After finishing sixth in total yards in 2022, the Dolphins enter year two under Mike McDaniel with high expectations. Tua Tagovailoa is healthy after missing five and half games (including their playoff wildcard loss to the Bills) due to concussions. The offense in general, managed to elude any significant training camp or preseason injuries. There’s even some new faces, like free-agent additions WR Braxton Berrios, OL Isaiah Wynn, TE Tyler Kroft, QB Mike White, and a promising rookie with third round pick RB De’Von Achane.
The start of a new campaign usually comes with some excitement, a ton of hot-takes and predictions, but also some concern-driven narratives that can come from the nearly nine-months of a way-too-long offseason. A couple of these narratives should be addressed, and the subsequent anxiety calmed, before making any concerted projections for the 2023 season.
Debunking the narrative:
After seeing Tua suffer multiple concussions last year, the Dolphins again chose to ignore the offensive line
There’s a reason Chris Grier has stated that he’s much less concerned about the offensive line, than the fans and media. It’s a message that the organization has tried to drive home in consecutive offseasons now, and it’s time for people to understand (and accept) why.
The Dolphins scheme is built on defensive manipulation. They utilize shifts and motions, to misdirect the defenses and leave them vulnerable (the tight ends, and fullback play a huge role in getting defenders to bite). Most offensive play-calls also give Tua the option to run or pass, based off of his pre-snap reads, which he is among the NFL’s best at.
Aside from the scheme philosophy, Miami’s offense is built heavily on quick timing routes. That ensures that Tua, who has one of the fastest releases in the NFL (2.3 seconds), isn’t a target of pass-rushers for very long.
In regard to Tua’s injury concerns, none of his concussions were a direct result of bad offensive line play. Each time he was trying to extend a play, rather than simply throwing the ball away (the hit Tua took from Matt Milano against the Bills was flagged for roughing-the-passer).
Overall, the Dolphins have done a good job at identifying run-blockers that fit the heavier personnel that Miami requires for their disguise scheme. Isaiah Wynn and Lester Cotton are considered better run-blockers than pass, and Connor Williams was elite (85.1 run blocking grade, ProFootballFocus) in the same regard last season. Tight ends Durham Smythe and Tyler Kroft, and fullback Alec Ingold are all positive value blockers with critical roles in both pass protection, and the running game.
Debunking the narrative: Miami’s unsuccessful flirtation with top-level running backs this offseason shows a lack of confidence (despite stating they’re comfortable) with their current group,and that could foreshadow a disappointing end result for them
Chris Grier’s pursuit of names like Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, D’Andre Swift, Dalvin Cook, and most recently Jonathan Taylor, is likely more about identifying a player that may put you over the top, rather than a lack of belief in what they currently have.
Raheem Mostert (4.9 yards per carry) and Jeff Wilson (4.7) had few problems picking up yards on the ground last season. While the team was ranked near the bottom in the league in rushing yards, they were also ranked 31st in rushing attempts. This offseason Mike McDaniel stressed that he plans to incorporate the run game more than he did last season.
Jeff Wilson will start the season on the injured-reserve list, but Salvon Ahmed and rookies De’Von Achane and Chris Brooks have shown promise throughout training camp and the preseason games. This is also the Dolphins most diversified group they’ve had in a long time, as each player brings their own skill-set to the running back room.
Points of emphasis for the 2023 season
Spread the love – Forcing the ball to one of, if not the most dynamic wide receivers in history, isn’t something people are going to question…if it’s working. The Dolphins have one of the most talented receiving duo’s in the NFL, yet Hill had 53 more targets last year. In game’s where Hill’s target share significantly outpaced Waddle’s, Miami had a 2-4 record. Now with the addition of Braxton Berrios, a healthy and prepared Cedrick Wilson, and potential development of Erik Ezukanma, there’s no reason the team doesn’t balance out their passing attack.
Tua must be smarter in adverse situations – He admittedly has always been the type of quarterback to try and make something happen, even when a play breaks down. Aside from the concussions (that’s plural) he sustained trying to do exactly that, creating off-script has never been a strength for Tua (and that’s okay). Instead of focusing on what’s downfield beyond the time the imaginary alarm goes off in his head that says it’s time to get rid of the ball, learn to embrace the check-down.
For the first time in his professional career, Tua has a very promising and dynamic pass-catcher at running back in rookie De’Von Achane. Durham Smythe and Tyler Kroft have proven throughout their careers that they’re capable safety-nets at tight end, and WRs Berrios and Wilson are accomplished in the slot with yards-after-catch (YAC) ability.
If all else fails, throw the ball away. The result of an incomplete pass out of bounds is likely better than forcing something on a broken play.
It’s time to see if McDaniel can make the correct in-game adjustments and play-calls – Whether it’s hubris, nerves, or over-thinking, McDaniel seemed too stubborn to the game plan last season. It was obvious (painstakingly at times), that the identity of the offense was going to be attacking the middle of the field in the passing game. Most of the time it worked beautifully, particularly in the five-game stretch against the league’s worst passing defenses, but like with any offense teams began to show successful counters. Instead of pivoting to a plan b or c, McDaniel continued to try and force the issue.
As stated, McDaniel has made it clear that he is looking to make more of a commitment to the run, an area of the offense that was successful yet heavily underutilized last season. While there’s no doubt that he’ll stay true to that, what will he do in the midst of adversity in-game. Miami’s week fifteen loss against Buffalo was a prime example of not utilizing the run-game in obvious situations. Despite rushing for 188 yards at a 7.8 yards-per-carry clip, McDaniel made the decision to pass on three third-and-short situations. All three times the pass went incomplete and the drive ended.
