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State of the Franchise: Will Flores' Dolphins break through in Year 2?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Miami Dolphins organization, Fin fans around the world and those who really want the team's throwbacks to be the full-time uniforms:

Your Miami Dolphins are not messing around. This team is serious about getting back into contention. The Dolphins have spent $237 million in free agency this offseason (most in the NFL, according to Over The Cap). They gave four players contracts worth at least $10 million per season. They drafted their quarterback of the future. They have a revamped ground game and one of the best cornerback tandems in football. The Fins are in it to win it. But will that happen this year? Miami hasn't won the AFC East since 2008. Funny, that was the last time Tom Brady wasn't the starting quarterback in New England for the majority of the season ...

How the Dolphins got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Beating the New England Patriots in Week 17. Look, you knew you weren't going to the playoffs. And by this point, you'd already played too well to land the No. 1 overall pick. But you got to enjoy an entire offseason knowing that you played a huge part in spoiling Tom Brady's final season in New England by forcing the Patriots into an ill-fated meeting with the Titans on Wild Card Weekend. Sure, by late December, the 2019 Pats seemed destined to get bounced, but it was a complete implosion thanks to the Dolphins.
  • Generally competing at a higher level than anyone anticipated and still landing Tua Tagovailoa. Nobody expected much of anything from the Dolphins in 2019, especially as they began to sell off talent for future draft currency. But led by a first-year head coach (Brian Flores) and a 15th-year journeyman (Ryan Fitzpatrick), Miami played an exciting, devil-may-care brand of football that just made Sundays more fun. And at the end of the day, the Fins still got their man in April's draft.

The lows:

  • Losing the first seven games of the season. In fact, the Dolphins were outscored 102-10 over the first two weeks of the season. Good news: They kept it respectable at Dallas in Week 3, only losing 31-6.
  • Trading away Laremy Tunsil, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Kenyan Drake. Whether you believe in the strip-down-and-rebuild process or not, it's never very encouraging to deal talented players on rookie contracts. Tunsil and Fitzpatrick were both top-15 picks. And actually, all three guys immediately played the best football of their respective NFL careers post-trade, with Tunsil and Fitzpatrick making the Pro Bowl and Drake averaging 5.2 yards per carry.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Brian Flores. I was a fan of this hire. But then those first couple losses happened -- 59-10 to Baltimore, 43-0 to New England (both in Miami) -- and you really started to get scared. Especially when you consider the history of Bill Belichick's coaching tree outside of Foxborough. Though, to be fair, that is starting to change. Bill O'Brien has been a consistently good coach for the Texans, even if his GM work has been ... unusual. Mike Vrabel has beaten Belichick twice in as many seasons, most recently in the playoffs. And Matt Patricia ... well, he does have a sick beard. But Flores really did a fine job in Year 1, considering everything that went down with the Dolphins' personnel last year. Given the state of Miami's roster, a 5-11 finish was nothing to scoff at. We can't expect every coach to come in and be Sean McVay, posting an 11-5 mark in Year 1. What you want to see is some tangible evidence that your team is heading in the right direction. Flores certainly showed that during his first season with the club.

Sure, the first month was horrific. "Tank for Tua" talk was all the rage, as Miami seemed well on its way to the worst record in football. But Flores really turned it around at midseason, with the Dolphins going 5-4 over the final nine weeks of the season. Some folks who had called Flores a flop in September dubbed him a dark-horse Coach of the Year candidate in December. It was that kind of year.

Flores is not afraid to take swift action to get his team to the next level, either, as evidenced by the head man swapping out both of his coordinators this offseason. Out with Chad O'Shea and Patrick Graham, in with Chan Gailey and Josh Boyer.

When you review the coaching hires of the last few seasons, to me, it looks like the Dolphins really nailed it with Flores.

Quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is the NFL equivalent of a safety school. Ironic because he -- as we have all heard about a billion times -- went to Harvard. But he's your friend that you make "the deal" with. You know, if both of you are single by age 40, you're going to get married. Because it seems like everyone loves Ryan Fitzpatrick. Seriously, who could ever dislike this guy? But Fitzmagic has never been The Man. Even though he once channeled Conor McGregor -- with a little help from DeSean Jackson -- for a press conference during an improbably hot stretch for the Bucs a few years back. You love him, but you're not in love with him. Along the way, all you ask for is a few more of those magical moments.

Like last year. When Fitzpatrick, the player everyone in the NFL roots for, was able to go into New England and knock off the team everyone roots against. I know not everyone gets to be a Super Bowl winner. But those moments are -- wait for it -- magic, as well.

