Former first-round pick Stephone Anthony: ‘I have to become starter’ for Dolphins

Stephone Anthony is trying to get his career back on track. (Getty Images)

DAVIE — Stephone Anthony was a first-round pick just three years ago and he’s only 25, but there’s a sense that he’s already running out of time.

The NFL is turbulent, and things change quickly. Anthony was one of the most promising rookies in the league for the Saints, then found himself shipped to the Dolphins for a fifth-round pick last year and is fighting for a job this offseason. He’s battling a rookie, among others, for one of Miami’s starting linebacker spots and he knows it’s a critical point in his career.

“Before I can do anything else,” Anthony said, “I have to become a starter.”

That’s a key step toward righting his career, and he’s in a good position to do it.

While Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan can be marked down as certain starters, the rest of the Dolphins’ linebacker corps is wide open. Third-round pick Jerome Baker is likely to be in the mix, as well as undrafted scrappers Cayson Collins and Mike McCray and returning players Mike Hull and Chase Allen.

Anthony said he’s been taking snaps with the first- and second-team defense during Organized Team Activities.

He’s slightly leaner than last year, checking in at 6-foot-3 and somewhere between 235 and 240 pounds (as opposed to 245), but the most important thing is he’s far more familiar the Dolphins’ scheme than when he arrived.

Miami needed a linebacker when Lawrence Timmons deserted the team early last season and found an eager trading partner in the Saints, who had lost interest in Anthony when he wasn’t producing in their new defensive scheme. After opening with 112 tackles, two defensive scores and an all-rookie selection, he started three games in 2016 and was inactive last year while New Orleans looked to deal him.

Anthony played eight games off the bench for the Dolphins and totaled 15 tackles, plus some special teams work. He showed promise at times, but not nearly enough for the organization to exercise a 2019 option on him last month that would have paid him around $9 million.

General manager Chris Grier and vice president Mike Tannenbaum didn’t explain that decision to Anthony, but they didn’t need to.

“It was kind of what I expected,” he said. “I needed more snaps and there’s a lot that goes into it. But that’s not my job to worry about. My job is going to be to put my best foot forward.”

He’ll be an unrestricted free agent next spring, which heightens the importance of the upcoming season. A good year will put him in position for a long-term deal with Miami or somewhere else. Otherwise, he’ll probably be looking at single-year, prove-it contracts until he shows he’s worth more than that.

One factor working in his favor this season is stability. Having done his best to catch up on the Dolphins’ defense last year, he’s now had a full nine months with the team. He’s been around for all of OTAs and minicamp, plus he’ll work through training camp and the preseason. He had none of those benefits last year.

“The biggest difference is the amount of time I have and the time I’ve spent trying to learn the system and getting myself comfortable with it,” Anthony said.

Defensive coordinator Matt Burke sees that as the only barrier to Anthony being a significant contributor. He said last week, “It’s always difficult to come in the middle of the season, come from a different scheme and pick things up… But he works really hard. He works really, really hard.”

Everything’s more routine for Anthony now, including his living situation. He took up residence in a local hotel for almost a month after being traded to the Dolphins last season, but now he’s settled. That makes life easier.

It helps to have perspective, too. Going from first-round pick to castoff and now trying to climb his way back to the top hasn’t been fun, but he’s learned throughout that journey.

“I think it’s just growth, honestly,” Anthony said. “I think it’s just being in the league, going into my fourth year, understanding the game, how this game is played from the college game and just honing in and packing that information in.”

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Dolphins rookie Jerome Baker looks like prototype LB to Kiko Alonso

Jerome Baker is off to a good start with the Dolphins. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Jerome Baker has heard throughout his football career, including in the leadup to the NFL Draft, that he’s too small to be playing linebacker.

The Dolphins didn’t agree with that when they took him, and Baker’s new teammates buy in as well. As a third-round pick from Ohio State, he arrived with the endorsement of fellow Buckeye Raekwon McMillan, and he’s sold veteran Kiko Alonso after two weeks of practice during Organized Team Activities.

“He’s athletic,” Alonso said today. “He flies around and looks good.”

