Dolphins trying to speed up rebuild

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A 5-11 season never seemed so impressive.

Through four games the Miami Dolphins looked like the worst team in football, and maybe the worst team in football history. Miami was outscored 163-26 in the first four games. They were challenging negative point differential records set in the NFL’s early days by teams like the Louisville Brecks and Rochester Jeffersons. They didn’t even lead a game until Week 4. The Dolphins’ tanking plan was going too well. For a while it seemed like 0-16 might be inevitable.

What happened next wasn’t too bad. And Miami still drafted the quarterback it had been connected to all year.

The Dolphins reached 0-7 before finally winning. Then they went 5-4 down the stretch. A Week 17 win over the New England Patriots might have changed who won last year’s Super Bowl — that upset allowed the Kansas City Chiefs to pass the Patriots for the No. 2 AFC seed and a bye.

The Dolphins were not great by the end of the year. But they were good enough that stories written in September and October about them being the worst NFL team ever looked way off base. They weren’t even the worst team in the 2019 NFL, or even close. Credit first-year coach Brian Flores for a pretty impressive finish.

The Dolphins ending up with Tua Tagovailoa in the 2020 NFL draft seemed like the most likely outcome through most of 2019, it just happened in an unexpected way. Tagovailoa suffered a serious hip injury in his final college season. That and Joe Burrow’s emergence knocked Tagovailoa out of the top spot. The Dolphins reportedly tried on multiple occasions to move up to No. 1, presumably to take Burrow, but landed Tagovailoa at No. 5. Not bad.

There’s a lot of risk in that pick now, and Miami might need to bring Tagovailoa along slowly, but let’s not forget that before last season Tagovailoa was considered a near lock to be the No. 1 overall pick. He can play.

The Dolphins had a remarkable amount of draft picks and cap space to improve the roster, and it seems the depth chart is much better. Some of the signings and picks were curious — first-round pick Austin Jackson is a project at tackle, free-agent signee Shaq Lawson has 16.5 sacks in four seasons, Ereck Flowers turned one good season at guard into a contract that pays him $10 million a year — but clearly the roster is in way better shape. The Dolphins’ top five free agent additions got a total of $208.5 million in contracts, according to Spotrac. Miami had five top-70 picks in the draft too.

And despite the late-season improvement, the Dolphins needed that help. The running backs were so bad that 37-year-old quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick led the team in rushing. The Dolphins didn’t have one above-average offensive lineman. Miami’s 23 sacks were five fewer than any other team.

The Dolphins’ late-season surge might end up being a mirage. Depending on a large number of free-agent additions and draft picks doesn’t work out too often. There are still a lot of holes.

But Flores seems to be the real deal — finally, a Bill Belichick assistant that looks like a rising star in the head-coaching ranks — and there’s a lot of intriguing talent on hand. If Tagovailoa is as good as many figured pre-injury, the Dolphins’ rebuild could be further along than we realize.

Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Flores celebrate a game-winning touchdown pass against the New England Patriots in the season finale last year. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

The Dolphins spent a lot of money. Byron Jones’ five-year, $82.5 million deal is the largest ever for a cornerback. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy got $51 million over four years even though he’s 29 years old, has 17.5 career sacks and has never made a Pro Bowl. Defensive end Shaq Lawson and offensive lineman Ereck Flowers, considered busts with their first NFL teams, each got three-year, $30 million deals. The Dolphins might have overpaid, but all those players will be starters and upgrades. Adding running backs Jordan Howard and Matt Breida should help a dreadful run game. The Dolphins seem like they could have gotten more punch out of the draft, considering all their picks, but corner Noah Igbinoghene, offensive linemen Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt could all play big roles right away. And, of course, a lot rides on Tua Tagovailoa.

GRADE: B

Tua Tagovailoa is probably the most intriguing rookie in the NFL. His health will be a huge story — his recovery from a dislocated hip was termed “miraculous” by his physical therapist, but nobody has been willing to say he’ll be ready for Week 1. The Dolphins, who said they became comfortable with Tagovailoa’s medical status in the weeks before the draft, won’t rush him. There are some questions about him as an NFL prospect (read Eric Edholm’s draft profile for the pluses and minuses). Tagovailoa could be a future MVP or retroactively judged as a reckless gamble coming off a massive injury. There’s no way to know. Either way, it’ll be fascinating.

It seemed crazy that the Dolphins kept DeVante Parker around after he had disappointed them for years. The number of first-round picks who underwhelm for four years and then come alive in their fifth season is very low, but Parker repaid the Dolphins’ patience. He posted a 72-1,202-9 receiving line and was a revelation. Credit the Dolphins for seeing a breakout in Parker after everyone else gave up. Late last season Parker signed a team-friendly four-year, $30.5 million extension.

