AFC East: Miami Dolphins
ESPN scouting director and draft expert Todd McShay provides his latest mock draft for all 32 teams. His projection for the Dolphins may surprise you.
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Breakdown: The Dolphins will begin this season with playoff expectations after last year’s 8-8 finish. But in order to make the postseason, Miami must get through a competitive schedule that includes six games -- Broncos, Chiefs, Packers, Chargers and Patriots (twice) -- against playoff teams from a year ago. It also will be interesting to see how the Dolphins handle their long trip to London to face the Oakland Raiders in Week 4. But perhaps Miami’s biggest hurdle is within the AFC East. The Dolphins have been a disappointing 4-8 against division opponents the past two seasons. Miami opens its season against the New England Patriots at home in Week 1 and on the road against the Buffalo Bills in Week 2. Miami was 2-4 last year against AFC East teams. That cannot happen in 2014 if the Dolphins aim to end their five-year playoff drought.
Complaint department: Miami does not play back-to-back home games until the final two games of the season. That means the Dolphins must really be on their "A" game on the road this year in order to put together any kind of significant winning streak. I also thought the Dolphins would get more than two prime-time games. Miami is a young team with a young quarterback and missed the playoffs by one game. The Dolphins will play on Thursday night against Buffalo in Week 11 and on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" against the Jets in Week 13.
Bevy of reunions: The 2014 season will be the year of reunions for Miami's players and coaches. The biggest reunion will be in Week 6 when Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin hosts his former team, the Green Bay Packers, for the first time. Philbin came up the ranks in Green Bay as a longtime assistant and eventually became a successful offensive coordinator. In terms of players, new Dolphins left tackle Branden Albert will face the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3. New Dolphins running back Knowshon Moreno also will make a return trip to Denver in Week 12 to face the Broncos after leading the Super Bowl runners-up in rushing last season.
Strength of schedule: 12th, .508 | Vegas over/under : 7.5
Dolphins Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, New England, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, at Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Kansas City, 4:25 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Oakland, 1 p.m. (in London)
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Green Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, San Diego, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, at Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Thursday, Nov. 13, Buffalo, 8:25 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, at Denver, 4:25 p.m.
Week 13: Monday, Dec. 1, at NY Jets, 8:30 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at New England, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, NY Jets, 1 p.m.
This week is a good time to take a well-deserved break. I will be away from ESPN.com's Dolphins page and taking vacation until April 28. I provided material in the blog to check out next week and others will provide reaction on the team, when necessary.
Thanks for being loyal readers, Dolphins fans. See you soon.
Most projections have the Dolphins drafting an offensive lineman in the first round. It is currently the team's biggest need. But in ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest mock draft, he did not go in that direction for the Dolphins.
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These are the two teams most project will compete to push the dominant New England Patriots for the top spot in the division. But the Jets made a significant move on Wednesday, adding former Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson to their offense. Johnson joins receiver Eric Decker and quarterback Michael Vick as three free agents looking to add a dynamic offense to the defensive-oriented Jets.
With Johnson now in the fold, are the Jets a clear No. 2 in the AFC East? Should Dolphins fans be worried?
We asked Miami fans on Twitter to weigh in on the new-look Jets with “CJ2K.” The reaction was mixed.
So how does Jordan -- last year's top defensive prospect -- rank with this year’s top defensive player: Jadaveon Clowney? ESPN.com’s Dolphins blog asked resident scout Matt Williamson this week about the Jordan-Clowney comparison.
According to Williamson, Clowney ranks ahead of Jordan coming out of college.
“If Jordan came out this year, he wouldn’t be the third overall pick,” Williamson explained. “Jordan is not Clowney. There was a really weak draft at the top [last year].”
Many consider the 2014 draft to be one of the deepest in years due to the record amount of juniors who declared this year. Jordan also left after his junior season but proved to be a raw prospect. Miami’s coaching didn’t quite know how to use the freakish athlete. They made him a backup defensive end to use on third down and he also became a key member of special teams.
Jordan did not appear to be an ideal fit for Miami’s 4-3 defense last season. Miami’s coaches were nervous about playing him against the run on first and second down. Jordan must add strength to his thin frame in order to be an every-down player. Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin said recently at the NFL owners meetings that they plan to get Jordan on the field more in 2014.
“For him to survive in a pretty base 4-3, Jordan needs to be Von Miller and not Jared Allen,” Williamson explained. “Miller plays off the line of scrimmage a fair amount. They drop him in coverage a lot and he rushes the passer on third down. Maybe that’s who Jordan should be.”
