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AFC East Enemy Recon: The 2023 Miami Dolphins

Down to their third-string quarterback Skyler Thompson, the Dolphins gave the Buffalo Bills everything and the kitchen sink in a road playoff game. A playoff game that they surprisingly spent some time leading mind you. Mike McDaniel decided that he needed to make some big changes. So he let go of most of his defensive staff to bring in one of the more revered defensive minds of the last few decades Vic Fangio. That wasn't all. General Manager Chris Grier bought low on former All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey in the offseason to pair with Xavien Howard.


Big splashes for sure, but maybe the biggest storyline in football last year was the health of star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. His head violently hit the ground twice in four days, leaving him out for several games in the first half of the year. Then another concussion knocked him out for the season during their game against the Green Bay Packers. More so than that was how the Dolphins and league mismanaged him in Weeks 3 and 4, but there's not enough time in the day.


Still, this is a big year for TuAnon, whom yours truly has been a shadow member of dating back to Tagovailoa's Alabama days. He was electric in the games he started a year ago and has some great pieces around him yet again in Miami's efforts to get back to the mountaintop. So grab your Dolphin masks with some tin foil for the dorsal fin, turn off the lights and put on some ominous background music, and come with me as we literally dive into this 2023 Miami Dolphins squad.


The 2023 Miami Dolphins

Coaching Staff and Front Office Personnel -

- Head Coach: Mike McDaniel (Second Year as Dolphins Head Coach) - Offensive Coordinator: Frank Smith (Second Year as Dolphins OC, is not the Dolphins Play Caller) - Defensive Coordinator: Vic Fangio (First Year as Dolphins DC) - Special Teams Coordinator: Danny Crossman (Fifth Year as Bills STC) - Notable Assistant Coaches: Wes Welker (Yes, the Very Same. WR Coach), Mathieu Araujo (Assistant Defensive Backs Coach), Anthony Campanile (Linebackers Coach), Darrel Bevel (Quarterbacks

Coach/Passing Game Coordinator) - General Manager: Chris Grier (Eighth Year as Dolphins GM)


Notable Additions - Free Agency: David Long (LB, Titans), Braxton Berrios (WR, Jets), Isaiah Wynn (OT, Patriots), - Draft: Cam Smith (CB, South Carolina), Devon Achane (RB, Texas A&M) - Trades: Jalen Ramsey (CB, Rams)


Notable Subtractions - Free Agency: Elandon Roberts (LB, Steelers), Mike Gesicki (TE, Patriots), Thomas Morstead (P, Jets) - Trades: Hunter Long (TE, Rams)


2022 Offensive Team Ranks - 23.4 Points Per Game (11th) - 364.5 Yards Per Game (6th)

- 265.4 Pass Yards and 99.2 Rush Yards Per Game (4th and t-26th) - 36.2% Conversion Rate on Third Down (24th) - 60% Red Zone Conversion Rate (10th) - 21 Turnovers (t-25th) 2022 Defensive Ranks

- 23.5 Points Allowed Per Game (24th) - 337.8 Yards Allowed Per Game (18th) - 234.8 Pass Yards and 99 Rush Yards Allowed Per Game (27th and 4th) - 41.6% Conversion Rate Allowed on Third Down (24th) - 59.3% Red Zone Conversion Rate Allowed (23rd) - 14 Takeaways (t-30th)


The Vic Fangio Effect

What if I told you one of the best moves of the NFL offseason didn't involve a player but rather a coordinator coming back into the official coaching ranks? Last year Vic Fangio was in the weeds, helping out the Philadelphia Eagles as a consultant after his stint coaching the Denver Broncos. Now he's in control of a unit with no shortage of enticing chess pieces and is coming off a season where they were a top-five run defense. This could not be a better situation for the long-time veteran play caller.


The last season we saw Fangio as a defensive coordinator was with the Chicago Bears in 2018, one of the better NFL defenses of the last decade. Two players from that team, Khalil Mack and Aaron Lynch, went as far as to call him "an Evil Genius" and a "Mob Boss." Not hard to see why when you look and see this was a unit that was the No. 3 overall defense that season, No. 1 run defense, and No. 1 in takeaways. Had the 2018 Bears' QB been just about anyone not named Mitch Trubisky, they could have legitimately won it all. Not much of a surprise that they went from 12-4 to 8-8 once he left for Denver, though.


