When the Dolphins opened 1-4 before this ongoing four-game winning streak, it was easy to scoff at executive Mike Tannenbaum’s offseason remark (to Fox-7’s Steve Shapiro) that the 2016 Dolphins would kick the butt of the 2015 Dolphins.
But factoring in coaching, as well as talent, Tannenbaum’s pronouncement looks like it might end up being right.
Examining how the Dolphins’ new starters this season have compared with the players they replaced:
• Running back: The Dolphins viewed Lamar Miller as a $4 million to $5 million back, but had no interest in matching the $6.5 million per year deal (four-year, $26 million) that Houston gave him. Privately, they viewed Jay Ajayi as a comparable every-down back.
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That assessment was very much on target. Miller has been productive for Houston (seventh in the NFL in rushing at 720 yards), but Ajayi (sixth in rushing at 725) has been better.
Miller has 41 more carries than Ajayi but five fewer yards. Ajayi has a higher per carry average (5.7 to 4.3), more touchdowns (six to two) and is much cheaper, making just $525,000 on a rookie contract that runs two years after this one and tops out at $705,000 in 2018.
• Guards: The improvement has been dramatic. Last season, Billy Turner ranked 69th and Dallas Thomas 80th of 81 qualifying guards, according to Pro Football Focus. This season, Laremy Tunsil ranks 32nd and continues to improve, and though Jermon Bushrod ranks only 77th of 81, he has done some good work in this winning streak.
• Receiver: Rishard Matthews, who signed a three-year, $15 million deal with Tennessee, has been pretty good (36 catches, 483 yards, six touchdowns), but if the Dolphins had re-signed him, it would have meant fewer snaps for Kenny Stills, who has become a valuable deep threat. Miami’s fourth receiver (Leonte Carroo) rarely plays (87 total offensive snaps).
• Linebacker: The upgrade from Kelvin Sheppard to Kiko Alonso cannot be overstated. Pro Football Focus ranks Alonso 26th among linebackers; he had a game-winning interception return last week and his 71 tackles rank 17th in the league.
Sheppard lost his starting job with the Giants and ranks 69th among all linebackers, with 21 tackles.
• Defensive line: We’ll compare Andre Branch to Olivier Vernon because Branch has settled in as the starter after beginning the season as a backup. Vernon has 38 tackles and three sacks in 605 snaps for the Giants and ranks among the league leaders in quarterback hurries. Branch has 23 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 378 snaps.
Considering the enormous disparity in their contracts (five years, $85 million for Vernon and one year, $3 million for Branch), Branch isn’t the better player but is the better value. PFF ranks Vernon 19th among defensive ends and Branch 43th.
Derrick Shelby, a No. 3 defensive end in Miami, was rated 62nd among defensive tackles for Atlanta before rupturing his Achilles tendon. His replacements, Mario Williams and Jason Jones, are rated 38th and 104th among defensive ends by PFF and look like they will end up being one-year rentals. Though Williams has been a disappointment, this move was essentially a wash.
• Cornerback: This is the one area where the personnel machinations haven’t paid great dividends, but there are several mitigating factors in Miami’s defense: 1) A player the Dolphins were counting on heavily, second-rounder Xavien Howard, has missed five games and remains out after knee surgery. 2) Brent Grimes and Jamar Taylor have played better for their new teams than they did for Miami last season, according to PFF’s analysts.
Grimes --- dispatched by the Dolphins because of declining skills, a big contract and a disruptive spouse --- is rated 12th among all cornerbacks by PFF, with 14 passes defended and two interceptions.
Byron Maxwell, acquired from Philadelphia to serve as Miami’s No. 1 corner, is rated 48th, with 10 passes defended and one interception. But at least he has played better in the past month after an horrendous start.
Despite a report to the contrary, a Dolphin source insists the team made no attempt to keep Grimes, believing it was best for all parties to move on.
At the other boundary cornerback spot, PFF ranks Taylor – who was traded to Cleveland for a seventh-round pick – at No. 35 among all cornerbacks, with Tony Lippett 57th and Howard 94nd. Taylor’s eight passes defended is more than the combined total of Lippett (four) and Howard (two).
Taylor has two interceptions, equaling the total of Lippett (two) and Howard (none). Perhaps Miami gave up on Taylor too soon, but the Dolphins see more upside in Howard (obviously) and Lippett, and Taylor again is dealing with an injury, missing last week’s game with a strained groin.
Slot corner is more complicated.
The Dolphins seemed short-sighted in cutting Brice McCain, who was cheap, competent and miscast as a boundary corner last season. Both Brice McCain (now with Tennessee) and Bobby McCain (the player who replaced Brice in Miami) have 22 tackles and one interception, but PFF rates Brice higher than Bobby (62nd to 81st).
Bobby McCain, who had been playing well, had a poor game against San Diego, and quarterbacks have a passer rating above 130 in his coverage area.
• Safety: Isa Abdul-Quddus rates in the top half of all safeties (27th, according to PFF) and has been an upgrade as a starter over Michael Thomas, who started 13 games last season after Louis Delmas’ preseason injury and is rated 79th this season as a part-time starter.
Overall, the Dolphins made more sound offseason personnel moves than questionable ones.