Expectations for the 2021 Miami Dolphins were relatively high after the team improved by five wins to 10-6 in 2020 in its second year under Head Coach Brian Flores and just missed its first playoff berth in four years. With veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick now in Washington, the Dolphins were turning the offense over to Tua Tagovailoa, the fifth-overall pick in the 2020 draft, and had given him some additional weapons in rookie wide receiver Jaylen Waddle and free agent speedster Will Fuller. The defense, led by a star-studded secondary, had given up the fifth fewest points in 2020.
So it is an unwelcome surprise in South Florida to see the Dolphins at 1-3 after the season's first month, with Tagovailoa on injured reserve with cracked ribs. The offense, now under the direction of journeyman Jacoby Brissett, is scoring just 15.5 points per game and ranks in the bottom five in both rushing and passing. The defense has taken a step back, too, now allowing 27.3 points per game to rank 25th in the NFL. Miami's per-game point differential of -11.8 is tied for third worst in the league and it's yardage differential of -136.3 is second worst.
Still, the Dolphins have more than three-quarters of the season left to right the ship, and the reasons for preseason optimism are still evident on the depth chart. The secondary remains one of the best in the league on paper and the offense features some very intriguing weapons. Flores is well-respected as a team-builder and motivator.
Though Miami's main plans on offense may be on hold for the moment with Tagovailoa sidelined, Brissett has a varied group of pass-catching weapons around him, including the sixth-overall pick in this year's draft, former Tua teammate Jaylen Waddle. Waddle leads the team with 25 catches through four games, though the shifty rookie is so far only averaging 8.0 yards per grab.
While deep threat Will Fuller won't play against the Bucs (more on that below), Brissett also has high-volume pass-catchers at three positions in big wideout DeVante Parker, tight end Mike Gesicki and running back Miles Gaskin. Parker has done the most with his receptions among this group, with 242 yards and a score on 17 catches (14.2-yard average). A second-round pick in 2018, Gesicki can be a bit boom-or-bust (as fantasy football players have found out) and he's essentially a jumbo-sized receiver, but he has topped 50 catches, 500 yards and five touchdowns in each of the past two seasons. He had 10 catches in Week Three against Las Vegas and his first TD of 2021 last Sunday.
Gaskin has shared the backfield with newcomer Malcolm Brown but has been more productive with an average of 4.9 yards per carry plus 12 receptions. Those two run behind an offensive line that is currently a work in progress. Miami has started a different combination of five blockers in every game so far and has just put starting center Michael Deiter on injured reserve. Rookie Liam Eichenberg, a second-round pick, has started at both left and right tackle but is not currently listed a starter on Miami's team website. Robert Hunt, a second-round pick in 2020, started at right tackle last year but was bumped inside to right guard after the addition of Eichenberg; Hunt has taken to the new position well and may be the team's best lineman so far in 2021.
The Dolphins worked out a restructured deal for star corner Xavien Howard, who led the NFL with 10 interceptions last year. That was the NFL's first 10-interception season since Antonio Cromartie did it in 2007 and it sent Howard to his second Pro Bowl. The Dolphins have used free agency to build one of the NFL's best cornerback group, adding Byron Jones in 2020 and slot corner Justin Coleman this year. That trio has just one interception so far (by Howard) but Howard and Jones have each broken up five passes.
Overall, however, Miami hasn't got quite the defensive results it expected, in part because the pass rush has been less effective than it was last year. The Dolphins let outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy (six sacks in 2020) go after one season and defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, who had a team-high 9.0 sacks last year, has 1.5 so far this season. The Dolphins have six sacks, total, and are 27th in sacks per pass play after ranking ninth last year.
Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when they return home on Sunday to face their in-state, cross-conference rivals:
Again, the Dolphins have one of their anticipated difference-makers on the shelf with Tagovailoa out, and it looks as if that will be the case for Fuller, as well. Gesicki gives the offense a good option for spreading things out but still potentially creating mismatches with linebackers. Jason Sanders has been one of the league's best kickers since 2018, converting on 86.2% of his field goal tries, including 13 of 16 from 50 yards and beyond. Though Byron Jones is currently dealing with a quad injury, he is an impact corner to pair with Howard. In addition to those Dolphins, here are four who could help swing the game in their favor on Sunday:
1. CB Xavien Howard. An 11th-hour restructuring of his contract, which included adding a 2021 Pro Bowl incentive, allowed Miami to retain perhaps their best player, though the team has agreed to work on another new deal after the season. Howard obviously has a good chance of earning that specific bonus after being voted into two of the last three Pro Bowls. Despite missing 11 games and getting only one pick in 2019, Howard leads all NFL players with 18 interceptions over the past three seasons. There were a total of eight individual seven-pick seasons over the previous five seasons and Howard recorded two of them. Overall, he has 23 interceptions and 60 passes defensed in just 60 career games. NFL Next Gen Stats graded Howard as the NFL's best coverage player last year, as he allowed a passer rating of just 46.5 as the closest defender. Receivers were able to get an average separation against him of just 2.8 yards. Four of Howard's 10 interceptions last year came when opposing passers tried to throw it deep to the man he was covering. He has great change-of-direction skills and can get up to top speed quickly when his man tries to get deep. On top of that, he has excellent route recognition skills and uses that to get in great position before his target can leverage his route to gain separation.
