago. But he wasn't quite as impactful or as durable with the Bears, and now he's another year older. The rest of the unit has guys who might be OK rotational players, but who won't get much better than that, if they manage to get that far.
- Linebackers: 2. Yes, they lost some personnel, but I still like this unit a lot. Baker is a legit borderline Pro Bowl player. Ogbah showed what he can do last year. New acquisition Bernardrick McKinney has shown that he can be an excellent player, and getting out of that napalm-doused clown car in Houston should only energize him. And Jaelan Phillips could be an absolute game-wrecker out there. Then you have rotational guys like Van Ginkel and Roberts, who have shown a penchant for big plays. Even Vince Biegel and Sam Eguovoen have flashed in their time with Miami. It wouldn't shock me if this group ended up being a top-5 unit in the league, honestly. They're not there yet, but they have that kind of ceiling.
- Cornerback: 2. Oh boy. Here we go. I shouldn't have to explain why this is a "2" and not a "1." If X is there, it's arguably the best CB unit in the league. Without him, it's actually still pretty good. I think Igbinoghene will make some serious strides, and there's some nice veteran depth in the unit. I really hope the Phins and X can work it out, but if they can't and he's shipped off elsewhere for some picks, then I think the unit will survive OK.
- Safeties: 3. I'm going a little conservative here. It sounds like Jevon Holland has been greatly impressing the Dolphins coaches so far, which is awesome. And Eric Rowe has become a nice, reliable strong safety. There also some OK depth at the position, but nobody who blows your hair back. I think if Holland lives up to his billing and the early hype, then this is a slightly above-average NFL unit. If he struggles or he or Rowe get hurt, then this is the unit that will likely get picked on by the better QBs and pass catchers whom the Phins face this year.
- Grade: 2. Jason $anders is the man. We know this. And the Phins coverage teams showed to be very reliable last season, only rarely giving up big returns and nearly always doing the right things. The only real question is at punter, which is a pretty key position for a team that may be playing in a fair number of close games. Matt Haack noticeably regressed last year, so he was let go. New guy Michael Palardy looks serviceable but maybe a bit of a downgrade from Matt Haack's better, earlier years with Miami. Palardy is also coming off injury, which adds a bit of unwelcome mystery.
If you've been keeping score, you'll note that I'm felling pretty nice right about now. Not a single unit that I have rated lower than a 3. Maybe this is just mid-summer dreaminess (or delirium - you pick), but I think I'm being fairly reasonable about it all. For the first time in quite a long time, I don't have any big, fat, honking question marks about any unit. Yes, there are a couple that I could see plateauing any maybe being mediocre or maybe a tad worse, but I think it'll take real tragedy for any unit to be downright bad in 2021. The real Superbowl contending teams always have at least two top-5 units. They almost never have a really "bad" unit, and if they do, they're so dominant in other areas that they can mitigate the weakness. The Chiefs. The Bucs. The Bills. The Ravens. I don't know that we see the Dolphins reach that level in 2021, since I can't reasonably predict that they'll have at least two dominant units, but I can see them approaching that level by season's end.
The one unit who could really throw a wet duvet over the whole thing is the offensive line. If they somehow take a collective step back, or sustain a bunch of injuries, then the offense could sputter quite a bit. And god forbid they give up some bone-breaking sack that lands Tua on IR for an extended period. If that happens, then we may be looking at something like last season, where the defense is doing most of the heavy lifting while we fans pray that the offense can score more than 24 points to maybe pull off a close win. And if the safeties unit also sustains a key injury or two, we could see a very mediocre team out there. For the most part, though, these are doomsday scenarios that aren't highly likely.
What I'm seeing right now is a team poised to make that next, tough step from being "good" to being "very good." In other words, a team that doesn't have sad, letdown losses like the one against the Broncos last season. And doesn't have to scrap, claw, and rely on a late-game miracle to beat a very mediocre team like the Raiders. A team that won't automatically take those 2020 losses to really good opponents like the Seahawks or Chiefs. And a team that doesn't embarrass itself in a final-week must-win game against a division rival, even when that rival is an excellent team.
I'm feeling good about the 2021 Dolphins. Now, I just have to try and grapple with that Dolphins fan voice in the back of my head that's reminding me of what's happened each and every time I've had this feeling going into a new season in the last two decades.