But for the Miami Dolphins, success or failure this season will depend more on the development of the 2013 draft class. Few teams got less production from their rookies last year than Miami. Only the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks had fewer snaps from first-year players -- and those teams, which competed in Super Bowl XLVIII, were stacked with established veterans.
The Dolphins, who faltered down the stretch and finished 8-8, did not have that luxury.
It's time for Miami's second-year players to come of age during an important time for many within the organization. Head coach Joe Philbin is entering an important third year after going 15-17 his first two seasons, and there could be a lot of change next year if the Dolphins aren't successful.
Most of Miami's top picks -- including defensive end Dion Jordan, offensive lineman Dallas Thomas and cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis -- basically had red-shirt seasons in 2013, thanks to injuries, inconsistency and lack of confidence from the coaching staff. That lack of production was one reason why the Dolphins failed to get to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.
"They got less than anybody in the league out of their draft class, and they had high picks. That's a huge issue," ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson said. "But if that group, the corners and especially Jordan, can play up to what Miami thought they were and what most people thought they were, the Dolphins could rebound."
"We have a lot of hope for the draft class from last year," Philbin said at the NFL owners meetings in late March. "A lot of them have been back early, working. You want to see development throughout the course of an individual player's career, but I think all of you guys would agree you usually see a significant jump between Year 1 and Year 2. These are guys we thought highly of a year ago when we drafted them.
"They had some injury issues that kind of curtailed their development in Year 1. So I'm excited about working with them, developing them and seeing them progress here this season."
The 2013 draft class was one point of contention last year between Miami's coaching staff and the front office. Philbin didn't feel his rookies were ready to take on larger roles. Jeff Ireland, then the Dolphins' general manager, believed in the talent of his draft picks and felt they were not being used properly. Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, was perhaps the biggest example.
Due to offseason shoulder surgery, Jordan missed time in training camp and the preseason. He never found his footing in the regular season and he fell behind veteran defensive ends Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby.
Williamson described Jordan as "a ridiculous athlete." He has immense potential but spent most of the season as the third or fourth defensive end and on special teams. He was involved in 321 snaps and had a disappointing 26 tackles and two sacks.
There have also been offseason trade rumors involving Jordan, which Philbin has denied. Miami's head coach expects Jordan to have a larger role in 2014.
"We feel like with a full offseason, with more time devoted to his fundamentals, he will have a better grasp of the position he's playing," Philbin said. "We do want to do a better job with the numbers, rotating him in. ... We want to get him more snaps on first and second down. "
The Dolphins also are counting on young corners Taylor and Davis, who were drafted in the second and third round, respectively. Both had injury setbacks last season and played a combined 104 snaps.
Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes will occupy one starting job, and Taylor and Davis will compete with veteran free-agent acquisition Cortland Finnegan for the other spot. Finnegan, a former Pro Bowl corner, is the favorite to start due to experience. But Philbin is not going in with any preconceived notions.
"I want to see the best player, whoever can help us win football games," Philbin explained. "Whoever performs the best should be the starting corner."
Miami got most of its rookie production last year from unlikely sources. Fifth-round kicker Caleb Sturgis proved to be the Dolphins' best rookie acquisition last season. He beat out longtime Miami kicker Dan Carpenter in training camp and led the Dolphins with 111 points.
The Dolphins also had decent production from undrafted rookie guard Sam Brenner, who made four starts and played 274 snaps. Brenner stepped up following the suspension of guard Richie Incognito in Miami's high-profile bullying scandal.
Brenner's production highlighted the fact that Thomas, a 2013 third-round pick, was too green to step in and be productive. Thomas was rotated between guard and tackle in training camp and never got comfortable in either position. Thomas must find a home at this season in order to provide quality depth.
In fact, it will be vital for Miami's entire 2013 draft class to find roles and contribute next season. The Dolphins used nine draft picks last year, and most have yet to make an impact.
"The Dolphins have a young quarterback [Ryan Tannehill], so they need to build a real core for the long term," Williamson said. "They need last year's draft and this upcoming come to build around Tannehill. They don't need to live for today. A strong core is more important than winning it all this year, although that philosophy can get you fired in Miami if you're 6-10."
Miami spent big in free agency during the first week, and that included its $47 million contract to Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert. But the key portion of that contract is guaranteed money, and according to ESPN Stats & Information, Albert got the second-most guaranteed money in free agency this year with $26 million.
The Dolphins clearly are heavily invested in Albert protecting the blindside of third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. These two players will be closely linked together in the success of Miami’s offense next season and potentially beyond. Miami allowed a franchise-record 58 quarterback sacks last season, and Albert is expected to reduce that number.
Albert has a tall task of stopping the opposing team’s best pass-rusher on a weekly basis. But he is being compensated well for his services.
