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2020 Stats (rank)
Total Offense: 5,424 yards (22nd)
Offensive Touchdowns: 39 (20th)
Offensive Plays: 1021 (22nd)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 593 (19th)
Rush Attempts: 428 (18)
Unaccounted for Targets: 69 (22nd)
Unaccounted for Carries: 145 (9th)
Brian Flores is entering his his third season as the Dolphins head coach. The team appears to be steadily improving under his stewardship. The 2019 Dolphins were surprisingly feisty, almost frustratingly so for their fans, given that the team was clearly gunning for the top pick in the draft that season. After finishing 5-11 and selecting Tua Tagovailoa fifth overall pick, the 2020 Dolphins surprised again, with a 10-6 record and a near playoff berth.
This will be Brian Flores' third consecutive season with a new offensive coordinator. Last year's coordinator Chan Gailey, whose offense was better suited for Ryan Fitzpatrick than Tagovailoa, resigned after the season. Flores then made the unusual decision of naming two offensive coordinators: Eric Studesville and George Godsey. They will serve as co-offensive coordinators in 2021. Both coaches were already on the Dolphins staff and should have a good understanding of how to best utilize their offensive weapons. Studesville has served as Miami's running backs coach since 2018. Godsey has has been the Dolphins tight ends coach since 2019. We've been told to expect lots of "collaboration" a focus on "execution" and "great communication." But we really don't know exactly what this offense is going to look like. And we do not yet know who will be calling plays.
Studesville was in Denver with Josh McDaniels and served as interim head coach after he was fired. With Tim Tebow under center, he managed one win. Even if we can assume that Studesville favors a McDaniels style offense, that doesn't tell us a ton since McDaniels has run different offenses depending on his personnel.
Godsey also coached briefly under McDaniels with the Patriots in 2012-2013. But his bigger influence is Bill O'Brien. Godsey played quarterback at Georgia Tech for O'Brien, and then coached under him in Houston as quarterbacks coach in 2014 and offensive coordinator in 2015-2016. Godsey coaxed a mediocre offense out of Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett in 2015. He was let go in 2016 after failing to win a playoff game with Brock Osweiler... which seems harsh in retrospect.
The quality of the new-look Dolphins Offense will depend a great deal on how much better Tua Tagovailoa is than the quarterbacks his offensive coordinators have called plays for in the past. The Miami coaching staff, Dolphins fans, and really anyone who regularly watches football is hoping that he'll be much, much better than those quarterbacks: Tim Tebow, Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler.
That's a fairly low bar, but Tagovailoa will still need to show improvements in order to clear it. Tagovailoa was QB28 last season in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, behind Cam Newton and just ahead of Andy Dalton and Drew Lock. He was PFF's 33rd graded quarterback, behind Teddy Bridgewater and just ahead of Carson Wentz, Drew Lock and Mitchell Trubisky.
The new offense is likely to be better tailored to his skillset. He'll also be another year removed from his devastating 2019 hip injury. So the quarterback we saw struggling last season will not necessarily be the version of Tagovailoa we see in 2021.
Another reason for optimism is that the Dolphins weapons have improved dramatically since 2020, and in ways that suit Tagovailoa's skillset. Contested catch specialist DeVante Parker thrived with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, but struggled badly to connect with Tagovailoa.
Fuller is WR11 in yards per route run over the last two season and WR9 over the last three seasons. He is not a complete wide receiver, doing most of his damage downfield, but he is one of the best receivers in the league at what he does. His presence (starting in Week 2 after his one-game suspension) should improve Tagovailoa's play and open things up for other players in the offense.
The Dolphins drafted Waddle sixth overall in the NFL draft after the underclassman showed unbelievable efficiency in 2020. Waddle never accounted for a huge share of the Alabama offense, but he was playing alongside three other future first round NFL picks who were all a year ahead of him in school for two of his three seasons. As a true freshman Waddle had the best yards per route run of the group. In 2020, he averaged just 0.01 YPRR less than Heisman winner Devonta Smith. Waddle didn't run a timed 40 yard dash, but he would likely have run in the low 4.3s. He accelerates at the drop of a hat and has elite long speed. Waddle played primarily out of the slot in college, and he is likely to add a game-breaking element to Miami's slot routes in 2021.
