Areas of weakness heading into 2017
The obvious area of weakness for this Miami Dolphins team is at Linebacker, Guard and Tight End. The Dolphins could also do with adding a young talented edge rusher. The Dolphins massively overperformed in 2016 as they reached the Play Offs with a roster that was an 8-8 team at most. How did the Dolphins get to the Play Offs? Excellent coaching that managed to squeeze every bit of potential out of 2016's roster as a rookie Head Coach managed to win crucial games in Buffalo and New York in December, with a rookie QB... The Dolphins Defense also had clear deficiencies but Vance Joseph adopted a bend but don't break philosophy and was creative with his scheme. The Miami Dolphins were 29th in total yards conceded, but 18th in points allowed.
Miami needs a Left Guard and Right Guard - assuming Albert is a cap casualty and the 'Fins slide Laremy Tunsil across to LT. The Dolphins are also without an obvious threat at Tight End as Jordan Cameron has struggled with concussions. Miami also has no clear starting Linebackers, unless Kiko Alonso is resigned (they should start him at OLB). Alonso was great filling in Inside, but his size and skill set are more suited to excel as an OLB.
Cameron Wake is 35 years old and sooner or later Miami will need to draft his heir apparent. If the team moves on from Andre Branch (if he costs too much to bring back) then the Dolphins could look to add a talented pass rusher. Miami could also do with adding a lock-down corner, but I believe they will wait and see how Byron Maxwell, Xavien Howard and Tony Lippett progress in 2017 - this could be a promising young trio. If the Dolphins do not retain WR Kenny Stills (again, money could be an issue) then a speedster and vertical threat could be appealing in the later rounds.
The Dolphins clearly have needs all over the board, with some gaps much larger than others. That being said, I believe the Dolphins should pursue the tested formula of 'best player available' with the 22nd pick, (unless it's a Quarterback or Running Back the go for the second best). A lot can change between now and April 27th through free agency, yet the point remains that Miami has the fewest picks in the Draft (alongside the Texans) with a measly FIVE picks. Executive VP of Football Operations, Mike Tannebaum and General Manager Chris Grier are going to have to hit on every one of their picks as they look to build a competitive roster for Adam Gase and this young coaching staff to work with.
Options at No.22
While I would LOVE Miami to get ILB Reuben Foster from Alabama at no.22 or for Derek Barnett, the DE out of Tennessee to be available at 22, sadly I don't think that will be the case. If a Laremy Tunsil-type situation occurs again then the Dolphins might just be getting help from the Kremlin/ Russia... The following are five players who the Dolphins could target with the 22nd pick.
N.B. The Miami Dolphins only have two picks within the first four rounds - they must NAIL the 22nd pick.
Solomon Thomas, DE - Stanford
Solomon Thomas is a name that I expect to rise between now and April. The Stanford standout had an excellent 2016 season and could be moving up draft boards as teams review the tape from the previous college season. Some scouts argue that Thomas is somewhat undersized to be an elite 4-3 DE at 6 foot 3, 273lbs - however, Miami's own Cameron Wake is 6 foot 3, 263lbs. Thomas was extremely productive in 2016, logging 62 tackles, 8.0 sacks, 15.0 Tackles for a Loss (TFL), 1 Forced Fumble (FF) and 7 QB Hurries.
Thomas combines quickness and strength to penetrate into the backfield and disrupt plays behind the line of scrimmage. He is quick enough to get quickly into the backfield and blow up plays, while strong enough to anchor at the point of attack. Thomas combines his long arms and powerful punch to gain inside leverage on Tackles and Guards as he is able to rip past Offensive Linemen and into the backfield. Thomas has the strength to be able to line up at either DE or DT and bull rush interior Linemen or line up in 5-technique and use explosive speed to shoot into the backfield. If Thomas runs a low to mid 4.6 at the Combine - which he is capable of - sadly for the Miami Dolphins, he will not be available when pick 22 rolls around.
Thomas would an excellent young pass rusher to line up opposite Cameron Wake in 2017. More importantly, Thomas could learn under Wake and Suh and present a long-term replacement option when Wake eventually hangs his cleats up. Thomas has a high motor and is able to quickly shut down runs to the outside. Coming out of Stanford, Thomas should be able to pick up the play book quickly and has impressed scouts with his maturity, character and work ethic.
O. J. Howard, TE - Alabama
O. J. Howard is the consensus, best Tight End prospect in this years Draft. He also seems to be the name most heavily associated with the Dolphins 2 months away from the Draft. Howard is a big bodied, athletic Tight End who could be a mismatch in the NFL. He would burn Linebackers in coverage and box out Safeties on jump balls.
Howard turned heads at the Senior Bowl as he dominated as both a run-blocker and route running Tight End. At 6 foot 5, 249lbs and an estimated 40 time of 4.6 seconds (Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce quick), Howard could develop into a true mismatch in the NFL and an excellent Red Zone threat. He was under-utilized in the passing game in Alabama, hence his numbers do not jump off the screen. Howard proved he can be a playmaker as he was named Offensive MVP of Alabama's National Championship Win over Clemson in the season before last. In that game, he had five receptions for 208 yards and 2 TDs.