Albert’s guaranteed money is only surpassed by Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, who received $26.3 million in guaranteed money after leaving the Buffalo Bills for the New Orleans Saints this offseason. New Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib was slightly behind Albert with $25.5 million in guarantees.
Williams, 25, is a former third-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2010. He caught a career-low 15 receptions for 178 yards in 10 games last season.
The Dolphins are searching for healthy veteran wide receivers to add depth behind starters Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline. Backups Brandon Gibson (knee) and Armon Binns are both coming off season-ending knee injuries.
Several players in recent weeks have been linked to the Dolphins at No. 19. But ESPN.com draft expert Todd McShay provided his latest projection for Miami on Thursday, and it’s not a player you would expect.
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ESPN NFL analyst Keyshawn Johnson caught up with Tannehill during the Adidas football shoot in Los Angeles. Tannehill knows this is an important third season to prove he's the long-term solution in Miami.
"It's huge. I have to make a big jump, I'm aware of that," Tannehill said. "I’m putting in the work, putting in the time to get myself physically ready, mentally ready and learn this new offense that we’re going with this year. So there is still work to be done.
"But I look for a big jump in myself, both in production and wins. That’s what we ultimately play for is wins. So, I’m excited to see what this team does."
The Dolphins finished 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs by one game. Tannehill and Miami's offense sputtered down the stretch and scored just seven points in the final two games. That led to the firing of offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who was replaced by Bill Lazor.
Miami made several additions to help Tannehill in free agency. The Dolphins added Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert to improve pass protection and new tailback Knowshon Moreno to provide a spark in the running game.
But the Dolphins' season will sink or swim with Tannehill's development. ESPN analyst and former NFL general manager Bill Polian believes Tannehill needs to make quicker decisions.
“He needs to get the ball out of his hands more quickly to hit open receivers,” Polian said on ESPN’s “NFL Insiders” Wednesday. “In doing that it will increase passing-game efficiency and eliminate some of those league-leading 58 sacks.”
In case you missed it, here is my full column on Tannehill entering Year 3.
The Dolphins still have flexibility to make a move in free agency. Miami is currently $16.46 million under the salary cap, according to NFLPA records. The Dolphins have 62 players under contract.
Only six teams have more cap space than Miami. The Cleveland Browns ($30.8 million) and New York Jets ($26.2 million) lead the way in salary-cap room. The Dolphins are second in the AFC East with money left available to spend.
What does this mean for Miami? Don’t expect the team to go on another spending spree. The Dolphins made their choice to spend big on players this offseason such as left tackle Branden Albert ($47 million) and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell ($18 million). The remainder of free agency will be spent bargain hunting.
Miami still has several well-defined needs, such as guard and right tackle. The Dolphins also could use depth at several positions such as safety and linebacker.
They also need to keep space available for this year’s rookie class. Miami has seven selections in next month’s NFL draft, including the No. 19 overall pick.
Scott played guard and tackle in college. The Dolphins often are intrigued by players with position flexibility, especially on the offensive line. Each team gets 30 pre-draft visits, and Scott could be a target of interest for Miami later in the draft.
The Dolphins have already made significant changes to their offensive line this offseason. They signed veteran guard Shelley Smith and offensive tackles Branden Albert and Jason Fox in free agency.
The much anticipated release of three-time Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson took place on Friday. The former Tennessee Titans star was cut by the team after failed attempts to make a trade.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter had an interesting nugget that the Miami Dolphins were one of several teams trying to acquire Johnson in a trade this offseason. ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky also writes the Buffalo Bills and Dolphins were teams with the most interest.
Here are some thoughts on what this means for Miami:
- Despite public comments on the contrary, the Dolphins were not happy with their tailbacks from last season: Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas. Miami general manager Dennis Hickey and coach Joe Philbin were asked several times in the past three months about the position, and the company line has been “We like our running backs.” But behind the scenes, the Dolphins were clearly trying to maneuver for an upgrade.
- Along those lines, the Dolphins wound up signing former Denver Broncos starting running back Knowshon Moreno. He’s not nearly as dynamic as Johnson. But Moreno brings certain elements to Miami such as proven short-yardage success and being strong in pass protection. Miami's interest in Johnson most likely decreased after signing Moreno. But it will be interesting to see if interest in Johnson will pick up now that he's a free agent.
- Nearly the entire AFC East had interest in Johnson. The Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets all reportedly engaged in trade talks with the Titans. These are the three teams trying to catch the AFC East champion New England Patriots. Johnson is the type of player who can help close the gap in the division. I think the Jets would be the best AFC East fit at this stage.
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