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At 6-foot-3, 233 pounds, Alonso rejects the idea that he or anyone else with his build is undersized for the position. Neither he nor Baker is much larger than Miami’s starting safeties, but that’s partly by design because linebackers are required to do so much in coverage now.

Baker measured 6-foot-1, 225 pounds when he arrived for rookie minicamp and said opponents won’t be talking about him being too small once they line up against him. Alonso agreed.

“Nowadays it’s all about, ‘Can you run?’” he said. “You see what linebacker position is nowadays. It’s getting smaller and smaller.”

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Healthy Raekwon McMillan is ‘huge acquisition’ for Dolphins’ defense

Raekwon McMillan will resume his role as middle linebacker this season. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Every conversation about the Dolphins’ offseason seems to steer back to the return of Ryan Tannehill. Adam Gase has brought it up constantly, and a healthy Tannehill should make a difference.

Defensive coordinator Matt Burke feels similarly about Raekwon McMillan, who was all set to be the starting middle linebacker last year before tearing his ACL in the preseason. Getting him on the field is should be more helpful than any linebacker move Miami could’ve made in free agency this year.

“If it works out the way we think it can and hope it does, that’s a huge acquisition for us,” Burke said today.

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McMillan was the 54th overall pick in 2017, the seventh linebacker selected, and was impressive upon arrival. He had 102 tackles in his final year at Ohio State and turned pro at age 20.

Burke said he and linebackers coach Frank Bush were recently reviewing the practice film from training camp and saw a player that was on the cusp of taking hold of his role.

McMillan has not been on the field since the injury, but much like Tannehill, he’s remained involved in meetings and film sessions to stay up to date on what the defense is doing. The Dolphins have not specified exactly what he’ll be doing when Organized Team Activities begin May 22, but his rehabilitation is going well.

“We really felt like he was just starting to take that step when we got him going before he got injured,” Burke said. “We had high hopes for him last year. Nothing he’s done since then has discouraged that. He’s been really in-tune, been really sharp. He’s got all the leadership skills and things that we look for, especially at that position.

“He’s worked his (butt) off to get better. He’s rehabbed. He’s in here every day. He hasn’t shown any limitations so far, which has been encouraging. Hopefully he’s a big piece for us. I’m encouraged by him and I’m excited to see him get some work.”

The team has already made clear McMillan will be the starting middle linebacker this season, leaving Kiko Alonso to play on the outside. The position as a whole is one of the biggest question marks for Miami this year, so the defense has almost as much at stake in McMillan’s return as the offense does with Tannehill.

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Dolphins rookie LB Jerome Baker says you won’t think he’s small once he hits you

Jerome Baker will make a run at claiming a starting linebacker job. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Jerome Baker’s heard it his whole life. Even when he was dominating youth leagues and high school football, everyone kept telling him he was too small.

And at every turn, he’s quieted those concerns. Ohio State and Florida went to battle trying to recruit him, and his time with the Buckeyes was impressive enough that the Dolphins took him in the third round of the draft with the thought that he could be a long-term answer at linebacker.

[Photos: Miami Dolphins rookies report to minicamp]

They felt good about what he can do at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds with a 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash, and Baker plans to show people once again that there’s nothing small about the way he plays.

“If you ask anybody that plays against me, they don’t mention my size at all,” he said. “Guys say it, but once I actually play against you, you really don’t even notice how small or big I am. It’s all good.”

Baker’s most appealing attribute is his ability in coverage, which would help the Dolphins shore up a deficiency that hurt them last year. He had 72 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three pass breakups for Ohio State last season.

Miami goes into the season with Raekwon McMillan, another Buckeye, returning at middle linebacker and Kiko Alonso a certain starter on the outside. Baker is competing for role against a group that includes Mike Hull, Chase Allen, Stephone Anthony and seventh-rounder Quentin Poling.

All of the team’s linebackers are taller and bigger than Baker except for Hull (6-foot, 232 pounds) and Poling (6-foot, 235 pounds).

