How the Dolphins can get the Top Seed in the AFC

By: Cody Molla (Twitter: @cmolla1)

Believe it or not, the NFL regular season is 15 weeks away. There is still a lot of roster movement to be expected but the key players are likely on their 2021 teams. With the draft behind us and the schedule released many have tossed their hat into the ring on upcoming predictions. As we all know “Any Given Sunday” is real and predicting the NFL season is chaos. Look back at the 2020 season when the Jaguars won the opening week of the season vs the Colts as proof.

One of the 2020 breakout teams was the Miami Dolphins. Could they emerge as a top AFC contender this year? Under Brian Flores in his second year, the Dolphins improved greatly from 5-11 to 10-6 and barely missing the playoffs. Many will remember the season for the QB swapping in game of then rookie Tua Tagovailoa and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Ryan Fitzpatrick would close out games late in the season and bring the Dolphins back in deficits and or close games out offensively. The game that sticks out the most is Week 16, 26-25 win against the Raiders where Fitzpatrick threw up a prayer to Mack Hollins while getting his facemask pulled. Patrick Mahomes called it “the greatest no look pass of all time”.

The Dolphins started the season 1-3 and brought Tua in to start after six games where he was a year removed of a career threatening hip injury and saw limited work in OTAs and the offseason due to injury and Covid. Flores showed he can lead the team and behind solid defensive play and the Dolphins found themselves on the door of the playoffs. The Dolphins made improvements to the offense this offseason and kept a strong core on defense.

This is a strong foundation moving into 2021. The Miami Dolphins will look to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and be a contender in the AFC. Could they even earn a one seed heading into the NFL playoffs? Most sportsbooks currently have the Dolphins from +1400 to +1600 to win the AFC. Which is currently tied with the Patriots for the fifth best odds. For comparison, the AFC favorites are the Chiefs around +250 and the AFC East rival Bills at +600. The oddsmakers do see the Fins as potential dark horse candidates to top the AFC.

Why should you bet the Dolphins to do so? They have a leader in Brian Flores. Flores won four super bowls in his time with New England. Combined with Chris Grier, the GM the Dolphins have built a roster in a “Patriots style”. Meaning players that can play multiple positions defensively. Guys that play their role. Not too flashy and guys that play football.

The changes in offensive coaching will help this offense improve as well. Chan Gailey is no longer the OC and instead, there will be a tandem at OC between George Godsey and Eric Studesville. Both have much NFL coaching experience and will look to excel in new roles. Dolphins also have a new QB coach in Charlie Frye. Frye has a good connection with Tua and was his coach and mentor back when Tua attended the Elite 11 Quarterback camp. These moves will help Tua and the Dolphins offensive development as a whole.

It’s no secret the offensive success hinges on the quarterback. There are expectations for Tua this year going into his second year. He won his first three starts in the NFL and finished his first year 6-3 overall. As mentioned before that was with little prep preseason and a lack of knowledge of the playbook. Last week in OTAs, Tua mentioned the play calling last year and the situation from the huddle to the line of scrimmage pre play last year. As a Dolphins fan, it was clear the play calls were basic when he was in the game. Tua explains why here, in this piece from Adam Beasley.

The Dolphins off season was focused on building around Tua. The added a speedy deep threat in Will Fuller via free agency. Fuller bolsters the receiving core and adds a playmaker which they lacked last year. The Dolphins added some veterans to their offensive line in free agency as well. Adding Matt Skura who has played guard and center for the Ravens, as well as tackle DJ Fluker who played for Baltimore in 2020. Other offensive free agents include running back Malcolm Brown for depth and Jacoby Brissett who is a seasoned veteran backup quarterback. Losing Fitzpatrick Brissett is a solid addition. He has shown the ability to win games when given the opportunity. He also will have familiarity with the coaching staff from his early days in New England.

The offensive additions continued in the NFL Draft. With the sixth overall pick, Miami reunited former Crimson Tide teammate of Tua with wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. Waddle missed most of his last season at Bama after suffering an ankle injury. Over his college career, he caught 106 passes for 1999 yards and 17 touchdowns. Waddle is an explosive impact player. He has sub 4.4 40 speed. He can play inside and outside, his hands and physicality allow him to win 50-50 balls even at 5’10 180 pounds.

