The date is January 2, 2019. Adam Gase's Dolphins have just finished another middling campaign, finishing somewhere between 7 and 9 wins on the season. It is just another example of the mediocrity this franchise has been mired by over the course of the last two decades. Not bad enough to justify upheaval. Not good enough to legitimately contend and play at a high level each week.
No, that's not the Dolphin way. The Dolphin way is a bi-polar experience that features the two highest yard per play games in the history of the franchise...in the same season the offense has more games with <200 yards of offense than Cam Cameron's 1-15 debacle in 2007.
The Dolphin way is defeating the Patriots in miraculous fashion in Week 14, only to fall into a 21-0 first quarter hole to the Vikings the very next week. The Dolphin way is falling to 5-6 after a 3-0 start. Rinse, repeat.
You are Stephen Ross, owner of this once proud franchise. And you are running out of time. You bought the Dolphins in 2009, becoming the majority owner of the team. The results after nearly a decade? The team is 72-86 (as of the end of Week 15 of the 2018 season) under your watch. Your legacy with this franchise is nearing the cliff.
So when the post-season debrief takes place, it's time to ask Adam Gase some hard questions...those answers will dictate the direction of the offseason and foreseeable future of the team.
"What are you planning to do with your coaching staff?"
Defensive coordinator Matt Burke's rise through the coaching ranks included positional gigs in Detroit and Cincinnati prior to his arrival in Miami under then Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph. Joseph was one and done, hired away to Denver in the 2017 offseason and Burke took his place as the defensive play caller.
The results have been horrid. The team was 29th in defensive scoring in 2017, conceding 393 points. That's the worst figure a Dolphins team has allowed since 1-15 (437). The Dolphins are worse this year. They've given up 412 points with two games to go and with 26 points allowed will have the worst defensive scoring season in the history of the franchise.
The Dolphins are a very real threat to be even worse offensively. The team has scored 12 offensive touchdowns since the end of October and five of those came in the Miracle In Miami. Adam Gase was brought to Miami because he was supposed to be an offensive savant. Peyton Manning raved about his football IQ and how cerebral his approach to the game was.
But Gase's offenses have been bi-polar at best and, well, offensive at worst.
The first step in fixing the Dolphins involves addressing the coaching staff. There is no question Adam Gase has his merits as the head coach of this football team. The team plays hard for Gase. Don't look any further than fighting back from a 21-0 hole to claw within 21-17 this past weekend in Minnesota. And the Miami Miracle the week prior.
The team has been handcuffed for the better part of Gase's tenure with back-up quarterback play as well, so getting a true feel for how he'd like to run his offense is...well, complicated. Gase was aggressive in 2016 during the team's playoff run but that has faded in recent memory.
Gase's football IQ hasn't gone away, but what has he been compensating for? Gase has the vision of a modern NFL offense: one with speed. His model has produced a ton of explosive plays. And he's a pretty steady presence. The players generally like him, until they don't. In which case they're shipped out of town.
Keep Adam Gase. With one stipulation. Matt Burke must go. The defensive coordinator has been vanilla, unimaginative and stubborn in two seasons at the helm of the defense. The results have been terrible. And the team has sunk a lot of investments into the defense in recent years. Those players (LB Raekwon McMillan, for an obvious example) have not been put into positions to be successful and have played away from their strengths.
Defensively the team has struggled to generate pressure. And yet the Dolphins relied on four man pressure 65% of the time in 2017. Their four man pressure ranking was dead last. Miami is 31st in the NFL in sacks this year. Burke isn't working. He needs to be replaced. The Dolphins suddenly are a team with a lot of second level speed. USE IT. Bring in an aggressive minded, blitz heavy defensive coordinator who can be privy to not getting his linebackers suckered in coverage, as Burke has been this entire season.
"What are you planning to do with the quarterback position?"
Ryan Tannehill deserves credit for stabilizing the quarterback position from the black hole that it was for years after Dan Marino retired. Tannehill raised the bar for QB play AD (after Dan). But enough is enough. Tannehill needs competition and he needs an heir. And soon.
Miami has drafted one QB since selecting Ryan Tannehill 8th overall in 2012. That was Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty in the 7th round of 2016. The current back-up situation includes Brock Osweiler and David Fales.