“Staying healthy was my top goal,” Parker told ESPN last season. “That has helped change everything. These coaches believed in me. They gave me a second chance when they didn’t have to. I hope I can be here a long time.”

There’s always some trepidation when a player has a breakout after years of inadequacy. It would be big for the Dolphins’ rebuild if Parker maintained this level.

The Dolphins’ over/under win total at BetMGM is six, and I’m leaning toward the over. When you take an NFL over/under bet that doesn’t have a half game attached — 6.5, 8.5, etc. — you have to assume a likely push when it lands on the number. And that might be the case with the Dolphins since 6-10 seems realistic. But I think there’s a better chance of a step forward for the Dolphins, with all that new talent, than going backwards. Maybe I’m putting too much into the splashy free-agent pickups and putting too much faith in Brian Flores, but it really seems the Dolphins are trending the right way.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “A late run in December pushed Mike Gesicki to TE11 last year, and that’s around where you’ll be drafting him this summer. The Dolphins like to use him as a hybrid receiver and not a dirty-work tight end, and that’s a good thing. We prefer our fantasy tight ends aren’t held back with blocking assignments, we want them running routes. The timing might be right for Gesicki to take off in his third pro season.”

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Through Mike Gesicki’s first 23 career games he had a receiving line of 37-355-0 and looked like a second-round bust. Then the supremely athletic Gesicki turned it on, putting up 36-417-5 in his last nine games. Preston Williams, a promising undrafted rookie, missed the second half of the year and that opened up opportunities for others in the offense like Gesicki and DeVante Parker. They took advantage. The Dolphins’ rebuild is all about slowly figuring out which players can be above-average starters. Gesicki’s third season will go a long way in determining if he’ll be in that circle.

Do the Dolphins have the best group of cornerbacks in the NFL?

Xavien Howard and Byron Jones were Pro Bowlers in 2018. Rookie Noah Igbinoghene was a first-round pick. There aren’t many teams that can boast that kind of talent at one of the NFL’s most important positions. Howard’s season was limited to five games last year due to injury, but assuming he’s healthy he’s one of the NFL’s best. Jones is a versatile, athletic cornerback who came on strong his final two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and cashed in. Igbinoghene wasn’t a need when the Dolphins were up with the 30th overall pick, but he was the best player on their board. Given how often teams play nickel defense, he’ll practically be a starter too. The Dolphins weren’t good in pass defense last season, but the pass rush was bad and Howard barely played. The pass rush has been improved some, and the cornerback group is now among the NFL’s most talented.

Let’s start with the obvious: Tua Tagovailoa has a rookie season like Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray. Tagovailoa’s hip obviously might prevent that, but it’s not too outrageous that he could produce right away. Then the offensive line makes a huge jump with an almost entirely new cast, the 2019 improvements for DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki stick and Jordan Howard and Matt Breida boost the running game. On defense, Shaq Lawson, Kyle Van Noy and 2019 first-round pick Christian Wilkins energize the pass rush and a fine set of cornerbacks improves the pass defense. None of those things are too far-fetched. Doesn’t that sound like a team that could be one of the NFL’s surprises of the 2020 season?

While there should be some excitement among Dolphins fans, it’s worth noting they were still pretty bad last season. Miami was 32nd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (27th in offense, 32nd in defense, 22nd in special teams) and 30th in Jeff Sagarin’s ratings. They had the 28th best passer rating in the league and were 29th in passer rating allowed. They were 21st in yards per pass, 31st in yards per rush, 28th in yards per pass allowed and 22nd in yards per rush allowed. You get it; the Dolphins were bad. It’s entirely possible their record over the final nine games of last season was fluky, and we’ll see a step back rather than progress.

I don’t want to overreact too much to one game. However, in the season finale, a Dolphins team with nothing tangible to play for went to New England and knocked off the Patriots, who needed to win to get a playoff bye. The Patriots took the lead with less than four minutes left but the Dolphins answered with a Mike Gesicki game-winning catch in the final seconds. Miami, a 17.5-point underdog, won straight up. Nothing spoke to how Brian Flores led his team better than that. The Dolphins could have quit when they were 0-7 but went the other way. While some of the Dolphins’ offseason moves seemed like overpays, the talent is clearly much better. I think Tua Tagovailoa will probably be held back for about half of the season, but has a nice second half and the Dolphins end up about .500, with a good feeling about what’s to come in the future.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. 
Washington Redskins
30. 
Cincinnati Bengals
29. 
Carolina Panthers
28. 
New York Giants
27. 
Detroit Lions
26. 
New York Jets
25.
Atlanta Falcons

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