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Miami Dolphins decline 2019 option on LB Stephone Anthony

Stephone Anthony is now in a contract year. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

The upcoming season will be a prove-it year for Dolphins linebacker Stephone Anthony.

The former second-round pick will play the final year of his contract and become a free agent after Miami turned down its 2019 option on him. Had the team exercised it, it would have put Anthony in line for a $9.2 million salary next season.

That would have been the highest 2019 cap number for any linebacker currently on the roster.

Anthony, a first-round pick by New Orleans in 2015, will have to fight to secure a starting job this offseason. The Dolphins already have Raekwon McMillan and Kiko Alonso marked down as starters, and the third spot will be up for a competition. Chase Allen (four starts last year), Mike Hull (three) and newly minted third-rounder Jerome Baker all figure to be in the mix with Anthony.

The Dolphins acquired him in exchange for a fifth-round pick in September and played him off the bench in eight games.

“I think we got a good first look at him,” coach Adam Gase said in March. “I thought he did a great job in practice. The times that we got him into games, he did a lot of good things. We’re just going to kind of see how it plays out. I don’t want to promise anything to anybody. I think we’re just going to … Competition is going to be a good thing for us.”

Anthony, 25, was a PFWA all-rookie selection in 2015 before falling out of favor with the Saints. He had 15 tackles last year and goes into the upcoming season with a $1.5 million cap number.

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2018 NFL Draft: Going against own philosophy puts pressure on Dolphins

Roquan Smith could be a Miami Dolphin by the end of the night. (Getty Images)

The Dolphins try to be as guarded as possible about their intentions in the NFL Draft, which starts with Round 1 tonight. The trio that runs football operations for the organization does all it can to avoid tipping its hand.

The only morsel of insight vice president Mike Tannenbaum has been willing to divulge over the past few years is a core philosophy of not relying on the draft to fill holes in the lineup. Miami’s intention is to already have a game-ready starting 22 and enjoy the flexibility of choosing the best available talent.

That didn’t happen this year.

The Dolphins enter draft weekend with only two clear starters at linebacker and without an established tight end. If they’re serious about competing for a playoff spot this season, they’ll try to find those answers in the draft.

Their best shot at that will be in the first two nights, when they select No. 11 overall, No. 42 in the second around and No. 73 in the third. On Saturday, they have two fourth-rounders, a sixth and two sevenths.

Unless they get lucky and have a top quarterback slide to them in the first round, they’re well-positioned address linebacker at No. 11. They need someone who can be a starter this season and a fixture beyond it.

Georgia’s Roquan Smith and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds are thought to be the best two at the position. Smith’s a little more pro-ready, but Edmunds is a tremendously talented prospect who’s only 19.

The Dolphins currently have Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan in place, and there’s good cause to be optimistic about both of them.

McMillan was a second-rounder last year who was so impressive that he claimed the starting middle linebacker job before tearing his ACL in the preseason. Alonso had some issues last season, but he was good enough the year before to earn a three-year, $29 million contract extension.

The trouble is the Dolphins don’t have proven depth behind them. While a third linebacker often isn’t necessary for their defense, it is a need and they’d also like to have contingencies set up in case they run into snags like last year. Plus, they need to be prepared for Alonso’s contract running out after the 2020 season.

The other four linebackers currently on the roster are Chase Allen (four starts last year), Terence Garvin (three), Mike Hull (three) and Stephone Anthony (none).

As thin as the Dolphins appear at linebacker, their tight end situation is even more concerning. They’re currently proceeding with A.J. Derby as the logical starter, and he has 37 catches for three teams since being drafted in the sixth round of the 2015 draft.

The other options are MarQueis Gray (one catch last season), Gavin Escobar (none) and Thomas Duarte (none).

In the draft, top prospects Hayden Hurst of South Carolina and Dallas Goedert from South Dakota State are projected to go in the 20s at the earliest. The Dolphins probably wouldn’t be getting ideal value for such a high pick by taking one of them at 11th. If they really want Goedert or Hurst, the route would be trading back and acquiring extra picks or exploring a move up from No. 42 into the late first round.

