What will be the Miami Dolphins record next season?
By: Cody Molla
Believe it or not, the NFL season is under two months away from the kickoff of its “Biggest Season Ever”. This is the motto the NFL is marketing as we approach the 2021 season that is newly expanded to 17 games this year. This expansion follows the NFL expanding the playoff field last season to seven teams per conference. As a result of the playoff expansion for the first time in the Wild Card era a team finished with 10 wins and was in eighth place in their conference. That team was the Miami Dolphins.
Surprising the league and fans all around the Miami Dolphins under then second-year head coach, Brian Flores and a two-quarterback system fell a game short of the playoffs last season. 2020 was a major bright spot for the Miami Dolphins who have been in a rebuild. They found something with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa despite his benchings down the stretch. Myles Gaskin emerged as a serviceable back for the offense along with emerging pass catchers in Mike Gesicki and the continued improvement of DeVante Parker. The strength of the team last season was the defense. Performing as a top defense all year really kept the Dolphins in games and won games with big turnovers and scores.
Heading into 2021 the Miami Dolphins needed to improve the offense. The Dolphins off-season was focused on building around Tua. They 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 broke out last year but the Dolphins added another offensive threat at the tight end position. The Dolphins also 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.
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 big 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 a Dolphins fan, it was clear the play calls were basic when he was in the game last year. Tua explains why here, in this piece from Adam Beasley, Podcast: Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa’s candid comments | Miami Herald. Tua has been healthy throughout this offseason and will be able to fully develop his game and knowledge of the offense. This work is already showing as he has been excellent throughout the first week of training camp.
For all the improvement the Dolphins made on offense the defense needs to match their production last year. It may look gloomy on the outside right now for that as the Dolphins star CB Xavien Howard has publically expressed demanding a trade. Howard pulled down 10 interceptions last year, covered the best receiver on opposing offenses, and was named a First Team All Pro last season. That is a massive piece to the Dolphins defense. If Howard is no longer a Dolphin Miami will have Byron Jones and Noah Igbinoghene as the starting CBs.
Igbinoghene struggled as a rookie last season in limited action. However, he has elite speed and size. He has developed well going into his second year and will be needed with or without Howard this season. Noah will have a key role in returning the Dolphins to a top defense. Still, in transition from a receiver and good athlete to a true corner, this year is a big step in his development. He is potentially 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.
The Dolphins identity in 2020 was on defense. They finished as the sixth best scoring defense despite giving up 56 in the final week of the season. The Dolphins standout defensive play started in the secondary. Howard, 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 were 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 league’s worst 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.
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.
One of the most improved defenses in 2020 offers a lot of room for improvement in 2021 and will play a monster role in getting the Dolphins to the post season in 2021.
Dolphin’s fans are ready to get over the hump and end the playoff win drought that’s currently existed since the 2000 NFL season. Since the 2000 Wildcard round win the Dolphins have lost four straight playoff games. The next round in 2000, and loses in wildcard weekend in 2001, 2008, and 2016. With some bias, the drought ends this year.
Taking a look at the schedule the Dolphins opponents have a combined record of 128-144 in 2020. This .471 winning percentage is tied for the fifth lowest. This schedule is based on playing a second place schedule and having matchups with the NFC South. I am not a big fan of predicting records solely on last year’s opponent’s records as a lot of things change in the NFL. Players return from injury and new injuries arrive, Players move teams, coaches, and schemes also change.
Looking at the schedule, 2021 Miami Dolphins Schedule | FBSchedules.com the Dolphins will face a few playoff contenders early and the schedule eases up as we approach December. For the second straight year the Dolphins first two games are identical.
Opening at New England versus division rival Patriots and following that with a home game vs another division rival in the Buffalo Bills. These two games will be very critical. The Patriots are going to be improved from a down year last season. Cam Newton returns at quarterback and the Patriots return players on defense who missed last year via opt-out. The Buffalo Bills swept the Dolphins last season and established themselves as Super Bowl contenders with Josh Allen’s development. The Bills are also favored to win the AFC East. A 0-2 start would not be ideal but that is what happened last year. The loss to the Patriots is one that left them short of the playoffs. There is no need to add motivation to a week one game vs a division rival but that may be an added point by Coach Flores. I see the Dolphins starting 1-0. The next game vs Buffalo will be a tough game. The Dolphins failed to play competitively last year vs the Bills but fall short in a competitive Week 2 game.
The next stretch of games starts at the Las Vegas Raiders the teams matched up for a league-best game last season in which Miami won miraculously. Followed by the Colts, Buccaneers, Jaguars, and Falcons. At this point, the Dolphins will be 4-3. As a fan, I’d like to say 5-2 but I think a loss to the Bucs and Colts is possible.
The next game will close out the series with the Bills. This one will be in Buffalo on Halloween. The Bills Mafia will be rocking and I think another pivotal game here which the Bills win.
From Buffalo, the next five games leading to the bye are home vs Houston, home on TNF vs the Ravens, at the Jets, and two home games vs Carolina and the Giants. A 5-0 stretch here fuels the playoff push and puts the Dolphins at 9-4 heading into the bye.
Following the bye, the Dolphins win at home vs the Jets, lose a Monday night game in New Orleans, losing a tough game vs the Titans, and close out the season with a win at home against New England. This puts the Dolphins at 11-6 and good enough for a wildcard spot in the AFC.
As mentioned before Tua and company end the playoff win drought with a first weekend win and then lose in the divisional round.
This would be bitter-sweet as a fan. I feel the Dolphins do have the potential and capability to make it to a conference championship. I believe Tua can spread the ball around to playmakers, hit the deep pass consistently, and take care of the ball exceptionally well. The defense with or without Howard is good enough to create turnovers, generate more pressure than last season, and can improve on their marks from last year. The NFL season is as unpredictable as any sport. I think the Dolphins window of wins ranges between 9-12. Only time will tell. But I feel confident the Dolphins improve on their 2020 record and win 11 games and a playoff game this season! FinsUP!