The Miami Dolphins are entering a pivotal point in their rebuild: year 3. The third-year is typically the year to see enhanced results. In 2019, the first year of the rebuild, the team was torn down to the studs. The front office rid the roster of old, expensive veterans who weren’t viewed as long-term pieces. They also spent that season tanking for Tua after starting 0-7 (more on that later) and being criticized on national television for “putting the players at risk of injury by purposely losing.” Miami was the “same old Dolphins” getting outscored 163-26 in the first month of the 2019 season.

After winning 5 of the last 9 games in 2019, the team carried optimism and hope to the 2020 season. Brian Flores has been deemed to be a viable NFL coach while also creating a positive culture along the way. Flores never gave into the tanking for Tua talk in the media; he made his team play hard for all 16 games and compete every Sunday. As we all know, the campaign for Tua came to fruition when Miami was able to select the quarterback fifth overall ahead of the 2020 season.

2020 was the second act in the rebuild process. Secure your franchise quarterback; check. Spend big in free agency, check. Allow rookies (including the QB) to get ample game reps and valuable experience, check. The blueprint Chris Grier created couldn’t have gone any better thus far. This past season the Dolphins exceeded expectations with flying colors. Miami controlled their own destiny in regards to a playoff berth but ended up one game short. Nevertheless, the 2020 Dolphins doubled the win total from the previous season and brought hope back to the 305.

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We are entering the final chapter of the rebuild in 2021, and there are no more excuses. Everything that was holding Miami back from making the postseason last year has been addressed. Tua didn’t have wide receivers who had speed or created separation; now he has Will Fuller and newly drafted Jaylen Waddle in the mix. Chan Gailey cut the playbook in half for Tua; Gailey has since retired ( or possibly been fired) and replaced. This team has improved or remained the same at every position and quickly turns into one of the more complete rosters the Dolphins have had in years. There is depth at every position and, more importantly, competition across the board. So what is left to do to compete with the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East and not only make the playoffs but win their first post-season game in two decades?

Miami, one of the youngest teams in the entire NFL, lacks player leadership. The team has shipped off three team captains this off-season, Bobby McCain being the most recent to get the ax. Kyle Van Noy lasted one season in Miami after signing a 4-year, 51 million dollar contract in 2020. Ryan Fitzpatrick was well respected in the locker room but is now the starting quarterback of the Washington Football Team, and Bobby McCain was released for cap purposes. McCain was drafted by Miami in 2015 and was the quarterback of Miami’s defense. The starting safety made sure every play was called out, and each player was in the correct spot. McCain has limitations as a player, but the communication he brought to the defense was invaluable. The Dolphins also traded left guard Ereck Flowers back to Washington and could be doing away with Jakeem Grant, plus another team captain, Jesse Davis, in the coming weeks. That is A LOT of leadership and mentorship playing elsewhere.

So how does Miami replace those players? For starters, I believe Tua Tagovailoa has to step into a captain’s role in 2021 and take control of the locker room as well as Ryan Fitzpatrick did. Next, players like Mike Gesicki, Christian Wilkins, and Xavien Howard might have to take on larger leadership roles. Lastly, newly signed defensive back Jason McCourty will be a vital addition to the locker room and could replace Bobby McCain on the Dolphins depth chart. Either way, Brian Flores and his coaching staff have a lot more on their plates now with less experienced players on the roster. Flores preaches how important player development is, but that could come with breakdowns and miscommunication along the way.

First and second-year players will be asked to take on enormous roles this upcoming season. Miami’s offensive line could consist of Austin Jackson at left tackle, Solomon Kindley at left guard, and Robert Hunt at right guard, who are all entering their second NFL seasons, and Liam Eichenberg at right tackle who was drafted #42 overall this year. The average age of those players by week 1 is 23.5 years old. In addition, Tua Tagovailoa, Raekwon Davis, Noah Igbinoghene, and Lynn Bowden Jr. will be expected to make big year two leaps. Add in #18 overall pick Jaelan Phillips (22), #36 overall pick Javon Holland (21), and #6 pick Jaylen Waddle (22), and Miami is raw at every position.

Coach Flores had high praise for Javon Holland in a post-draft interview, and it seems like Holland could start day one. However, going from McCain to a rookie, regardless of talent, is a risk where things stand right now. Holland is the last line of defense, and with Josh Allen in the division, allowing a receiver to shake free behind is a touchdown waiting to happen. The 36th pick has all the tools to succeed in the NFL and will eventually surpass McCain in terms of talent, but Holland has a lot on his plate, becoming the new quarterback of a defense ranked in the top 10 last season.

Let’s come back to Brian Flores for a moment. Coach Flores is entering a critical year in his coaching career. Flo has done such a masterful job thus far with Miami that the expectations in 2021 are nothing less than a playoff berth. If Miami fails to make the postseason (even as a Wild Card), something went wrong. Some Dolphins fans might get nausea when hearing his name, but Adam Gase started his coaching career with Miami very similarly. Gase’s first season in Miami resulted in the team’s first playoff appearance in 8 years. In 2017, he followed it up with a 6-10 record, but you’re lying if you claim you didn’t think Gase was a fantastic hire after year 1. Brian Flores feels much different than Adam Gase, but he has to start producing results.

Miami has started their seasons very slowly under coach Flores. In two seasons, the Dolphins are 1-6 in September, 2-4 in October, 6-3 in November, 6-3 in December, and 0-1 in January. Miami is a combined 3-10 the first half of seasons compared to 12-7 to finish out. The reasoning for the slow starts could be the fact that Miami entered both 2019 and 2020 with completely different rosters. In 2019, there wasn’t much talent on the team, and it was Flores’ first year building his culture. Midway through the season, we saw this team grow very close and start to gel. In 2020, Flores and the Dolphins couldn’t hit the ground running since that same culture and philosophy had to be taught to a dozen new faces, hence another slow start. But in 2021, there are no more excuses. This Dolphins team should be ready to compete from the opening kickoff. Players at important positions are returning and won’t require a learning curve. As it is with every team, Miami will continue to gel midway through the season and should hit full stride in time for a playoff run.

Although the upcoming season hinges on the development of second-year players, more importantly, Tua Tagovailoa and the offensive line, it also depends on who fills the leadership void left by players such as Kyle Van Noy, Ereck Flowers, Ted Karras, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Bobby McCain. It also banks on how fast Brian Flores can get his team out of the gate. The Dolphins cannot afford a slow start in a crowded AFC East. The Buffalo Bills have Super Bowl expectations while the Patriots and Jets improved their rosters this off-season. Miami must hit the ground running and prove 2020 wasn’t a fluke. It’s also essential for Brian Flores to have a successful season, so he isn’t labeled another Adam Gase.

Real success and expectation should come in 2022, but year three of the rebuild should also provide excitement. The best-case scenario is the Dolphins clinch a playoff spot and win at least one game. Worst case scenario is the Dolphins miss out on the playoffs yet again, meaning something went very wrong. However, with the fifth easiest strength of schedule and 11 games in the state of Florida (9 home games), the Dolphins are set up for a successful season, and a run for the division title should not be out of the equation. It’s time for leaders to step up and for Brian Flores to prove why he is the right coach in Miami.