Heading into a new year, the Miami Dolphins inexperience and depth at offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, and cornerback remain a concern.
This upcoming season, the Miami Dolphins will have a new head coach, a new coordinator on both sides of the football, and plenty of new faces sprinkled throughout their roster. But one thing remains the same, and it’s the same thing that has haunted them in years past: inexperience and depth.
Currently, there are four areas of concern for the 2016 Miami Dolphins: the offensive and defensive line, linebacker, and cornerback.
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Perhaps the largest area of concern for the Dolphins heading into a new year is their offensive line. Unfortunately, this has been a longstanding problem: since Ryan Tannehill’s rookie season in 2012, the Dolphins have given up a league-high184 sacks.
On paper, the Dolphins offensive line looks great. Presumably, they’ll have Mike Pouncey at center, Branden Albert at left tackle, rookie Laremy Tunsil at left guard, Billy Turner at right guard, and Ja’Wuan James at right tackle.
However, the Dolphins must plan for the inevitable. At some point during the season, the Dolphins will be bitten by the injury-bug. In fact, in the past three seasons, starters Mike Pouncey (8) and Branden Albert (13) have missed a combined 21 games due to injury.
Behind the starters, the Dolphins are razor-thin. Not including rookie Laremy Tunsil, more than half of the backup offensive linemen have three years or less of NFL experience. And unfortunately, the most talented of the bunch, 10-year veteran Jermon Bushrod—most recently battling with nagging injuries to his lower back, legs, and his right shoulder—doesn’t appear to have much left in the tank.
It’s apparent that the Dolphins strongest unit on defense is their defensive line. Their starters have a combined 31 years of experience. Despite this, however, there’s still concern, particularly at the tackle position. Behind starters Ndamukong Suh and Earl Mitchell, there’s not a lot of depth.
Although talented, primary backup defensive tackle Jordan Phillip has only one year of experience under his belt. Phillips was supposed to compete with, and potentially steal the starting tackle spot from Earl Mitchell, but his effort in both practice and in games was inconsistent. Chris Jones, on the other hand, is the most experienced of the bunch (3 years), but was just recently let go by division rival, the New England Patriots, after his production fell off from his previous season.
The edge of the defensive line is its strength, but there’s concern there as well. Cameron Wake (34) and Mario Williams (31) are at the tail end of their football careers. With Wake coming back from an Achilles injury and Williams coming off the worst season statistically of his career, the Dolphins will ask more from backups Terrence Fede, Andre Branch, Jason Jones, and Chris McCain.
Fede, Jones, and McCain are the most experienced of the group and will take some of the load off of Williams and Wake as the season progresses. It will be interesting to see if the Dolphins have to rely on their depth at this position more than they would like to.
Despite applying for reinstatement, the status of Dolphins former first round draft pick, Dion Jordan, is still up in the air. Unfortunately, given his past and commitment concerns, it’s safe to assume that he won’t be playing in a Dolphins uniform next season.
When it comes to the linebacker position, new Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph can’t have much confidence heading into the 2016 season. A lot of the defensive struggles—particularly against the run—fell on the shoulders of the linebackers. In fact, the Dolphins defense was abysmal against the run. Last season, they gave up 126.2 yards per game, ranking 28th in the NFL.
Presumed starters Koa Misi, Jelani Jenkins, and Kiko Alonso have been inconsistent throughout their entire careers. More notably, two of the three starters (Koa Misi and Kiko Alonso) have battled injuries the majority of their careers, with Alonso missing the entire 2014 season due to a torn ACL and Misi missing eight games the past two season’s.
Outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins also was sidelined last year when he injured his ankle at Philadelphia in a win against the Eagles. Disappointingly, Jenkins’s level of play took a step backwards last year after a stellar 2014 season where he led the team in tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Jenkins’ fell in every category from his previous season.
Behind their first team, the Dolphins are extremely thin. Only two players (Spencer Paysinger and Neville Hewitt) have started for the Dolphins. Even more concerning, the remaining linebackers on their roster have little, to no experience in the NFL: three are rookies, one has just one year of experience (Mike Hull), and the other one, James-Michael Johnson, has been an NFL journeyman throughout his career.
To be a better defense, it’s no question that the Dolphins must get better, and more consistent at linebacker. In order to head in that direction, the Dolphins must rely heavily on coaching. If the coaching staff can get Kiko Alonso and Jelani Jenkins to return back to the players they once were, it’s no question that this defense will be better than last season. And with injuries crippling this unit, the Dolphins will need a little luck as well.
Heading into the 2016 season, cornerback is, without a doubt, the position with the most uncertainty for the Miami Dolphins. After the release of Pro Bowler Brent Grimes and veteran Brice McCain, the Dolphins made cornerback a top priority this offseason.
The Dolphins combatted the losses they endured to their secondary by acquiring Philadelphia Eagles Byron Maxwell via free agency, and drafting Xavien Howard and Jordan Lucas.
Maxwell—looking to rejuvenate his career down in Miami—is coming off a terrible 2015 campaign with the Philadelphia Eagles where he was ranked 75th in the league at his position, per Pro Football Focus. However, a few analysts believed Maxwell’s struggles last year were exacerbated by playing out of position, and cast most of the blame on the coaching staff in Philadelphia.
Maxwell will surely start and seems to fit within Vance Joseph’s game plan. But one wonders whether if Maxwell, burdened by a shoulder injury, can play at the same level he did when he was apart of the “Legions of Boom” in Seattle.
Although it’s uncertain who starts on the opposite side of Maxwell, it appears to be rookie Xavien Howard. With great size, instincts and the ability to play both man and zone-coverage, Howard can be a true asset. But despite these attributes, it would be naïve to think Howard won’t go through a few growing pains during his rookie season.
The three most intriguing players are Tony Lippett, Bobby McCain, and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Both Lippett and McCain are heading into their second season and played well in reserve roles last year. But with Lippett, his transition from wide receiver to cornerback is still a work in progress. Luckily, Lippett has the size (6’3) that Vance Joseph loves. McCain, on the other hand, lacks prototypical size. At just 5’8, McCain will continue to play primarily at the nickel position. Ekpre-Olomu—another second-year corner—was a great college player at Oregon, but has yet to play in the NFL due to injury.
With rule changes that heavily favor offenses, the cornerback position has become increasingly important in today’s NFL. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, they will have to ask a lot from this young, inexperienced group this season.
Lacking the experience and depth necessary for success, the Dolphins are unlikely to quickly reverse their fortunes and perform at a high level at the beginning of the season. Fans and commentators are aware of this reality, and perhaps seem noticeably less enthusiastic about this upcoming Dolphins’ season than they have been in the past.
Or maybe it’s that Dolphins’ fans have become more pragmatic. Perhaps they are excited to see their team gradually improve over time, rather than hope in vain for the instant gratification of winning on the first Sunday of the season.
I prefer to think the latter.