So when you're talking about a Vic Fangio defense, you can expect a few key tenets -- Not relying too heavily on blitzing, running two high safeties as a base setup, having interchangeable safeties (sound familiar?), and a healthy amount of zone coverage. That and his 3-4 under looks have been seen more recently, specifically with his coaching tree members, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley, Packers DC Joe Barry, and certainly with new Eagles DC Sean Desai.

Miami Dolphins 3-4 Under Look

Although there are some downsides to the Fangio scheme, which we'll get to later, the upside on paper is that you limit yourself from giving up big plays, forcing offenses to try and win via death by 1000 cuts, and keeping the opposing QB on his toes for 60 minutes with disguised looks. On paper, seems like a great way to go about it.


Pieces on the Chess Board

The best part about this for Fangio is he has all the pieces in place for him in Miami, even with Jalen Ramsey set to miss just shy of half the season. The Dolphins have one of the best defensive fronts in the entire league; Christian Wilkins, Emmanuel Ogbah, Raewkwon Davis, Jalen Phillips, and Bradley Chubb. Simply a horrifying group. Four of those five guys can be Pro Bowlers any given season.


They also have some guys who can play on the back end, namely Oregon product Jevon Holland, but are banged up down the depth chart. Brandon Jones is just getting back to practice after an ACL tear in October. Ditto for corner convert Trill Williams, who tore his ACL about midway through training camp last year. Fangio is making it sound like it's an open tryout to see who starts next to Holland, so safe to say there's at least one team in the AFC that has more questions at safety than the Patriots in August. Regardless, this won't be a one-player solution. Holland is the centerpiece of that position, but safties carry a ton of responsibility in this scheme. It's a fine line between getting guys on the field you know can execute but have the tools to line up in multiple spots. Even Holland has gone on record talking to Justin Simmons and Eddie Jackson about what he can expect.


Something else interesting Fangio is attempting is to move Ogbah from the interior out to the edge. Attempting being used because he's still on the inside since they haven't figured out what they're doing just yet. He's a multi-technique guy, so this is a great problem to have if you're Fangio. Especially considering that before the 2022 season, Ogbah had 18 sacks in his first 33 games with the Dolphins.


Speaking of problems, Jalen Ramsey is set to be out the opening two months of the season, give or take. Not ideal for the prized acquisition of the offseason, but the Dolphins do have a couple of good corners in-house with 'Darth' Kader Kohou and Xavien Howard. Miami also brought in Eli Apple just recently, in addition to already having guys like Patriots Legend Keion Crossen, rookie Cam Smith, and former first-rounder Noah Igbinoghene, who appears to be having a good camp by the sounds of it.


Right off the bat, it'll probably be Howard and Apple as the starting outside guys, with Kohou in the slot, but how short of a leash will Apple have? We've seen numerous times where he's willingly given out free bulletin board material, and Cam Smith was someone I liked coming out of South Carolina—something to watch.



"Tell 'Em to Bring Me My Money"

The one lock on the inside of the defensive front for Miami is none other than Springfield, Mass' finest Christian Wilkins. Fangio hasn't been speaking highly of most guys, but he went out of his way to talk glowingly about one of the NFL's best.

[Wilkins] has exceeded my expectations. Due to his talent and work ethic, he's one of the best defensive players in the league." - Vic Fangio.

McDaniel also recently went out of his way to praise his star D-Tackle, highlighting his coachability and enthusiasm. Watching him last year, every single bit of that was on display, but despite that, he missed out on Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors. Wilkins brings max effort on every down, the ability to seal up gaps at will and draw multiple offensive linemen to him, active hands when he's in the throwing lane, and some raw power. Dawson Knox of the Bills can tell you all about that.

