The Dolphins’ five-game winning streak has given them clarity on a few issues. They know Ryan Tannehill is their quarterback of the future and they don’t need to find a No. 1 running back, thanks to Jay Ajayi’s emergence.
They know they won’t be re-signing Jordan Cameron and will look for a new tight end, but like what they’ve seen (blocking-wise) from Dion Sims. They know they can count on another year from Cam Wake, want to keep Andre Branch and will need two new defensive ends to replace Mario Williams and impending free agent Jason Jones. They know they will try to upgrade over Jelani Jenkins with a bigger, more durable linebacker. They know they likely will try to keep restricted free agent Kiko Alonso.
But there are several things they don’t know yet, at least not with certainty, that they’ll seek clarity on during the final six games. Among them:
• Is the Jordan Phillips/Earl Mitchell tag-team tandem good enough in the defensive tackle spot alongside Ndamukong Suh?
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Coaches get frustrated by Phillips’ inconsistency but are somewhat encouraged by his recent play. Pro Football Focus rates him 48th among 122 defensive tackles, a big improvement over last season.
Mitchell, who has played two games off a calf injury that sidelined him the first eight games of the season, has a $4.5 million cap hit if he’s on the team next season, just $500,000 if he’s not. This coaching staff likes him and believes he should thrive in this system.
"Jordan has played more consistent as far as staying in his gap (and) not being offsides for the first time this year,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “That's a good thing for Jordan. I think Jordan is growing. He's a second-year player; he's a baby out there. He's going to be a good player, but he has got a ways to go.
“Earl played better against San Diego, not as good last week. That happens. He hadn't practiced - he hadn't played - in almost two months, three months. It's tough when a guy comes back to be consistent right away, but Earl is going to be fine. He plays so hard."
• Is there another starting cornerback on the roster besides Xavien Howard?
The Dolphins were initially very skeptical, but not necessarily now.
Byron Maxwell is making a case to be retained and Tony Lippett keeps improving. As one source said, if Maxwell keeps playing this well, a comparable cornerback would cost as much or more in the open market, something the Dolphins are aware of.
Maxwell played well recently, rising to 28th among all cornerbacks in Pro Football Focus rankings. According to PFF’s Ryan Smith, he hasn’t allowed more than 42 yards in a game since Week 3.
Maxwell has an $8.5 million hit if he’s on the team in 2017 under his current contract terms, $3 million if he’s not.
Lippett has risen to 43rd in PFF rankings and is cheap ($615,000 in 2017).
“Maxwell is playing really well; he played his best game as a Dolphin (last) Sunday,” Joseph said. “I think what’s better is he’s playing to the system. He’s understanding where his help is. He’s doing a better job with his technique and leverage. It’s a corner-friendly system if you play to it, and he’s kind of figured it out.”
The Dolphins believe Howard will be a high-end corner, and he will likely start at one spot next season.
• Is left tackle Branden Albert worth keeping at $8.9 million next season, and if so, do guard Laremy Tunsil and Albert flip positions next season?
Albert has strong support internally, not only because he was playing well before his wrist injury but also because he’s valued as a leader and mentor. The Dolphins know they are clearly a better team with Albert than without him.
But his durability is a concern; he has missed three games this season, after missing four, seven and two the previous three.
Albert has the team’s third-biggest cap hit for 2017 ($10.6 million), with a $3.4 million dead money if he’s cut.
Nobody doubts Tunsil eventually will be a quality left tackle, but the question is whether to make that move next season.
Last month, I asked Albert, 31, for his thoughts about moving eventually to guard.
“Depends on where I’m at in life, but all I see myself as is a left tackle,” he said. “Playing guard is a real man’s position. It’s tough. You are going against bigger, stronger guys. I don’t think I want that pressure. Couple more years, I can play this game at a high level. When my time is done, it’s done.”
• How hard should the Dolphins try to keep impending free agent Kenny Stills (23 catches, 408 yards, four touchdowns)?
Gase loves him, both the skills and passion he brings to the job. He has emerged as an important deep threat – he’s sixth in the league in yards per catch at 17.7 -- and he will be seeking a substantial contract.
The Dolphins are expected to try to keep him; what’s undetermined is how aggressive they will be.
There’s a chance the Dolphins will replace him with rookie Leonte Carroo if bidding for Stills gets too high, but Carroo isn’t a downfield burner like Stills is. This could come down to how much Stills commands.
“I like the fact that when he is in there, that gives the defense a lot to worry about,” Gase said. “They know they’ve got to protect versus the deep ball.”
• Is Neville Hewitt good enough to be a starting linebacker in 2017?
The Dolphins are giving that thought.
“Neville has played really at a high level the last month I would say,” Joseph said. “That's a good sign. Going forward, he may be a guy that can be a full-time starter. We're not sure, but he has proven that he can help us win right now."
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