Each week of the 2023 NFL season I’ll be posting a new edition of my Matchup Preview Series. That series is a comprehensive preview of how the Buffalo Bills matchup against their opponent that week. Leading up to that, I’ll be using the same format to preview all four teams in the AFC East.
These previews will look at five components of each team: Pass Offense, Rush Offense, Pass Defense, Rush Defense, and Special Teams. Each section concludes with my “patented” 👏 scale which ranges from 👏👏👏👏👏 (Best) to 👏 (Worst). The post culminates with a Floor, Ceiling, and Prediction of the team’s 2023 record.
Now, the Miami Dolphins.
Dolphins Pass Offense
Tua Tagovailoa took a massive jump in 2022, but a jump that was marred by injuries and inconsistent play. The injury concerns will likely follow him for the remainder of his career but questions surrounding consistency are something he will look to address in 2023. Those questions stem from a large disparity in production between his four games against the Ravens, Lions, Bears, and Browns versus the other eight games he appeared in. In the former, Tagovailoa generated an astounding QuBeR of 88.50 but in all other games one of just 41.88 (An average QuBeR is 50.00). The stark difference between these two subsets of games represents a quarterback who has flashed exceptional abilities but has yet to do so at the same rate as the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Still, it’s impossible to deny that when his elite accuracy and exceptionally quick release are ON, the Dolphins’ offense can be unstoppable, in large part due to a group of skill players that was built specifically with those strengths in mind.
That group is headlined by a wide receiver duo that if not the best in the NFL is at a minimum in the conversation. Tyreek Hill (WR) and Jaylen Waddle (WR) represent arguably the most electrifying twosome in NFL history as a pair that each possesses insane top-end speed and off-the-chart quickness that consistently puts opposing defenses in a blender. In 2022, Waddle would leverage those traits to rank third amongst WRs in Yards After Catch per Reception (6.8) while Hill would utilize his athleticism to finish the season ranked second and first in 20+ (25) and 40+ (seven) yard receptions, respectively. Behind Waddle and Hill, there are some questions though as the offseason saw Miami lose its third and fourth most targeted receiving options in Mike Gesicki (TE) and Trent Sherfield (WR). Replacing them is some combination of blocking tight end Durham Smythe, high-upside big slot Cedrick Wilson (WR), (at one point in time) NFL deep threat Chosen Anderson (WR), and special teams star Braxton Berrios (WR). The depth is interesting but come season’s end there is no reason to expect the combination of Hill and Waddle to produce any less than 60% of the Dolphins receiving stats…again.
While the Dolphins have a fairly good idea of what to expect from their quarterback and pass catchers, their offensive line remains an enigma. At left tackle is the elite Terron Armstead who when on the field is amongst the best OTs in the league but is expected to miss at least a few games every year as a player who has never played a complete season in his decade-long career. Then there are the good in Connor Williams (C) and Robert Hunt (RG), both of whom are well above-average players at their respective positions. After those three though are where the questions begin. Underwhelming former first-round pick Austin Jackson returns to RT this season after an ankle injury forced the now-retired Brandon Shell onto the field in 2022. Rejecting Jackson’s fifth-year option this offseason signifies this is likely Jackson’s last year in Miami, a year where they desperately need him to approach his potential. At left guard is an even bigger question, and concern, that will likely see either Liam Eichenberg or Isaiah Wynn become the Week 1 starter. Eichenberg comes off a season as arguably the league’s worst left guard while Wynn joined Miami after an unceremonious exit from New England. In the NFL, offensive lines are only as strong as their weakest links which raises major concerns that a team that gave up the sixth-highest Pressure Rate (25.0%) in 2022 can improve in 2023.
Dolphins Rush Offense
The resume that allowed Mike McDaniel to become an NFL head coach relied heavily on the experience he gained as the run game coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers under Kyle Shanahan. During that time McDaniel perfected his usage of wide zone schemes made more dangerous by expert-level usage of Run-Pass Options. Athletic linemen, quick passes, and homerun threat running backs are staples of this system, a system that has consistently dominated the NFC since its inception. While most teams look to pair speed with strength out of the backfield the Dolphins have the ability to forego the latter as their offense keeps defenses small and on their heels. For a coach with this experience, it surprised many when the Dolphins finished 2022 ranked 31st in rushing attempts (390) ahead of only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (386). In 2023 a rededication to the run game isn’t just expected by many but is something that was apparently promised by McDaniel himself.
The man McDaniel promised that to also happens to be the incumbent RB1 for the Dolphins, Raheem Mostert. In his 30-year-old season, Mostert had his first with 200+ Touches (212), a number he should expect to approach in 2023. By no means a bell-cow, Mostert still projects to be the Dolphins’ primary option out of the backfield as a player with excellent receiving skills that pair well with his elite top-end speed. He will be spelled by Jeff Wilson and De’Von Achane, two unique threats for the Dolphins. Wilson came to Miami by way of a mid-season trade with the 49ers last year in exchange for a fifth-round pick. Using a similar running style to Le’Veon Bell, Wilson relies heavily on his instincts and vision and was successful enough with Miami as he produced an impressive 4.7 Y/A on 84 carries. Achane was the second pick for the Dolphins in this year’s draft at No. 84 overall. Though small in stature at 5’8” and 188 pounds, Achane is one of the fastest RBs in NFL history recording a 4.32 40-yard dash at this year’s combine, contributing to his 9.97 rating on the RAS scale. A package featuring Achane, Hill, and Waddle seems like one that could be borderline un-guardable in the NFL.
— Bobby Shouse (@B_Shousejr) September 20, 2022
While we know that McDaniel has promised to run the ball more, roster decisions give us more evidence that it’s not just theory but likely reality. With Miami allowing pseudo-tight end Mike Gesicki to walk, its replacement for him strongly indicates their plans. Durham Smythe looks to be the TE1 for the Dolphins in 2023 as a fine pass-catching tight end but a great blocking tight end. The Dolphins’ budget version of George Kittle will more often than not be used as a sixth offensive lineman for a Dolphins team that will try to prop up a questionable part of their roster. Add to that what we have already seen from Miami in terms of the fullback position and the parallels between the Dolphins and 49ers become more apparent. Miami’s version of Kyle Juszczyk returns in Alec Ingold, a player that saw a whopping 40% snap share in 2022 as a vicious lead blocker. Miami can already put their speed to use in the air but with players like Smythe and Ingold leading the way for their speed backs the Dolphins can do the same on the ground in 2023.
Dolphins Pass Defense
In 2022 the Dolphins’ roster consisted of above-average talent in the secondary, and yet they finished 25th in Pass Defense DVOA (+12.4%) and 27th in Passer Rating against (95.3). Why? Miami believes the answer is two-fold: health and coaching. For the most part, the offseason addressed health issues, but a major shakeup was needed to resolve the coaching issues. Out with Josh Boyer, in with Vic Fangio. A defensive mastermind, Fangio has leveraged a zone-heavy scheme that rarely blitzes to create some of the best defenses of the past decade. Now in Miami, Fangio will try to implement the same system for a team that finished last season running zone at the fifth-lowest rate (51.0%) in the league and blitzing at the third-highest rate (33.3%). A risky proposition for a Miami team entering a critical season, but one that could prove to be the missing ingredient of seasons past.
The Dolphins’ shift further away from Man-based coverages was a driving factor in targeting Jalen Ramsey, one of the league’s best zone corners. Unfortunately for Miami, a meniscus injury in training camp will likely sideline Ramsey until December. The result is a team that will need to lean into its depth to find a player capable of maintaining pace on the other side of Xavien Howard (CB). On the boundary that competition seems to feature three players: Noah Igbinoghene, Eli Apple, and Cam Smith. Igbinoghene was drafted 30th overall in 2020 due to his untapped potential, which has remained untapped during his first three seasons in the NFL. Reports are that he has been impressive in camp so far and may have found his niche in Fangio’s defense. Behind him, Apple brings veteran experience but is still working through learning the defensive playbook. Smith is built to play in a zone scheme, but injuries may prevent him from securing the starting job. Whoever does win the role will join an impressive secondary that includes the talented Jevon Holland, hard-hitting Brandon Jones, and talented nickel corners in Kader Kohou and/or Nik Needham.
Regardless of whether the secondary’s schematic transition is a smooth or rocky one, the reliance on the defensive line to generate pressure will bump up in Miami. With Fangio expected to significantly reduce the blitz rate, four players in particular up front will need to pick up the slack. First, on the interior, Christian Wilkins will need to continue to build off his impressive 2022. He may not generate high Pressure of Sack numbers but his ability to draw double teams in the middle will be integral for the Dolphins’ pass rush. In particular, this should help Emmanuel Ogbah who Miami hopes has a bounce-back season. Possessing inside-outside versatility, Ogbah had nine sacks in both 2020 and 2021 but just one last season, a number he must improve on in 2023. Lastly, the edges are where Miami will look to generate most of their pass rush with an impressive duo of Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillips. Chubb has the talent to be one of the league’s elite pass rushers, but due to injuries and inconsistent play hasn’t eclipsed the 10.0 sack mark since his rookie season in 2018. As for Phillips, he seems to be a star in the making. He finished last season ranked tenth in pressures with 36 and assuming more of those turn into sacks could one day push towards a 15.0 sack plateau.