So with that in mind, why haven't the Dolphins given Wilkins an extension yet? Miami is set to be north of $40,000,000 over the cap next year, but of course, the cap is fake and can be easily cheated. Most likely you'll see them kick the can down the road with some restructures and things of that nature.


Now, a guy Wilkins is very familiar with could be a baseline to set up a contract extension over, and that's old Clemson running mate Dexter Lawrence. The extension he signed in May was for four years and $87,500,000, with $60,000,000 in total guarantees plus $22,000,000 in signing bonus money. The way the guaranteed money is set up in that deal, the Giants could cut bait after year two since there's no guaranteed money left outside of some kickers involved (i.e. X amount of dollars becomes guaranteed on the first day of the league year). No guarantee they do that, but they have a built-in out.


Another potential issue, if you are the Dolphins, is that Wilkins is a full year older than both Williams and Lawrence, which feels nitpicky if you think about it, but when has that ever stopped an NFL front office? Thinking freely, a deal in the neighborhood of around $22,500,000 in AAV sounds pretty fair, probably three years instead of four, however. Wilkins should also be asking for 70% of his extension to be fully guaranteed, which would bring him slightly north of both Willams and Lawrence. In addition to a quarter of the total money coming in via the signing bonus. How they spread the money around is above my pay grade, but if Miami doesn't want to pay him, 31 other teams would.


Move Those (A)Chains

It's fair to say the Dolphins' offense isn't too heavily reliant on running the ball, but they were also one of just eight teams a year ago to average less than 100 yards per outing. Having Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert is a pretty good situation. Neither of those guys are what you'd call bell cows. So the 'Fins end up drafting Texas A&M back Devon Achane in Round 3 of the draft to fill out the main portion of their rotation. He was the sixth running back taken off the board, but there were people that I know who thought very highly of him during the draft process.


From what I have seen of Achane, he won't wow you working downhill between the tackles, but he has some great vision and change of direction ability. So, in essence, he's perfect for Mike McDaniel. Achane is a guy you try to get something going for outside the hash marks and do some damage. That's not even getting into his speed because Achane can fly. Earlier this year at the combine, he ran a 4.32 40-yard dash with a 1.51-second 10-yard split. So watch out if he can find some open grass.

Achane has been steadily getting first-team reps in practice but is also dealing with an undisclosed injury. Speaking to the media, McDaniel called his situation day-to-day, leaving his status for Miami's preseason opener in question. Whenever he starts getting live game reps, I'm interested to see how he plays off of fullback Alec Ingold since he didn't play with one at A&M with Jimbo Fisher. My only concern with the backs is that they all essentially fill the same niche, which in this offense could work out fine, but there's no power runner to go to.


Lightning and Thunder

Year one of the Jaylen Waddle-Tyreek Hill pairing was a resounding success for the Dolphins. They combined for 194 catches, 3066 yards, and 15 touchdowns, along with Waddle outright leading the league in yards per reception with 18.1. Simply an embarrassment of riches. Four times all season were they both held to under 70 yards receiving in the same game as well, those coming against the Jets twice, the latter Patriots matchup, and then against the Browns.


For some reason, Tyreek Hill went out of his way to say he felt he was being misused in Kansas City, which couldn't have been further from the truth. Regardless, his target number increased for the third year in a row, and he put up 100 yards per game for the first time in his career. Hill did end up having a couple of poor outings against the New York Jets, facing a ton of trouble working against mostly D.J. Reed. Now to Hill's defense, he drew a couple of DIs in Game 1 against Reed and Sauce Gardner. Ultimately though, despite every attempt in the book to get him going, it never materialized. Bubble screens, motion pre-snap to either get him off Reed or to give him a head start, you name it, McDaniel tried it. Just watch this play from the Week 18 game.

This is all in an attempt to get Hill off of Reed and, in theory, get a mismatch on one of Quincy Williams or C.J. Mosely. A great play design too, considering Waddle is clearing out the entire right side of the field on a post working on Gardner and forcing an additional two guys to him. The problem is the linebackers communicate this perfectly pre-snap, and Williams goes step-for-step with Hill upfield, giving him no room to make the catch. On a side note, that was a preposterous throw by Skyler Thompson, basically falling down with the rush closing in.


