The Miami Dolphins signed the crown jewel of free agency and that might have been the worst possible move in the entire league. Former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum was hired in February and the Dolphins entire off-season is covered with his grimy fingerprints. He's a supposed cap guru that has no idea how to build a team.
Tannenbaum was the Jets GM from 2006 to 2012 and he was known for moving his draft capital to acquire top tier players, but in exchange he would completely abandon any semblance of depth. New York used 13 draft picks over three seasons from 2008 to 2010 (for comparison, the Patriots had 12 picks in the 2010 draft alone) and not a single player is still on the Jets. Tannenbaum is taking this mentality and wrecking the Dolphins.
Miami has lost four of their top five receivers in 2014, including new Patriots receiver Brandon Gibson and new Bills tight end Charles Clay, leaving only rising sophomore slot receiver Jarvis Landry. They've let a combined 2,234 snaps of offensive interior line play walk away. They've lost their top two defensive tackles in Jared Odrick and Randy Starks. They've lost two starters in the secondary in Cortland Finnegan and Jimmy Wilson (although this could also be argued as an improvement).
They've remodeled their entire team and cut away all of their depth.
In exchange for all of their losses, the Dolphins have:
a) Signed DT Ndamukong Suh to a record 6 year, $114 million contract, worth the most of any defensive player, contains the second most guaranteed money of any contract, is worth the third most overall, averages the sixth most annually, and ohmygosh he's not a quarterback, why would you ever pay that type of money for a defensive tackle?!
b) Traded a 3rd round pick and a large cap hit from LB Dannell Ellerbe for cheap WR Kenny Stills from the Saints. This is a great player on a great contract that, based on the odds, you probably won't get when you jump into the draft in the third round. Stills is a free agent after the 2016 season.
c) Signed TE Jordan Cameron to a 2 year, $15 million contract, with $12.5 million guaranteed. Cameron has played a 16 game season zero times. He has received 3 or more touchdowns in a season just once. He has caught for more than 425 yards in a season just once. He has three concussions in his last two seasons. I'm pretty sure this is all because Cleveland is cursed. But still, the Dolphins were taking a major risk when they let in-house tight end Charles Clay go to Buffalo.
d) Signed IOL J.D. Walton to a 1 year, $1 million contract. Walton played four games in the 2012 and 2013 seasons combined. He started all 16 for the Giants in 2014 and was rated the third worst center in the league by Pro Football Focus.
e) Signed CB Brice McCain to a 2 year, $5.5 million contract. This is a good deal for the Dolphins as McCain is consistently one of the top slot cornerbacks in the league (he's as good in this role, if not better, than Kyle Arrington).
f) They did a good job of retaining a few of their secondary players, in starting safety Louis Delmas and depth players Michael Thomas (who had the game winning interception against the Patriots in 2013) and Jordan Kovacs. They signed depth linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. They also brought back rotational defensive end Derrick Shelby. These are smart signings.
But while retaining depth players is a smart move, the Dolphins went wrong when they started exchanging multiple rotational players in favor of a single star player. This is not how teams win. This is not how teams sustain themselves over the length of a grueling season.
This is how a team can sink with a single injury. This is how the Jets were built. This is how the Colts were built. This is a team meant to flash on paper, but only become a flash in the pan.
And the best and/or worst part is that they're under the helm of one the weakest coaches in the NFL. Rotoworld provided their coaches ranking (Bill Belichick came in first for the second season in a row), and Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin came in dead last for returning coaches. Their description of his coaching ability is perfection:
The grandest of mediocrities, Joe Philbin is not an NFL coach. He is a shrinking violet garbed in an aqua polo and adorned with a headset. He is a man unloved by his players, outwitted by his rivals and overwhelmed by his duties. An "offensive mind," Philbin does not call his own plays. That leaves his primary function as "leading." This is not good because Philbin’s primary failing is leadership.
Not every NFL coach is going to be Pete Carroll or Mike Ditka. Loud does not equal "lead." But if you’re going to be the quiet type, you better have a firm grasp on the pulse of your team. This is something Philbin insisted he didn’t have when he pled ignorance again and again in the Dolphins’ "Bullygate" scandal. Philbin’s locker room was fracturing into factions, and whether it was willful or intentional, he had no idea.
Once Philbin finally does discover his problems, he ships them out instead of coaching them up. Brandon Marshall and Vontae Davis have both thrived since Philbin sent them packing, while the Dolphins have spent millions and many draft picks trying to replace them.
Not that Philbin’s failures all come behind closed doors. As a game manager, his top innovation has been calling late timeouts on defense in one-score games. This brilliant tactic helped produce two wins in 2014 … for the Packers and Lions. Philbin’s other specialty is dialing up field goals. Unfortunately for Dolphins fans, only five teams had worse field-goal percentages last season. Philbin is John Harbaugh if he never won. He’s Mike Tomlin if he never showed fire. He’s Jason Garrett if he never smiled. He is the worst coach in the NFL.
Bill Belichick has shown that great leadership and intelligence as both general manager and as head coach can put consistently terrific product on the field. The Dolphins are operating without a good front office or coaching staff. They are a collection of talent meant to win in March, but to head home in December.
The Bills and Jets have made moves this off-season to flush their roster with depth and, even though they don't have a quality quarterback, they have enough pieces to make Matt Cassel and Ryan Fitzpatrick look serviceable- and they'll feature defenses that can suffocate the opposition so shootouts won't be a concern. They've made strides to be a concern in the conference, even if they might not be ready to take down the Patriots.
The Dolphins have taken a major step back. Yes, their moves at linebacker and in the secondary are lateral since their starting quality will remain the same. But they've scrapped their depth at defensive tackle in favor of handing a mega-contract to one player. They're putting their quality quarterback Ryan Tannehill in a contract year situation (they technically also have control with a 2016 option) where he will be playing with a new cast of receivers and without an offensive line.
All of the advantages that existed in the Patriots favor still remain: Tom Brady will still be able to run a quick offense to negate the pass rush; the Dolphins still don't have the players to defend Rob Gronkowski; they don't have the receivers to take advantage of the Patriots secondary; they don't have the offensive line to take advantage of the Patriots defensive interior; they don't have a coach that can match Bill Belichick.
In all likelihood, the Patriots and Dolphins with split the season series for the 10th time in 15 seasons and, yes, the loss will probably happen in Miami. But one team will still be standing when it comes time for the playoffs- and one team is not built to last.