We look at why this will be a sink or swin season for the Miami Dolphins, a team that bookmakers sense is on the rise in the public eye.
A .500 record screams mediocrity, and for better or worse, the Miami Dolphins have likely pushed themselves out of that zone this offseason. Following an offseason marked by personnel turnover on both sides of the ball and a $96 million dollar gamble on Ryan Tannehill, the Fins have become a trendy sleeper for 2015. Miami is +1250 at 5Dimes and +1600 at Bovada to win the AFC Championship, placing it firmly in the trendy sleepers tier. All in all, bookmakers are sensing the Dolphins as a team on the rise in the public eye.
There are certainly a few conceivable developments that would make Miami a terrific futures value. No team contends for deep postseason runs without steady high-level quarterback play, and in his first season under new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, Ryan Tannehill’s career took a demonstrable step forward. Lazor’s emphasis on reducing turnovers and avoiding sacks boosted Tannehill’s efficiency to career-high levels. Take a look at how Tannehill fared in stat categories that highlight sacks and turnovers, the two plays most deleterious to an offense, in 2013 and 2014:
While still largely subpar on the whole, Tannehill’s 2014 season represented a small step forward that could become a much larger one given his receiving upgrades. The Dolphins jettisoned three of their top five pass-catchers from last season and replaced them with higher ceiling talent in Kenny Stills, Jordan Cameron and first-rounder DeVante Parker. Coupled with returning slot receiver Jarvis Landry, steady vet Greg Jennings and Lamar Miller out of the backfield, Tannehill’s receiving corps is the most multifaceted group of skill sets he has ever worked with in his career.
Tannehill’s progression into a franchise-level quarterback may be at the top of Miami’s agenda, but the Dolphins already have a game-changing force in Ndamukong Suh. The All-Pro defensive tackle was the prize of free agency, and with him, Miami employs arguably the best one-two defensive line punch in the league with Suh and Cameron Wake. Suh was not simply a luxury signing for a team looking to spend cash, as he’ll address Miami’s greatest weakness from 2014, the run defense. After a stellar start, the Dolphins hemorrhaged yardage on the ground over the final six weeks of the season, allowing a 4.8 yards per attempt average that ranked 29th over that span. Suh spearheaded the Detroit Lions’ top-ranked run defense, and will do the same in South Beach after last season’s starting defensive tackles, Jared Odrick and Randy Starks, both left during the offseason. Additionally, Suh should supplement a rather meager pass rush that didn’t see a single player generate more than 6.5 sacks other than Wake last year. Based on data compiled by Football Outsiders, Miami generated pressure on 24.1 percent of opponents’ drop backs, a rate that ranked 20th overall.
However, while the top of the Dolphins’ roster is certainly glitzier, it’s the shrinking middle class that could do in their postseason hopes. In order to afford Suh, Miami had to strip away much of its depth. Miami lost 36.1 percent of its snaps from last season, the second-highest rate of offseason attrition behind only the retirement-stricken 49ers. Based on veteran turnover, the Dolphins lost a net total of 2,996 snaps. Jimmy Wilson and Samson Satele aren’t sexy names, but they were steady starters for a team that is now using replacement-level talent at many positions.
Apart from defensive tackle and wide receiver, it’s hard to see where the Dolphins go two-deep at any spot on the depth chart. Offseason holes at guard, linebacker and slot corner went unaddressed, which will leave callow players like Chris McCain, Walt Davis, Jamil Douglas and Dallas Thomas playing outsized roles. Depth doesn’t generate offseason talking points, but when both starting safeties go down, it’s nice to have someone like Jimmy Wilson who can play interchangeable parts in the slot, deep half or in the box. Wilson, in case you’re wondering, left for the San Diego Chargers in the offseason.
Miami mortgaged its long-term future to fit Suh’s monstrosity of a contract under the cap, but we’re already seeing the toll of that decision on its roster-building. Fans love to look at the upgrade from an average starter to a superstar, and Suh will absolutely transform elements of this defense. But it’s crucial to understand that the difference between an average starter and a replacement-level one is almost equally cavernous, and Miami is running the risk of letting those rickety blocks loosen until it all comes crumbling down like a Jenga tower.
There’s a chance all those blocks hold up under a sturdy foundation, of course, especially if Tannehill takes a significant step forward. However, it’s hard to advise throwing a Super Bowl or AFC Champion lottery ticket on the Dolphins. Teams with longer NFL odds, like the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers, made more measured moves aimed at winning the battle of injury attrition that invariably unfolds every season. Miami almost certainly needs strong injury luck to establish itself as a serious contender, whereas those squads have given themselves larger margins for error.
The Dolphins are also the clear second favorite in the AFC East, in large part because of the instability at quarterback for the Bills and Jets. But even if Tom Brady serves his four-game suspension to start the season, a scenario that seems unlikely at this point, Miami won’t get the benefit of facing a Brady-less New England Patriots squad. The Dolphins will travel to Foxborough for a Week 7 Thursday night game before hosting New England in the Week 17 regular-season finale. A healthy Miami squad should exploit a soft early schedule, as four of its first five opponents finished under .500 last year. However, if the Dolphins need to call on their tenuous depth, they could struggle against closing stretch that includes the Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Ravens and Chargers in the final eight games. The offseason hype might draw out into September and October, but don’t let the starry names hide the fool’s gold lurking in the depths of the Dolphins roster.