Watching the Dolphins in recently-concluded offseason practices delivered quite the reality check:
This team might have only three starters in the top third of the league at their position (Xavien Howard for sure, perhaps Laremy Tunsil and Reshad Jones). Maybe Minkah Fitzpatrick eventually joins that group, and the receivers and running backs are decent, even without a true No. 1 receiver.
But… The front seven potentially ranks among the league’s worst this decade; the only player on the roster even close to having double figures in career sacks is Akeem Spence, and it took him six years to get 10.5.
Right tackle and both guard spots are shaky, the cornerback spot opposite Howard looks even shakier and Miami has no idea if it has a starting-caliber NFL tight end.
And of course, there might not be a quarterback on the roster among the league’s top 30. NBC’s Chris Simms rated Josh Rosen 32nd and Ryan Fitzpatrick 35th.
So how do the Dolphins overcome deficient talent and field a competitive team? Here’s what they’re banking on:
▪ Defensively, as we explained in this piece, the Dolphins believe varying schemes and keeping teams off balance with play-calling can help overcome marginal talent to an extent. T.J. McDonald said that Miami’s defense will “give offenses fits” because “you don’t know who’s where.”
▪ Offensively, the Dolphins’ best hopes to be competitive hinge on getting big plays, because sustaining drives has been a problem here for years.
Fitzpatrick, the front-runner to start, completed a bunch of deep balls in practice in the past month, and that wasn’t a surprise. On passes thrown at least 20 yards in the air for Tampa Bay last season, Fitzpatrick was a very good 15 for 31 for 594 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
He was eighth best in the NFL on completion percentage on balls thrown at least 20 yards (48.4 percent) and passer rating on balls thrown that distance (107.2) and had the highest yards per attempt (9.6) for any NFL QB in 13 years.
Keep in mind that Terrell Owens said Fitzpatrick throws the best deep ball of anyone he has ever played with.
“Personally, I’ve made a lot of progress in that area in the last few years,” Fitzpatrick said this week. “It has really started to show up for me. Some of it is mentality. A lot of it is the guys I’m throwing to and some unbelievable playmakers, and a lot of it is just the communication, expectation before the ball even gets thrown of what we want from those guys and how they expect the ball. There’s a lot of things that go into it, but [it is] certainly something that I’ve really improved on as my career has gone on.”
Asked if the deep ball can actually ignite something in him, Fitzpatrick gave an interesting answer. “It depends,” he said. “Some of it is the situation in the game. Some of it is if the corner got me earlier in the game or earlier in my career or something. There are a lot of different factors that go into it.”
Rosen — who assuredly will play this season as well — last season had an 80 passer rating on balls thrown in the air at least 20 yards ranked 22nd — below average but not deplorable.
And don’t forget there are playmakers on this roster: Despite their mediocrity, Dolphins QBs have a career 109.9 rating when targeting Jakeem Grant. Albert Wilson was third in the league in yards after catch (13.3) before his hip injury last October.
Since 2016, Kenyan Drake is tied for fifth in yards per carry (4.9) and second in yards after contact.
“I’ve been really impressed with the receiver group and the talent we have there,” Fitzpatrick said.
Even though the Dolphins were 20th in the league in scoring last year, they were 12th in number of passing plays covering 40 yards or more, with nine. And that was with Brock Osweiler at quarterback for five games and Wilson and Grant missing substantial time with injuries.
The question for 2019 (besides making a decision Rosen) is whether those factors — keeping opposing offenses off balance and producing a lot of big plays — can make this anything more than a two-to-four-win team.
THIS AND THAT
Immersed in a quarterback competition with Rosen — a competition Fitzpatrick is clearly leading in the early stages — Fitzpatrick said he has learned this from previous competitions: “Everything matters. That’s something I’ve learned throughout my career. These little drills that (assistant head coach/quarterbacks) coach [Jim] Caldwell is putting us through on the side, they matter. They come up in games. The attention to detail you have when you’re doing it on air or when you’re doing it on a practice field shows up in a game.
“It shows up all the time. That’s why the drills are there for a reason. He’s seen a lot of football. Once you figure out that everything matters, and some of that I learned the hard way through not doing it right the first time on the field during a game, that lesson gets knocked into your head and you don’t forget it.”
▪ Dolphins fans should hope that Caldwell works magic with Rosen.
“It’s great to have a guy like that that has really been around and seen it all,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think more than anything with him, the word that comes to mind is calm, steady influence, perspective. He has plenty of wisdom that is always great.”