One of the amazing things about these Miami Dolphins making such a strong and, yes, improbable push toward being in the playoffs this season is that on paper they pretty much seem to need a ton of help.
No disrespect to the front office but it failed miserably to put together a linebacker corps that is 10 star players deep.
(Yes, that is a joke).
Back of the roster players are there for a reason. And yet last week the Dolphins found themselves reaching deep into the roster to put some of those players on the field as starters. Consider, for example, the four linebackers who played in the victory against the Arizona Cardinals:
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A career special teams guy. A 2015 undrafted and undersized free agent making his first NFL start. A a guy who was waived by the San Diego Chargers and was a street free agent when the Dolphins signed him in late September. And another 2015 undrafted free agent.
Not exactly prized draft picks or free agents any of them.
So I tell you, it’s impressive the Dolphins are doing what they are doing amid injuries to starters, with plans at other positions not proceeding as expected, and sometimes even with less overall talent than the opposition.
And that brings me to this:
When this season, already something of a feel-good story, comes to a close, the Dolphins’ front office will be under the gun to not just hold serve but to find breakthrough so that eventually the Dolphins continue moving toward the high calling of winning an NFL title.
We’ve been here before.
In 2008, the first year under Bill Parcells as football czar and Tony Sparano as head coach, the Dolphins made the amazing climb from 1-15 to 11-5 and the AFC East title. After that season, Parcells told me he had no illusions about how talented that team was or was not.
He admitted that team had some serious holes.
And he said it was thus his personnel department’s assignment to stock up so that Miami could add to the work that had been done in 2008.
It didn’t happen.
The Dolphins instead made significant personnel mistakes and not only did not advance but rather tumbled back to something just below mediocrity and near irrelevancy. Within a couple of years, Parcells was gone, then Sparano was fired, then general manager Jeff Ireland was replaced.
That’s what happens when you go 11-5 and then draft Pat White and Patrick Turner and John Jerry and Daniel Thomas. Yes, the Dolphins hit on some guys, too -- Vontae Davis and Mike Pouncey and Reshad Jones come to mind. But it wasn’t enough when free agency was providing gems such as Jake Grove, who played I think three minutes for the Dolphins.
Bottom line, the Dolphins of that day laid a great foundation in Year One and followed by building a straw hut to face a New England Patriots hurricane.
These latter day Dolphins -- headed by Adam Gase and Mike Tannenbaum and Chris Grier on the football side -- similarly will likely end their season having left their fans with a sweet taste on their palate and a desire for much more success to follow.
Then comes the hard part, which would be to add talent to what is already on board, and give this capable coaching staff more to work with.
And, believe me, much work will be necessary.
My opinion is this team already has shown signs of need in important areas that will determine how successful future seasons will be. And to make that point, I’m already writing strongly worded letters to Mr. Santa (opt out) Claus at the North Pole so that he’ll bring gifts -- even if they don’t get delivered until next spring.
I want help for the linebacker corps.
I see defensive end as a need.
I see the offensive line once again a need.
Tight end is a need.
And depending on what happens this offseason, the Dolphins may need to add a receiver.
The linebacker corps needs not one but two starting caliber players. Koa Misi, signed through next year, will be a salary cap casualty this offseason. His back issues indeed have him pondering a career exit. So the team needs both a weakside and strongside linebacker to sandwich Kiko Alonso in the middle.
Look, I like Jelani Jenkins. I hope he heals well this offseason and there’s a good market in free agency for him. But I doubt it because his history the past couple of years has been that he cannot stay healthy. He is a smallish linebacker that gets beat up a lot.
Yes, he’s tough. Yes, he plays through pain and injuries. But he gets hurt a lot and that affects his play and it affects Miami’s ability to put a good defense on the field.
So two starting linebackers this offseason, Santa.
And, while you’re at it Santa, a defensive end, please.
Mario Williams, who hasn’t had a full sack since the regular-season opener, is playing his last few games with the Dolphins. He’ll be gone after the season because he makes, checking the official salary cap figures now, gobs of money.
And he hasn’t provided commensurate production.
So he’s gone.
Andre Branch is a free agent after the season. I expect the Dolphins would like to keep him. I’m kind of stunned that hasn’t been done already. But if he goes into the market, someone will throw a significant contract, perhaps $8-$9 million per year, at him.
And Cameron Wake, for all his greatness and ability to cheat that Achilles injury of a year ago and the fact he’ll be 35, cannot play forever.
So the Dolphins need to find someone to help at defensive end even if Branch and Wake are the core guys. Young draft pick is always preferable, Santa.
Offensive line? Of course!
Jermon Bushrod is great. On Thursday I cast my top vote for him as the Dolphins Good-Guy Award winner. He’s done a solid job moving from left tackle to right guard. He’s excellent in the locker room. But he’s going to be 33 next year so the Dolphins have to start looking ahead.
The Dolphins also have to do some significant and serious work on figuring out the probability of Mike Pouncey staying healthy. His hips are both surgically repaired. This season it wasn’t one, but two hip injuries that limited him to five games. So while the Dolphins won’t be actively seeking to replace the player Adam Gase calls his best offensive lineman, they should be looking around at contingencies in case the current trend continues.
I’d also like a tight end because, that’s right, they catch touchdown passes in the red zone.
They are a mismatch nightmare. They are potentially a quarterback’s best friend. And with Ryan Tannehill likely going more to a pocket-passer orientation following his knee injury, this needs to be a priority. (No, not first round kind of priority unless Jason Witten’s 22-year-old clone is available, but it’s important).
This year the Dolphins put their hopes on Jordan Cameron and that didn’t pay dividends. Cameron is not coming back. And while MarQueis Gray and Dominique Jones are filling voids next to Dion Sims this year ... next year’s assignment must be to upgrade.
Of course not if the Dolphins can keep the current group together. They’re young. They’re hungry. They’re good.
Kenny Stills is a free agent after the season so he’s going to want to get paid. And if he doesn’t care about money, I’m sure his agent will want to get him paid.
Stills has caught six touchdown passes to lead the team and his 17.6 yards per catch make him a deep threat on par with anyone. No, he’s not the go-to guy. That’s Landry. But the team is just better when he’s on the field.
Despite all this, he’s not signed for next year so there are no assurances he’ll be back.
The point is if the Dolphins lose any of their three starters due to free agency or injury, that moves Leonte Carroo into a starting job. So who becomes the new next-man-up? The Dolphins will need one if they lose anyone.
Again, Santa, preferably a cheap, young draft pick.
Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero