News & Analysis

Miami Dolphins 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Nov 8, 2020; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) huddles teammates against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The Miami Dolphins are next on the list, and there’s plenty to talk about after a season in which they made a surprise run at the postseason in Brian Flores’ second year as head coach. With Ryan Fitzpatrick hitting free agency, Tua Tagovailoa is the quarterback in Miami at the moment, but there are still plenty of questions about the situation around him and whether he’s set up to succeed. 

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The defense should be a problem for opposing offenses once again in 2021. As such, It will be the improvement, or lack thereof, from Miami’s offense that determines whether the Dolphins can make it back to the postseason. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $26,004,465 (8th lowest in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 3, 18, 36, 50, 82, 114, 183

Projected 2021 offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Tua Tagovailoa 27 / 32 $6.8 million
RB ?
WR DeVante Parker 29 / 127 $12.1 million
WR Preston Williams 83 / 127 $0.9 million
WR ?
TE Mike Gesicki 8 / 71 $2.1 million
LT Austin Jackson 37 / 38 $3.1 million
LG Ereck Flowers 14 / 39 $10.0 million
C ?
RG Solomon Kindley 38 / 40 $1.0 million
RT Robert Hunt 20 / 38 $1.8 million

The Dolphins return Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed at running back, but there’s a good chance they target a starter either in the draft or free agency to keep the two former Washington Huskies in complementary roles. 

At wide receiver, Miami has been linked frequently to Tagovailoa’s former teammate DeVonta Smith in mock drafts. It might not end up being Smith, but the Dolphins do need to add more talent at the position. Preston Williams has dealt with injuries throughout his first two years in the league, and they could use some additional speed at the receiver position.

The offensive line is the biggest concern heading into next season, but there aren’t necessarily a ton of starting jobs up in the air as things stand right now. Miami could opt to bring in Penei Sewell and kick Robert Hunt to guard, but each of Hunt, Austin Jackson and Ereck Flowers appear likely to start the 2021 season. The Dolphins also assuredly need to address the center position with 2020 starter Ted Karras entering free agency. 

Should Miami go all in for Deshaun Watson or build around Tua Tagovailoa?

If you can go get a top-three asset in the NFL like Watson, you do it. Tagovailoa may very well develop into a quality NFL starter, but after a season in which he earned a 65.4 PFF grade in limited action, he’s still an appealing mystery box. Watson is already an established, elite quarterback at 25 years old — a piece you can build around for the future.

Some have argued against going all in for Watson because of all the other pieces needed to construct a true contending team. That argument doesn’t hold as much weight for Miami thanks to the draft capital they got back from Houston in the Laremy Tunsil deal. 

They were already a borderline playoff team in 2020, can offer one of the more valuable picks in this year’s draft (third overall) and roster an intriguing young quarterback in Tua without hamstringing their team in the years to come.

The top five quarterbacks in PFF grade entering the postseason were Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Watson. Four of those quarterbacks played on championship weekend, and the other is miraculously available — although the Texans claim he's not for sale. You don’t pass that guy up just because Tagovailoa could still become your franchise quarterback.   

Can we expect Miami's 2020 rookie offensive linemen to improve entering the 2021 season? 

Relying heavily on rookies at both starting tackle positions and one guard spot was always going to come with growing pains. That fact is exacerbated when the first tackle taken was considered to be more of a project than a plug-and-play starter, and the other tackle taken could be better suited at guard in the NFL. The latter — Robert Hunt — actually put forth a solid performance at the right tackle spot with a 67.5 PFF grade at the position, but Austin Jackson (53.3 grade) and Solomon Kindley (52.3 grade) struggled at left tackle and right guard, respectively.

An average time to throw of 2.47 seconds (fourth-lowest in the NFL) among Miami's quarterbacks last season helped mask some of the pass protection deficiencies up front, but it’s a unit that needs to improve heading into the 2021 season. 

There is hope for some of the Dolphins' young players to improve. Offensive line is historically a position where it takes players longer to find their footing in the NFL than other positional groups, and there is a reason someone like Jackson was taken in the first round — even if it stood out as a reach at the time.

Getting improved play from him at left tackle would be massive for the rest of the line. There’s always the potential that the Dolphins invest in another tackle this offseason, which would allow them to kick Hunt inside to guard, as well.  

Will Mike Gesicki creep closer toward the elite tier of receiving threats at tight end next season?

