The Dolphins have a good team, and general manager Chris Grier has done admirable work stocking a roster that was the NFL’s least talented when they began this rebuild four years ago.
That much, we all should be able to agree on.
Here’s where we might disagree: I would have been more aggressive about making one more high impact move, because I’m not convinced the Dolphins have done enough to make themselves a sure-fire playoff team or a serious Super Bowl contender.
A playoff contender? They’re certainly that. But an AFC semifinalist or even a clear-cut playoff team?
I’m not so sure, partly because their roster (until Jalen Ramsey returns in late November or December) isn’t appreciably better than the one that went 9-8 last season, partly because of their continued reliance on key players who have had durability issues, and partly because the Jets and Ravens should be much better.
The Steelers and Browns (if Deshaun Watson returns to form) also should be better, and I wouldn’t entirely discount the AFC South’s second place team (Jacksonville or Tennessee).
So put it this way: If you assign playoff spots to the Chiefs and the AFC South champion (perhaps Jacksonville), that leaves five playoff berths for Buffalo, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Miami, the Jets, the Chargers and Cleveland. That’s five playoff spots for eight teams, not even including fringe contenders like New England or perhaps Las Vegas.
So I posed this question to Grier last week:
No GM has made more impactful moves on the trade market in the last year and a half than you. You’ve put together a good roster. I was curious about this – the AFC is loaded. There are 10 or 11 teams that can say, “we think we’re a playoff team.” I’m curious, did you and Stephen Ross and [CEO] Tom Garfinkel and Mike McDaniel discuss the question of, ‘do we have enough or do we have to be desperate to acquire yet another Pro Bowler, especially after Jalen Ramsey was injured?’
Because clearly there was a point you would not cross; you were not in desperate pursuit with the available guys in recent weeks, like Dalvin Cook and Jonathan Taylor. It was never the desperation stage. So why did you all decide not to be desperate? Is it because of cap consequences or because you feel like you have a championship-caliber roster as constituted or a little bit of both?
Here’s how he answered:
“I think we feel good about the roster we have. We like the players on the roster. Yesterday was an exciting day with the 53 and we’re still working through the practice squad additions. But when you build a team, like we’ve always talked, you look long term, short term. So yeah, we’re always aggressive to do it, but we’re also going to be mindful and (Senior Vice President of Football and Business Administration) Brandon (Shore) and (Director of Football Administration and Strategy) Max (Napolitano) do a great job as we talk through things salary cap-related.
“So for us, we’re able to do a lot of moves, we can do moves or not, but you’re also aware of your roster. Like we’ve been consistent in saying, we feel good about our running back room. I think it showed in the preseason. Those guys have done a nice job. Mike (McDaniel) has always expressed confidence in them as well as myself. So for us, again, my job is when players are available, whoever they are, whether it’s a Pro Bowler, journeyman on the streets that’s bounced around, we’re going to talk to people, make calls and do it. And so for us, we felt good about the roster and very fortunate to have Steve (Ross) and Tom (Garfinkel) allow us to be aggressive at times we want to do it.”
Adding Cook or Taylor would have clogged the salary cap, and Miami already is $25 million over the 2024 cap. So I understand the restraint after a two-year spending spree. But even that spending spree seemingly hasn’t taken their team to the Chiefs’ or Bengals’ level.
Adding Cook or trading a first-rounder (or a second-rounder and a bit more for Taylor) would have given the Dolphins even more firepower to surpass teams considered ahead of them.
Might the Dolphins have enough to get to the second weekend of the playoffs without adding yet another impact player? Perhaps. A lot will depend on Tagovailoa’s health and play, and whether this defense jumps from bottom third of the league to top third under Fangio.
But in a loaded AFC, everything will need to break right for a playoff spot, let alone a deep run -- from Tagovailoa and Terron Armstead and Raheem Mostert staying healthy for most games, to the young offensive linemen playing at their best, to the running backs remaining healthy and productive (Jeff Wilson Jr. already is injured) to Eli Apple playing competently as a third corner before Ramsey returns, to the defensive line not having a single significant injury to a starter.
That’s a lot to ask, especially considering that four of the Dolphins’ best players (Tagovailoa, Armstead, Xavien Howard and Bradley Chubb) have battled injuries in recent years. Those durability questions can never be discounted in the inexact science of projecting what a team can become.
If the Dolphins were in the NFC, I would feel optimistic about having a game to cover during the first weekend of the playoffs. In the AFC, there’s too much parity to have any sort of conviction of where the Dolphins will be in mid-January.
ESPN polled 28 of its analysts this week; only one - former coach Herman Edwards - picked the Dolphins to win the AFC. Perhaps the difficult first quarter of the season (at Chargers, at Patriots, Denver, at Bills) will offer clarity on what the Dolphins still need, if anything.
So we all can enter this season with the peace of mind that the Dolphins have put together a good roster, one that should remain relevant until the end of the season. But a championship roster? We need more evidence of that.
▪ Left tackle Terron Armstead again missed practice with back and ankle and knee injuries, leaving his status very much in question for Sunday’s opener at the Chargers (4:25 p.m., CBS). Safety Elijah Campbell (knee) also didn’t practice.
Two players were limited on Thursday: tight end Julian Hill (ankle) and cornerback Justin Bethel (knee).
▪ Liam Eichenberg, who now seems to be an underdog in his battle with Isaiah Wynn for the left guard job, admitted the rib injury which sidelined him parts of the past three weeks “definitely set me back big time. There was a point I couldn’t breathe without it hurting. I did everything I could. I needed time to heal.”
The injury happened on the first play of the first preseason game, when a Falcons play “collapsed” on him. He remained in the game for the remainder of the first quarter. Wynn then started the next two preseason games at left guard.
Is Eichenberg pleased what he put on tape during summer practices?
“I gave them a lot of film of me playing different positions, doing the techniques they want me to do and doing what I was coached to do and not falling back on stuff from college,” he said.
“Obviously, there’s a lot to improve on. Being out, it took away from that time. It wasn’t ideal.”
The Dolphins’ two backup centers - Eichenberg and Lester Cotton - have never played center in a game. Eichenberg has worked some at the position since May.
“Center is good, not too bad,” Eichenberg said.