1. Tua, Tyreek & Armstead must be healthy in December.
Chris Grier has built a top-heavy roster, investing a significant portion of the cap space into high-priced talent. Last year, we saw glimpses of how this approach could work. Halfway through the 2022 season, Miami had one of the most potent offenses in the league before being derailed down the stretch for various reasons. Perhaps the primary reasons were the absence of starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who missed five games and left tackle Terron Armstead, who missed four games. In the games that Tua started and finished, Miami averaged 26.4 points per game (6th in the NFL); in the games Tua missed, Miami averaged 19.2 points per game (23rd in the NFL).
Every team in the NFL will face injuries; that’s the nature of the sport. However, Miami can’t afford to lose their three most important players for an extended period, particularly when it’s time to make their playoff push. Tyreek Hill might be the most dynamic player in football. Fortunately, he was able to stay healthy throughout the entire last season. He needs to repeat that feat or come close to it. Terron Armstead serves as the anchor, holding the entire offensive line together. The drop-off is noticeable when he’s not on the field. Additionally, Tua plays the most crucial position, and as previously mentioned, without him, the offense declines in a major fashion. Their collective health could be the most significant factor influencing Miami’s success this year.
2. They must have a successful running attack
When Mike McDaniel joined Miami, he garnered praise for his role as the run game guru behind San Francisco’s potent rushing attack. In 2021, the 49ers, with Mike McDaniel as the offensive coordinator, ranked 7th in rushing yards per game. However, in 2022, the Dolphins finished 27th in the same category. This disparity could possibly be attributed to a differing philosophy in Miami. The presence of explosive weapons on the outside might have led them to lean towards a pass-heavy approach, causing them to lose offensive balance in the process. Remarkably, Miami ranked 31st in rushing attempts per game, in stark contrast to San Francisco’s 6th rank in 2021.
To unlock the full potential of Miami’s offense, it’s crucial for them to establish a stronger running game and achieve a better balance. Despite showcasing offensive brilliance with exciting chunk plays last year, the team lacked consistency, evidenced by their 24th rank in 3rd down conversion rate.
3. They should have a top-10 defense
In 2022, Miami allowed an average of 24.1 points per game, ranking them 24th in the NFL. Frankly, this is embarrassing, given the level of talent on their defensive side. Fortunately, the team recognized that something wasn’t clicking and decided to bring in experienced assistant Vic Fangio, making him the highest-paid coordinator in football. Fangio’s proven coaching record spans 22 years, during which he led ten defenses to finish in the top 10, both as a head coach and a coordinator. This year shouldn’t be his 11th top 10 defense.
Jaelan Phillips, Christian Wilkins, and Bradley Chubb are all Pro-Bowl caliber players capable of wreaking havoc on an opposing team’s offensive line. While Xavien Howard may be on the decline, a scheme change should suit his skillset and allow him to contribute positively to the team. Solid starters like David Long Jr. and Zach Sieler have demonstrated their impact in the league. Young talents like Jevon Holland, Kader Kohou, and Cam Smith bolster the secondary. Last year, Miami’s strength was its ability to put points on the board. However, considering their roster, it’s the defense that should be capable of winning games. This isn’t even taking into account the possible return of Jalen Ramsey in December. All the pieces are in place; they just need to find a way to capitalize on them.
4. Mike McDaniel must learn from previous mistakes
Mike McDaniel’s first season in Miami was undoubtedly a success, resulting in the team securing their first playoff berth since 2016. However, this achievement doesn’t exempt him from committing his fair share of rookie mistakes. The former coordinator had never called plays in the NFL, which showed as he struggled to communicate the plays in time. Consequently, Miami tied for 2nd place in the league for the most delay of game penalties called against them.
As mentioned earlier, Miami’s deficiency in third-down success can be attributed to play calling, as Mike McDaniel’s aggressive style often resulted in failures on 3rd-and-short situations. I am confident that these struggles were primarily due to a lack of experience and that he will improve in his second year. He must also demonstrate the ability to counter-punch during games, as he was clearly out-schemed in a pair of matchups, most notably against Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
In the Steelers matchup, they moved the ball up and down the field with ease until the Pittsburgh defense adjusted, disrupting Miami’s timing and leading to the Dolphins being shut out in the second half. Similarly, in the Chargers matchup, Miami never found its rhythm and failed to adjust against Brian Staley’s counters. The offensive guru must be able to respond during games in order for Miami to make a deep run.
5. Tua must evolve
Miami’s young quarterback showed drastic improvement in his third year, becoming one of the NFL’s most efficient passers. Tua’s primary strengths were his accuracy and timing, which turned Miami into a well-oiled machine for a significant part of the season. However, things changed. Opposing teams started disrupting Miami’s timing and began to take away the middle of the field, where Tua had previously excelled. They forced him to make tough throws on the outside, and the results were uneven.
After a four-game stretch where they scored 30 or more points in each game, they followed that up with four games where they averaged 20.7 points per game, losing all four. Unfortunately, we never got to see how Tua would respond after that slump, as a concussion knocked him out for the remainder of the season.
The Dolphins’ success will largely hinge on Tua’s performance. To establish himself as an upper-echelon quarterback, he must become less reliant on timing throws and excel at making challenging throws to the outside. The Week 1 matchup in Los Angeles will reveal if he has evolved, as he struggled against them last year, completing only 36% of his passing attempts.