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Exit Interview: Miami Dolphins

After a loss to the Browns on Sunday, the Dolphins were eliminated from the postseason. Now, they’ll head into a critical offseason with a lot of room to maneuver.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams, the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Up next is the Miami Dolphins, who were officially eliminated from the playoffs with a Week 12 loss to the Browns.


What went right

Almost nothing, which is to say almost everything. At the end of last season, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross told reporters the team will rebuild. Phase 1 of that rebuild—acquire good draft picks—was accomplished. Head coach Brian Flores and his players weren’t trying to lose games, but Miami general manager Chris Grier wasn’t trying to put them in a position to win. For the first half of the season, Miami was playing worse than a first-year expansion franchise. Entering Week 12, the Dolphins ranked as the least efficient team in football per Football Outsiders, and had a bottom-three offense and the league’s worst defense. Miami ranks in the bottom three in points per drive, yards per drive, and drive success rate. For most teams this would be a catastrophe, but not for Miami.

Miami’s present is bleak, but its future is a blank canvas, and it has some wonderful colors to paint with. At 2-9, the Dolphins are assured a high draft pick in a strong 2020 class. The team also traded left tackle Laremy Tunsil and defensive back Minkah Fitzparick for three first-round picks, which gives the Dolphins five first-rounders in the next two drafts. They also have a couple of players that they can build around. Receiver DeVante Parker is in the middle of his best season as a pro, just a year after a bitter feud between his agent and former Dolphins head coach Adam Gase. Tight end Mike Gesicki, Miami’s no. 42 pick from the 2019 draft, looks like he could be a serviceable passing option when he’s slotted into a real offense. The Dolphins season was awful, but unlike the Bengals, Washington, or the Giants, they planned it that way.

What Went Wrong

Some might say that Miami’s season nearly went wrong because it went too well. By winning two games, the Dolphins ceded control of the no. 1 pick, and thus the draft, to the Cincinnati Bengals. This opinion is divorced from reality, both because the Dolphins will still get an excellent pick and because they didn’t really want to be this bad. In the same press conference at the end of last season, Ross said he was OK with rebuilding; he also said he didn’t want to go 3-13. His team may not even do that well.

Losing has a cost. Fitzpatrick requested a trade, and Miami dealt him to Pittsburgh for a first-rounder. Miami netted a good pick, but its losing culture cost it a supremely talented young player. The Dolphins are unlikely to find someone of Fitzpatrick’s caliber with the pick they received. This season exposed just how little talent is on the Dolphins roster. Miami’s running backs had a remarkably awful season: Kenyan Drake was traded, Kalen Ballage was revealed as perhaps the worst pass-catching back currently playing, and running back Mark Walton was released after being arrested on charges of battery.

Next year, Miami could potentially turn over the entire starting backfield from Week 1. Receiver Albert Wilson, one of the best-yards-after-the-catch players in football last year, was limited by a hip injury all season. The offensive line struggled deeply, which robbed the team of the chance to give quarterback Josh Rosen a genuine audition for the roster next year. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, a Clemson star who Miami took no. 13 this year, barely had an impact and was ejected earlier this season for throwing a punch on the second play of a game against the Bills. Miami is in a position to add a lot of young players, but this season showed those young players will join a thin group.

Free Agency

With $111 million to play with, Miami has more money to spend than any other team this offseason. Watching how they spend it will be fascinating. In the past, the Dolphins spent lavishly under the delusion that they were a massive Ndamukong Suh contract away from contending. That no longer seems to be their plan.

“We have been operating under a philosophy that we had a good young roster that needed maybe free agents and draft choices and we would be very competitive,” Ross said last year. “To keep operating under that philosophy would be the definition of insanity. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”

Miami pinched pennies in 2019. Entering Week 12, the Dolphins were spending $65 million on active players, $42 million on players on injured reserve, and $62 million on dead money—players no longer on the team. Miami may allow veteran safety Reshad Jones, the longest-tenured player on the team, to be cut or traded this offseason. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has one year left on his deal, and he could be retained to be a veteran stopgap. Miami’s next quarterback can’t show much without time to throw, so if Miami does break the bank for anyone, they’d be wise to do it along the offensive line with someone like guard Brandon Scherff, who could leave Washington this offseason. The more likely path, however, seems to be Miami skipping splashy moves this March.

The Draft

The Dolphins have picks galore. After trading away Ryan Tannehill, Fitzpatrick, Tunsil (who joked even he would trade himself away for two first-rounders), the Dolphins have the following picks:

2020

  • First-rounder (Miami)
  • First-rounder (Houston)
  • First-rounder (Pittsburgh)
  • Second-rounder (Miami)
  • Second-rounder (New Orleans)
  • Third-rounder (Miami)

2021

  • First-rounder (Miami)
  • First-rounder (Houston)
  • Second-rounder (Miami)
  • Second-rounder (Houston)

Now they have to use them well. Most of the focus will be on who they take at quarterback, and rightfully so. Nothing will dictate the Dolphins’ future like picking the right QB, and Oregon’s Justin Herbert, LSU’s Joe Burrow, and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa are all in the mix, though all three have issues—Herbert’s decision-making, Burrow’s potential as a one-year wonder, and Tua’s hip injury. The Dolphins may have to sit back and take the player who falls to them, or package some of their picks together to trade for the player they want.

Regardless of their quarterback, the Dolphins will have to hit on the rest of their picks. No quarterback could be successful with Miami’s current motley crew of an offense. Miami needs to begin filling in a hollow roster. The attention will go to the quarterback they pick, but that quarterback’s success will depend on what the Dolphins do with the other nine top-64 picks they have in the next two years.