When it comes to Waddle, he's a natural burner, yes, but he understands how to attack zone coverage very well, is great as a route runner, and he'll never cheat you on effort. One of my three or four favorite wide receivers in the game today. A good example of that last part was up against Baltimore two weeks into 2022. 11 catches for 171 yards, but he had a couple of drops and had six other passes go incomplete. Still, Tua looked his way on the final two offensive plays they ran in this game, down three with under 30 seconds left. Here's what happened

Just an unbelievable job to go up and grab it when Jalin Armour Davis did a pretty solid job recovering here. Also worth noting is that Hill was getting bracketed on back-to-back plays here. You can't double both of them, and Baltimore's corners were outmatched all day in this game. That drive was only ever going to end one way. Probably going to be another big year for both of them, and it's easy to see why. Even with some off outings, Hill and Waddle undoubtedly play great off each other.


"Expect Us"

The less said about Tua's concussion issues last year, the better. You could go on for literal hours about how he was failed by the league and his own team multiple times over in 2022, but that's beating a dead horse at this point. Although this likely wouldn't have helped on the three (3) concussions he suffered last year, Tua has packed on an additional 10 pounds this year, going from 217 lbs to 227.


So when he was healthy last year, what was there to take away from Tagovailoa's play? Simply put, he's legit. Removing the seven games he was either concussed in/outright missed, the Dolphins went 7-3, and Tua threw for 2,709 yards (294.2 per), 23 TDs to only 4 INTs, completing 63.84% of his passes, with an average passer rating of 107.65. Those numbers would tell you that Tua is comfortably a top-10 quarterback in all of the NFL, but numbers only tell half the story.


The game where Tua left the biggest impression on me was in the light snow at Buffalo in Week 15. Wasn't perfect, but he made some big-time throws/decisions and kept the ball safe in a massive spot for the Dolphins. They didn't lose this game because of him. I can promise you that.

Case and point, the 'Fins went down 14-6 right away and were pushed to a 3rd&5 at the midway point of the second quarter. The Bills do some window dressing in Cover 2, but Tua doesn't take the bait with Jordan Poyer dropping down to his right at the top of his drop. Then he unloads a great pass to Jaylen Waddle in a spot where only he could get it. Excellent play design and read here.

That wasn't the only time this game Tua took full advantage of Poyer playing downhill. On another 3rd and medium later in this game, he sends a ball right over Poyer's head to Waddle. There's maybe five defensive backs in the league catching up to him in a footrace after allowing that catch, let alone tackling him. Also, notice the pre-snap communication. Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds are barking orders to Poyer and Demar Hamlin. Edmunds' hand motions would tell you he knew that post route for Waddle was on deck, and they still couldn't stop it. Hard to say what Poyer was ultimately supposed to do here, but I can't imagine it involved the fastest guy on the field going by you 67 yards to the house. Either way, this is another example of Tua's Football IQ after the snap.


Much of the projecting with Tua this season does, of course, assume he stays healthy the full way, and that's been a massive question mark ever since his days at Alabama. Taking away the opening six games of 2020, where he was the backup for Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tagovailoa has missed 10 games with injury in his three-year career, nine of which come since 2021, and that includes the Dolphins' playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills seven months ago. No other team in the NFL has a wider ceiling floor than them simply for that. Regardless, 'We' are TuAnon. Expect 'us.'


How Do the Patriots Matchup?

Although the narrative, fact really, is that Tua is 4-0 lifetime against the Patriots, they've done a good job against him over the years. Statistically, the 2022 opener was his best of those four games, but the Dolphins were held to just 13 points on offense, eight less than what Miami did in Foxborough late last season. Philosophically, the game plan was simple defensively for New England; don't give up the big play, and it almost worked for 120 minutes of football. Only three times did Miami get plays of 25 yards or more, all of which were passing plays.

