Rarely in the NFL does a team enter a new era with so much clarity in the plan to evolve its identity. For the Dolphins, working under new head coach Brian Flores and general manager Chris Grier, that goal is no secret.
Best-case scenario: Miami becomes an aqua-and-orange rendition of division-rival New England: a dynastic machine that can reach the NFL playoffs each season as a result of matchup-specific game plans based on players’ unique skill sets.
Worst-case scenario: Miami becomes just another imposter, the latest failed attempt to clone the DNA of one of the greatest dynasties American sports have ever seen.
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Much of this falls on Flores; the common denominator in all of the Patriots’ successes over the last couple decades has been coach Bill Belichick. Offense, defense, special teams – the ridiculous consistency all over the field, despite so many changes in and around New England, is at the root of their dynasty. Flores, Grier and five Dolphins assistants new to Miami in 2019 have seen it firsthand while working under Belichick previously in their careers.
But recognition and replication are different beasts. Flores and Co. might know that precise attention to detail and uncommonly thorough preparation are the two bases on which this Dolphins regime must be founded, but there’s a reason the Patriots’ standard in this league is exclusive to them.
The Dolphins are seemingly off to a good start, though, if one considers the two words that keep bubbling up in quotes from coaches who are asked about the plan for this team – “multiple” and “versatile.”
Here we break down the new-look Dolphins and project their depth chart for 2019.
Dolphins depth chart: Offense
|QB||Josh Rosen*||Ryan Fitzpatrick*|
|RB||Kenyan Drake||Kalen Ballage|
|WR||Kenny Stills||Brice Butler|
|WR||DeVante Parker||Isaiah Ford|
|WR||Albert Wilson||Jakeem Grant|
|TE||Mike Gesicki||Dwayne Allen*|
|LT||Laremy Tunsil||Jaryd Jones-Smith*|
|LG||Michael Deiter*||Isaac Asiata|
|C||Daniel Kilgore||Connor Hilland|
|RG||Jesse Davis||Chris Reed*|
|RT||Jordan Mills*||Zach Sterup|
* new to Dolphins in 2019
Maintaining the Patriots connections beyond Belichick, we jump right into the other factor of the New England dynasty many consider vital: Tom Brady. The Dolphins’ passive approach in waiting until the second round of the NFL Draft to trade for Josh Rosen suggests they are not overly confident he can be their version of Brady.
And if he can’t, we will find out soon.
Miami coaches say Rosen will not be handed the starting QB job, but that he will need to compete with veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick through minicamps and training camp. Fine and dandy – Brady wasn’t handed his job, either. But let’s not forget Brady took it forcefully and never looked back.
If Rosen is to be taken seriously in Miami and around the NFL, he needs to leave no doubt this summer. Fitzpatrick, 36, has more NFL experience than the 22-year-old, but both are starting from scratch in new offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea’s variation of the Erhardt-Perkins offense. Rosen needs to catch on mentally so he can be prepared to prove himself physically.
The QB who wins the job will be running an offense that relies significantly on the running game. The playcalling in this scheme is relatively simple, but the QB usually has big responsibilities reading coverages pre-snap and making proper adjustments. The QB’s adjustments at the line of scrimmage allow the offense to be unpredictable in any formation.
Miami did not invest much in Rosen, which is comforting for the Dolphins in the event he fails to earn the job over a guy playing on his eighth NFL team in 15 years. But if Rosen can take control of this offense as soon as possible, it would be an encouraging development in Miami’s rebuild, to say the least.
The Dolphins did not change the top of their running back depth chart for 2019. Kenyan Drake returns as the starter, with Kalen Ballage right behind him. Miami did draft Myles Gaskin and sign Kenneth Farrow for additional depth and, likely, more changes of pace.
The big difference at running back for Miami comes not with personnel, but with O’Shea’s scheme. Expect the Dolphins’ running backs to be more active in the passing game. Also expect general, Patriots-like unpredictability game to game in the amount of touches each back will get. (Sorry, fantasy football owners).
With the exception of Ricardo Louis and Reece Horn, the names on the roster at wide receiver for Miami are the same; again, it is the scheme that’s different.
Expect O’Shea, who was New England’s wide receivers coach for a decade before his move to Miami, to have some fun with Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant, two speedsters who can create mismatches, especially when both are on the field at the same time.
The new regime in Miami is giving DeVante Parker one more chance (after a big pay cut) to stick in the lineup and stay healthy. Kenny Stills will still be an all-around solid receiver capable of lining up wherever needed.
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Another former Patriot, Dwayne Allen, was signed in free agency. He and 2018 second-round pick Mike Gesicki will battle this summer to earn No. 1 tight end duties, though both should get significant playing time this season barring injury.
Gesicki, of course, needs to improve quickly under the new coaching staff after what was a disappointing rookie season. If he doesn’t, expect Nick O’Leary and/or Durham Smythe to steal some of his playing time.
This unit is … not great. But it’s improving. At least, we think it is.
