In the days after the Dolphins were officially eliminated from playoff contention in the Week 17 loss to the Tennessee Titans, coaches were hesitant to give season evaluations and grades for players, devoting all their focus to their season finale against the New England Patriots.
With Monday’s surprising firing of Brian Flores, roster evaluations will ultimately be performed by a new head coach and their incoming staff. The Dolphins have already begun the search for their new coach, sending interview requests to five potential candidates.
In the second of a two-part series, the Miami Herald will give out grades to each Dolphins position group for the 2021 NFL season. First was the offense, and second is the defense and special teams.
On a defense that was one of the league’s best during the second half of the season, the turnaround started in the trenches. After allowing 115.8 rushing yards per game during the 1-7 start, that number decreased to 104.6 yards per game during the final nine games, which would have ranked top 10 over the course of the entire season.
Pro Football Focus rated Zach Sieler one of the highest-graded linemen despite a limited workload, while Christian Wilkins and Emmanuel Ogbah both had career years.
As the season went on, Jerome Baker’s role in the defense morphed. Over the second half of the season, Baker spent more time at outside linebacker and on the edge, where the Dolphins utilize his speed and athleticism in certain matchups. Both Baker and Elandon Roberts, who set a career high for tackles, were excellent as pass rushers but struggled at times in coverage.
It was a slow start for the team’s top edge rushers, Andrew Van Ginkel and rookie Jaelan Phillips. Though the first eight games of the season, Phillips had 11/2 sacks, while Van Ginkel had a half sack. As the Dolphins defense increased its blitz rate during the second half of the season, however, the duo thrived. Phillips had seven sacks over a five-week span but didn’t total a single one in the final month of the season, and Van Ginkel had 31/2 sacks in the last nine games. While Pro Football Focus graded Van Ginkel as a stout run defender, Philips graded out below average and his snaps were often limited in matchups with teams that ran the ball well.
The Dolphins depend heavily on their high-priced cornerback duo of Xavien Howard and Byron Jones to disguise coverages and bring frequent pressure. Both Howard and Jones struggled in the first half of the season, in part due to injuries that kept them out of games and limited in practice. According to Pro Football Reference, Howard and Jones allowed four and six touchdowns, respectively, with the former being a career-high for Howard. Neither was tested much in the second half of the season, though, and Howard made a number of game-changing plays throughout the season. His five interceptions tied for fourth in the NFL. Nik Needham, the team’s primary slot corner, was a versatile piece, spending time at nickel back and at safety when asked to do so.
It took a few weeks for the Dolphins to lean into the youth movement at the position but the team was well rewarded when they did. Jevon Holland was a revelation as a rookie, among the league’s best first-year performers. His versatility was a boon for a defense that prides itself on that trait. Second-year player Brandon Jones was arguably the best blitzer at his position. No safety had more sacks (5) or blitzed as much as Jones.
A unit that was among the NFL’s best a year ago had a massive regression at every point. Jason Sanders, a first-team All-Pro selection in 2020, missed eight field-goal attempts after missing just three last season. Free agent signee Michael Palardy came on strong in the last month of the season but ranked 24th of 35 qualified players in yards per punt. Palardy did rank third in punts downed inside the 20, and Mack Hollins is one of the best gunners in the NFL. The Dolphins traded Jakeem Grant after four games and didn’t get much from a return group that mainly consisted of rookies Holland and Jaylen Waddle. Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics ranked the Dolphins’ special teams the sixth in 2020 but 29th in 2021.