I recently singled out Gesicki as the Dolphins' most improved player this past season, and the hope for Miami fans will be that he ride the momentum into 2021. 

Gesicki bolstered his receiving grade from 58.4 across his first two seasons in the NFL to 79.4 in 2020 — ranking fifth among tight ends who ran at least 150 routes — and he was one of the more dominant contested-catch receivers in the league. And there’s no reason he can’t take another big jump into the “Darren Waller tier” of receiving talents at the position in 2021. 

Gesicki is a freakish athlete with one of the biggest catch radiuses in the NFL, and he seems to be finding his stride at a position where few players make a major impact early in their careers. The Dolphins still need to add some talent at wide receiver, but we shouldn’t overlook Gesicki when examining their receiver room heading into next season.   

Potential targets at open spots

Running back: Najee Harris, Le’Veon Bell

If the Dolphins are looking for a bell-cow running back in this draft class, then Harris is their guy. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, he has the size to carry the load. But he isn’t just a bruiser. Harris exhibits elusiveness in space and can get the job done as a receiver. He earned an 81.6 receiving grade in 2020 at Alabama, and his biggest strength listed in the PFF Draft Guide is his catch radius. The issue is that the Dolphins will likely have to spend a first-round pick to acquire him — a steep price to pay for any running back.  

Bell stands out as a possible target in free agency who Miami could bring in and feature in a rotation with the other running backs already on the roster. Bell’s past three years haven’t gone as anticipated, with a missed year in 2018 followed by a brutal situation with the New York Jets and a limited role with the Kansas City Chiefs this past season. 

Bell still graded north of 72.0 in both 2019 and 2020, hasn’t put a ton of wear on his body in recent years and could be a productive player both as a runner and a receiver at a big discount. It’s not the worst shot for a team like Miami, which has opportunities in its backfield.   

Wide receiver: DeVonta Smith, T.Y. Hilton

At this point, it seems like Dolphins fans would be upset if they don’t end up with Smith in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. From a narrative perspective, giving Tagovailoa one of his top targets from his final season at Alabama — fresh off a Heisman Trophy campaign — is hard to top. And forget about the concerns regarding Smith’s size. He does so many things at a high level, and his production at Alabama speaks for itself. The best-case scenario for Miami is trading back with a quarterback-needy team and selecting Smith after the third overall pick. 

In free agency, the big names should all hold some appeal. Hilton is further down on the free agent pecking order but should hold some appeal. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald recently reported that the Florida native has interest in the Dolphins. Hilton might have lost some of the speed that made him so dangerous downfield early in his career, but he has still posted 75.0-plus receiving grades in each of the past two years despite battling injuries. 

Center: Ted Karras, Corey Linsley 

The Athletic’s Josh Tolentino wrote earlier this month that he believes Karras will return to the team next season, touching on his desire to stay in Miami. The interest should be mutual after a solid season from Karras on the interior. His 65.3 PFF grade ranked 18th out of 37 qualifying centers, and there shouldn’t be a massive price tag required to bring him back.  

If the Dolphins were looking to upgrade in free agency, it doesn’t get much better than Linsley, should he become available. Linsley — PFF’s highest-graded center in 2020 — is one of the best veteran centers in the league and would pair with a relatively young offensive line. He would provide an upgrade over Karras as a pass protector and a run blocker, but he’ll also come at a steeper price. PFF projects a three-year, $33 million contract for Linsley compared to a two-year, $8.5 million deal for Karras

Projected 2021 defense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Christian Wilkins 47 / 126 $4.2 million
DI Raekwon Davis 37 / 126 $1.3 million
DI Zach Sieler 44 / 126 $2.5 million
EDGE Shaq Lawson 28 / 126 $9.8 million
EDGE Emmanuel Ogbah 48 / 126 $7.5 million
LB Jerome Baker 37 / 83 $2.6 million
LB Kyle Van Noy 26 / 83 $13.9 million
CB Xavien Howard 2 / 121 $13.5 million
CB Byron Jones 54 / 121 $16.1 million
CB Noah Igbinoghene N/A $2.6 million
S ?
S ?

The Dolphins' defense ended the 2020 regular season ranked seventh in EPA allowed per play — a massive step forward from the unit's 31st-ranked finish a year prior. Nearly all of that group should return in 2021.  