Trading up in general seems highly unlikely for Miami in the first two rounds because it needs its full stock of picks as it tries to reshape a roster that went 16-16 over the last two regular seasons.

If the Dolphins can’t get Hurst or Goedert, or if they go for a quarterback in the second round, they can target someone in the next tier of tight ends in the third.

Penn State’s Mike Gesicki and Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews could go in the second or third round. Indiana’s Ian Thomas, Central Florida’s Jordan Akins, University of Miami’s Chris Herndon and Washington’s Will Dissly are later possibilities.

The roster holes put a ton of pressure on the Dolphins to get it right tonight and Friday. Hitting on the perfect combination of picks in the first three rounds is extremely difficult, and that’s without taking into account what the other 31 teams will do. It’s smart that they typically strategize their offseason in a way that avoids this situation, but this year they’ll have to make it work.

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Philadelphia Eagles LB Mychal Kendricks could be key target for Miami Dolphins

Mychael Kendricks could solve an ongoing problem for the Dolphins. (Getty Images)

It’s a smart idea to take elements from a championship team, and a lot of pieces fit together if the Dolphins want to make a run at Philadelphia linebacker Mychal Kendricks.

Kendricks is coming off a strong season but figures to be a salary cap casualty after the Eagles re-signed Nigel Bradham to a five-year, $40 million deal Tuesday. That makes Kendricks a candidate to be released or traded.

Considering the Dolphins need linebacker help and have a great business relationship with Philadelphia, Kendricks is worth a long look. As of now, Miami’s top linebackers are Kiko Alonso coming off an uneven season and Raekwon McMillan coming off a torn ACL. Kendricks would round out that group much better than a bargain free agent signing.

While the Dolphins could wait to see if he hits the open market, they could secure him with a trade, and it’s hard to imagine it taking more than a late-round draft pick to get a deal done.

Kendricks, 27, is scheduled to carry a cap hit of $7.6 million this season and $8.6 million in 2019. He might very well be worth it considering how he played last year and how badly the Dolphins have struggled to find good linebackers.

The Eagles had the No. 1 run defense in the league last season, and Kendricks factored heavily in that. He had 73 tackles, two sacks and six pass break-ups. Pro Football Focus ranked him the ninth-best linebacker in the NFL.

It’s also worth noting that he’s rarely had any health issues. He’s missed 11 games in six seasons, and last year he played 59.6 percent of Philadelphia’s defensive snaps.

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2018 NFL Draft: Miami Dolphins meet with USC linebacker Uchenna Nwosu

Uchenna Nwosu has big upside. (Getty Images)

The first few seasons of an NFL career require more than just being a great athlete, and Southern California linebacker Uchenna Nwosu has the patience to let a team groom him into a starting-caliber player.

He’s had to work his way up since high school, where he joined the football team as a sophomore and developed into a three-star recruit. After clawing his way into USC, he gradually blossomed into one of the better linebackers in the country.

“My first season there I didn’t really play at all other than special teams, and my first year starting, I could’ve done better,” he said. “But last year I grew immensely and improved in everything. I’ve had a lot of growth at USC.”

Nwosu is much more in demand now than when he was coming out of high school. Most NFL Draft projections have him as a third- or fourth-rounder, and he’s an intriguing option for the Dolphins in that range. They have a third- and two fourth-round selections this year.

NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock ranked Nwosu the No. 5 linebacker in this draft class, and ESPN’s Mel Kiper had him seventh.

“Teams may fall in love with his burst and eyeball a future role as a designated pass rusher,” NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein wrote.

Nwosu had a brilliant senior season for the Trojans with 75 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 13 pass-breakups, presenting himself as a prospect who can do a little bit of everything at the position. He’s 6-foot-2, 245 pounds and has great agility. If Miami likes him at outside linebacker or defensive end, he’d fit well with the existing personnel.

The Dolphins go into the upcoming season not completely sure about what they have at linebacker. Kiko Alonso is on a big-money, long-term contract and likely needs to be solidified at inside or outside instead of moving back and forth. Raekwon McMillan, the team’s 2017 second-round choice, would have been a starter had he not torn his ACL in the preseason.

