The Miami Dolphins are getting back on the practice field as their 2022 training camp gets fully underway. With the team preparing for the regular season, it is time for us to get a better look at the 2022 edition of the Dolphins. As has happened the last few years, I had the opportunity to speak with the team over at Football Outsiders to get their view of the Dolphins. This year, Senior Analyst Scott Spratt was kind enough to answer my questions about Miami ahead of the season.
There have been plenty of changes in Miami this offseason, from the head coach through the roster. How will those changes impact the Dolphins’ on-field performance? Will the defense miss former head coach Brian Flores? Has Miami’s offensive line improved? And, the obvious focal point, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Spratt and I discussed all of these and more.
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Kevin Nogle: Starting in the obvious spot, this is the third year for quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. We have seen quarterbacks who have taken major steps forward in their third year in the league. What should we expect from Tagovailoa in yet another new offense but this time with a bunch of new weapons around him?
Scott Spratt: I think it’s reasonable to be optimistic for a breakout season. Tagovailoa has always looked better in his efficiencies than his reputation would suggest. His -8.5% and -0.7% passing DVOA rates in his first two seasons have him on a similar early-career trajectory as recent stars like Joe Burrow (-7.3% and 5.1%), Kyler Murray (-3.1% and 4.6%), and Andrew Luck (-5.1% and 4.6%). And while the Dolphins leaned on RPOs and seldom let Tagovailoa throw downfield in 2021, they had a reason to do so other than a distrust of their quarterback. The Dolphins had a 47% pass block win rate which was the worst in football. Tagovailoa needed his top three 2.52-second average time to throw per Next Gen Stats to avoid being killed. And if new head coach Mike McDaniel can create more yards after the catch with his scheme and speedy new skill talent, then Tagovailoa can parlay his quick decision-making and accuracy into better results.
KN: While the focus is always on the quarterback, it really is an improvement on the offensive line that may be the key to any success for the Dolphins in 2022. Obviously, Terron Armstead is a huge addition and Connor Williams should solidify either the center position or left guard. The rest of Miami’s line are younger players who need to grow into their roles, but there is potential and there were some flashes later in the season last year. What are your thoughts on Miami’s offensive line and will it be able to protect Tagovailoa and open lanes for the running backs?
SS: I love what the Dolphins did for their offensive line this offseason. It isn’t just the talent, it’s the fit. Left tackle Terron Armstead ran a 4.71-second 40 time at the 2013 combine that remains a record for offensive linemen. Last year, the Dolphins had the fewest runs that hit 15 mph per Next Gen Stats, but now they have incredible speed in players like Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert, Tyreek Hill, and Jaylen Waddle. Edmonds had the highest percentage of carries that reached 15 mph last season among backs with 100 or more carries. And Mostert, Hill, and Waddle all had a play in the top 10 in ball-carrier speed the last two seasons. With his presumed Kyle Shanahan-inspired wide zone scheme, Mike McDaniel needed linemen that could pull and set the edge on carries and jet sweeps that stretch the field horizontally. And next to 49ers All-Pro Trent Williams, it’s difficult to imagine a better candidate for that role than Armstead.
I’m less confident in the offensive line for pass protection. Armstead and Williams are major upgrades, and Robert Hunt is the one clear hit among the team’s offensive line draft picks the last two seasons. He blew just 1.6% of his pass blocks in 2021 according to Sports Info Solutions charting. But with a left-handed quarterback, the Dolphins have their blind side at right tackle. And they will either have to play Hunt there away from his natural right guard position or hope that either traditional left tackle Austin Jackson or Liam Eichenberg improves dramatically in a move to the opposite side of the line. Those two blew bottom-seven rates of 4.6% and 6.2% of their rookie pass blocks in 2020 and 2021. And Jackson’s improvement to a still mediocre 3.2% blown pass block rate in 2021 accompanied an October move to the easier left guard position. Tagovailoa helps with his quick decision-making, and the team has several candidates who could make the leap. But it feels like the Dolphins are one lineman away from a complete unit.
KN: Everyone seems to acknowledge Mike Gesicki is among the best receiving tight ends in the league when talking about him specifically, but when talking about the “best tight ends” he always gets left off the list. He seems like he is always just a half step from announcing himself as an elite talent. Will the addition of Tyreek Hill and Cedric Wilson, along with the growth of Jaylen Waddle, finally push Gesicki from honorable mention to truly elite player?