For better or worse, tackle Ja’Wuan James was lost in free agency. Laremy Tunsil returns as the rock of Miami’s line at left tackle, but beyond Daniel Kilgore at center, none of the other three spots should be considered set.
The Dolphins addressed this need in the NFL Draft with third-round pick Michael Deiter from Wisconsin, who likely will earn one of the starting guard spots (probably left) as a rookie. They also signed Chris Reed, who has some guard-center versatility if needed. As of now, Jesse Davis is slated to start at right guard.
Zach Sterup was slated to start on the right edge until Miami signed veteran tackle Jordan Mills, who is now the favorite to start there. That said, offensive line coach Pat Flaherty claims there will be an open competition for the spot (in which rookie Isaiah Prince will also be a part).
There’s no sugar-coating it – the offensive line is the weakest part of the Dolphins’ roster. Their best returning lineman, Tunsil, earned a -0.1 overall grade from Pro Football Focus last season.
The Dolphins can only hope for an immediate impact from Deiter, significant improvement from Tunsil and Kilgore and stability from Mills. And even if they get all that, this group will still be a work in progress moving forward.
Dolphins depth chart: Defense
|DE||Charles Harris||Joey Mbu*|
|DT||Christian Wilkins*||Vincent Taylor|
|DT||Davon Godchaux||Akeem Spence|
|DE||Jonathan Woodard||Tank Carradine*|
|LB||Kiko Alonso||Andrew Van Ginkel*|
|LB||Raekwon McMillan||Mike Hull|
|LB||Jerome Baker||Quentin Poling|
|CB||Xavien Howard||Jalen Davis|
|CB||Eric Rowe*||Cordrea Tankersley|
|CB||Bobby McCain||Torry McTyer|
|SS||Reshad Jones||T.J. McDonald|
|FS||Minkah Fitzpatrick||Walt Aikens|
* new to Dolphins in 2019
Depending on how one feels about Rosen, one could argue Christian Wilkins is the most important player in Miami. Yes, the Dolphins invested a first-round pick (13th overall) in the defensive lineman from Clemson, but his presumed versatility will be vital for Miami’s new, multiple defensive scheme.
Like the Patriots, the Dolphins under new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham will not be married to a 4-3 or a 3-4 scheme. They instead will shoot for matchup-based schemes with the ability to change looks at any point in a given game. Their “base” defense, for what it’s worth, will likely be a nickel package with either a 3-3 look or a 4-2 look.
That means Wilkins will be the Trey Flowers, of sorts, for this defense: a player who will be asked to line up as a defensive tackle in four-man fronts and as an end in three-man fronts. If he can’t be disruptive from any and all positions, the rest of the defense will suffer the consequences.
Some of the Dolphins’ highest-rated defenders last season – Cameron Wake, Robert Quinn, William Hayes and Ziggy Hood – were all defensive linemen, and they’re all gone in 2019. The good news is Davon Godchaux returns as a beast at defensive tackle.
Defensive end, though, is a weak spot, assuming Wilkins is classified as a tackle. Jonathan Woodard, Charles Harris and Tank Carradine are the only ends on the roster, leading us to believe Miami will lean more on three-man fronts and tap into Wilkins’ ability from that look.
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With the lack of trustworthy defensive ends comes the Dolphins’ need for linebackers who can pressure the QB from the edge. Enter Jayrone Elliott, who was tied for a league-high 7.5 sacks in the AAF before the spring football league flopped. Tyrone Holmes and Joey Mbu were signed as potential pass-rush contributors, too. Miami also hopes the aforementioned Harris can contribute as a stand-up rusher in certain situations.
Depending on the formation, some combination of Kiko Alonso, Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker will continue to lead Miami’s defense from the middle of the field. Their speed will be a welcome attribute for a staff that wants to be multiple. Mike Hull and fifth-round draft pick Andrew Van Ginkel will compete for playing time at linebacker, too.
Finally – a player who is the unquestioned best at his position on the roster and set in his role. Xavien Howard, fresh off the contract extension that made him the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history, provides the Dolphins a needed baseline of shutdown coverage from his No. 1 corner spot. Expect Howard to play a combination of zone and man coverage depending on matchups, similar to how the Patriots deploy Stephon Gilmore.
The other starting outside corner spot is not as clear, especially since Bobby McCain likely will start in the nickel corner spot in what we’re considering Miami’s base defense. Eric Rowe was signed in free agency and could start opposite Howard, as could Cordrea Tankersley. Even if Jalen Davis doesn’t start, he offers the Dolphins vital depth at corner.
It’s worth noting that do-it-all defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick will contribute at corner, too, giving Miami some breathing room at this position.
No changes here, save for the potential of Fitzpatrick earning even more hybrid responsibilities and ditching the traditional safety spot more often under Flores’ staff.
Reshad Jones returns as a skilled strong safety, and when he is not joined by Fitzpatrick in the last line of defense, he will be joined by T.J. McDonald. That’s a solid group of safeties for Miami.