2016 Exit Interivews: Who Figures into the Dolphins 2017 Plans?

The 2016 Dolphins were many things. Between the heart-thumping finishes, exceeded expectations, and setting a new organizational precedence, if nothing else, this team was a sheer pleasure to watch. With an impressive resolve, the Dolphins overcame a multitude of adverse situations to win double digit games and secure a post-season berth for the first time since George W. was in office. Season ending injuries to key players, others missing multiple games and a brand new scheme for both sides of the ball – none of this deterred Miami from taking a massive step forward.

The players have cleared their lockers and begun making their off-season arrangements. Before they go, each of them needs to be held accountable for the 18-week effort put forth for future evaluation.

In this piece, I will review each player’s performance and where they figure into this team’s future plans. Continuity is my theme as I’m buying into the idea that it is critical to develop a program and stick to it the way Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy have done en route to leading their teams to the conference title games.

Up first, the quarterbacks:

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With Tannehill and Moore in the fold, the Miami’s quarterback situation is in good hands

 

Ryan Tannehill – After re-re-reviewing the film, there’s no question that Ryan Tannehill not only earned his jump in pay, but he’s bordering on the precipice of elite quarterback play. Often times, the raw numbers are extracted from a season and used to project the following season. But once Tannehill became acclimated in this offense, that big time play making ability that flashed at Texas A&M and sporadically throughout his first four years jumped off the tape this year. I’m telling you guys, this quarterback is going to be a superstar in this offense.

2017 Status: Unquestioned starter / franchise quarterback

Matt Moore – After a terrific relief performance, Matt Moore has earned a pay raise as well. If Tannehill were to require surgery and isn’t available for the beginning of the season, or if he misses time later in the year, there is no question that Matt Moore is an extremely valuable asset.

2017 status: Backup QB and vital piece to the quarterback room

Running Backs:

Jay Ajayi – This seems like a useless exercise at this point but the team MVP had a monster season. Breaking more tackles, running for more yards after contact than anybody and gaining more than 1,200 yards despite being a limited player in the first five games of the season, Ajayi broke out. Full-fledged superstardom is the next step.

2017 status: Bell cow back

Kenyan Drake – I don’t think he got nearly as much work as he, or I for that matter, would’ve hoped for. Preserving Ajayi’s legs will be a key to the 2017 season so expect an expanded role for the dynamic runner in 2017. He was the best return man for the Dolphins and sprung that big play in the Buffalo win.

2017 status: Spell back

Damien Williams – Third on the team in touchdowns, a mismatch option on the perimeter and a quality pass protector and pass catching option, Damien Williams is a multi-faceted weapon for this team. He excels on special teams and does everything pretty well. He is a little too hesitant of a runner for my tastes so I’d prefer to see him be the third option in the ground game.

2017 status: Entrenched specialist / 3rd down back

Wide Receivers:

Jarvis Landry – Despite being a huge fan, I was pretty hard on Jarvis in his first two seasons. The force-fed offense inflating his reception numbers is nice for record keeping but it did little to help win football games. In 2016, Landry became one of the most productive receivers in the game chewing up 8.7 yards per target (better than Antonio Brown) and establishing himself as a team leader and fiery player. His work in the blocking game and intensity for 60 minutes is unmatched across the league.

2017 status: Pay that man his money / Focal point of the passing game

Kenny Stills – The big play threat of the offense, a reliable third down target, and a selfless route runner that sets up the rest of the offense, Kenny Stills was the catalyst for the Dolphins offense in 2016. He’s a touchdown maker and a savvy technician when it comes to setting up defenders.

2017 status: PAY THAT MAN HIS MONEY! / Irreplaceable second or third option

Devante Parker – Despite a stretch of dominance, I felt like Parker underachieved this season. His west coast swing in Los Angeles and San Diego was just scratching the surface on what he is capable. The reports of him learning to be a professional and struggling with it early on were troubling, but he certainly responded to Adam Gase’s demands as the season progressed.

2017 status: Entrenched starter, potential breakout year

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Like quarterback, Miami is set up nicely at the skill position spots as well.

 

Leonte Carroo – Things did not go as well for the rookie receiver. He saw limited time (12% of the offensive snaps) and was deactivate late in the year in favor of an undrafted rookie. Not a good look for a mid-round rookie.

2017 status: Needs to earn a roster spot

Jakeem Grant – Nobody was more disappointing on offense this season. Seemingly every other kick was a muff in the second half of the season and he never made an impact on offense.

2017 status: Uphill climb to make the team

Rashawn Scott – He was active a couple of times but nowhere near enough playing time to make an assessment.

2017 status: Unclear

Tight Ends:

Dion Sims – He makes his money as an inline blocker but he increased his productivity in the passing game. He became a more sure handed red zone threat and operates really well from heavy set formations. He is a free agent but I imagine retaining him is a priority.

2017 status: Starting tight end, high rep count in a WR and RB featured offense

Marqueis Gray: His contract extension made it very clear what the Dolphins think of him. A quality backup tight end that can give the team 20 or so snaps per game as a terrific run blocker and occasional pass catcher.

