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You might have heard that Tom Brady’s future with the New England Patriots is completely up in the air. And even if the Patriots pay up to keep their quarterback in 2020, they’d still be more vulnerable than they’ve been since the dawn of the Bill Belichick era.
Brady will be 43 years old when the season begins, and he’s coming off a rough year in which he showed significant signs of decline. Plus, it would be hard for New England to spend top dollar to retain him and also bolster his shoddy supporting cast.
In other words, the Goliath of the AFC East could soon be toppled.
The Patriots have won 16 of the last 17 division titles, including 11 in a row, but it might soon be time for somebody new to claim the throne. The Buffalo Bills are the most obvious candidate after earning a playoff spot with 10 wins in 2019, and the New York Jets would probably place next on most lists considering the high-priced talent on their roster.
But what about the Miami Dolphins?
Pausing for laughter.
That, unlike the 2019 Dolphins’ roster, wasn’t a joke.
Yes, the Miami depth chart was a mockery last season, but that’s part of the reason you should be optimistic about the 2020 Dolphins. It’s a miracle they managed to win five games.
They won just seven in 2018 and then completely gutted the roster. By the end of last season, only two players on the roster had salaries north of $8 million, according to Spotrac, and they sent zero players to the Pro Bowl. Defensively, they had the sixth-worst DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) in at least the last 35 years.
But after one of the worst Septembers in NFL history, the Dolphins were inexplicably and valiantly competitive. Even with a full tank-job underway, they continued to play hard for first-year head coach Brian Flores, and it showed on paper, as well.
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After they were blown out in each of their first four contests, the Dolphins fell to the Washington Redskins by just a single point coming out of their Week 5 bye. After that, they led in the second half of all but two of their remaining 11 games. In November and December, they went 5-4. During the same span, the Bills and Patriots went 5-4 and 4-4, respectively.
With nothing to play for and incentive to lose, the Flores-led Dolphins put up 37 points in a victory over the playoff-contending Philadelphia Eagles, held the competitive Indianapolis Colts to just 12 points in Indy, led the feisty Bills and tough Pittsburgh Steelers in the second half during back-to-back road games and shocked the Patriots with a spoiler road victory in Week 17.
Now take that team, add another full offseason of experience for Flores, throw in whatever they do with a league-high $93.7 million in projected salary-cap space and include whatever they gain from a league-high 12 draft picks.
If the Dolphins can make the most of their vast opportunities this offseason, they could jump from their basement apartment to the penthouse that was occupied by the Patriots for the last 11 years.
I’d love to give you a blueprint. But when you’ve got that much capital, a wide variety of approaches could pay off immediately.
Still, imagine how much better the Dolphins could be right away if they were to use even four or five of their six top-70 draft picks on NFL-ready players—and if those players were to team up with a handful of starting-caliber free-agent additions.
Imagine this fired-up Dolphins team with, say, a healthy Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, a veteran receiver like Robby Anderson in support of breakout wideout DeVante Parker and rising tight end Mike Gesicki in the pass-catching corps and a blue-chip tackle prospect like Tristan Wirfs or Andrew Thomas opposite standout veteran pickup Jack Conklin at the offensive tackle positions.
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Imagine that same team with high-trajectory free-agent safety Anthony Harris leading the secondary and a promising pass-rusher like Shaq Lawson running the pass rush. And they already have star Xavien Howard, along with recent first-round picks Christian Wilkins and Charles Harris, on that side of the ball.
The Dolphins can afford Anderson, Conklin, Anthony Harris and Lawson. They can easily land one of the top quarterbacks, one of the top offensive linemen and one of the top defensive players in the draft. And they’d still have money and picks left over to add depth.
With that in mind, you’d have to give them better worst-to-first chances than the Cincinnati Bengals (dealing with a much tougher division), Jacksonville Jaguars (cap-poor and trimming fat), Los Angeles Chargers (dealing with the defending champions), Washington Redskins (way less capital), Detroit Lions (also in a stronger division), Carolina Panthers (basically entering a rebuild after an exodus) and Arizona Cardinals (might be in the best division in football).
And all those 2019 last-place finishers have less money to spend and fewer premium draft picks than the Dolphins.
This Miami team appeared to be tanking so hard last summer that the natural assumption was that it would take several seasons to complete its rebuild. And while that process will undoubtedly continue, quick turnarounds are commonplace in this league.
The Los Angeles Rams jumped from 4-12 in 2016 to 11-5 in 2017, the Chicago Bears leaped from 5-11 in 2017 to 12-4 in 2018, and the San Francisco 49ers rocketed from 4-12 in 2018 to 13-3 in 2019.
As wild as it sounds, the Dolphins could be that team in 2020.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter. Or don’t. It’s entirely your choice.