Projected 2020 MVP: Xavien Howard, cornerback. Howard is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but he missed 11 games in 2019 with a knee injury. The Dolphins paid a significant price to upgrade the position (more on that in a moment), but that only really works if you have two great cornerbacks to work with. Howard coming back full strength is going to have the biggest impact on this season.

New face to know: Byron Jones, cornerback. I really thought this was one of the best moves of the offseason. I mean, it's not like signing the best corner on the market is typically a bad move. But this one suits the Dolphins perfectly. Obviously, Flores is trying to recreate some of the Pats' magic down in South Beach, but pairing Jones with incumbent ace Howard is perfect. Kind of like when Parks and Rec added Adam Scott and Rob Lowe to the cast. It took a pretty good group and made it even better. In a football sense, Jones and Howard will allow the Dolphins to play more man defense (which Flores prefers) and will hopefully help them get more sacks. Speaking of which ...

2020 breakout star: Shaq Lawson, defensive end. The Dolphins finished dead last in sacks last season with 23. Consequently, they desperately handed Lawson a three-year, $30 million contract. Pretty good dough for a former first-round pick who's yet to reach double-digit sacks in any season. But Flores is from the Patriots' coaching tree, and when I think about some of New England's most successful free-agent signings over the past two decades, I'm open to seeing where the Fins are going with this. Could Lawson end up being Miami's version of Mike Vrabel, Rob Ninkovich or even Rosevelt Colvin? Lawson will definitely benefit from playing with two stellar corners who'll keep receivers covered.

And I should point out: Miami also signed Kyle Van Noy to a four-year, $51 million deal. Like I said, the Dolphins clearly weren't messing around in free agency. And when you add double-digit players in the draft, too, it's clear you're going through a monster rebuilt. Miami finished 30th in total defense and dead last in scoring D. The Dolphins didn't create turnovers or put pressure on the quarterback. That's a huge reason why management put so much money into the defensive side of the football.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: LOW. I nailed two of the three first-round picks in my mock draft back in April. I'm not trying to brag at all. (I am.) Love that Tua and OT Austin Jackson are really good players with tremendous upside. And they're going to take a little time, meaning this team is built for 2021 and beyond. Not that you're going to want to lose games this season. But there is a luxury in having some time to allow Miami's youngsters to develop.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Patriots. Well, you might as well get this one out of the way. Last December, you took a huge swing at the division bully -- and connected! But now you have to face the music. And it's a first chance to see Cam Newton in a Patriots uniform. That should be fun.
  • Week 3 at Jaguars (Thursday night). The Dolphins open with a pair of 2019 playoff teams (New England and Buffalo) before they get to go to Jacksonville for this one. And it's not going to be any easier after this game, with dates against the Seahawks and 49ers immediately on tap.
  • Week 13 vs. Bengals. I mean, there is a chance Ryan Fitzpatrick has the team undefeated at this point. (I said a chance. Not a great one.) But let's say that's not the case. Who wouldn't love to see Tua against Joe Burrow in this one? I'm surprised the game wasn't slated for prime time. Fine, I get why it wasn't.

Will the Dolphins be able to ...

Resist going to Tua Tagovailoa too early? Because let's be real here: It seems like every time we have some young quarterback who could be in line for a "redshirt" season, he ends up being the starter by like Week 4 or something. We saw it last year with Daniel Jones, who made his first start in Week 3. But if Tua is healthy and as special as we all think he's going to be -- football fans have been clamoring to see him play in the NFL since he fueled Alabama's national title win over Georgia as a true freshman -- there is going to be a lot of pressure to get him on the field ASAP. But given his injury history, and this highly abbreviated offseason, that might not be the best idea. But I write this knowing full well he's going to end up starting at some point this season and probably go nuts.

Rely on Chan Gailey? The 68-year-old was lured out of retirement by Flores. Feels like one of those TV/movie tropes where a grizzled veteran is coaxed out of retirement to work with a hot-shot youngster who is making his own rules. Actually, though, while Gailey hasn't been on an NFL sideline since 2016, when he was the offensive coordinator of the Jets, this is far from one of those "I'm too old for this [stuff]" situations. It's kind of the exact opposite of that. Gailey was one of the first coaches to use spread concepts in the NFL, and if we're being honest, he was kind of ahead of his time. That's why he's the perfect coach to come in and work with Fitzpatrick (whom he coached on the Jets) while developing Tua. This isn't one of those instances where you have an older coach who is trying to get his players to adapt to his system. Instead, I look forward to seeing Gailey design plays specifically for Tua. It's going to be exciting to watch. So, yes, to answer the initial question here: The Dolphins will undoubtedly be able to rely on Gailey.