This was the longest of the three, as was it the most egregious and costly. New England always had at least one guy playing deep center, and more often than not, that was Devin McCourty. Here he's in the box taking care of Raheem Mostert, with Kyle Dugger patrolling the deep third. Ultimately, it's on Dugger that Waddle can scamper home for a back-breaking 40-plus yard score with next to no time left in the first half. Jalen Mills is protecting outside because he knows Dugger is behind him to collapse down if needed, but he hesitates just enough to give Waddle a window after the grab. As bad as things were offensively in this game, it only would have been a 10-0 game instead of 17-0 had they gotten a stop here.


As far as how the Patriots attacked Hill and Waddle, the former saw a steady dose of Jonathan Jones in both tilts, with some others rotating in as needed, mainly Jalen Mills, Jack Jones, and Myles Bryant. The corner group did a good job on Hill last year in terms of not letting him take over either game. It was death by 1000 cuts last September, but it's not fair to say he overwhelmed the Patriots. Think you'll see a similar game plan with Hill with some safety help over the top, whoever that is coming from. Waddle, meanwhile, could probably get the Christian Gonzalez treatment more often than not. He has a similar physical profile to Sauce Gardner, who did outstanding work against him last year. If he takes his bumps, so be it, but that's a matchup I'd feel good about, with some other guys getting rotated in on him, of course.


Now, how do the Patriots attack this defense? They faced a couple of Fangio defenses a year ago with the Vikings and Packers. Against the former, Mac Jones shredded his way to nearly 400 yards passing on Thanksgiving Night. Generally speaking, you're going to get a ton of free releases off the line with some of these zone coverages in the Fangio system, so that helps out a ton. Secondly, there will be a TON of free real estate in the shallow part of the field. If you're a team with some YAC guys, and the Patriots qualify here, you could be in for a good day at the office attacking a Fangio pass defense.

Specifically against the Vikings last year, they were rolling out a ton of four-man fronts with their EDGE guys as wide nines, leaving all the space in the world to pound the rock. Matt Patricia, however, opted not to take advantage that night, running the ball 13 (Thirteen) times. Making that more baffling is against another Fangio guy in Joe Barry, New England ran for nearly 170 yards on 33 carries at Lambeau. Granted, this Dolphins front is much better than last year's Packers or Vikings team in totality, but if they come out in these four-man fronts, they should be punished for it. Feed Mondre all day if that's what it takes.


The Bottom Line

Much like the Bills, the Dolphins have some real question marks going into the year, but they also have some undeniable talent all over the place. Not to mention some good coaching as well, probably a bit better than Buffalo if anything. So if they win the AFC East for the first time since 2008, that wouldn't be a shocking development.


The Fins also have a pretty rough schedule, by all accounts. On top of getting the AFC West and NFC South, they have dates with the Titans and Ravens down the home stretch. Miami also went 2-5 after their bye week, mind you, and it almost cost them a postseason birth. The upside is four of their last five games are at home, and Patriots fans know too well how sideways things can get in Miami with the weather too early or late in the year.


Ultimately, the biggest questions for Miami are these three. How fast can they get acclimated to Fangio's scheme in live-game action? What will their offensive line look like in Week 1, and will that lineup stick? And can Tua stay healthy? If the answer to that final question is yes, you can bet that the Dolphins will play mid-January football once again. Out of principle, I'm also circling the Patriots-Dolphins game in Miami as a loss this year as well.


Defined Dolphins Strengths and Weaknesses

Strengths:

- Tua Tagovailoa

- Might have the Best Wide Receiver Room in the NFL

- Elite Front Four/Pass Rush

- Top 5 Offensive and Defensive Playcallers in Football

- Talent all over the Secondary


Weaknesses:

- Tua Tagovailoa's Health

- Did nothing Substantial to Replace Mike Gesicki at Tight End

- Defense May Take Several Weeks to Round into Form Schematically

- Defense Didn't Create Many Takeaways Last Season

- Offensive Line is a Big Question Mark

- Jalen Ramsey's short-term replacement appears to be Eli Apple


Dolphins Seasonal Outlook

Record Ceiling: 13-4

Record Floor: 6-11

AFC East Finishing Position Prediction: 2nd

Team MVP: Jevon Holland


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