SS: I suspect there are a couple of reasons for the public skepticism of Gesicki. First, he isn’t a complete tight end — because he isn’t really a tight end. He’s a 6-foot-6 wide receiver. Gesicki saw 86% of his targets come from either the slot or out wide in 2021. That was the highest rate among nominal tight ends — ahead of even Kyle Pitts at 82%. And Gesicki’s 78% slot target rate was ahead of reputational slot receivers including Russell Gage (73%), K.J. Osborn (69%), and Jarvis Landry (67%). Second, Gesicki seems like a poor fit for his quarterback Tagovailoa, or at least the RPO-heavy offense Brian Flores had Tagovailoa run in 2021. Gesicki ran a 95th percentile 4.54-second 40 time at the combine and enjoyed his most efficient season with a 10.4% receiving DVOA when he led his position with an 11.1-yard average depth of target in 2020. He may well have needed Ryan Fitzpatrick’s aggressive play style to hit his ceiling.
New head coach Mike McDaniel could help. His additions of Hill, Chase Edmonds, and Raheem Mostert demonstrate his love for speed. But I also wonder if Gesicki’s lack of a contract extension could be a blessing in disguise for his career. Perhaps he will hit free agency after playing on the franchise tag in 2022 and then find a team that lets him stretch the field. And perhaps then McDaniel can target a more versatile top tight end in the mold of his former star from San Francisco, George Kittle.
KN: The Dolphins kept most of the defense intact, including much of the defensive coaching staff, despite the head coaching change. However, Brian Flores was a defensive-minded head coach who is no longer there. In your mind, how much of an impact will not having Flores have on the defense?
SS: I do believe Flores is an above-average head coach. His Dolphins won 3.1 more games than Football Outsiders projected from 2019-21, a surplus that landed him in a top 10 that is otherwise made up of the head coaches that most consider the best in football — Matt LaFleur, Sean McDermott, Andy Reid, Mike Vrabel, Sean Payton, John Harbaugh, Bruce Arians, Sean McVay, and Kyle Shanahan. That said, the Dolphins also have excellent defensive players like Emmanuel Ogbah, Christian Wilkins, Xavien Howard, Jaelan Phillips and Jevon Holland. If Flores’ former staff can continue his philosophies to play man coverage (33% in 2021, sixth most), blitz (38%, second), and blitz from the secondary (22%, first), the defense could maintain its recent form. Just consider that the Dolphins may not have been as strong defensively as their full-season numbers suggested in 2021. If one removes fourth-string Saints quarterback Ian Book’s dismal Week 16 start, the Dolphins would have ranked 17th in defensive DVOA.
KN: On the other side of that coaching change, Mike McDaniel comes to the Dolphins with high expectations, especially as he looks to build around Tagovailoa and reshape the offense. He does come, however, having not called the plays when he was with the San Francisco 49ers and the Dolphins were the only team to interview him for the position. What do you think we will see in a McDaniel team and offense? Is there reason to be concerned that no one outside of Miami seemed to have had him on their head coaching radar this offseason?
SS: I wouldn’t be concerned by McDaniel’s lack of either popularity or play-calling experience. Even at just 39 years old, he has more than a decade of coaching experience next to and under Kyle Shanahan that dates back to the infamous Washington offensive staff that also produced current head coaches Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur. And McDaniel’s offseason additions of speedy players like Tyreek Hill, Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert, and Terron Armstead suggest an understanding of the wide zone scheme that Shanahan has used to stretch the field horizontally and create opportunities for yards after the catch in recent seasons with the 49ers.
For me, the greater concern is the Dolphins ownership. Brian Flores’ lawsuit and myriad offseason rumors paint the picture that Stephen Ross wanted Tom Brady as his quarterback and Sean Payton as his head coach this year. I think Tagovailoa and McDaniel are an exciting combination, but a pessimist could read the hiring of the biracial McDaniel as a move to mitigate the potential legal ramifications of Flores’ asserted wrongful termination suit. And if Tagovailoa fails to step forward in 2022, Ross would likely see less criticism for finding a new quarterback and another new head coach that matches that quarterback’s timeline.