(Image credit: AJ Spurr/USA Today)
By: Jett Rosenstein
The Miami Dolphins just missed out on a playoff spot in 2020 (10-6). While there were a lot of growing pains throughout the season, there were also plenty of bright spots. This team will look to make noise in 2021. With training camp set to get underway in the coming days, there are a few storylines Dolphins fans need to keep an eye on as we inch closer to the season. There will be roster spots won, surprise names cut, and players looking to take a step forward in 2021. Will it be Fins Up or Down in 2021?
1. Will Tua Tagovailoa take a step forward in 2021?
Many people are already labeling Tua Tagovailoa as a bust. It is too early to make that call as there have been plenty of rookie QBs who struggled mightily in their first go-around (Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman, John Elway, to name a few). Tua was also seeing his first game action since having surgery on his hip. He finished 2020 with 11 TDs and 5 INTs. According to PFF, Tua received the 10th highest grade among rookies since 2006. Now, heading into 2021, a few things have changed that will only benefit his progression. He has a much better receiving core with the addition of Will Fuller in free agency and former Alabama teammate Jaylen Waddle in the draft (Dolphins receivers had the 6th most drops in 2020). The playbook for Tua and the offense will be very different in 2021. After using a scheme that relied heavily on short passes and check-downs, new OCs George Godsey and Eric Studesville will look to capitalize on their new weapons and implore a more vertical offense. The biggest thing Tua needs to do in 2021 is be more aggressive and take more risks. Giving him additional weapons will make that much easier. Everything seems to be set in place for Tua heading into 2021, but in the end, it will all come down to what we see from him on the field. Anything less than an improvement from 2020 may inspire the Dolphins to begin their QB search once again.
2. Will Xavien Howard be wearing a different uniform in week 1?
Currently, Xavien Howard and the Miami Dolphins are amidst a contract dispute. After receiving an extension in 2019 that made Howard the highest paid CB, he has since been passed by several other CBs who have received larger deals (Byron Jones, Jalen Ramsey, Tre’Davious White, etc.). After a 2020 season where Howard became the first CB since Antonio Cromartie to record 10 interceptions in a season, Howard wants to be compensated even more. The Dolphins have no interest in handing out more money to Howard especially with this current deal 4 years away from expiring. If Howard and the Dolphins cannot figure it out, he will most likely be traded. Teams like the Cowboys, Raiders, and Cardinals may keep an eye on his availability. If Howard is traded, this will have massive ramifications on the rest of the Dolphins secondary. Byron Jones will slot into the #1 spot, but who else would be able to make up for the loss of Howard? Noah Igbinoghene had a rough rookie season, but Dolphins coaches are optimistic he will continue to develop heading into year 2. The other option would be Nik Needham who had his best moments on the outside, despite lacking a ton of athleticism. The hope is for the Dolphins to resolve this issue with Howard as he is the focal point of a defense that looks to pick off right where they left off in 2020.
3. Will the investments in the offensive line end up paying off?
The Dolphins have made it a priority to revamp their offensive line. In 2020, they drafted Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt, and Solomon Kindley all of who played a significant role in year 1. In 2021, they drafted Liam Eichenberg in the 2nd round who will look to compete for a starting job. According to PFF, Robert Hunt finished with the highest grade of any Dolphins offensive lineman in 2020 (69.4). After losing Ereck Flowers and Ted Karras in the offseason, they brought in veterans including DJ Fluker and Matt Skura. The offensive line in 2020 showed some flashes, but overall it was a pretty subpar performance from the group. We also have to remember that the line is very young and will need to take a step forward in 2021 to prove those investments worthwhile. The most important thing for any team is to protect their QB and as we saw in Super Bowl 55, it is a huge difference-maker. Brian Flores will have some big decisions regarding who to start on the line as there is a mix of young guys looking to improve and veterans who may be able to provide some stability. Either way, if the Dolphins want Tua Tagovailoa to take a step forward in year 2, it is going to be a group effort that starts with the offensive line.
4. Who will take the final roster spots at the WR position?
Will Fuller, DeVante Parker, and Jaylen Waddle are your top 3 WRs heading into the season. It is going to be important to find guys that will step up when their name is called. Whether it is due to injury or like in week 1 where Will Fuller will be absent due to the continuation of his PED suspension. These are the names who will look to battle it out all training camp: Preston Williams, Jakeem Grant, Lynn Bowden Jr., Albert Wilson, among others. Some of these guys have contributed to Dolphins teams in the past, while others are still trying to prove they belong. Preston Williams seemed to be an undrafted gem after he got off to a fast start in 2019 but has dealt with injury issues throughout the early parts of his career. Jakeem Grant has been key on special teams. He was an all-pro in that department in 2020. However, he needs to improve as a receiver. Lynn Bowden Jr. is as versatile as anyone on this roster. He can be used as a RB or WR. The Dolphins coaching staff expects him to only get better in year 2. Then, we have the 2020 opt-outs in Albert Wilson and Allen Hurns. Wilson had a spot on this depth chart before this influx of talent, but he will need to show he is the same player after some time off. Hurns may have an outside chance but has produced in this league before. Both will have training camp to show that they belong. The WR corps is definitely going to be much improved in 2021 for QB Tua Tagovailoa. Brian Flores may have a tough decision on who to hand those final spots to, but it is a good problem to have.
5. Can the defense replicate its success from 2020?
In 2020, the Miami Dolphins defense came out of nowhere and allowed the 6th fewest points per game (21.1) to go along with the most takeaways per game (1.8). However, even with the success that the unit had, personnel has changed so adjustments will need to be made in order to propel this team towards a potential playoff run. The Dolphins lost Davon Godchaux to free agency and parted ways with Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson. They also drafted some potential key pieces in Jevon Holland (S) and Jaelan Phillips (EDGE) who will look to make an impact early on. So what will it take to replicate the performance from 2020 and become an even better unit? The biggest improvement this new unit will need to make in 2021 is a bigger emphasis on stopping the run. In 2020, they were in the middle of the pack (116 yards/game) among teams in the NFL. On the line, Christian Wilkins and Raekwon Davis will lead the charge in improving this facet of the defense. Also, keep an eye on the pass rush heading into the season. The defense ranked 14th in pressures, so there is plenty of room for improvement. They will look for newly-drafted Jaelan Phillips to potentially make an impact in year 1. He also joins the likes of Emmanuel Ogbah, who was the team’s best pass rusher in 2020 (64.5 pass-rush grade according to PFF). Finally, as I touched on before, this defense may look a lot different if Xavien Howard, the focal point is no longer with this team. He was a key reason for this pass defense being so dominant and taking him off the field leaves big shoes to fill. With the defensive mindset that coach Brian Flores brings to the table, its no doubt he will have high expectations for his defense once again in 2021.