The only unrestricted free agents of note on that side of the ball are linebacker Elandon Roberts (402 snaps), linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill (207 snaps), interior defender Davon Godchaux (172 snaps) and linebacker Vince Biegel (0 snaps due to injury). 

Godchaux projected to have a large role as the team’s starting nose tackle entering the season, but his year was cut short by injury. Sieler and the rookie Davis stepped up to provide solid play in his absence. 

I left the two safety positions blank because it’s hard to say at this stage who will start at those spots. 2020 starters Rowe (58.9 PFF grade) and McCain (62.1) both return, but the Dolphins may want a larger role for last year’s third-round selection Brandon Jones. Miami could also look outside the organization for more talent through either the draft or free agency. 

Will Davon Godchaux be back next season?

My guess here would be no. 

Godchaux played at least 500 snaps for Miami in each of his first three seasons in the league but started just five games in 2020 before a biceps injury prematurely ended his contract year. Looking at his three full seasons of action, Godchaux graded out as a middle-of-the-pack run defender while offering little as a pass rusher. He recorded a mere 5.2% pressure rate with three sacks across the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons. Without above-average play against the run, his profile just isn't all that exciting. 

Both Davis and Sieler also stepped up to play well for Miami this past year, making what Godchaux brings to the table a bit redundant. That means he’ll be finding his next opportunity elsewhere more likely than not.  

Should Miami be looking into adding a linebacker this offseason?

Linebacker sticks out as the defensive position affected most by free agency for the Dolphins this offseason. Roberts and Grugier-Hill combined for over 600 defensive snaps during the 2020 season. Ideally, Miami will be looking for better production in those snaps next year, as Roberts recorded the worst PFF grade of any linebacker in the league (29.3) and Grugier-Hill didn’t clear a 50.0 grade as a run defender or coverage defender, either. 

Van Noy is more of an edge defender than he is an off-ball linebacker in his current role, and that really just leaves Baker when it comes to players with any kind of experience. Baker impressed as a run defender as a rookie with a 77.3 run-defense grade, but he’s taken a clear step back in the past two years from a PFF grading standpoint following the coaching changes. I expect the Dolphins will look to add another option in the coming months. 

Where does Noah Igbinoghene need to improve entering his second season to find a significant role on the defense?

Igbinoghene played at least 35 snaps in each of the team’s first four games before seeing just 63 defensive snaps total from Week 5 through the end of the year. And 233 of his 286 snaps came out wide — primarily early on while Byron Jones missed time with injury. There were some rough performances over that stretch for the speedster out of Auburn. Igbinoghene allowed over 100 yards into his coverage in both Week 2 against the Buffalo Bills and Week 4 against the Seattle Seahawks

He was beaten for big plays on several occasions by simply letting receivers get over the top of him and abandoning any deep responsibility, and he also struggled at times with receivers getting across the field on horizontal routes. To be fair, a matchup with a receiver of Stefon Diggs‘ caliber in Week 2 qualifies as trial by fire. Igbinoghene rarely found the field after those first four outings.

The Dolphins still seem optimistic about the first-round pick’s future with the team, but what does that mean for 2021?

Barring injury, any playing time he does see will have to come in the slot with Howard’s and Jones’ names written in pen on the depth chart outside. That job was held down by Nik Needham in 2020 (52.9 PFF grade on 519 snaps lined up in slot). The slot is a different beast from playing outside altogether, but Miami should be trying to get talented players like Igbinoghene on the field. He just turned 21 in November, so there is still plenty of time for him to continue to develop.   

Potential targets at open spots

Safety: Jevon Holland, Duron Harmon 

The safety position is an interesting one for Miami. They could save some money by parting ways with McCain and Rowe (to a lesser extent), but that pairing wasn’t a problem in 2020. They also have Brandon Jones, who should become more involved next season. Still, it makes some sense for them to look to add a free safety this offseason.

Holland stands out as the playmaker they really don’t have at the position as things stand right now. He played safety for Oregon in 2018 before making the switch to the slot in 2019, earning coverage grades above 85.0 in both years. His playmaking ability and instincts show in the nine interceptions and 11 pass breakups he tallied across those two seasons. 

Harmon is a free agent option who has familiarity with Brian Flores from their time together in New England. Even in a down 2020 season with the Detroit Lions, Harmon was a top-25 safety by PFF WAR. He has a track record of success as the single-high safety in a man-heavy defense like Miami’s and would serve as an upgrade over McCain at what should be a reasonable price point. 

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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