After those two, the rest of the group is uncertain. Veteran Lawrence Timmons is likely to be released, and the other options are all unproven. Mike Hull and Neville Hewitt are free agents who could be retained at a low cost, and second-year player Chase Allen is under contract through 2019. None of those three has more than seven career starts.

The Dolphins also have Stephone Anthony, a 2015 first-round pick who struggled in New Orleans and was traded to Miami early last season. He played just 133 defensive snaps.

While linebacker is a need, it’s not pressing enough to consider with one of the early picks. Those, at least the first two, will likely go toward shoring up the offense.

That said, part of Miami’s delegation at last month’s Senior Bowl sat down with Nwosu to talk about how he might fit and what the organization envisioned for him as a pro.

“They said they see as an outside linebacker and edge rusher,” Nwosu said. “What I learned about them was that they play hard and their defensive scheme fits me. They’re all-around great people, and I’m ready to roll with them if that’s the team that drafts me.”

An eventual shift to defensive end could work, too, with Cameron Wake turning 36 and Andre Branch’s contract up either next year or the year after. Either way, Nwosu would love the chance to learn under Miami’s veterans.

“Experienced guys helped me get this far at USC,” he said. “I was always talking to the upperclassmen to find out what they do. Having that vibe in the locker room really helps the rookies.”

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2018 NFL Draft: Does South Carolina State LB Darius Leonard fit Dolphins?

Darius Leonard did it in the MEAC, but can he compete with NFL-caliber talent?(Getty Images)

Darius Leonard feels like he’s starting all over.

As a relatively unheralded high school player, he was exasperated by the lack of attention he got from nearby South Carolina and Clemson. That snub drove him as he built a standout career at South Carolina State, an FCS school, and it seems like déjà vu as he tries to convince NFL teams he’s worth picking in this year’s draft.

“I used that as a little chip on my shoulder to show teams what they could’ve had,” he said. “I’m still that guy because I came from a small program, so I’ve got a point to prove.”

Leonard, a linebacker who wrecked everything he saw when he played for the Bulldogs, is emerging as a second-day prospect after a dominant senior season. He picked up momentum with a good showing at last month’s Senior Bowl, and said the Dolphins were among the teams he met with that week.

Linebacker remains a concern for Miami, as it has been for several years. The team goes into the upcoming season counting on Kiko Alonso after a down year and Raekwon McMillan after a torn ACL. Beyond those two, there are no certainties.

Veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons is a candidate to be cut, possibly this month, and the collection of Mike Hull, Stephone Anthony and Chase Allen have a lot to prove. The Dolphins see potential in the latter three, but none have established themselves as good enough to be full-time starters yet.

That’s where a 6-foot-2, 229-pound tackling machine like Leonard can help. In his final season for the Bulldogs, he piled up 114 tackles, 8.5 sacks and two interceptions. He followed up with a game-high 14 tackles in the Senior Bowl, the first step in showing he can handle higher competition.

He faced big schools occasionally at South Carolina State and got some validation with 19 tackles in a loss to Clemson his junior year. He also had 16 in a game against Central Florida that season.

“They say the MEAC isn’t all that great, but I think the level of competition was pretty good and I can play with all these big-time names,” he said.

Leonard can be a factor at inside or outside linebacker, which appeals to the Dolphins, and falls in the range where they could reasonably consider a linebacker.

The position isn’t enough of a priority for them to go high, but they could be looking for one in the third round. The Dolphins are currently slotted to pick 73rd overall and once they address some more pressing needs early, linebacker could be on the table at that point.

Leonard aspires to be a versatile linebacker like Jacksonville’s Myles Jack and has the tools to get there. NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein sees him as an every-down player.

“Leonard has packed on the pounds since hitting campus, but it hasn’t compromised his play speed as he has posted dominant production throughout,” he wrote. “He lacks play strength, and there are times you want to see more nasty in his field demeanor, but he has the traits and talent.”

Now he’s on the big stage as he heads toward the draft and he gets another opportunity to impress teams at the NFL Combine in a few weeks. The spotlight and the way teams grill potential prospects haven’t bothered Leonard at all, and he’s embracing the chance to hold up under their scrutiny.