Have the offensive line come together? All of this talk about Tua and Gailey is great, but it's not going to mean much if Miami can't fix the offensive line. The Dolphins shipped out Laremy Tunsil during the season and declined center Daniel Kilgore's contract option in March. Miami signed two players who could be starters: OT Ereck Flowers and C Ted Karras. And in addition to Austin Jackson, the Fins drafted two guards in the middle rounds. All of this makes sense. If you draft a quarterback with an extensive college injury history, you better do your best to surround him with the best possible people. And this might be the biggest question as to when you let Tua out on the field. Because if this offensive line plays like, well, the unit did last year, then you probably won't be champing at the bit to toss your future out there. Much in the same way I'll never wear a brand-new pair of Jordans if I see even one cloud in the sky. The big question will be, when does Flores feel confident enough in his O-line to keep Tua upright?

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The running backs are great. Well, at least great compared to last season. The Dolphins averaged 72.3 rushing yards per game in 2019, which ranked last in the NFL. In fact, it was the fewest rushing yards per game since the 2006 Detroit Lions (70.6). The 2019 Dolphins were just the third team in the Super Bowl era to have no player rush for 250 yards. On the season. That's right. Fitzpatrick was the team leader with 243 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. Had to kill Fin fans seeing Miami trade away Kenyan Drake ... and then see him go bonkers in his first game with Arizona on Thursday Night Football. (Special shoutout to any Dolphins supporter who went against Drake in fantasy that week.) But Miami significantly upgraded the backfield this offseason, adding Jordan Howard and Matt Breida. I actually feel bad for Howard because it seems like he's never going to get a break. He was the best part of the Bears offense during the John Fox era, but Chicago dealt him for a sixth-rounder. Then Miles Sanders usurped him in Philly last year. He's going to split carries with Breida this year, because that's what Gailey does. The last running back to really dominate carries for a Gailey-led offense was Fred Jackson back in the day with the Bills. I don't expect this team to run the ball like the Ravens and 49ers did last year. But the backfield's in a much better place.

... people are overthinking: DeVante Parker's breakout season. I know a lot of people are excited for Parker and looking forward to seeing what he can do this year. He had 72 receptions for 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns in 2019. And all the fantasy enthusiasts rewarded with Parker's breakthrough season were finally able to celebrate. But, and I hate to be this jerk, the Dolphins receiver who was truly moving the needle last year was ... undrafted rookie Preston Williams. He led the Dolphins in targets before his season-ending ACL injury in Week 9. And I don't intend to flippantly intimate that ACL injuries aren't a big deal any more. Because they are. But I see this being a situation similar to when Cooper Kupp returned from his torn ACL to crush it for the Rams. Now, I hope Parker can continue to play well. And maybe this is more of a fantasy take than anything else: I'd much rather take Williams in his depressed draft slot than spend a high-round pick on Parker. Still, I'm curious to see how the two guys play together this season. I also should note: Jakeem Grant has shown electric flashes, too. There's a chance for the Dolphins' receiving corps to be quite imposing this season.

ANOTHER storyline people are overthinking: Chan Gailey hates tight ends. I know, once again, that this comes from a fantasy perspective. But you see a lot of people dismissing Mike Gesicki because Gailey purportedly doesn't use his tight ends. Wait a second, though: When Gailey was Kansas City's offensive coordinator in 2008, Tony Gonzalez led the Chiefs in catches (96), yards (1,058) and touchdowns (10), while earning a career-high 155 targets. And I know what you're thinking: OK ... but you'd have to be an absolute lunatic to neglect Tony G. Which is fair. But it's not fair to say he hates tight ends based on the production of Eric Bjornson.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Dolphins MUST:

  • Establish a winning culture in Miami. Because it's one thing to lose games, but you want to be competitive. You don't want to be in a situation where, after losing 12 of your last 13 games, you're still trying to sell people on how close you are to winning. Last year's triumph over New England in Week 17 was the opposite of this. Dolphins fans spent the offseason on a high because expectations were raised. I would say somewhere in the neighborhood of eight wins would be a pretty good step for the Dolphins, who've toiled below .500 in each of the past three seasons.

In closing

I'm looking forward to seeing what the Dolphins have to offer in Flores' second season in the big chair. The realist in me anticipates a team that's still a year away. Not that the Dolphins shouldn't have expectations for this season, but I understand that it's going to take a little bit of work to get them to that next level. And I could see them inspiring a lot of hype next offseason. That said, Miami's going to be an enjoyable watch once again.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.

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