2. WR DeVante Parker. The 14th-overall pick in the 2015 draft, Parker failed to reach 800 yards in any of his first four seasons but has been the Dolphins' leading receiver in each of the last two years. He had a breakout campaign in 2019 with 72 catches for 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns. The 6-3, 219-pound Parker uses his frame well to win contested catches and get to jump balls. With long arms and excellent body control, he gives Miami's passers a big target with an excellent catch radius and strong hands. Though he has just one touchdown so far this season it was a three-yarder last week against the Colts, unsurprising given that he is one of the Dolphins' best weapons in the red zone. He also doesn't need a lot of separation to be effective because his quarterbacks feel comfortable throwing it to him in tight windows. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Parker had the most "tight-window receptions" and "tight window touchdowns" in the NFL over the 2019-2020 seasons. He lines up on the outside 90% of the time and so far this year has only one target and no receptions when starting a route out of the slot. Parker is not the Dolphins' fastest receiver but he still manages to pick up yards at an impressive clip. His 14.2 yards per catch this season is by far the best of any Dolphin pass-catcher but is almost exactly in line with his career average of 14.1.
3. OLB Jaelan Phillips. In a year in which the evaluations of edge-rushing prospects for the draft was all over the board, Miami eventually made him the first one drafted with the 18th-overall selection. The Dolphins operate out of a 3-4 base with linebackers Andrew Van Ginkel and Brennan Scarlett on the field on run downs but Phillips coming in for passing situations. The rookie out of the University of Miami has just 0.5 sacks so far but has recorded four QB hits and has the raw talents to develop into the Dolphins' most dangerous edge rushers. Phillips had his most impactful game yet last weekend against the Colts with that half-sack and three quarterback hits (he'd had two in the three previous contests). Phillips is explosive off the edge; in fact, in Week One he was clocked by Next Gen Stats as having the fourth-best average get-off time in the league, at 0.70 seconds. He obviously hasn't had much of an opportunity yet to make his mark, so he's more of a theoretical difference-maker here. Still, his size (6-5, 266), speed (4.56-second 40-yard dash), flexibility coming around the edge and closing burst make him a defender the Buccaneers will need to pay attention to on Sunday.
4. WR Jaylen Waddle. As noted above, the Dolphins used the sixth pick in the 2021 draft on Alabama's Waddle, making him the second receiver selected, one pick after LSU's Ja'Marr Chase went to Cincinnati. The 5-10, 182-pound Waddle didn't run a 40 at Alabama's Pro Day due to an ankle injury but was timed at 4.37 before he even got to Alabama. Some scouting reports prior to the 2021 draft compared him to Kansas City game-breaker Tyreek Hill, and it was definitely his effortless speed that led Miami to target him so high in the draft. He's also shifty and the Dolphins use him in a variety of ways on screens, gadget plays and other approaches that get the ball into his hands fast and let him rack up the YAC. Waddle was one of the most dangerous big-play receivers in the game at Alabama, averaging 18.9 yards per catch in his three-year career and scoring 17 touchdowns in 34 games. He has that 8.0-yard average mentioned earlier and just one touchdown so far for the Dolphins, mainly because he hasn't hit the home run plays that are surely coming. Waddle was also an All-American return man at Alabama and he may be stepping into that role now after the Dolphins traded returner Jakeem Grant to the Bears earlier in the week.
Miami's offense has struggled to move the ball in 2021 but has at least avoided compounding the issue by throwing interceptions. Brissett and Tagovailoa have thrown one pick each and the Dolphins rank eighth in lowest interception percentage. The Dolphin defense ranks 24th overall but 13th in yards allowed per play and 16th in yards per pass play. Here are some more specific ways in which the Patriots have performed well during the first three weeks of the 2021 season:
- Miami's defense may rank 27th in sacks per pass play but according to Next Gen Stats it has done a pretty good job of putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Next Gen Stats credits the Dolphins with 47 QB pressures and a QB pressure rate of 30.5%. That ranks ninth in the NFL.
- The Dolphin defense has also done a pretty good job on first downs overall. Opposing offenses have needed an average of 8.54 yards per second-down play in order to get a first down. Since a play is considered "successful" on first downs if it gets four or more yards, the Dolphins have made their opponents unsuccessful more often than not. Miami has made its opponents need seven or more yards on 65.3% of their second-down plays. The league average is 59.4%.
- The Dolphins are dead-even in turnover ratio, with six takeaways and six giveaways. However, they've done a very good job of limiting the damage on their giveaways. Miami's six turnovers have only resulted in six points for the opposition. That rate of one point allowed per giveaway is tied for sixth in the league.