O. J. Howard would excel in Adam Gase's Offense as Gase utilizes TEs in the Red Zone. In Denver, Julius Thomas had back-to-back 12 TD campaigns; in Chicago Zach Miller led the team with 5 TDs; in Miami, Dion Sims developed from a primarily run-blocking TE to post 4 TDs this past season. Howard could develop into Ryan Tannehill's ultimate check down target as he has a knack for sitting down in soft spots of zone coverage. Alternatively, he could develop into a big play receiver on a seam route if he was lined up against a Linebacker. If Howard is available at 22, alongside others on this list - you have to think that Adam Gase would be banging the table to get himself an explosive play maker.
Marlon Humphrey, CB - Alabama
Humphrey's availability will depend on how the Cornerbacks shake up on draft day. Humprey has the potential to easily slide into the top-15 or fall to Miami at 22. His draft stock all depends on where Florida's Jalen Tabor, Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore or Florida's Quincy Wilson end up getting taken. All three are over 6 foot, like Humphrey but in the end it could down to personal preference and how Scouts and Front Office officials judge their respective talents.
Humphrey is a long physical corner who boasts excellent size, speed and athleticism. He is sticky in coverage and his speed allows him to stay with receivers down the field. His size and competitiveness means he is not afraid to get involved in run support. Humphrey has shown he is able to fight off blocks and square his shoulders, actively getting involved in run support during his time in Tuscaloosa. Humphrey's logged 5 INTs and 16 Passes Broken up in his 2 years as starter, proving he can be productive.
The one knock is that he does not play the ball well. Despite often remaining stride for stride with receivers down the field, he is unable to locate the football and thus surrenders big catches. I believe this is something that is coach-able in the NFL. His physical skill set and production make him an enticing prospect, and one that could mark the ending of Miami's two year re-build of their secondary. Humphrey, Howard Maxwell, Lippet with Reshad Jones and IAQ at Safety - that's a young play making secondary right there!
Jarrad Davis, OLB - Florida
The Miami Dolphins need a total rebuild at Linebacker. Kiko Alonso was a nice addition via trade, but was forced to play out of position (Inside) last season. Miami can go one of two ways at Linebacker. Do they want to build around big physical thumpers who are also athletic and able to bully opposing Offensive Lines, like the New England Patriots. Or do they want to go the Atlanta Falcons route, and build a unit composed of sprinters who are ultra-athletic and built to shut down opponents passing games.
Davis is built like an ideal OLB in a 4-3 scheme. He is 6 foot 2, 230lbs and should run a low 4.7 - 40 time. Davis is a senior and played in 12 games as a true freshman. He has seen plenty of football and is an intelligent Linebacker with above average instincts. Despite taking a slight step back in 2016, compared to 2015 - the tape speaks for itself.
In 2015, Davis had 98 total tackles, 11 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 7 QB hurries, broke up 4 passes and had 1 INT. In 2016, he had only 60 tackles, 6 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 5 QB hurries and broke up 4 passes - however, he played in only 9 games. Davis has the acceleration, flat line speed and agility to chase down opponents all over the field - whether closing down runs to the outside, coming up in run support or covering TEs. Davis' only problem is he sometimes struggles to break free of blockers, but he has all the athletic tools that Defensive Co-Ordinators want in an OLB. With some coaching, Davis has the potential to become a Pro-Bowl caliber player in the NFL. With Alonso and Davis at OLB, the Dolphins could get a thumper to play Inside in Free Agency and be set at Linebacker for the foreseeable future.
Zach Cunningham, ILB - Vanderbilt
Zach Cunningham could be the true playmaking Inside Linebacker, that the Miami Dolphins have failed to find since Zach Thomas left following the 2007 season. Cunningham is a name that is flying under the radar, partly due to his Vanderbilt Commodores performing poorly in the SEC West from 2014 through to this season.
The first thing that stands out about Cunningham is his speed and and physicality. He is an ILB who is able to beat blocks and disrupt the opponents run game. He can also line up against TEs or pick up RBs out of the backfield as he displays his athleticism and range in coverage. Cunningham has been extremely productive on a poor Commodores team. The past two seasons he has played in 25 games and amassed 228 Tackles, 33 TFL, 4.5 Sacks, 6 Passes Broken Up, 6 Forced Fumbles, 1 Kick/ Punt Blocked.
Cunningham is an intelligent Linebacker with natural instincts and a long frame which should facilitate him to bulk and add further strength. At 6 foot 4, 230lbs - he clearly has room to add weight and become a run stuffer for this Dolphins Defense. While some may pin him as an 4-3 OLB at the NFL level, he has all the traits needed to be a consistent Pro-Bowl caliber ILB for many years to come. While Cunningham has flew under the radar the past 3 years in Vanderbilt - he should get plenty of attention over the coming months and is likely to be available when the Dolphins pick at no.22.
A lot can change between now and the Draft. We are yet to have the Combine where players will certainly move up and down Big Boards based on measurable and performances. The Dolphins have clear needs outlined above, however, how the Dolphins perform in free agency may dictate what directions the Dolphins go with the 22nd pick. The Dolphins went Offense in the 1st round in 2016, 2015, 2014, 2012 and 2011. The Dolphins only went Defense in 2013 and 2010 (without success it must be added). The Miami Dolphins clearly have plenty to mull over.