2017 status: Sub-package player

Dominque Jones – When called upon, I found Jones to be a reliable option off the bench and another fit to the heavy personnel running scheme. The Dolphins haven’t made any public indication that they intend to keep the former arena league star.

2017 status: Potential third tight end, uphill battle

Thomas Duarte – Frankly, I don’t see it. This is a long term project type of player that is supposed to be a seam buster much like Jordan Cameron was supposed to be.

2017 status: Third tight end or practice squad again

Offensive Line:

Branden Albert – The more I go back and look at the tape, the more I noticed #76 struggling. He was abused by Melvin Ingram in San Diego, James Harrison in Pittsburgh and Calais Campbell and Chandler Jones against Arizona. He’s getting slower off the ball, doesn’t offer much in the run game and has the injury history that would make any doctor cringe.

2017 status: I’m only inviting him back on a reduced salary AND kicking him inside to guard.

Laremy Tunsil – Learning a new position, allowing just one sack all year and springing plenty of long Ajayi runs off the left side, Tunsil was the best lineman the Dolphins had in 2016. His quick feet, improving punch and leverage figure to make him a star left tackle. I really hope they start him at left tackle from the first practice in May.

2017 status: Starting left tackle

Mike Pouncey – Pouncey was as dominant as ever in the five games he played, but therein lies the issue – his availability. A recurring hip issue forced him to miss 11 games and he averages missing nearly four games a year since 2013. He’s perfect for this offense, but I think he may be on his last leg here if he can’t put together a healthy season.

2017 status: Starting center

Jermon Bushrod – I talked a lot of crap about Bushrod’s performance, but he battled through a shoulder injury all season and gave the team 16 games. He was contemplating retirement before the year but has been re-energized playing for coach Gase. There are scenarios where I’d take him back and ones where I would send him packing.

2017 status: Sixth man off the bench

Ja’Wuan James – The most improved player within the 2016 season was Ja’Wuan James. After an early season benching due to poor play, James was rarely mentioned late in the year – a good distinction for an offensive lineman.

2017 status: Starting right tackle

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Pouncey’s return and sculpting the offensive line could give Miami a top 10 offense

 

Sam Young – He acquitted himself much better than I expected in relief of the oft-injured Miami offensive linemen and got himself a new contract to show for it.

2017 status: Swing tackle

Kraig Urbik – Another quality veteran depth player, Urbik did enough to earn his keep as Mike Pouncey’s primary backup. He struggled with bigger bodied players and isn’t terrific in either the run or pass game.

2017 status: Quality interior backup

Anthony Steen – He was serviceable as a backup, but he needs more seasoning and further developing. He earned himself an opportunity to compete in 2017, but he had his share of poor games as a rookie.

2017 status: Competing for a backup job

Defensive Line:

Cameron Wake – What can I say? 11.5 sacks, highly productive pass rusher and all at the age of 34. His run defense continues to suffer but make no mistake about Wake’s value as an elite edge rusher. Right tackles with slow feet really stand no chance in pass protection on obvious passing downs.

2017 status: Pass rush specialist, probably still the starting left defensive end

Ndamukong Suh – Playing 87% of the snaps in the trenches, disrupting the inside running game and collapsing the interior pocket for quarterback, Ndamukong Suh may have had his best year yet. He is giving the Dolphins everything they paid for and will continue to do so throughout the duration of his contract.

2017 status: Starting 3 technique

Jordan Phillips – Flashes of dominance are often clouded by long periods of disappearance, but Phillips has improved immensely over 32 games in his career. As a part time player on the inside, he’d capable of beating any guard or center he might match-up with but too often he was rolled out of the play all together. This is going to be a key player development for the Dolphins moving forward.

2017 status: Starting nose with potential for increased snap count

Andre Branch – Probably the most pleasant surprise for new acquisitions, Branch was a disruptive force during the six game winning streak. He really cooled off after that and is in line for a much bigger contract than I would be willing to give him. But good for him, he has earned it.

2017 status: Signs big deal elsewhere

Earl Mitchell – He had some nice flashes after returning from injury, but he’s too inconsistent and has too large of a contract. The Dolphins can free up a lot of cap space by letting him go.

2017 status: Cut

Mario Williams – He was awful.

2017 status: Cut

Terrance Fede – He hasn’t developed any traits that pop out, the defensive line rotation takes a serious loss when he comes in for Cam Wake. It’s probably time to move on from this project.

2017 status: Cut

Nick Williams – Much like Fede, the rotation took a step backwards when the replacements came on to the field. He’s on the part of the roster that you’re always looking to upgrade so his staying power is a toss-up at this point.

2017 status: Could walk, could be back as a rotational guy

Linebackers:

Jelani Jenkins – He dealt with a lower body injury, was in a cast for a decent portion of the season and the same problems persist with this guy. He’s often out position, late to react and over pursues plays. That string of impressive games in 2014 seems like it was decades ago.

