Our 2023 NFL Preview takes us from the City of Angels cross country to South Beach, where the Dolphins look to level up following their first playoff appearance in six years. Indeed, the offseason of 2022 was a transformative one for Miami, who remade their team with the hiring of (Head Coach) Mike McDaniel and the addition of (All-Pro Receiver) Tyreek Hill via trade. Now, they hope that further additions will help propel them into Super Bowl contention for the first time since the 1980s; the Fins added (Defensive Coordinator) Vic Fangio to helm a unit that fell short of expectations last season, while acquiring (perennial Pro-Bowl Cornerback) Jalen Ramsey to sure up the Secondary. However, none of these changes will amount to much without progression from (fourth-year Quarterback) Tua Tagovailoa, who enters a crucial campaign that will ultimately decide not only his long-term future with the franchise, but also how high this team can ascend in the treacherous AFC. So, let’s take a stroll through Hard Rock Stadium, shall we?
Tua’s Moment of Truth
It is difficult to describe Tua Tagovailoa’s three years in Miami as anything other than a mixed bag, as the young Quarterback has yet to meet the lofty expectations of the franchise after they selected him fifth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. The Dolphins have long been desperate for a franchise passer, and the highly decorated Tagovailoa (pictured right) became their choice despite a checkered injury history and questions over his durability and size. Keep in mind, that (General Manager) Chris Grier chose him over (Chargers Quarterback) Justin Herbert, who was selected immediately after the Hawaiian and developed into one of the most promising young passers in the league. In his first two seasons with the club, Tagovailoa started twenty-one of thirty-three games, completing 66.2% of his passes for 194.2 yards per game on just 5.82 net yards per attempt, with twenty-seven touchdowns opposed to fifteen interceptions, missing time to a rib injury and concussion (which would play a major role moving forward). Alongside Grier, (Owner) Stephen Ross opted to part ways with (former Head Coach) Brian Flores (which cost him quite a bit) in an attempt to maximize the talents of the Quarterback, leading to the hiring of the aforementioned McDaniel, who had spent the previous season coordinating the 49ers’ attack. The Dolphins also invested heavily in bolstering his supporting cast, trading for the aforementioned Hill (much more on him in a bit), while signing (Offensive Tackle) Terron Armstead to protect his blindside. As a result, Tagovailoa showed growth across the board, averaging a career-high in passing yards (272.9), while leading the NFL in yards per attempt (8.9), net yards per attempt (8.04), yards per completion (13.7), touchdown percentage (6.3%), and passer rating (105.5). However, his performance was streaky to say the least, while his health once again became an issue; the 25-year-old missed four games due to suffering multiple concussions, while also being sidelined for Miami’s 34-31 defeat at Buffalo in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. In order for this team to make another leap, two things must happen: Tagovailoa must continue his progression within McDaniel’s system, while managing to remain healthy in the process. Keep in mind that he is entering the fourth year of his rookie contract, with his cap hit set to inflate from an affordable $9.63 million in 2023 to $23.17 million in 2024, which would coincidentally be when he becomes eligible for extension. Simply put, his play this season will dictate whether or not the franchise will make an even greater investment in him moving forward, or ultimately move on in search of a better option at the game’s most important position.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen the common recipe for building a Super Bowl contender is drafting a promising young Quarterback and surrounding him with premium talent while said passer is on an affordable contract. Last season, the Dolphins became the latest subscriber to that approach, putting a number of weapons around the aforementioned Tagovailoa, with Tyreek Hill being chief among them. Over the course of his six years in Kansas City, Hill (pictured right) developed into the most feared vertical threat in the NFL, logging 479 receptions for 6,630 yards and fifty-six touchdowns, averaging 72.9 yards per game and 13.8 yards per catch along the way. However, the four-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro-Bowler wanted a new contract and the Chiefs, who had just allocated a HUGE portion of their future funds to (two-time MVP) Patrick Mahomes, were unequipped to hand it to him, leading to his trade to Miami in exchange for first, second, and fourth round picks in 2022, along with fourth and sixth round selections in last April’s NFL Draft. In turn, the 29-year-old was immediately rewarded with a four-year, $120 million contract making him the highest-paid pass-catcher in the league, and quickly dispelled any concerns of being unable to replicate that production sans Mahomes; Hill logged career-highs in both receptions (119) and receiving yards (1,710), while totaling seven scores plus one more of the rushing variety. Alongside (fellow Wideout) Jaylen Waddle, wo hauled in seventy-five catches for 1,356 yards and eight touchdowns, the passing game really took off in Miami, ranking fourth overall in yards (280.3) and touchdowns (30), while finishing second in net yards per attempt (7.29) despite seeing three different Quarterbacks start for them over the course of the campaign. Now, McDaniel will be looking to bring a bit more substance to the offense, particularly in terms of rushing the football, where they were decisively less effective, churning out just 99.2 yards per game (25th Overall) on an average of 22.9 attempts, second fewest in the NFL. The Fins also converted on just 36.2% of their third downs (24th Overall), which is yet another sign of their feast-or-famine approach with the passing game. (Offensive Tackle) Isaiah Wynn was added in free agency to further bolster the Offensive Line, while Grier and McDaniel made use of the few draft picks at their disposal, selecting (Texas A&M product) Devon Achane in the third round to provide competition in the Backfield for (veteran Tailback) Raheem Mostert, who led the team with 891 rushing yards and three scores on 4.9 yards per carry after arriving with McDaniel from San Francisco.