If Fuller and Waddle live up to expectations, Parker is likely to have a much easier time connecting with Tagovailoa this year. His skill-set might not be perfectly aligned with his quarterback's, but with Fuller and Waddle drawing defensive attention, Parker can more easily create separation this season.
Tight end Mike Gesicki also stands to benefit from less defensive attention. Gesicki is essentially a "big slot" wide receiver. He saw 67% of his snaps in the slot last season and ran a route on 93% of his total snaps. Gesicki also frequently played alongside a traditional slot receiver, functionally turning 3WR sets into 4WR sets.
Waddle's addition to the offense likely means less 2TE sets. This should mean smaller roles for Durham Smythe and Adam Shaheen, and could mean that we don't see much of third round rookie Hunter Long this year. I don't expect Waddle to have a huge impact on Gesicki's playing time though, unless the Dolphins continue rotating their tight ends while playing less 2TE sets.
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The Dolphins were reportedly planning to select RB Javonte Williams at pick 36 in the NFL draft before the Broncos traded up to 35 to secure the rookie rusher. The Dolphins handled the situation intelligently. Rather than reaching for another running back, they simply handed things back over to incumbent starter Myles Gaskin. Gaskin showed well in 2020 after surprising the fantasy inteligencia with a workhorse role right out of the gate. In his 10 active games last season Gaskin never played less than 60% of Miami's snaps. After not even being drafted in most fantasy leagues, Gaskin was RB12 in PPR points per game last season.
Gaskin faces a bit of squeeze on his targets and goal line work however, from free agent signing Malcolm Brown. Brown played a third down and short yardage role for the Rams last season. He is very unlikely to actually displace Gaskin, but he could siphon off meaningful high value touches.
One data point in Gaskin's favor is how the team relied on Salvon Ahmed in Gaskin's absence last season. In the four games Ahmed played with Gaskin out of the lineup he saw 46%, 76%, 66% and 60% of snaps. It's possible the Dolphins simply favor a true lead back approach. To that point, despite impressive play from Ahmed, Gaskin immediately returned from injury last year to snap counts of 76% and 61% to close the season. Ahmed is unlikely to have a major role to begin the season, but could find his way into such a role if Gaskin misses time once again. Given his skillset, Brown seems likely to continue operating as a passing down and short yardage specialist, regardless of whether Gaskin or Ahmed is handling lead back duties.
Unfortunately for the Miami running backs (and passing attack) the Dolphins offensive line is a major question mark. It is an extremely young unit with both left tackle Austin Jackson and right tackle Robert Hunt entering their second seasons, and left guard being played by either second round rookie Liam Eichenberg or second year player Solomon Kindley. The other two spots are manned by unheralded veterans. Matt Skura, a former undrafted free agent who started at center for Ravens the last three seasons, was signed to a one-year deal. Right guard will be played by another former undrafted free agent in Jesse Davis. He has been a starter for the Dolphins since 2017, but has never been standout. Overall the unit could see significant improvement if its young core takes a step forward. But it's quite possible that they will have below average play at every spot on the offensive line in 2021.
The Dolphins have a solid defense, which finished ninth in weighted DVOA. The Dolphins should be able to keep games close, which they'll likely be happy to do, considering that they slightly over-performed in close games last year. And Miami shouldn't have too much trouble keeping games within reach, given that they have the fourth easiest schedule in the league.
The Dolphins need their second year quarterback and offensive lineman to take major steps forward. They also need immediate impacts from rookies and free agent signings. And they don't have Ryan Fitzpatrick to bail them out anymore when Tagovailoa is struggling. But this is also a well coached team that has intelligently added quality pieces to compliment and protect their quarterback.
The Dolphins win total on PointsBet is 9.5. With an extra game on the schedule, I think they can match last year's win total. I'll take the over.