The Dolphins also used one of their early round picks on a tackle. Liam Eichenberg out of Notre Dame is better in the run game than pass protection but will likely see reps throughout his rookie season. The Dolphins also drafted a tackle in the seventh round in Larnel Coleman. Coleman is going to need to be coached up but will likely spend a majority of his rookie year developing.

Other skill players drafted include TE Hunter Long. Mike Gesicki brokeout last year but the Dolphins added another offensive threat at the tight end position. I told you “Patriots like roster” We all know the dominance of Gronkowski and Hernandez together could we see a new TE duo run the AFC? The Dolphins finally addressed the running back position with Gerrid Doaks in the seventh round. Doaks is a big back, bruiser running style from Cincinnati. Doaks also showed some good things in pass protection last year as Cincinnati was one of the better group of five schools last year.

What is returning offensively for the Dolphins? The offensive line returns its young core which played average at best in their best games and below average in a lot of spots. They were inconsistent but that is expected from a lot of rookies who got valuable experience with Fitzpatrick and from a double digit win season. The three rookies in 2020 Hunt, Jackson, and Kindley all flashed. They will be counted upon this year in combination with Skura as the main core upfront. The line play should improve from last season and needs to be average at worst to win the top seed in the AFC.

We know Tua is playing quarterback when healthy. Tua will protect the ball and deliver it with accuracy. To be the best in the AFC that’s going to require Tua to connect on deep passes, continue to use his mobility to extend plays and convert third downs and just bring confidence to the offense each play.

2020 finished with Myles Gaskin as the lead back in the Dolphins offense. That role is still his as we move into 2021. Gaskin beat out veterans early last year and earned his role. In 10 games last year Gaskin averaged 97 yards from scrimmage. He missed time with a knee issue and Covid. When Gaskin was out Salvon Ahmed stepped up in his role. Ahmed was efficient in his first two games and earned touches throughout the close of the season. Ahmed even eclipsed the 100-yard rush mark to be the first Dolphin to do so in two years in a win versus the Patriots last year.  

The bottom line is the Dolphins see the running back position by committee. Again taking a Patriots approach in using guys in the best role. The additions of Doaks and Brown will likely see the goal line work as bigger backs. The duo of Gaskin and Ahmed will move the ball between the 20s and they can each catch the ball and make guys miss in space. Gaskin will lead the committee and should see the bulk of the work overall. These guys don’t stand out as stars but they are capable of getting the job done. They proved it in 2020.

DeVante Parker broke out in 2019. 2020 was a bit disappointing for Parker who struggled with injuries in the lower extremities as always. Parker has the potential to be a game changer when healthy. Over his career, he’s produced greatly when healthy. He beat 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, Gilmore consistently when healthy. He finished 2020 with 63 catches and nearly 800 yards. His dip in production is also attributed to Tua. Tua didn’t give him the 50-50 balls Fitzpatrick did. Tua also wasn’t aggressive in targeting down the field where Parker ran many of his routes. The familiarity with the playbook and one another will improve Parkers production this year. Paired with Fuller, Waddle, and Gesicki the defense can’t solely focus on DVP. Parker is primed for his best year as a pro if healthy.

Mike Gesicki will be the other focus player as a pass catcher this season. He’s coming off a career year in which he caught 53 passes for 703 yards and six touchdowns. Gesicki is a miss match for Linebackers and safeties with his size. He’s able to box out and win the jump balls and has a massive catch radius. He consistently caught many bad passes and kept drives going. He would have much better touchdown numbers but the Dolphins used a multiple TE look in the red zone and as a unit between Gesicki, Smythe, and Shaheen they caught 11 touchdowns.

The Dolphins offense is set to produce and be better then 2020. The highlighted guys in combination with Malcolm Perry, Jakeem Grant, Lynn Bowden, and Preston Williams can be tough to defend. Perry and Bowden can play any position on offense including quarterback! They will surely get gadget plays that can strike for homeruns at any time. Grant is a speed threat who can get into space and outrun everyone as we’ve seen on special teams. Preston Williams is a sneaky fourth or fifth option on offense. Williams built up chemistry with Tua until he was injured and out for the year. If healthy Preston has the size and speed to be a Brandon Marshall type of player unfortunately inconsistent hands and injuries have plagued him.

To cap of the offense, the Dolphins have an all pro caliber kicker in Jason Sanders. Sanders was truly one of the best kickers in the league last season and it wasn’t a fluke. “$anders” was 8/9 from 50 yards or more last year and didn’t miss an extra point all year.