2017 status: Walking papers

Kiko Alonso – I was against him playing inside from day one but he played better than anticipated. He’s undersized and struggles in coverage but he’s a quick decision maker that will make big plays when he’s correct on his keys. The problem is that he often has false keys, wastes a lot of steps and gets washed out of the play altogether. I think he has a place in this defense, but not inside.

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Moving Kiko Alonso to Weakside backer could pay huge dividends

 

2017 status: Moved to weak side linebacker

Donald Butler – For a street free agent mid-season, he performed admirably, but that’s not going to cut it for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Butler earned the right to be quality depth for the Dolphins or possibly a starter on a lesser team.

2017 status: Walking papers

Mike Hull – Another guy that provides high level special teams performance but has a ways to go as a linebacker. He has the size and the closing speed you like, but he could play faster both physical and mentally.

2017 status: Linebacker depth and special teams standout

Neville Hewitt – His run defending has improved a lot in two years, he still struggles in coverage as he simply gets outmatched against better tight ends. The passion is there and the instincts are raw, but I would like to see him further developed under this staff.

2017 status: Linebacker depth

Spencer Paysinger – There are cheap options already in house that can do what Paysinger does best, play special teams. He’s far too ineffective on defense to garner any snaps in 2017.

2017 status: Walking papers

Trevor Reilly – The sample size was miniscule, I really have no opinion either way. He’s going to have to beat some guys out to stick on the roster.

2017 status: Compete for a back end of the roster spot

Defensive Backs:

Byron Maxwell – Maxwell played like a top 15 corner after he was benched early in the season. He’s handsy, plays physical and contained some big name receivers this year. You take the penalties as part of his game but he rarely surrendered big plays and the secondary sorely missed his presence late in the season.

2017 status: Starting perimeter corner

Xavien Howard – A lot of blame might fall on the rookie’s plate for some big plays cashed in by Buffalo, New England and Pittsburgh in the final three games, but I find myself assigning most of that blame to safety play. Howard is a physical corner that tackles extremely well and covers in tight quarters. I think he has a bright future with the Dolphins.

2017 status: Starting perimeter corner

Bobby McCain – McCain is a try-hard guy that had some difficulties covering deep areas of the field and got beat by some quicker twitch slot receivers. Playing nickel corner is the toughest job in football and I thought he acquitted himself nicely. He’s a nosy tackler and played very well when he wasn’t asked to keep into trail technique.

2017 status: Starting nickel that will likely face inferior camp competition

Reshad Jones – My favorite Dolphins player to write about, expect Reshad to return to all-pro form next year and get this defense going in the right direction. He stuck around the team and provided a veteran leadership from the sidelines and in game preparation.

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The biggest addition in 2017 will be Reshad Jones’ return

 

2017 status: All-pro safety

Isa Abdul-Quddus – Another fantastic acquisition, Abdul-Quddus played a fine center field and kept a bandaged defensive backfield together prior to getting hurt himself. He’s rangy and very instinctive. He took over the quarterback role of this defense when Jones went out.

2017 status: Starting free safety

Tony Lippett – Lippett might’ve had the most polarizing tape of and Dolphin in 2016. There were games where he was terrific and others where he struggled. He is in his second year at the position (a converted wide receiver) who will grow and learn how to be more aggressive. He has terrific ball skills, as you’d expect, and will have to beat out two pretty good corner ahead of him.

2017 status: Fantastic perimeter depth

Bacarri Rambo – Rambo had moments where he looked like a competent starter, but he wore down as the season went out. He allowed tons of big plays in his coverage area in December.

2017 status: Third safety

Michael Thomas – Thomas is a pro-bowl level special teamer but when he sees the field on defense, its trouble. He’s lacking in too many areas, closing speed in particular, to be relied upon in relief duty.

2017 status: Special teams only

Walt Aikens – He never saw time on defense despite a multitude of injuries. But like many on this list before him, he is one of the main reasons Miami has one of the best special teams groups in football.

2017 status: Special teams only

Jordan Lucas, Lafayette Pitts and A.J. Hendy will all battle for depth on this roster.

Matt Darr had a rough year and he should face some competition this off-season.

I think Andrew Franks saved his job with the big kicks in Buffalo and making two more in Pittsburgh.

The best part about this piece is you realize how few holes the Dolphins have to plug. Does this team have a ways to go before they are ready to contend with the elite? Sure, most teams are. But at this time one year ago we were considering if this team had talent to play its way out of a top 10 draft choice.

Green Bay Packers v Miami Dolphins
Happy times ahead in Miami.

 

The improvements made across the board and player development in year one of Adam Gase are supremely impressive. Another good draft class, a couple of quality free agent signings and further developing players like Kenyan Drake, Laremy Tunsil, Jordan Phillips, Xavien Howard and Bobby McCain can put the Dolphins atop the AFC East as soon as next year.

It’s going to be a fun 2017 – Phins up.

@travis_writes

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