The Dolphins had a monster passing attack with Tua on the field last year, as he led the entire league in yards per pass. There’s no reason for the offense to go away from that success this year, but can Mike McDaniel show that when the situation is calling for the obvious choice, he won’t backslide and try and force a big play.
There will be a very big early indicator of how this offense has progressed in year two – Miami was one the most penalized teams in the NFL in 2022, especially pre-snap where they finished with the third highest amount (46). Along with penalties, other self-inflicted wounds like drops and play-calling caused the offense to leave too many points on the field. Despite ranking 7th in EPA (Expected Points Added), the Dolphins finished 17th in drive success rate (44.6%).
Heading into the second year in this scheme, while returning the majority of last year’s personnel, the team should look prepared, efficient, and be operating on all cylinders.
Now, on to some measured (and objective) predictions…
Cedrick Wilson Jr. will have a larger role in the offense then people may think.
After dealing with some nagging injuries last season, which may have stunted his ability to work in and grasp a complicated offense, Wilson managed a healthy and productive preseason. In his final year with the Cowboys, he did manage to accumulate 602 yards and 6 touchdowns, on 45 receptions. On top of that, he managed an impressive 5.6 yards after the catch, which played a factor in why Miami signed him last offseason.
Wilson did end up earning playing time late last season, and displayed some dependability as he finished the season with zero drops.
If he can manage to stay healthy, there’s no reason he can’t contend with Braxton Berrios for the third wide receiver spot. Unless McDaniel has plans to work Erik Ezukanma into the passing game, Wilson is currently the only proven bigger-bodied pass catcher in the receiver room.
De’Von Achane will see a limited role to start the season, but will flash a Darren Sproles/Danny Woodhead like receiving ability as the season goes on.
From all indications, Achane didn’t do much to stand out in his first training camp. He also sustained a shoulder injury in the Dolphins’ second preseason game against the Texans, which kept him limited for the remainder of camp. It’s likely safe to assume that McDaniel will take a calculated approach to working him into regular season snaps, especially with Ahmed possessing many similar qualities and having impressed throughout the exhibition season.
While many fans may be excited to see his potential in the backfield, Achane brings an element to the passing game that Miami hasn’t had since Kenyon Drake was on the roster. In a similar mold to what role Darren Sproles played for the Chargers, Saints, and Eagles, or Danny Woodhead for the Patriots, Achane can be a dangerous weapon in the screen game. With the threat that Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle bring downfield, having an explosive home-run threat catching dump-offs and screens can really move a defense out of balance.
I expect Achane to dazzle with at least a handful of chunk plays in the passing game before the season is over. A prediction of 250-300 yards receiving shouldn’t be considered overzealous.
Tyreek Hill falls well-short of his 2,000 yard goal, and that’s a good thing.
Again, every indication is that the Dolphins will strive for a much more balanced offense in 2023, and that doesn’t just extend to the running game.
The target gap between Hill and Waddle should narrow, and with the addition of Berrios in the slot, and an improved Wilson, it seems far-fetched for Hill to even replicate the 1,710 yard season he had a year ago. That’s also taking into account that Miami should see an increase in targets to their backfield.
While it would be fascinating to see Tyreek hit that benchmark, doing so would likely mean that the offense didn’t hit the mark in other areas, or they suffered significant enough injuries. The best thing for the offense is to become multi-dimensional and make it even harder for defenses to overly focus on one specific facet.
Quick hit hot-takes (that I actually believe in)…
-Tua plays all seventeen games, and with a new safety-net in Berrios, and an added dynamic in Achane, he puts together the season Dolfans have been waiting for. 4,500 yards, 33 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions is the floor for ‘Uce’, and would likely result in the long-term contract extension he, the team, and fans are hoping for.
-Jaylen Waddle officially hits superstardom, as the young surpasses the old-ish. The third-year pro is too talented, and too dynamic to not continue growing. With defenses continuing to emphasize Hill, I’d expect Waddle adds quite a few more plays like the 84-yard touchdown sprint against the Packers, to his highlight reel. Waddle: 95 rec, 1520 yds, 8 tds
Hill: 101 rec, 1410 yds, 9 tds
Berrios: 41 rec, 465 yds, 3 tds
Wilson: 30 rec, 345 yds, 4 tds
-Don’t forget the tight ends, even if the Dolphins might have! Smythe has proven to be a reliable player, not only as a blocker but as a possession receiver as well. While i wouldn’t expect him to see a significant increase in usage in the passing game, even with Mike Gesicki now in New England, the tight end is just too far down the target share list in this offense. Aside from Smythe, Kroft has had a very similar role over his career, but may be a tad more favorable redzone threat.
Smythe: 28 rec, 257 yds, 2 tds
Kroft: 23 rec, 230 yds, 3 tds
-The running back room is the toughest to predict, especialluy with Jeff Wilson on the IR to start the season, and Mostert now 31 years young and three years removed from playing a full season (he only missed one game last year). How McDaniel splits the carries is one of the more intriguing questions entering week one. Mostert should lead the team if he stays healthy, but he shouldn’t be expected to carry too heavy of a load. Will the undrafted rookie and training camp surprise Chris Brooks pick up Wilson’s slack? Ahmed has flashed as a runner in limited opportunities, but he’s not a pass-blocker and doesn’t offer anything different than what Mostert gives (who is a significantly better blocker). Plus, there’s Achane.
Mostert: 170 att, 799 yds, 4 tds
Brooks: 149 att, 700 yds, 6 tds
Achane: 83 att, 423 yds, 1 td
Ahmed: 30 att, 138 yds