The Miami Dolphins are two years into the Tua Tagovailoa era and remain out of the NFL playoffs following a 9-8 season. So much for the idea that the Alabama Crimson Tide legend would be an instant fix.
In fairness to Tagovailoa, not all of the Dolphins’ problems are on him. Miami has failed to surround its prized quarterback with a reliable offensive line, a three-down running back, or consistent receivers. Although Tagovailoa has tried making the most of a frustrating situation and led the Dolphins on a seven-game winning streak this season, he and his teammates are still a few pieces away from competing for the AFC East title.
Dolphins general manager Chris Grier has had multiple draft picks backfire, especially on the offensive line, and head coach Brian Flores has paid the ultimate price as a result as he was surprisingly fired on Black Monday after three seasons.
Here’s the plan of attack the Dolphins should follow during the 2022 NFL offseason.
Biggest offseason questions
First and foremost, of course, Miami needs to find a new head coach. And that head coach will certainly have plenty to worry about, starting with the quarterback position.
The Dolphins selected Tagovailoa fifth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft and hoped — at least; we assume they hoped — he’d finally fill the franchise quarterback hole created by Dan Marino’s retirement in March 2000.
Nearly two years later, no one is still exactly sure where Tagovailoa fits into the Dolphins’ long-term plans. Is he the franchise quarterback, or is he a trade piece that Grier can dangle in hopes of acquiring Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson via trade?
For the sake of everyone’s sanity, the Dolphins and Tagovailoa must reach an agreement in the coming months about the plan for 2022 — and, considering the Alabama product will be up for a contract extension in 2023, perhaps the long-term outlook. If Miami intends to pursue a high-profile starting quarterback via trade, the franchise is best served by communicating that to their current starter.
Regardless of what happens with Tagovailoa, the Dolphins must finally hit on more draft picks. Miami has remained a step behind Buffalo and New England in the post-Tom Brady era because too few of the Dolphins’ early-round draft picks have grown into trustworthy starters.
Top free-agency decisions
Key free agents: Emmanuel Ogbah (DE), Mike Gesicki (TE), Nik Needham (CB)
Although veteran receiver Will Fuller is the Dolphins’ highest-paid player currently slated to hit unrestricted free agency in 2022, he was a non-factor this past season. He won’t be missed in Miami.
The same can’t be said for the other three players on this list. After totaling 18 sacks in his first four seasons, Ogbah matched that total in his first two years with the Dolphins and is still only 28. Gesicki, the 42nd overall pick in 2018, set career-highs in catches (71) and receiving yards (758) this year.
Needham, who went undrafted out of UTEP in 2019 but quickly became a fan favorite, will hit restricted free agency. Don’t be surprised if the Dolphins do everything in their power to ensure the defensive back returns in 2022.
2022 NFL Draft needs and potential targets
Top picks: First round (San Francisco 49ers via 2020 three-team trade), second round (own), fourth round (own), fourth round (Pittsburgh Steelers via 2021 draft trade)
Draft needs: OT, IOL, RB, LB, S
Regardless of who starts at quarterback next season, the Dolphins cannot go into 2022 without upgrading the offensive line. However, Miami might want to turn their attention to free agency and try finding starters on the open market.
In terms of draft prospects, the Dolphins won’t be selecting high enough (barring a trade-up) to land the likes of Alabama’s Evan Neal or Mississippi State’s Charles Cross. Ohio State offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere is an intriguing prospect, albeit Dolphins fans have every reason to be skeptical about Grier’s ability to find reliable offensive line prospects.
The Dolphins need another young, explosive receiver to join Jaylen Waddle, who had a brilliant first season and earned team MVP honors. Southern California’s Drake London and Ohio State’s Chris Olave could each be available when Miami picks in the first round.
If the Dolphins wait until the second round, they should monitor Waddle’s former Alabama teammate, John Metchie III, and Purdue’s David Bell, a finalist for the Fred Biletnikoff Award. Western Kentucky’s Jerreth Sterns, who totaled a staggering 150 catches, 1,902 yards, and 17 touchdowns this season, is a mid-major prospect worth considering.
It’s often hard to predict where running backs will go in the draft, but the Dolphins must consider Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III if he is available in the second round. Walker, a Heisman Trophy finalist, knows Hard Rock Stadium all too well. According to Pro Football Focus, he broke 20 tackles in a 38-17 Spartans victory over the Miami Hurricanes on Sept. 18, 2021.
Whether or not the Dolphins should use a mid-round pick on a quarterback is another conversation worth having. If the team does go down that route, Grier must turn his attention to Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe, who carved through defenses for an NCAA-record 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns in 2021.
1 player on each side of the ball who must step up in 2022
For now, the fate of the 2022 Dolphins rests on Tagovailoa’s shoulder and left arm. Either the team builds around him and makes another run together next season, or they acquire another quarterback — Watson, perhaps? — and move on from the former All-American.
The truth is that Tagovailoa failed to take a legitimate second-year jump in 2022, in part because of the talent around him and in part because he simply didn’t do enough. Before the season ended, he said he needed to devote part of his offseason prep to playing better in cold-weather environments.
Considering Tagovailoa plays in the AFC East and lost both of his road starts against the Bills, that’s probably a good idea.
Luckily for the Dolphins, they already have a solid defensive core in place. An affable personality who has used his 6-foot-4, 310-pound frame to score the occasional offensive touchdown, defensive lineman Christian Wilkins totaled 3.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and forced a fumble in 2021.
Wilkins, who is eligible for a new contract later this year, ranks well analytically and has become an essential piece of the Dolphins’ future. We’ll see if Tagovailoa — and whoever else officially joins the Dolphins in the coming months — are also here to stay in the long term.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference