The NFL playoff field has narrowed from 12 teams to eight and now finally to four.
We’re going to look at each of the losing teams and figure out what they need to add to its existing core to take the next step toward championship contention.
We already looked at the Oakland Raiders and now we’re moving on to the Miami Dolphins.
Like the Raiders, the Dolphins were undone at least in part due to a late season injury to their starting quarterback. The injury to Ryan Tannehill, which forced Matt Moore into a playoff start left Miami vulnerable against a Steelers team they’d already defeated once during the regular season and probably could have beaten again.
However, Miami isn’t quite as well-positioned as the Raiders are heading into the 2017 offseason. The Dolphins have several more free agency decisions to make and don’t have nearly as many cornerstone players to build around. There’s also the little matter of the juggernaut Patriots blocking their path to the top of the division anytime soon. However, there has to be much more hope in Miami now than there was at this time last year. Adam Gase looks like the proper choice to lead the franchise, as the team’s productive offense boosted them to the playoffs and there is plenty of room for improvement to take steps forward.
Another year for Tannehill in Gase’s offense should make him even better next year than he was during a 2016 season in which he showed signs of improvement after a few stale seasons. The Dolphins biggest find this year was a running game, as Jay Ajayi took the lead back role and ran with it to finish fourth in the league in rushing despite starting just 12 games. The team also developed a capable receiving corps with Jarvis Landry leading the way and DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills posting similarly productive seasons. However, Stills is a free agent, and after a bounceback year in Miami, he’s likely to command a lucrative long-term contract. Miami must weigh whether it’s worth giving it to him or targeting a receiver via the draft.
For the Dolphins offense to take another step forward in 2017, after ranking 24th in total offense this season, they’ll have to do two things: upgrade their mediocre at best offensive line and get some production out of the tight end position. Both tasks are easier said than done, but the Dolphins have options, as they’ll have a good deal of cap space entering the offseason. Guard Jermon Bushrod is the only free agent of the current group, but it’s a group that ended the season filled with replacable and movable parts. The return of Mike Pouncey next season should help, and the team could put him at center, or either guard position while moving Laremy Tunsil, who made progress as an out of place rookie at left guard, to left tackle. Current left tackle Branden Albert is a cut candidate as only $3.4 million of the $22 million left on his contract is guaranteed. Ja’Wuan James, who started all 16 games at right tackle, is likely to return to that role next season, but the team needs progress out of the 19th overall pick in the 2014 draft in order for the unit to get better. At tight end, the Jordan Cameron experiment was a massive disappointment and the team could look to lure Martellus Bennett from New England, or address the position via the draft. Either way, a threat at tight end is necessary to move the offense forward under Gase.
On the other side of the ball, Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh and Kiko Alonso provide the base for a unit that went through several peaks and valleys in 2016. Miami is likely to cut Mario Williams and with Andre Branch a free agent, they’ll need another edge rusher to pair with Wake. Alonso is a restricted free agent, making him very likely to return and a contract for him should be a huge priority. However, even if they do retain Alonso, the Dolphins have a ton of work to do at linebacker, where nearly every other player who saw time as a starter is an unrestricted free agent. Finding an impact LB in the first round of the draft like Alabama’s Reuben Foster — to team with Alonso in the middle of the field — would make the whole defense significantly better. It’s also possible Miami cuts ties with cornerback Byron Maxwell this offseason, as he’s guaranteed just $5 million of the more than $30 million left on the crazy contract he signed with Philadelphia. If they do that, they’ll once again be seeking a top tier corner, a seemingly annual tradition.