Moving to the defensive side of the ball the Dolphins had a top 10 defense all around last year. The Dolphins had a Defensive Player of the Year candidate at CB in Xavien Howard. The Dolphins were successful in limiting opponents scoring. They were the sixth-best scoring defense last year averaging 21.1 points allowed. This includes giving up 56 to the Bills in Week 17. The Dolphins standout defensive play started in the secondary. Howard grabbed 10 interceptions, new addition Byron Jones played CB 2, and veterans Eric Rowe, Bobby McCain and rookie Brandon Jones contributed with playmaking in the secondary. The linebackers played the run very well with Elandon Roberts playing inside with Jerome Baker.

Baker struggled at times in coverage and covering gaps in the run but it was passable play. The edge rushers didn’t get home at an elite rate but when they did convert their pressures into sacks turnovers where created. The combination of Van Ginkel, Ogbah, Van Noy, and Lawson forced nine fumbles on 25 sacks. The other key defensive stat was Miami was the best third-down team on defense allowing just over 31% conversions.

Miami spent two top picks on the defense. They used their own first round pick on edge rusher Jaelan Phillips. Phillips is a disruptive, explosive player from the University of Miami. Phillips gave up football in 2018 but he returned to “The U” and rebuilt himself. He has a high motor and the Dolphins need his pass rush and disruptiveness to succeed again.

The other high pick on the defensive side of the ball is safety Jevon Holland from the University of Oregon. Holland will replace McCain likely who was released. Holland plays aggressive and attacks. His versatility is also a plus and something Flores likes in his defense. Holland can play in the box and play the run as well as contest catches and cover.

The Dolphins also traded Shaq Lawson and in return received Bernardrick McKinney. McKinney missed a lot of last season with a shoulder injury but has proven his ability to play inside linebacker as a pro bowler in 2018. McKinney shores up the inside linebacker position and his versatility will replace the loss of Van Noy and Lawson.

If Miami can keep up the solid third down defense, limit the big plays which they were among the leagues worst in in 2020, and increase the pressure on quarterbacks the league’s best defense is attainable. This all starts with creating pressure. Wilkins and Davis on the interior line played well. Davis played the run well but didn’t create many pressures. Wilkins was the opposite, creating pressure but lacking in run defense. A better balance and consistency from these two will anchor the defense.

A player that will play a key role in returning the Dolphins to a top defense will be second year corner Noah Igbinoghene. He saw limited play as the third corner last year. He has elite speed and can play a physical in your face style of coverage but just lacked a feel for corner last year. Still, in transition from a receiver and good athlete to a true corner, this year is a big step in his development. He is playing behind one of the top corner duos in the league and will need to play the slot. The Slot corner position was also addressed in free agency with former Seahawk Justin Coleman.

Another key defender will be rookie Jaelen Phillips. The pass rush is the key to keeping this defense strong. They can cover! The coverage will get even better as the pass rush improves and the secondary can get more turnovers on rushed passes and attack the ball if they are covering for three to four seconds rather than five to six per play.

It takes more than a talented roster to win the AFC. You have to win your games. The schedule currently for the Dolphins doesn’t look greatly difficult by 2020 results. The schedule features the NFC South including defending super bowl champs and the Saints sans Drew Brees. The tough nondivision games inside the AFC will be the Ravens and Colts. For the Dolphins to get the top seed in the AFC they will have to win all those games including a 4-2 at minimum record within the division. I predict the top seed in the AFC will have to win 14 games minimum.

With good health first and foremost the top seed is achievable. A repeat performance from the defense in terms of scoring and efficiency is needed and is achievable with the additions. The key to it all is Tua and the offense. If Tua develops into the superstar quarterback we all thought pre hip injury the weapons are there to put up big numbers and rival the Bills and Chiefs success.

Realistically I don’t see the Dolphins winning the AFCs top seed. However, they will be good and they should improve on their 10 wins from last year and make the playoffs. I’m a lifelong Dolphins fan of 25 years and willing to bet I’ve watched more Dolphins football than 99.5% of the people my age. The Dolphins are close to being the best team in the AFC. If it is this year that will surprise me but not be out of reality. Betting on them is not the Ludacris bet it was barely a year ago. Flores and Grier have the team headed in the right direction. Staying healthy and “Any Given Sunday” you never know. Nonetheless, the Dolphins are poised to be a sleeper to earn the top seed heading into the 2021 playoffs.

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