Dolphins Rush Defense
The Dolphins boasted one of the league’s best run defenses in 2022 and there’s no reason to expect them to drop off this season. They gave up just 4.1 Y/A, good for sixth in the NFL, as their defensive line and linebackers continually stacked opposing RBs at or behind the line of scrimmage. Any concerns with Fangio’s defense negatively affecting this level of play should quickly be quelled when you realize that his zone concepts mean more eyes forward on any given play. This added wrinkle to the Dolphins’ defense should mean fewer big runs to the outside as Miami is poised to use varying looks to force opponents into mistakes pre- and post-snap.
The Dolphins’ efficiency against the run begins with interior defensive line play that is amongst the best in the league. This starts with Wilkins who finished fifth in All-Pro voting (15) last season behind only Chris Jones (148), Quinnen Williams (94), Dexter Lawrence (69), and Jeffery Simmons (24). Wilkins possesses the athleticism of a defensive end and the strength of a defensive tackle to be a matchup nightmare for any interior offensive linemen. He will often be paired in the middle with two starkly different players in Zach Sieler and Raekwon Davis. Sieler presents a similar athletic profile to Wilkins which allows the Dolphins to rotate across the middle moving the two in and out of 3-tech positioning. Raekwon Davis is your typical nose tackle and excels in the 1-tech or 0-tech position which allows Wilkins to move into his more optimal 3-tech role. Miami is incredibly difficult to contend with in the trenches and their domination up front only makes it easier for their underrated linebackers to do their job at the next level.
Leading that charge of underrated players is the oft-ignored Jerome Baker. Entering his sixth year in the NFL, all with the Dolphins, Baker is averaging 102 Tackles, six Tackles for Loss, and four sacks per season as one of the more well-rounded middle linebackers in the NFL. This season the Dolphins brought in some help for Baker as well, with the addition of David Long from Tennessee. Long, who has an extensive injury history, is a tackling machine in his own right and gives the Dolphins two excellent linebackers that should support any nickel looks they employ. Behind Baker and Long, the Dolphins have even more help against the run in the up-and-coming Holland (SAF) as well as a now-healthy Brandon Jones (SAF). Both Holland and Jones are players proven capable of playing in a two-high shell while possessing the versatility to play in the box and bring down free runners in the open field. The Dolphins have players that can contend at every level and should finish 2023 as one of the league’s best units in stopping the run.
Dolphins Special Teams
The Dolphins also possess one of the league’s premier special teams units that consists of a well-rounded kicking unit and dynamic returners. Jason Sanders enters his sixth season kicking for Miami where under 50 yards he has an impressive 88.0% Field Goal Percentage. Despite missing three extra points last season Sanders belongs in the tier directly below the likes of Justin Tucker and Daniel Carlson. The Dolphins also improved their punting unit this offseason bringing in ex-Patriots punter Jake Bailey. As recently as 2020 Bailey earned first-team All-Pro honors as the league’s best Punter. He doesn’t come without concerns though as Bailey led the league with three blocked punts in 2021 but it is still fair to expect he’s a marketable upgrade over an aged Thomas Morestead.
As far as the return game goes there may be no better unit than the Dolphins, and there is definitely no deeper one. Braxton Berrios is likely to be the primary returner on both punts and kicks as one of the league’s premier options in both roles. He was a first-team All-Pro Punt Returner in 2021 while his 11.4 Y/PR would rank 13th in NFL history if he weren’t eight returns shy of qualification. In a pinch, the Dolphins also possess an upgrade to Berrios and a player with a similar level of return skill to Devin Hester, none other than Tyreek Hill. Due to the demand and importance of Hill on the offensive side of the ball he is rarely used on special teams, however, in a game-deciding situation make no mistake that the Dolphins can, and will, turn to him.
FLOOR: 6-11, CEILING: 12-5, PREDICTION: 9-8
Despite not believing in the multiverse theory, I am comfortable stating that there are three distinct timelines that will emerge for the 2023 Miami Dolphins. You have the success timeline where everything that needs to work does, and the failure timeline where everything that needs to work doesn’t. Then there is the one I buy into which I’ll call the probable timeline. In this timeline on offense, Tua Tagovailoa again plays good football and consistently gets the ball into Hill and Waddle’s hands but has some hiccups along the way due to a porous offensive line. On defense, the Dolphins struggle to fit square pegs into round holes as they dominate some games on pure talent and happenstance, but lose others based on personnel/scheme conflicts. In the end, though the Dolphins will have a chance to make some noise as I have them entering Week 15 at 8-5. Go on a run, and they can win the division, crumble and we could be talking major changes in 2024.