Miami Dolphins

Dolphins must find coach who can fix defense, which nearly hit ‘rock bottom’ in 2018

Reshad Jones (20) and Bobby McCain (28) were part of a hugely disappointing Dolphins defense in 2018.
Reshad Jones (20) and Bobby McCain (28) were part of a hugely disappointing Dolphins defense in 2018.

The No. 1 priority for whoever is the next Dolphins coach is to fix the quarterback position, either through this year’s draft or next.

But 1A is to fix a defense that has never been worse.

The Dolphins in 2018 allowed 6,257 yards (most in franchise history) and 433 points (four shy of the team record, set by the one-win 2007 team).

“With the talent we have, [those stats are] very surprising,” said Dolphins defensive end Andre Branch. “We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror; everyone from top to bottom got to look themselves in the mirror. At the end of the day, you can only get better. If you get any worse than this, then you’re at rock bottom.”

Matt Burke, the architect of this mess, still had a job as of Tuesday. But that seems like a mere technicality. Whoever replaces Adam Gase — and there are now at least six candidates, including long-time Dolphins special coordinator Darren Rizzi — will have the right to fire Burke, and almost certainly will.

But that’s the easy part.

The hard part is taking a long look at Miami’s roster and determining who fits into the new scheme, whatever that scheme might be.

The Dolphins, who allowed 30 or more points seven times and 400 or more yards nine times this year, will need at least two (and probably three) starting-caliber defensive linemen, a coverage linebacker and a boundary corner to start opposite Xavien Howard.

Emphasis should be put on finding pass rushers after the team tallied just 31 sacks, fourth-fewest in football. Cameron Wake is a free agent and Robert Quinn is owed $11.8 million. It’s hard to see how either fits into Stephen Ross and Chris Grier’s short or long-term visions.

A rebuild is coming, with youth valued over experience.

“I think that as we build this roster, we have a great young roster today with some key players to build upon, but we’re going to build it the right way, bringing in new people who will want to win, really creating that winning attitude,” Ross said Monday.

One would think that the Dolphins would also move safety Reshad Jones, if it were feasible. His contract probably makes that impossible. Assuming they cut Ryan Tannehill, Jones, who turns 31 next month, will be the team’s highest-paid player. He is owed $13 million (the vast majority of which is guaranteed).

Branch (owed $6.9 million in 2019) and linebacker Kiko Alonso ($6.5 million) are also at risk.

Rather, promising young players like Howard, Minkah Fitzpatrick Jerome Baker and Vincent Taylor will be the building blocks. And if the Dolphins can get any production out of Charles Harris, all the better.

As Ross suggested, don’t expect the Dolphins to break the bank in free agency for anyone even close to 30 years old. They of course will make targeted signings, but Grier is going to be looking for players who can help the Dolphins for four years, not four months.

Of course, he needs to find players who will fit his coaching staff’s scheme. And as Miami’s list of coaching candidates suggests, Grier is open to most anything.

Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has long run a 3-4 scheme (which the Dolphins have not used in nearly a decade). Kris Richard would presumably run the system he coached in Seattle: a 4-3 under defense with lots of single-high safety (which would suit Fitzpatrick perfectly). Mike Munchak is an offensive coach, but he used a 4-3 when he was Tennessee’s head coach.

Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores has used both three and four-man fronts in New England, but almost never brings the nickel cornerback off the field.

It’s not clear what Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator prefers, but he has been around a 3-4 for years in Kansas City.

Then there’s Rizzi, who is probably the biggest wild card of the bunch.

Since he arrived in Miami, the Dolphins have played both a 4-3 and the 3-4. One system we probably can rule out: the defense Rizzi used his first year as the coach at the University of New Haven in 1999. Four defensive linemen, four linebackers and three defensive backs (including a lone safety).

Adam Beasley has covered the Dolphins for the Miami Herald since 2012, and has worked for the newspaper since 2006. He is a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Communications and has written about sports professionally since 1996.