For a team that experienced the loss of Tannehill for 20 consecutive games in the heart of Gase's tenure, that negligence is stunning.
But this is complicated. Ryan Tannehill is 30 years old and due $51.6M in cap capital between 2019 and 2020. He's also missed 25 of the team's last 34 games with various ailments. And he's offered reminders each week that he's simply lacking a feel for playing at a high level in difficult conditions. Elite QBs elevate the play of their cast. Tannehill is bogged down by injuries up front and struggles to throw accurately under pressure. Tannehill is often baffled by the blitz and takes a ton of sacks. This is not the mold of a franchise quarterback in today's climate.
In a perfect world, Ryan Tannehill is off the team in 2019. Miami has an out this off-season that would relieve them of the final two years of Tannehill's contract for just a portion of his cap hit. Great, right? Well, wrong.
Because the team stubbornly held firm against picking a quarterback last year, despite the writing on the wall for Ryan Tannehill, they're now facing about as empty of a quarterback class in recent memory.
The free agent pool is headlined by Tyrod Taylor (30), Josh McCown (40) and Teddy Bridgewater (27). Perhaps Bridgewater is your golden ticket. Paying Bridgewater starter money over three years would allow you the opportunity to dump Tannehill. But paying that level of money to Bridgewater while cutting Tannehill puts Miami on the hook for nearly $40M in cap commitments to the cap next year (although there's always a way to manipulate the cap).
Instead, ring the bell for Ryan Tannehill: his swan song comes in 2019. And while you won't find a competent starting rookie in this year's class (barring Justin Herbert or Dwayne Haskins...who may not even enter the draft), a rookie is a must. An early pick. Think Day 2. We'll get there momentarily.
"Where can we find some cap space?"
Great question. For starters, I'd look at the following group:
- DE Andre Branch
- DE Robert Quinn
- WR Devante Parker
- LB Kiko Alonso
- S T.J. McDonald
- OG Ted Larsen
- QB Ryan Tannehill
Chris Kouffman put it best.
Kouffman's thread talks at length about how flexible the cap is in all reality. But these seven players hold half of the franchise's 2019 cash in their hands. Quinn are the only one you should be advocating hard about bringing back and even he has some red flags (medically and vs. the run).
The Dolphins will have their work cut out for them, but these pieces cannot stay stagnant. Tannehill's albatross of a contract is the obvious one to note.
The Dolphins lacked some foresight in their decision to exercise their fifth year option for WR Devante Parker. He, like Tannehill, teases you with his flashes. He's not a long term piece.
DE Andre Branch would be an easy target for departure if not for the dire need of better play at the position. That said, he is also not a long term answer. Better to part with the cash and infuse new talent at the position.
Half of these players (at least) need to be moved before the opening bell of free agency.
"Where can we improve in free agency?"
This team needs depth. Lots of it. But looking through the position groups, there are places that you simply can't justify spending large amounts of money.
Even with the incurred injuries and a pending removal of Parker, the Dolphins feel set at WR until draft time. The most glaring holes on the roster are on the offensive line (for about the 10th straight season) and the defensive line.
Big fish exist on the defensive line, but none to the dollar amount that makes sense for Miami. Retaining Cameron Wake would be beneficial, as would be picking up additional bodies on the interior. Bennie Logan or Danny Shelton would be desirable depth additions. A penetration piece for the inside would be a wonderful bonus and the likes of Sheldon Richardson and troubled but talented David Irving are set to hit the market.
Offensively, the team has little choice but to continue dedicating assets up front. The injuries to Daniel Kilgore and Josh Sitton forced borderline unrosterable players into the starting line-up some weeks. Rams OG Rodger Saffold, Broncos iOL Matt Paradis, Cowboys OL Cameron Fleming, Bengals OT Jake Fisher and Seattle OG D.J. Fluker all would provide experience and an upgrade on this line.
The other position of concern? Cornerback. Miami has been chasing their tail all season with injuries here. Rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick has stepped in admirably at cornerback, pairing him with Xavien Howard would be a strong long term play. So would be keeping Bobby McCain out of the boundary and on the nickel. But with one injury, all bets are off.
There are depth options for the boundary (New England's Jason McCourty, Cincinnati's Darqueze Dennard) and for the nickel (Seattle's Justin Coleman and Chicago's Bryce Callahan).