- Miami's offense hasn't scored a bunch but it has taken advantage of its opportunities when it gets close. The Dolphins have had three goal-to-go chances so far and have scored touchdowns on all three of them, one on the ground and two through the air. That 100% goal-to-go TD rate is obviously tied for first in the NFL.
Miami's offense ranks 26th or lower in total yards, yards per play, rushing yards, yards per rush, passing yards and yards per pass play. It has also allowed 13 sacks through four games. The Dolphins' defense is giving up 136.8 yards per rush and a 54.2% conversion rate on third downs, ranking 27th and 31st in those categories, respectively. In addition:
- The Dolphins offense has not handled the blitz well so far. According to Statspass, Miami has attempted 27 passes against the blitz and completed 15 of them for 115 yards and two interceptions, while also taking three sacks. The resulting passer rating of 35.3 in blitz situations is last in the NFL.
- Miami's defense has been stung too many times by big plays. The Dolphins have allowed 25 plays that gained 20 or more yards, the most against any team. That includes five 20+-yard runs, two that went for touchdowns plus 20 big pass plays (though none for touchdowns). The league average is 15 big plays allowed.
- Miami's red zone offense is tied for 15th in the league with a touchdown percentage of 62.5%. That's actually surprisingly good considering one glaring deficiency for the Dolphins in that area of the field. So far, the Dolphins have yet to convert a third down in the red zone, going 0-5. That 0.0% third-down success rate is tied for 31st in the NFL.
- Part of the issue with the Dolphins aforementioned third down struggles on defense is that they haven't capitalized well when getting their opponents into tough situations. Of the 59 third downs they've tried to stop, 12 needed 10 or more yards to be converted. The Dolphins allowed five of those to succeed, for a conversion rate of 41.7% that ranks 31st in the NFL.
NEW FACES IN 2021
With Fitzpatrick gone, the Dolphins brought in Jacoby Brissett on a one-year deal and have already had to turn to him with Tagovailoa sidelined. Miami also has a new punter in 2021, with incumbent Matt Haack leaving for Buffalo in free agency and the Dolphins snapping up former Panther Michael Palardy after he was waived in February. The Dolphins also reworked their receiving corps through free agency and the draft and found several new starters on defense on the open market.
1. RB Malcolm Brown. After six seasons with the Rams, the former undrafted running back signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins, who cut Jordan Howard at midseason in 2020 and did not bring back Matt Breida after the season. That led to a need for more depth as Myles Gaskin stepped into the lead role. Gaskin remains the first option but the carries have been split pretty evenly, with Gaskin getting 29, Brown 25 and Salvon Ahmed 12. Brown has produced 91 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown run.
2. CB Justin Coleman. Coleman played two seasons each in New England, Seattle and Detroit before signing with the Dolphins this offseason. His time with the Patriots gives him familiarity with Flores's defense and he has shown some flexibility in his career to play inside or outside. With Howard and Jones on the outside, the Dolphins brought in Coleman to play in the slot. He has played 38% of the defensive snaps so far and has nine tackles and one tackle for loss.
3. S Jevon Holland. The Dolphins retained starting safety Eric Rowe and signed another starter in former Patriot Jason McCourty but still used the third of their four top-42 draft picks this year on Oregon's Jevon Holland. Rowe and McCourty are the starters but neither has played 100% of the defensive snaps as the Dolphins have found reasons to get the rookie on the field. A good chunk of that has been in dime coverages, as Holland's 130 defensive snaps include 95 with six DBs on the field. He made a very good impression in Week One with a strong performance against the Patriots, particularly in how quickly he responded to screen passes and got downhill fast to make the tackle.
1. WR/KR Jakeem Grant. On Tuesday, the Dolphins traded sixth-year wide receiver Jakeem Grant to the Chicago Bears for a 2023 sixth-round pick. Grant had only played 17 snaps of offense for Miami in 2021 and had two catches for -7 yards, but his top value is as a return man. He has five career touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns and had handled all but one return for the Dolphins so far this year. The deal likely clears the way for Waddle to take over both jobs.
2. QB Tua Tagovailoa. This is the big one, of course. Tagovailoa was put on injured reserve on September 25, meaning he would have to miss at least the Dolphins next three games due to his ribs injury. Brissett has already started in losses to Las Vegas and Indianapolis and will be under center against the Buccaneers in Week Five. The other quarterback on Miami's active roster is Reid Sinnett, a first-year player who started his career as an undrafted free agent with the Buccaneers in 2020.
3. WR Will Fuller. Fuller, who struggled with injuries across five seasons in Houston but was an impact player when on the field, will not be available against the Buccaneers due to a hand injury sustained in Week Four against Indianapolis. On Monday, Flores said the Dolphins continue to run tests on Fuller's hand but that the speedy receiver is "definitely out this week." In two games for Miami so far, Fuller has caught four passes for 26 yards.