After two years of middling offense under coach Adam Gase, the Dolphins head toward next season hoping to hit it big on a parlay of personnel bets.
More than anything the team that scored the fifth-fewest points in the league last year and was right around the league median in passing hopes the healthy return of quarterback Ryan Tannehill will provide an immediate boost.
It’s also banking on a DeVante Parker breakout season and various solutions to emerge on the offensive line and at tight end. Then there’s Gase’s gamble at offensive coordinator, a position he filled with Dowell Loggains.
Gase is going into Year 3 of trying to fix what he’s called a “garbage” offense, and he needs pretty much all of those things to work out if he’s going to turn this around next season.
Tannehill will be the focal point of the offseason and preseason after missing all of last year because of a knee injury. He suffered a badly sprained ACL in his left knee late in the 2016 season, rehabbed it, then saw it give out on him on a non-contact play in training camp.
Not only does he have to come back healthy at 30 and still be a mobile threat, he has to continue the improvement he showed in his first year under Gase. Prior to getting hurt, he had a career-high 93.5 passer rating.
But that can’t be his cap. Tannehill was still more of a caretaker than a difference maker that season, and the Dolphins need him to be top-10 at his position. They drafted him eighth overall six years ago and still can’t say definitively whether he’s the answer.
From 2014 through ’16, giving him a pass on his first two seasons as he acclimated to the NFL, he was 14th in passer rating (91.5), 11th in touchdowns (70), 12th in yards per game (250), seventh in completion percentage (64.9) and threw the ninth-most interceptions (36).
That’s not bad, especially considering he did it behind an offensive line that got him sacked 120 times in 45 games. For his career, by the way, Tannehill’s been sacked once every 13.9 dropbacks.
Considering that progress and the fact that Gase oversaw the best six-game stretch of his career—nine touchdowns, one pick, 217 yards per game and a 104.7 rating—it’s logical to be optimistic about Tannehill’s growth. Considering he opted for an ACL surgery that’s worked for many other players, it’s logical to be optimistic about his health. So while counting on Tannehill isn’t a sure thing, it’s a reasonably smart bet.
Of course, keeping him healthy starts with fortifying his offensive line. The Dolphins feel good about how center Mike Pouncey held up this season, but the rest of the line is in question.
Left tackle Laremy Tunsil didn’t play as well as anyone thought he would, and Miami must decide whether right tackle Ja’Wuan James is worth his $9.3 million team option for next season. That would make him the most expensive lineman on the roster.
Ted Larsen will play one of the guard spots, and the Dolphins likely will put Jesse Davis in the other one or at right tackle depending on who they can get in free agency and the draft.
There’s a lot of TBD in this department, making it a risky wager.
The next bet is that Miami will have one of the top skill position groups in the league, and that hinges on the players themselves as well as Tannehill’s ability to make them better the way elite quarterbacks do.
The odds are good on Kenyan Drake, who proved to be exactly the kind of dual-threat running back Gase needed. They’re also favorable on Jarvis Landry, assuming the Dolphins bring him back, and Kenny Stills.
Parker’s a risky proposition. No one doubts his ability. Everyone doubts his durability.
The organization has been waiting for his breakout year ever since drafting him 14th overall in 2015. All of his coaches and teammates were sure it would happen this season, and it looked like he was headed that way after a great offseason and strong start to the season.
It fell apart when he got hurt about a month in, and he was never the same. Parker finished third on the team with 57 catches for 670 yards and one touchdown in 13 games.
Life would be easier for Parker and the other receivers if Miami had a tight end. That position has been a void for the Dolphins the last two years. In fact, they haven’t had one finish in the top 20 in catches at the position since Charles Clay in 2014.
To fix that, it’s time to draft a tight end high. There is no obvious answer in free agency this year, and it’s time for the Dolphins to quit filling this spot with stop-gaps. Despite this developing into one of the most important offensive positions leaguewide, Miami hasn’t drafted a tight end in the first two rounds since 1976.
Last year, the Dolphins were a few spots too low to take O.J. Howard and they passed on Evan Engram and David Njoku in favor of defensive end Charles Harris. The 2018 tight end class doesn’t look quite as loaded, but South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst could be a target early in the second round.
Hurst is 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and had 44 catches for 559 yards and two touchdowns as a junior before leaving school early for the draft. Maybe he, or some other prospect, will be the long-term answer, but counting on a rookie is dicey.
Then there’s Loggains, who is charged with helping Gase make this work. Gase dropped longtime NFL assistant Clyde Christensen at the end of the season in favor of Loggains, a 37-year-old who worked with him as Chicago’s quarterbacks coach in 2015.
Loggains has four seasons of experience as an offensive coordinator with Tennessee in 2012 and ’13 and with the Bears the last two years. The highest any of those teams ranked in points scored was 19th. That said, 19th doesn’t sound so bad to a team that was 28th this year.
Whether someone has confidence in Loggains depends on whether they have confidence in Gase. He believes this is the voice he needs.
If Gase is right on Loggains, and hits on the other areas, the Dolphins are a candidate to make a great leap like the Jaguars and Rams did this year. If not, next season’s going to be another mediocre chapter in this organization’s story.
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