Photo courtesy of Miami Dolphins
Seven games into the 2019 season and it seemed like a real possibility that the Miami Dolphins would join the 2008 Detroit Lions and 2017 Cleveland Browns as the only teams in NFL history to lose every single game.
Under first-year head coach Brian Flores and with a depleted roster, the Dolphins started 0-7 in 2019. Through the month of September, Miami was 0-4 and outscored by an average margin of 40.8-6.5.
After gutting the roster, the consensus around the NFL was that the Dolphins were tanking. Over the next three weeks however, they would be competitive. After switching from the young Josh Rosen to the veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Dolphins dropped a heartbreaker to the Washington Redskins on a missed 2-point conversion, 17-16.
Over the next two weeks, Miami led for large parts of road contests against the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers, but came away empty. A late first-half touchdown by the Steelers in a 27-14 Monday night win over Miami actually led to the talking heads on ESPN to ridiculously insist that the front office was forcing the Dolphins to throw games.
Miami would bounce back to win five of its final nine games. That includes two victories over eventual division champions.
The Dolphins capped the season with their most thrilling win — a 27-24 road comeback over the New England Patriots. The loss forced New England to play in the Wild Card round and allowed the eventual world champion Kansas City Chiefs to have a first-round bye. That would also be legendary quarterback Tom Brady’s final regular season game as a member of the Patriots.
A Busy Start
Through the early parts of free agency in 2020, few teams have been busier than the Dolphins. One can only wonder how much of that has to do with Flores and the Dolphins finishing 5-4 late last season with a roster than many thought was incapable of winning at the NFL level.
Shoring Up the Offensive Line
Last season, no team in the NFL gave up more sacks than Miami. The Dolphins also ranked dead last in the league in rushing. The Dolphins averaged just 72 yards per game on the ground and 3.3 yards per carry.
He’s never been known for being fleet of foot, but Fitzpatrick was actually Miami’s leading rusher in 2019. The Dolphins are seeking to change that with the early additions of offensive linemen Ereck Flowers and Ted Karras.
Miami also brings in running back Jordan Howard. Howard signed a 2-year, $10 million deal and could be the feature back. After two 1,000-yard seasons early in his career with the Chicago Bears, Howard has seen his production dip over the last two years. Still, his 525 rushing yards last season was more than twice Fitzpatrick’s team-leading 243 yards rushing.
Building a Defense
A former linebackers coach and de-facto defensive coordinator with the Patriots, it’s no surprise that Flores and the front office has had a defensive focus this offseason. The blockbuster deal was the signing of cornerback Byron Jones.
Jones, who spent four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, signed with Miami for five years and $82.5 million. Jones will team with Xavien Howard to form one of the league’s best cornerback tandems.
The Dolphins also brought in names familiar to Flores at linebacker in former Patriots Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts. Last season, Miami ranked 30th in total defense, last in scoring defense and last in the NFL in total sacks.
Both Van Noy and Roberts should help the pass rush. The same is true for recently-signed Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson. Last season, Van Noy, Ogbah and Lawson combined for 18.5 sacks. Miami had just 23 as a team.
Holes Left to Fill
After going 5-11 last season, Miami still has some voids to shore up. All signs point to Miami drafting a quarterback, but there is a decent chance that Fitzpatrick sticks around. Flores seems to like Rosen as well, but he could find himself with a third team in three years in the NFL.
The Dolphins will likely look to add more pieces at the offensive skill positions. Receiver De’Vante Parker and tight end Mike Gesicki had breakout seasons in 2019, but Preston Williams is coming off a season-ending injury and there is no proven No. 2 at either position. It is also unclear if Miami is comfortable with just Howard and Patrick Laird in the backfield.
The offensive line and safety position will need further upgrades. Miami recently parted with former Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones. It did sign Adrian Colbert and Clayton Fejedelem, but neither improve the secondary all that much.
With Brady gone in New England, the AFC East is as wide open as it has been in a long time. The Dolphins have significantly upgraded their roster this offseason. They’re probably not done.
Expect to see Miami make more notable signings in free agency. The Dolphins have 14 picks in this year’s NFL Draft, including five in the first two rounds. The quarterback position will also be worth paying attention to.
Miami hasn’t won a playoff game since 2000, but with Flores at the helm, the Dolphins seem to be building a winning culture. Ultimately for Flores, that will need to translate to wins on the field.
Six months ago, the Dolphins fielded a roster many thought may be the worst in NFL history. In 2020, they may just be good enough to compete for their first division title since 2008.