Adding depth to these areas should be top priority for the Dolphins.
"Who do we need to bring back from our own expiring contracts?"
Good news. This list is short. DE Cameron Wake is a Miami-lifer and although in a down season, he's still the most potent pass rush option on the roster, even with Robert Quinn in the building. Fellow DE William Hayes was missed this year after injuring his knee on an early season sack. Retaining him would be helpful for mitigating the need at defensive end.
And the biggest of them all: RT Ja'Wuan James. James is a solid starting tackle in the NFL. Pairing him with LT Laremy Tunsil will give this offensive line some semblance of a life preserver to anchor itself to. Letting James walk is not an option, at all.
The rest? LB Stephone Anthony, timeless (but still 36 year old) RB Frank Gore, QB Brock Osweiler and company? Take them or leave them.
"Who do we need to draft?"
Depends. Are we talking for 2019 or 2020? Miami needs to land a first round quarterback by any means necessary within the next two seasons.
That might mean aggressively trading up for one. Be willing to part with the capital. The candidates? Ideally Justin Herbert finds himself in play for Miami in 2019. Dwayne Haskins would make sense as well. But if they're out of striking distance, don't force it in 2019. This is why Ryan Tannehill has been kept around (or flipped on the market for Teddy Bridgewater)...just in case.
Missouri's Drew Lock could make some sense. So too could Duke's Daniel Jones or Boise State's Brett Rypien. But don't take one just for the sake of it in the first round. Haskins or Herbert are your only contenders in that range (apologies to any fans of Kyler Murray). If they miss, consider a trade down. The extra ammo will be welcomed for an aggressive trade-up scenario in the 2020 class for a franchise QB.
If Miami misses a QB early on, the trenches continue to make sense. The defensive line depth this season is surreal. Miami getting an impact penetration player to push DE Charles Harris and brace for Cameron Wake's retirement is necessary. Florida State's Brian Burns will be a candidate and he's special.
Miami also needs a playmaker with some size at wide receiver. WR Devante Parker has been a huge disappointment since he was drafted here in 2015, so a receiver with some size (vs. the Jakeem Grant, Kenny Stills, Albert Wilson mold) would be welcomed as well. Maybe Iowa State WR Hakeem Butler? A first round choice that makes sense is Arizona State's N'Keal Harry.
The day two picks need to be focused on the already established areas of concern: secondary depth, penetration players up front, reliable blockers for the line and a quarterback. There's no such thing as too much depth, given how a lack of exactly that has gutted the last two seasons.
A day three hammer at the RB position would be welcomed to keep some power present in the event of Gore walking away in free agency and/or retiring.
Mr. Ross, your obligation to the Dolphins this winter are as follows:
- Retain head coach Adam Gase with the stipulation that he dismiss defensive coordinator Matt Burke and bring in a more aggressive alternative
Your front office's obligations are as follows:
- Works aggressively to retain OT Ja'Wuan James and veteran DEs Cameron Wake and William Hayes.
- Attempt to strip down some underperforming salary from names like WR Devante Parker, WR Danny Amendola, QB Ryan Tannehill, OG Ted Larsen, DE Andre Branch, S T.J. McDonald and/or LB Kiko Alonso.
- Acquire quality depth through free agency along the offensive and defensive lines, along with the cornerback position. Feel good about 7 offensive linemen as potential starters and 4 defensive tackles to play 50+% of your snaps.
- Be prepared to offer Teddy Bridgewater starting QB money on a 2-3 year deal in the event Tannehill can be moved off the books.
- Do your homework on an aggressive trade for either QB Justin Herbert or QB Dwayne Haskins, regardless of the status of veteran passers on the roster. Do not wait until the Draft to make a deal happen if at all possible, get in position and ensure leverage.
- If staying put, be prepared to trade back for ammo to ensure deal can be set in place for a 2020 QB trade.
- Draft one starting OL (Right Guard) OR one penetration defensive lineman (DT/DE), one wide receiver with size and one quarterback in the first three picks.
- Add a powerful RB on Day 3.
I can't guarantee you this will lead a return to the postseason in 2019, Mr. Ross. But I can sure as hell guarantee you it'd break the cycle the team has been stuck on and get things trending in a positive direction.