Are the Miami Dolphins Ready to Take the Next Step?

Miami was 8-8 last year, so they won't be coming out of nowhere. But they can be one of the NFL's best in 2015.

Every year it seems one team emerges from somewhat out of nowhere to make the leap from the also-rans to in the hunt.

This year, based on our numbers, that team could be the Miami Dolphins.

It seems weird to say that a team that finished 8-8 last year is going to surprise people if they are very much in the mix this year, but in a suddenly crowded AFC East, it seems the Dolphins are almost an afterthought.

They shouldn’t be.

The Offense

It was a tale of two offenses last year for Miami.

Last year, Miami ranked 12th in our Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play metric, which indicates how well they performed compared to expectation level and is adjusted for strength of schedule. You can read more in our glossary.

However, they ranked 19th as a team in Adjusted Passing NEP per play, and their rushing offense ranked 5th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play. Essentially, while the Dolphins fielded a team top-five in rushing, they were in the middle of the pack at best when it came to passing.

The Dolphins’ offseason moves reflected this imbalance. While the rushing game has stayed largely the same -- Lamar Miller remains the main back -- there have been wholesale changes on the passing end end. Mike Wallace, Charles Clay, and Brian Hartline are all gone. Greg Jennings, Jordan Cameron, Kenny Stills, rookie DeVante Parker and the sole real holdover from 2014, Jarvis Landry, are now the main group in Miami.

Drilling in just on the three departed Dolphins versus the three new arrivals, let’s look at each of the three’s Reception NEP per target in 2014,essentially measuring how effective each pass catcher was last year per target.

PlayerTargetsRec NEP/TarPlayerTargetsRec NEP/Tar
Brian Hartline630.71Jordan Cameron480.65
Mike Wallace1150.67Greg Jennings910.76
Charles Clay840.5Kenny Stills831.05

Each of the three new Dolphins players was more effective last year than the guys they replaced. Though Cameron has had trouble staying healthy, if healthy he's capable of handling a big workload, even if his efficiency isn't elite. Kenny Stills comes over and will probably replace a lot of what Mike Wallace did from a scheme perspective. Stills was one of the more effective wide receivers in the league by our numbers last season and in 2013, as well.

Though Jennings is aging, and is not nearly the wide receiver he was in Green Bay, the Dolphins also spent a first round pick adding DeVante Parker to the mix. Whether Parker can slide in for Jennings remains to be seen, but at the very least the Dolphins have given themselves options with pass catchers.

Jennings still represents a slight upgrade over Hartline anyway, but we could see Parker slide into that role as well. With Jarvis Landry working another year with Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins have essentially reloaded their receiving options -- something this offense desperately needed. Whether it's Landry stepping up, Parker stepping in, or Jennings holding still, the Dolphins have given themselves an insurance policy at their biggest need on offense.

The Dolphins also extended center Mike Pouncey this offseason. Too often we overlook the role offensive lines play. With the Pouncey signing, the Dolphins have at least ensured some measure of continuity. The Dolphins will return most of their offensive line from 2014 and, even though they have question marks at the offensive guard spot, Pouncey's presence should help the offense overall.

All told, the Dolphins’ front office did a masterful job fixing what our numbers thought was broken. Tannehill in 2015 will have much more talented options that could put this passing game closer to on par with their top-five running game. 

The Defense

The Dolphins’ defense last year was pretty mediocre. We had them ranked as the 19th overall defense by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. They had the 19th best passing defense, but the 21st ranked rushing defense, based on our Adjusted NEP per play numbers.

Again, the Dolphins’ front office appeared to go fix what ailed them to the extent they could. Focusing on their worse unit -- rushing defense -- Miami locked up both Ndamukong Suh and C.J. Mosley. Both Suh and Mosley were an integral part of the Detroit Lions’ 2014 defense, a defense that ranked first in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play by a substantial margin last year.

The Dolphins also used their second round pick in the 2015 draft on defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who should at least provide some front-seven depth. The Suh and Mosley signings are going to be huge for this rushing defense. Everyone knows what Suh can do, but Mosley started eight games last year on our top-ranked rushing defense. His presence is sure to make an impact on helping improve this unit.

While the Dolphins will return largely the same secondary, a unit that was not all that good against the pass last year, the Dolphins definitely made a concerted effort to stop the run this year better than they did last year. That should, in theory, make this a better than average defensive unit on the whole. While it's tough with the salary cap to make noise on every unit, the Dolphins spent wisely on defense. Though Suh and Mosley probably won’t vault the Dolphins to the number one rush defense in the league, rushing defense was the 2014 Dolphins’ biggest defensive hole, and that hole appears to be plugged for now. 

Our numbers are currently projecting the Dolphins defense to jump from the bottom half of the league to number nine overall. That's a huge step forward for this defense, and Suh and Mosley are a big reason why this defense could make a huge leap. The defense will be instrumental in helping the Dolphins improve on their 8-8 2014.


The Dolphins have done a masterful job this offseason fixing the problems of 2014. They used their first two draft picks to address the biggest offensive concern (the passing game), and then their biggest defensive concern (stopping the run).

The Dolphins were not terrible last year -- at 8-8 things certainly could be worse. That said, in the AFC East, the Dolphins appear to be flying a little under people's radars, and that's probably a mistake.

There has been a concerted effort to bolster two major weak points. On a team that’s probably one or two wins away from a playoff berth, that could just put Miami right in the thick of things.

We currently have the Dolphins projected at a 45.2% chance to make the playoffs, slightly higher than the Bills at 42.5%. People might be sleeping on the Dolphins, but they shouldn't be.