“It feels pretty good,” he said. “We didn’t have any of that at South Carolina State, so I’m kinda feeling the big-time love. It actually feels pretty good having all the interviews.”

 

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Once opponents figured out Miami Dolphins’ linebackers, it was all downhill

Former Dolphins tight end Charles Clay of the Bills fends off linebacker Kiko Alonso. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

SIXTH IN A SERIES

What went wrong for the Dolphins this season? What went right (if anything)? We assigned letter grades to each position group after every game. So with the season over, it’s time to issue final grades and see who flunked and who gets a gold star. Today: the much-criticized linebackers.


Straight talk

Dolphins linebackers made a devastating impact on the Tennessee Titans in October. That started a three-game run in which the unit performed as well as anyone could have wished.

If you were ranking paragraphs least likely to be written in a postmortem on the Dolphins’ season, the preceding one is the leader in the clubhouse.


FINAL REPORT CARD FOR 2017 MIAMI DOLPHINS

[GRADING THE QBs: Barely a passing grade is all they deserved]

[GRADING THE RBs: Kenyan Drake’s explosiveness offers hope for ’18]

[GRADING THE OL: Without upgrade next season, team isn’t going anywhere]

[GRADING THE RECEIVERS: The top two are obvious … but then what?]

[GRADING THE DL: Lots of dollars, so why not lots of sacks?]


But yes, the Titans, Falcons and Jets did catch the brunt of the Dolphins’ linebackers …

… And then the rest of the league figured them out.

They figured out that the linebackers weren’t good tacklers.

They figured out that with two of the three LBs over 30, they could be beaten with speed.

And they figured out they can’t cover linebackers.

Lawrence Timmons may not be in the Dolphins’ plans for 2018. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

It’s one thing when Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce beat you, but when you’re getting burned by Kansas City’s Orson Charles, you’ve got a problem. By the final week of the season, defensive coordinator Matt Burke had grown weary of the tight end question, especially as it relates to Kiko Alonso trailing plays.

“Do you have a better option?” Burke said.

He later said, “Kiko has his moments when he makes plays; Kiko has moments when he’s in a tough matchup. It’s the same thing for all the rest of those guys. To try to correlate directly like Kiko being a major issue in pass coverage, I don’t necessarily see it that way. There are times where we feel Kiko is a good matchup with what his skillset is. There are times where we’d rather have somebody else on say a tight end or a back. That’s going to vary week to week.”

One thing didn’t vary. Starting with the Ravens game, linebacking play declined so badly that in four of the next five games, I gave them no higher than a D-plus in my postgame grades. By the end of the year, I floated the possibility of a housecleaning.

It was a bizarre year for the linebackers from Day 1, when Lawrence Timmons went AWOL. About that time, the Dolphins, having already lost second-round pick Raekwon McMillan for the year, signed veteran Rey Maualuga.

Problem was, Maualuga took a long time to get in shape and a short time to throw it away. When he was arrested on a battery charge in a Miami bar at 8:22 on a Saturday morning, the Dolphins immediately waived him, which suggests they had warned him he was in a zero-tolerance situation.

Chase Allen, who emerged from the undrafted lot as a longshot to make the team, was pressed into duty and had his moments, as did Stephone Anthony, who adds some much-needed athleticism.

As for the anchors of the unit, Alonso finished second on the team (to Reshad Jones) with 115 tackles and Timmons was third with 84, but whether enough of those were impact plays is the question.

What it all means

Stats and league rankings: Alonso finished second to Reshad Jones on the Dolphins with 115 tackles. Timmons was third with 84. The Dolphins were 14th against the run this year and 17th in rushing average.

Number of times QBs received an A: 1

Number of times QBs received an F: 4

Season GPA: 1.69 (D-plus)

Analysis: No unit (not even the quarterbacks) endured this much drama. A strong comeback by McMillan is imperative. So is finding ways to maximize Alonso’s skillset, as was the case early in the season.

Adjusted final grade: D-plus

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