Focusing Forward: Five Needs the Dolphins Must Address in Free Agency
Now that the Miami Dolphins’ season is officially over on account of their Wild Card round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, we can begin to talk about the Dolphins’ offseason. This season’s unprecedented successes such as a 10-6 record and the first playoff berth since 2008 are certainly commendable accomplishments, but the team will have to make improvements if they hope to enjoy the same success in 2017 and beyond. Adam Gase and his staff are some of the best in the business, but an infusion of talent this offseason will be a necessity if they hope to become a legitimate Super Bowl contender. While most view the draft as the most important medium for accruing talent, free agency is nearly as important. The best organizations, like the Patriots, Broncos and Seahawks, wield both parts of the offseason to build and supplement their football teams. The Dolphins have performed excellently in the draft recently, but their free agency acquisitions as of late have left much to be desired. That’s going to need to change if the Dolphins are to remain competitive with the AFC’s other top units.
1. Make a Splash at the Linebacker Position
As was painfully apparent throughout the season, especially last week, the Dolphins’ linebacker unit is among the worst in the entire NFL. In fact, of Bleacher Report’s seven worst 4-3 outside linebackers, four were Miami Dolphins. Considering that Jelani Jenkins, Spencer Paysinger and Donald Butler (all of whom were among those bottom seven) are free agents, the Dolphins have a perfect opportunity to bring in new blood without cutting anyone.
Assuming the defensive coordinator (be it Vance Joseph or otherwise) does not switch the scheme to a 3-4, finding a solid linebacker to play next to Kiko Alonso should not be particularly difficult or expensive. Decent coverage linebackers tend to be undervalued on the market, as evidenced by the Chicago Bears managing to sign two elite coverage linebackers last year in Danny Trevathan (4 year $24.5 million contract) and Jerrell Freeman (3 year $12 million contract). While spending big money on defense outside of the cornerback or edge rusher positions is hard to justify, bringing in a guy like Jamie Collins or Malcolm Smith could be a difference maker. Whatever the case, the linebacker corps is likely to be the unit with the most overhaul this offseason. The only question is whether the Dolphins will look to bolster the unit in free agency, the draft, or a combination of the two.
2. Re-Sign Kenny Stills
This season, Kenny Stills re-established himself as one of the league’s premier deep threats. His physical speed coupled with his ball skills, body control and mastery of deep routes was integral to the success of the Dolphins’ offense. Stills ended the year 3rd on the team in receptions at 42 and 3rd on the team in receiving yards at 726 as the team’s wide receiver 2B. More importantly, Kenny Stills led the team with 9 touchdowns, which is more than Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker had combined and, perhaps even more impressive, greater than Jay Ajayi had during the season. He also finished 3rd in yards per catch behind DeSean Jackson and Chris Hogan at an impressive 17.3 yard average. Perhaps even more impressive was his 2.5% drop average, which was among the lowest of wide receivers in 2016. For more analysis on Stills’ contributions this season, click here.
The problem is, Kenny Stills is one of the best receivers that will hit the open market in Marchand will certainly receive more than his $600,000 yearly salary to say the least. If Stills receives number one wide receiver money on the open market, which he very well could, the team will be forced to let the former New Orleans Saint walk. With Jarvis Landry’s rookie contract’s pending expiration, the team may have to make the tough decision to let Stills go regardless in order to avoid sinking too much capital in the receiver corps. However, if it’s feasible, the team needs to find a way to keep the dangerous wideout in Miami.
3. Bolster Interior O-line with Veteran Talent
The offensive line was much better this year than in years past, and the improved O-line play was a big reason behind Miami’s mid-season turnaround. However, injuries and inconsistency took their toll throughout the season; there were too many games where they whiffed on blocks and refused to open running lanes for Jay Ajayi. The interior O-line is among the positional units that figure to see the most change this offseason. Mike Pouncey is always injured, Jermon Bushrod is a 32-year-old free agent, and Laremy Tunsil could (and should) make the move to left tackle to replace the old/injury prone/not very good Branden Albert. While Bushrod was solid and Pouncey is great when he plays, the Dolphins should look to take advantage of an interior O-line market that includes guys like T.J. Lang, Ronald Leary and Kevin Zeitler. Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James are the future at the tackle positions, and it’s time to solidify the interior as well.
4. Improve Secondary Depth, Particularly at Safety
The starting four in the secondary in 2017, as it stands now, should be Byron Maxwell, Xavien Howard, Reshad Jones and Isa-Abdul Quddus. Objectively, this is not a bad starting lineup at all. However, Byron Maxwell missed the last month of the season, and both starting safeties ended the season on injured reserve. The secondary’s lack of depth was thoroughly exposed against quality competition like the Patriots and Steelers, and it is in need of a serious overhaul in the event of injury to any of the starters. Bacarri Rambo and Michael Thomas are free agents, and neither truly showed us they were reliable next-men-up. Tony Lippett showed flashes and has earned a spot on the roster for the future, but still is not quite as reliable as he should be. While cornerback definitely needs depth improvement, the fact that both starting safeties were on IR and their replacements are free agents leads me to believe that safety is somewhat more important. Versatile defensive backs like Darius Butler and Micah Hyde could be solid options to fill the role as depth safety/nickel cornerback.
5. Find a Reliable Pass-Catching Tight End
Jordan Cameron, Dion Sims and Dominique Jones are all set to be free agents, so we could be seeing a whole bunch of new faces in the tight end unit. Jordan Cameron will probably not be back on account of his lack of durability and mediocre performance when he does play. Dion Sims was solid for much of the year and was tied for 2nd on the team with 4 touchdowns. Dominique Jones could be back as a depth tight end. As good as Sims was down the stretch, he may ask for more than he’s worth. He does not have a particularly strong overall resume and may take advantage of the thin market. While Sims could be the real deal, the Dolphins would be wise to look into other options like Martellus Bennett, Jack Doyle and Jared Cook before forking over millions of dollars to the young tight end. A great tight end would improve the passing game in the middle of the field and could potentially mitigate the loss of Kenny Stills if he leaves for greener pastures. Hopefully, an addition like this is a luxury rather than a need, but things are never easy in the NFL.