NFL: Miami’s Offense Is Better Than You Think

Remember when Jim Harbaugh was heading to Miami? Or when they were going to draft Todd Gurley? The Dolphins offense could have taken on many personalities this offseason, but whether by choice or luck, they ended up retaining a promising young core, strategically adding pieces through the draft and free agency, and letting overvalued players walk. If those rumors had any substance, this approach may have been the organization’s plan B, or plan C, but evaluating the offensive roster, it may end up working out better than whatever they had in mind.

In December, both Michigan and Miami fans were attempting to track the private jet of team owner Stephen Ross. Whether he was wooing Harbaugh to the Fins or doing his alma mater a solid (or, very possibly, not doing anything at all) was a topic of much scrutiny for all obsessed parties. Oakland seemed too awkward just across the bay. No NFL insiders believed another NFL coach would pull a Saban. And so Miami seemed like a great fit, what with the young talent on the roster and the owner’s maize and blue bloodlines.

Joe Philbin got his vote of confidence several days before Harbaugh committed to coach Michigan-close enough that Ross probably had a good idea of where that situation was heading. And while the prospect of a third straight 8-8 season under Philbin probably doesn’t excite a lot of Dolphin fans, consistency in offensive scheme should benefit Ryan Tannehill, who has quietly progressed in his three years to become a quality starter and perhaps one that could someday inspire further debates on First Take as to the meaning of the word “elite.”

Tannehill improved in every single traditional metric last year and landed one spot behind Peyton Manning (and two ahead of Russell Wilson) to finish 11th among quarterbacks as graded by Pro Football Focus, who actually gave his 2013 even higher marks. This is not to say Tannehill is on Wilson or Manning’s level, but it does point to a player whose graded production surpasses his reputation. Regardless, Tannehill appears to have grown into a quarterback that meets whatever vague threshold exists for being good to enough to make the playoffs and maybe win a few games once there. The rest of the offense, however, has lagged behind.

Trading Mike Wallace for basically nothing to the Vikings might have, at first glance, seemed to exacerbate this problem. The Dolphins already had limited weapons and Wallace is one of the fastest go-route receivers in the league. Unfortunately for both the Dolphins and Wallace, running rapidly in a straight line appears to be his only differentiated skill. Last year he earned a negative PFF grade, did less after the catch per reception than the ghost of Hakeem Nicks, and gained fewer yards per route run than Rueben Randle. Wallace also reportedly told Joe Philbin he no longer wanted to play in a game immediately after his own team scored a touchdown. He was neither productive nor interested last year, and his loss should be viewed with sadness only as it relates to the hope that came when he was acquired, and that was never fulfilled.

Enter Jarvis Landry: 750 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie, improved as the season went on, and dominated many of the more advanced metrics we can use to evaluate receivers. Landry caught 80% of his targets (first in the league among receivers with more than 100 targets) and graded in at 16th overall in PFF’s wide receiver rankings. Among slot receivers he was 2nd only to Randall Cobb in yards per route run from inside (and dropped less than 2% of those catchable targets, compared to 10% for Cobb). While his college teammate Odell Beckham may have had a more explosive rookie year, Landry is quietly already one of the best slot threats in the NFL.

As good of a player as Landry is and could be, his role won’t fix the lack of production on the outside, Mike Wallace presiding or not. Lucky for the Dolphins they may have just found themselves an A.J. Green in the first round of the draft.
Devante Parker might not have Kevin White’s freakish athleticism but he’s a smoother and more polished receiver with great size and the speed to be a downfield maven. There’s a very good chance he’ll be high-pointing defensive backs for years to come, and by default his abilities are more varied than those of Wallace. While the Bears fell in love with White’s explosiveness, Parker fell to the Dolphins at 14. This is one of those rare cases where the player almost universally regarded as the “best available” remaining fit perfectly with a glaring need. After last year we may be expecting too much of the new rookie wide receiver class, but if Parker can develop into a true #1 wideout, it will give this offense a dimension it has lacked in the Philbin/Tannehill era.

If draft day rumors are to be believed, were it not for the Rams jumping on Todd Gurley, the Dolphins may have passed on Parker, which would have been a mistake. Even if Gurley becomes a top back in this league, Miami is much better off with a potential high end wide receiver, particularly given the presence of Lamar Miller in the backfield. Miller isn’t a superstar but he squeezes a lot out of his runs and is adequate after contact. If it weren’t for his atrocious hands (he dropped 15% of catchable targets last year which is you/me level) he would have a stellar overall skill set. He remains above average at a semi-interchangeable position, and is yet another player who is both talented and young enough to expect continued development. Adding Gurley to that backfield may have resulted in marginal improvement, but I’d prefer to see what Tannehill can do with a big, sudden wideout, and now we will. Plus, the Dolphins were able to add Jay Ajayi, a high upside back with knee concerns-just like Gurley-in the fifth round to complement Miller.

As for the tight end position, Charles Clay is no more. Somehow-probably because of the nocturnal imaginings of fantasy football writers on this site and across America-Clay built a hype train and is now poised to be the highest paid tight end in the NFL over the next two seasons while fighting off the white walkers in Buffalo. Whether the Dolphins underused Clay is up for debate, but he’s not worth that kind of money and Miami was wise not to pay it to him. They ultimately landed Jordan Cameron for less. While a better fantasy prospect than real life player, Cameron should help the Dolphins as long as he isn’t asked to block, and with Parker and Landry he’ll give opposing defenses a lot to think about when they are in the red zone.

A point of concern is the offensive line, which struggled last year amid injuries and poor play. The Dolphins better hope Brandon Albert can stay healthy this year, and at the other tackle spot, Ja’Wuan James, who started 16 games as a rookie but only out of necessity, must develop. Assuming Mike Pouncey bounces back with a solid year, the interior should be adequate. The best news for this unit is probably that last year set a floor for its performance.

All this adds up to the Fins having a real chance to take the next step offensively in 2015. Despite the deflate-circus engulfing their rivals in New England, on principle I’m not going to bring up Miami’s prospects to win the division—the other side of the ball may be pretty good, but we haven’t covered defense here. Not to mention the Patriots didn’t exactly have their act together last September either, and we all (with the possible exception of Gronk) remember how that worked out. Enduring year after year of mediocrity, Dolphins fans might be adopting George Costanza’s mindset, where hope is the last thing they want. But, at the very least, the organization has found itself with a promising set of circumstances on offense.

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Mike Weisbuch