Part 2 of a 2-part series on the Miami Dolphins’ rebuild
When Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross threw his hands up 18 months ago and decided he must try something new, not everyone internally agreed. So far, the Dolphins appear on a better course than they did before the profound change in approach.
Over these two days, we’re taking a look, by position, at the players jettisoned, who replaced them, and whether the Dolphins are genuinely better off now.
To borrow ESPN’s phrasing for LeBron James’ free agent choice in 2010, we’ll identify whether the Dolphins are better off since The Decision (to rebuild), or before The Decision.
Here’s our assessment of the offense. Today, our look at the Dolphins’ defense pre- and post- The Decision:
Those 2018 Dolphins that went 6-10 had Cam Wake, Robert Quinn, Charles Harris, Andre Branch and William Hayes. Keeping together that group for 2019, let alone 2020, would have been a mistake.
Harris (dealt to Atlanta in May) has been a bust; Hayes sustained a torn ACL in week 3 of that 2018 season and hasn’t played an NFL game since; Branch was out of the league last year and Wake managed just nine games (and four starts) for Tennessee before breaking down physically. He remains unsigned since being released by the Titans on March 12.
As for Quinn, he played much better for Dallas last year (11.5 sacks compared to 6.5 the year before in Miami), but he left for Chicago this offseason for a five-year, $70 million deal – a contract that would have been difficult to justify for Miami considering his uneven play as a Dolphin.
The Dolphins might have had the NFL’s worst group of defensive ends last season but should be considerably better with Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson, potentially rookies Curtis Weaver and Jason Strowbridge, and second-year defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who plays some end.
Edge: Dolphins since The Decision and by a clear margin. For the minority who believes the Dolphins should have kept Ryan Tannehill and stuck with the core of that team, the shortcomings of that team’s defensive line are Exhibit A why that core wasn’t going to produce a second playoff appearance without substantial upgrades to both lines.
In 2018, the Dolphins had Akeem Spence, Davon Godchaux, Jordan Phillips (to start the year), Ziggy Hood and Vincent Taylor.
These Dolphins have Godchaux, Wilkins, second-round pick Raekwon Davis and Zach Sieler, among others.
The ‘18 Dolphins miscalculated by dumping Phillips – who had 9.5 sacks for Buffalo – because he had issues with defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, who inexplicably favored Spence. But that group wasn’t particularly good.
This group could be good – if Wilkins continues to improve and Davis lives up to expectations. Godchaux, an impending unrestricted free agent, must prove he can be more disruptive; he had four tackles for loss last season and 11 in 47 career games.
I didn’t agree with the new regime releasing Taylor, who was Miami’s highest-graded defensive tackle in eight games in 2018 (per PFF) before a season-ending injury. But that move hasn’t come back to bite Miami; he appeared in only three NFL games last season, for Buffalo, and is now on the Bills’ COVID-19 list.
Phillips has thrived since leaving Miami and signed a three-year, $30 million deal with Arizona this past offseason.
Edge: Dolphins since The Decision, though we’re sure Adam Gase and Mike Tannenbaum would have addressed this position – and defensive end – if they had been asked to stick around.
Those 2018 Dolphins started Kiko Alonso, Jerome Baker and Raekwon McMillan, with Mike Hull and Stephone Anthony off the bench.
These Dolphins will have Kyle Van Noy, Baker, McMillan, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Elandon Roberts, Vince Biegel, Andrew Van Ginkel and Sam Eguavoen.
The 2018 group, while decent, was continually exposed in pass coverage – something this new staff immediately tried to correct by making Alonso and McMillan part-time players. Alonso torpedoed that plan by requesting a trade and was dealt to New Orleans for Biegel on Labor Day weekend; Alonso started four games for the Saints last season but was mostly a backup.
Alonso had three good seasons here (115, 115, 125 tackles), but Van Noy should be the Dolphins’ best linebacker in years. Baker must prove he’s better than pretty good, but the depth and overall talent of this linebacker group is clearly better.
Edge: Dolphins since The Decision, though Gase and Tannenbaum – had they stayed – also could have tried to sign Van Noy or any other upgrade.
This position, more than any other, depicts one of the starkest differences in philosophy between the old and new regimes.
The 2018 Dolphins were fine having two physical thumpers at safety (Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald), at least when Minkah Fitzpatrick was needed at cornerback.
These Dolphins prefer two smaller former cornerbacks who are more skilled in pass coverage: Eric Rowe and Bobby McCain.
The Pro Bowl version of Jones is better than anyone Miami has now at safety, but that incarnation of Jones wasn’t around last season because of injuries and overall decline. McDonald wasn’t embraced by this coaching staff and has been out of the league since being released last August. So that tandem wouldn’t have been viable in 2020.
Had the old regime remained, Fitzpatrick – who played both cornerback and safety as a rookie – would have likely settled in at safety, where he thrived for the Steelers last season.
The Dolphins ended up getting the 18th overall pick for Fitzpatrick, which was used on offensive tackle Austin Jackson, but I’d prefer to have Fitzpatrick if he and Brian Flores could have worked out their differences, because he’s a proven blue-chip talent.
Rowe flourished after his move to safety, but McCain must display he can hold up physically at the position after a shoulder injury ended his season in November.
Veterans Adrian Colbert, Kavon Frazier and Clayton Fejedelem – and third round pick Brandon Jones – offer depth.
Edge: The pre-Decision Dolphins, because Fitzpatrick wouldn’t have been traded if there hadn’t been a coaching change, and he’s a Pro Bowler, unlike any safety on the Dolphins roster. But Rowe’s excellent work in the second half of last season somewhat eases the angst of losing Fitzpatrick.
The 2018 Dolphins had Howard in his best NFL season, plus McCain and also Fitzpatrick, who was the NFL’s best slot corner for a time and then experimented on the boundary, where he was OK. And Torry McTyer and corner/safety Walt Aikens were around for depth.
These Dolphins have Howard, Byron Jones, Noah Igbinoghene and a bunch of young players led by Nik Needham and Jamal Perry (formerly Jomal Wiltz).
Edge: The post-Decision Dolphins. Even if Miami had kept Fitzpatrick at boundary corner and McCain at nickel corner – along with Howard – I would rather move into the future with Howard, Jones and Igbinoghene as my corners.
And if Fitzpatrick had gone to safety, then Miami would have had a big boundary void that could have been filled with a high draft pick or free agent.
I would have left McCain at nickel corner instead of safety – as the former regime did. But this staff likes his coverage and communication skills at safety, though Devin McCourty would have replaced him as a starter if the Dolphins had been able to lure him from the Patriots in March. (Miami certainly tried.)
Edge: The post-Decision Dolphins, with the caveat that Howard needs to stay healthy and regain his 2018 form.