In Vic They Trust
Prior to McDaniel’s hiring, the strength of the Dolphins was found on the defensive side of the football. While they were far from elite, they remained a promising unit that was primed to make a leap, finishing the 2021 campaign ranked sixteenth in points allowed (21.9), fifteenth in total defense (337.5), sixteenth against the pass (227.7), fifteenth versus the run (109.8), and eighth in takeaways (26), along with twentieth on third down (41.1%) and eleventh in red zone efficiency (52.6%). When assembling his coaching staff, McDaniel opted to retain the services of (Defensive Coordinator) Josh Boyer in an effort to maintain continuity, though this would eventually prove to be a mistake on the part of the 40-year-old, who watched his defense fail to meet expectations in 2022. Miami finished the season twenty-fourth in points allowed (23.5), eighteenth in total defense (337.8), twenty-seventh against the pass (234.8), fourth versus the run (109.0), and thirtieth in takeaways (14), while ranking twenty-fourth on third down (41.6%) and twenty-third in the red zone (59.3%). The most notable regression came in the turnover department, with the Fins forcing sixteen fewer takeaways than they did in the previous season. And thus, McDaniel relieved Boyer of his duties and swung for the fences for his replacement, hiring the venerable Vic Fangio to coordinate this side of the football. Simply put, this is a home f@#$%^&* run for the franchise, who acquired one of the best in the business. Say what you will about his disappointing run as the Broncos’ Head Coach, but Fangio (pictured above) can coach the hell out of a defense. Dating back to his tenure in San Francisco (2011-2014), the 64-year-old has seen his charges rank below fifteenth in total defense just once, with seven top-ten finishes to his credit, while placing in the top-ten in points allowed on eight occasions. Furthermore, his tactics have become widespread around the NFL, with his knack for crafting exotic combo coverages routinely confounding opposing Quarterbacks. He’ll also be happy to find a wealth of talent at his disposal, including (Defensive Lineman) Christian Wilkins, (Edge-Rushers) Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillips, and (Cornerback) Xavien Howard. If that wasn’t enough, Grier and McDaniel swung another deal, acquiring the services of the aforementioned Jalen Ramsey in exchange for just a third-round pick, pairing the three-time All-Pro alongside Howard to create arguably the top tandem of Cornerbacks in the league. Unfortunately, the Fins will have to wait a while to see this pairing on the gridiron, as the 28-year-old completely tore his meniscus early in Training camp and is expected to be sidelined until December. To fill the void, McDaniel and Grier have welcomed another veteran Cornerback, Eli Apple, who had enjoyed success as a starter in Cincinnati over the past two seasons. Over the last two seasons, Ramsey has been among the best in the NFL, logging eight interceptions and thirty-four passes defended, while proving versatile in covering Tight Ends and more than willing to come down and support the run defense. Needless to say, if the Dolphins flounder on defense again, it will be nothing short of remarkable.
Projected Finish: 10-7
Despite finishing 9-8 and advancing to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, the Dolphins can’t shake the feeling that last season was one best identified as unfinished business. That’s because Miami raced out to an 8-3 record, only to drop five of their last six games of the regular season, before coming up short against Buffalo in the playoffs. Of course, Tagovailoa’s health played a large part in their late swoon, as yet another concussion sidelined him for the final two contests along with that postseason affair at the Bills. However, the young Quarterback improved greatly within McDaniel’s system and with an improved supporting cast, leaving it to stand to reason that continued progression can be expected. The same can be said about the defense, which now under Fangio’s watch could develop into one of the most formidable units in the NFL. With that said, this is absolutely a Quarterback league, and Tua’s health is a MAJOR concern for a franchise that has been desperate for a consistent franchise passer for over two decades. It should also be noted that the AFC East figures to be one of the most competitive divisions in the league, what with the Bills ranking among the elite while both the Jets and Patriots have improved themselves. Can the Fins become a championship contender? We’re not going to rule that out, though they should be more than a fringe Wild Card side this season…