The Dolphins will tell you the second half of their season, which begins Sunday against the Jets, is all about making a playoff push with a depleted, diminished roster. And that’s true, even with the odds against them.
But the final eight games must also be about gaining clarity on key offseason decisions.
Determining whether to go another season with Ryan Tannehill clearly tops that list, and Tannehill would need to be exceptional when he returns from his shoulder injury to justify allocating a $26.6 million cap hit and an $18.7 million salary to him in 2019, especially with a few other appealing options available, headlined by Teddy Bridgewater, who the Dolphins also like. (Here was my October piece on the cap consequences of cutting Tannehill.)
But there are other key looming decisions that need clarity over the final eight games, subplots we discuss now — in early November — because they’re issues fans should monitor as the season plays out. Among them:
▪ What to do with their 2014 and 2015 first-round draft picks, Ja’Wuan James and DeVante Parker.
James’ season has been a microcosm of his uneven career; he was great against Khalil Mack and the Bears and substandard against the Bengals’ and Texans’ strong defensive fronts.
Pro Football Focus ranks him 27th among 76 offensive tackles — Laremy Tunsil is 19th — but he has allowed three sacks (tied for 14th most among NFL tackles) and 14 quarterback pressures.
The Dolphins paid him $9.3 million this season — after initially leaning against it — mostly because they knew they wouldn’t find better, more affordable options in a shallow free agent class. Unless he’s great the final eight games, the Dolphins again figure to explore outside options.
Keeping Parker at the $9.4 million he’s owed in 2019 — a decision that must be made by early March — seems unlikely now, but if he strings together several games like the one last Thursday in Houston (six catches, 134 yards), it becomes a strong consideration.
He has a $9.4 million cap hit if he’s on the team in 2019, no hit if he’s not. It’s difficult to envision his agent — who has feuded with the Dolphins — agreeing to a restructuring with a much lower base salary. The $9.4 million salary for next season becomes guaranteed only in the event of a significant injury lingering into 2019.
▪ Do the Dolphins keep either of their starting defensive ends, Cam Wake and Robert Quinn?
It’s almost impossible to envision Miami keeping both and a case could be made not to keep either.
Wake, an impending free agent, is the tougher call, because he could serve a part-time role at a modest base salary if he’s willing. The downside: He’s on pace for a two-sack season — the worst of his career — and he’s 36.
But Pro Football Focus said he’s still applying pressure on the quarterback and insists he’s not the culprit for the deficient run defense, noting that “while he is not making the impact plays we are used to seeing over the years rushing the passer, Wake’s run-defense grade of 80.4 this season is a career-high.”
PFF’s Ryan Smith said “he’s defending the run better than he has in the last five seasons.”
PFF ranks Wake 15th among all defensive ends and 11th best against the run. Also, his 18 quarterback pressures are the most of any NFL defensive lineman who has played in fewer than six games.
And Smith says Wake’s pass-rushing productivity (PRP) of 12.0 is tied for the third-highest mark among all 4-3 defensive ends who have played at least 25 percent of the snaps
So it’s possible Wake could return, but nowhere near the $8 million he’s earning this season.
With Quinn, it’s impossible to envision him returning on his current contract (including a $12.9 million 2019 cap hit) — or likely returning at all — unless he plays like a Pro Bowl defensive end over the final eight weeks.
His $11.8 million salary for 2019 isn’t guaranteed and the Dolphins would have no dead money on their cap if they cut him.
Not only does Quinn have just one sack, but PFF rates him 13th-worst against the run among 103 defensive ends.
If the Dolphins move on from Wake or Quinn, they cannot justify projecting a starting role for Andre Branch (PFF says he has been the third-worst of 103 defensive ends this season and he looms as a potential cap casualty) or Charles Harris (71st of 113).
▪ Does Miami need to add a linebacker who could legitimately compete with either Raekwon McMillan or Jerome Baker?
Now let’s be clear: The team is hopeful both will be long-term starters, and Miami should invest more time in both. Both will be on the team next year. But they cannot play badly over the final eight games and expect to go totally unchallenged for a starting job next summer.
Both rookies have mixed some promising plays with poor ones.
Per PFF, Baker is 31st and McMillan 35th among 81 linebackers. That’s above average.
Baker is 23rd against the run, McMillan 27th, though both — and many others — have been helpless to prevent the debacle the past two weeks.
McMillan has been OK, but he’s not Zach Thomas, which was the pie-in-the-sky hope. Whether he will improve enough to become an above-average NFL starting middle linebacker must play out; he’s clearly not there yet but it’s far too soon to make any definitive judgment. At the very least, he’s competent and there’s potential for growth.
Both have been victimized in pass coverage, even though that was a perceived strength for Baker out of Ohio State.
Baker has allowed 21 of 25 passes thrown in his coverage area to be caught for 181 yards, equaling a 110.2 passer rating in his coverage area. McMillan has allowed 18 of 21 to be caught for 205 yards and a 146.9 passer rating.
At least one likely will start for Miami next season. There’s a decent-to-good- chance that both will. Baker’s speed has been an asset.
But they cannot be gifted 2019 starting jobs if they aren’t at least pretty good in the final eight games.
▪ Make a definitive decision on the secondary. The likely end game next season would have Minkah Fitzpatrick moving to safety full-time, Bobby McCain moving back to slot cornerback, a starting corner being added and safety T.J. McDonald being cut.
McCain could make a case to stay on the boundary if he plays well the final eight games, but he seems better in the slot.
And keep in mind that cutting McDonald actually saves only $1.4 million from his $6 million cap hit; the rest will be dead money if he’s a post-June 1 cut, which is the most cap-friendly of any scenario. But even a strong final eight games might not save McDonald.
It’s clear that Fitzpatrick needs to play full time by next year at the latest; he has a 50.8 passer rating in his coverage area, best in the NFL, and is paying 75 percent of Miami’s defensive snaps.
▪ Make decisions on the other impending unrestricted free agents besides Wake and James.
Frank Gore, whose 4.6 per carry average is 20th in the league, appears most likely to be invited back, and restricted free agent Nick O’Leary has made a case but must play well over the final eight games.
Even though William Hayes’ loss was devastating to the run defense, his age (33) and lack of durability would make this a hard sell.
The most prominent among other impending unrestricted free agents: quarterback Brock Osweiler and tight ends A.J. Derby and MarQueis Gray.