The Miami Dolphins are on track to finish second in the AFC East, but only by default. In the grander scheme of things, the Dolphins are a mediocre team that overachieved last season by finishing 10-6.
An 8-8 finish might constitute luck this season after quarterback Ryan Tannehill went down with an ACL tear. The Dolphins were lucky enough to get Jay Cutler to come out of retirement, but that’s still a downgrade. Cutler’s health is no small matter here, given that he played just five games last season and went through the offseason as a retiree.
However, if the 34-year old does stay healthy, it’s hard to know what to expect. Certainly, reuniting with head coach Adam Gase will help him — it was likely one of the factors that led him to come out of retirement. Cutler was a good fit in Gase’s offense when the two hooked up on the 2015 Bears. He threw only 11 interceptions and had a career-high 6.71 adjusted net yards per attempt. However, Cutler struggled in the five games he played last season, posting a 33.2 QBR and -69 DYAR. Given the inconsistencies he’s displayed throughout his career, there’s a pretty wide range of outcomes in play.
When it comes to the skill positions, Miami is Exhibit A for the difference between fantasy football and real football, the prime culprit being Jarvis Landry. Landry has been a top-20 fantasy receiver for two straight years, thanks mostly to a high volume of receptions. He had 94 catches for 1,136 yards last season. However, those numbers vastly overstate his impact in real football games. Landry ranked 43rd among receivers in DVOA last season.
A study by Football Outsiders’ Almanac found that, in fact, Landry’s receptions have a negative correlation with Miami’s passing offense DVOA. DeVante Parker is underrated in comparison with Landry, but he’s also far from being an impact guy. Parker was outside the top-30 receivers in both DYAR and DVOA last season. Kenny Stills is a good third wideout, but not much else. He averaged a stalwart 17.3 yards per reception last season and ranked 34th among receivers in DVOA.
Tight end Julius Thomas fell off a cliff in Jacksonville last season. It’s fair to put some of the blame for that on Blake Bortles, as well as the fact that Thomas played just nine games. But that’s only valid if you credit Peyton Manning for Thomas’ success in Denver. Cutler isn’t as bad a quarterback as Bortles, but he definitely isn’t anywhere near as good as Peyton Manning was in 2013. Thomas may be better than his numbers from last season indicate, but don’t expect a return to Pro Bowl form.
Running back Jay Ajayi was a breakout star last season, but even he’s become a little overrated in retrospect. It’s worth remembering that, of Ajayi’s 1,272 rushing yards last season, 624 came in just three games, two of which were against the same opponent. Only four times last season did Ajayi rush for over 100 yards in a game.
Some of that had to do with volume, but Ajayi still had a paltry 43 percent success rate last season, which ranked 32nd among running backs. He was a boom-or-bust running back in 2016, which is fine. However, the Dolphins were 17th in rushing DVOA last season. This is not a dominant run game, it’s a fairly mediocre run game with a high ceiling.
The offensive line is mediocre as well. Laremy Tunsil had a good rookie year and is now expected to move to left tackle full-time. Last season, he blew just five blocks while spending most of his time at guard, per FOA. A healthy Mike Pouncey will also be a boon to to the line. Pouncey played just five games last season, but made three straight Pro Bowls prior to 2016. Right tackle Ju’Wuan James is a mixed bag. He had a 79.3 PFF grade last season despite horrific blown block numbers. James whiffed on 18 pass blocks and eight run blocks last season, per FOA. He also took 11 penalties.
The guard positions are where things could get dicey. Right guard Jermon Bushrod blew 17 blocks last year, per FOA, and had a godawful 39.2 PFF grade. It looks like Anthony Steen will start at left guard with both Ted Larsen and Kraig Urbik sidelined with injuries. Steen struggled in a rotational role last year, posting a 49.2 PFF grade.
The defensive line is easily the team’s biggest strength. Ndamukong Suh is one of the league’s best defensive tackles. He had 5.5 sacks, 11 hits and 35 hurries, per FOA, along with an 80 percent run stop rate. His 89.2 PFF grade also ranked fourth among interior defenders. Newly acquired William Hayes is set to move from the edge to the interior. The 32-year old should be a good fit at 3-technique and could play on the edge at 5-tech when Miami goes to a 3-3-5 nickel package. He had 5.0 sacks, 13 hits and 28 hurries last season, per FOA.
Expect rookie fifth-round pick Davon Godchaux to get snaps on the interior as well. First-rounder Charles Harris should get a heavy dose of snaps on the edge. The Missouri product could be an impact pass rusher. He has a well-refined speed rush and spin move already, though his bull rush needs work. However, don’t be surprised if he’s off the field on early downs. Harris ranked 91st in run stop rate last season, per PFF, and has next to no gap integrity. Without more development, he’s undoubtedly a liability in run defense. Andre Branch could get those early-down snaps instead, as he had a solid 74 percent run stop rate last season, per FOA. On the opposite edge, Cameron Wake has yet to slow down at age 35. He posted 11.0 sacks, 14 hits and 36 hurries last season, per FOA, along with an 86.0 PFF grade.
However, things go downhill fast in the linebacking corps. Second round pick Raekwon McMillan is out for the season with a torn ACL. Middle linebacker Lawrence Timmons is clearly on the decline. He had a terrible 39 percent success rate in coverage last season, per FOA, and ranked 72nd among linebackers in PFF grading. On one side of him, Kiko Alonso had a terrible 42 percent run stop rate and gave up 7.2 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA. On the other, Mike Hull played just 111 snaps last season and had a 50.4 PFF grade.
The secondary is strong at the top, but lacks any sort of depth. Cornerback Byron Maxwell quietly had a great 2016, ranking 10th among corners in PFF grading and 19th in adjusted yards per target, according to FOA.
Across from him, however, Xavien Howard had an abysmal 44 percent success rate last season, per FOA. Nickel back Bobby McCain wasn’t much better. He had a 45 percent success rate, per FOA, and a paltry 61.3 PFF grade. After Tony Lippett went down with a torn Achilles, there’s no backup plan if somebody else gets hurt beyond third-round pick Cordrea Tankersley.
At safety, Reshad Jones is a Pro Bowl-caliber player who Miami locked up with an extension this offseason. However, he’s coming off a rotator cuff injury that saw him play just six games last season. T.J. McDonald would probably be starting alongside him on opening day, but he’s suspended for eight games thanks to a PED violation.
Instead, it will likely be Nate Allen, who had a 52.1 PFF grade last season. In a fairly small, 231-snap sample size, Allen also had a 27 percent success rate in coverage last season. It’s easy to brush that aside, but given that he had a 38.0 PFF grade in 2015 and hits age 30 this season, it’s probably more indicative than we’d like to believe.
Given that the Jets and Bills are in tailspins, the Dolphins are easily good enough to finish second in this division. But they won’t challenge the Patriots. They won’t compete for the playoffs. And they probably won’t finish over .500.
If you would like to learn more about the advanced stats we used, check out FootballOutsiders.com, which is largely free, or ProFootballFocus.com which is not.