11 bold predictions for 11 Dolphins position groups: Stars, breakout candidates and more

Tribune Content Agency

Who could have predicted a Dolphins season in 2022 almost solely built on streaks? Three wins to start the year, then a trio of losses, followed by five consecutive wins and five straight defeats before a season-finale win to clinch a playoff spot.

Or the injuries that diminished the depth of multiple positions, including the most important one on the team? How about Kader Kohou starting 13 games for a team that needed every bit of his contributions as an undrafted rookie?

That’s the nature of a new season in the NFL, which begins with expectations and then bends the way it sees fit over the course of 17 regular-season games.

The Miami Herald has already projected the Dolphins will return to the playoffs for a second consecutive season as they seek to win the franchise’s first playoff game in two decades.

Now, here are 11 season predictions for each of the Dolphins’ 11 position groups.

Quarterback: Tua Tagovailoa will play every game in the regular season for the first time in his career.

Tagovailoa’s injury history is well-documented. He missed five games because of a pair of diagnosed concussions. And even before the spate of head injuries in 2022, he dealt with ailments that sidelined him in his first two seasons. Tagovailoa has worked hard in the offseason to learn jiu-jitsu and adjust the way he falls. As he noted, football is a physical sport and weird things happen during a season. But this prediction is banking on his martial arts training making an impact and, frankly, just a bit of better luck for the 25-year-old.

Running back: Chris Brooks will emerge as the Dolphins’ No. 2 running back.

Brooks entered training camp as a long shot to make Miami’s 53-man roster, with four veterans and second-round pick De’Von Achane also in the position room. But Brooks, an undrafted rookie from BYU, thoroughly played his way onto the team with a standout camp and showing in the preseason. With Jeff Wilson Jr. on injured reserve, sidelining him for at least the first four games of the season, there is an opportunity behind Raheem Mostert. Brooks will have to earn the trust of the coaches in the regular season, but his physicality and adept feel for the zone running scheme could lead to a role in the offense.

Wide receiver: Tyreek Hill will achieve the NFL’s first 2,000-yard receiving season.

Multiple times throughout the offseason, Hill said that his goal is to reach the 2,000-yard mark in 2023. And while it’s never been achieved in the NFL, he was on pace for the feat through nine games last season. The Dolphins want to run the ball more but Hill, who said he has a better knowledge of the offense, will still be the offense’s top playmaker. And if Tagovailoa stays healthy as he’s predicted to, Hill reaching 2,000 yards could be obtainable.

Tight end: Durham Smythe will set a career-high for catches and yards.

The Dolphins don’t throw much to their tight ends and nothing from training camp and the preseason suggests that will change much. Smythe, though, is the undisputed No. 1 tight end after the departure of Mike Gesicki. Tyler Kroft and undrafted rookie Julian Hill are also on the roster but Miami likely won’t run many two-tight-end groupings. In 2021, Smythe caught a career-high 34 passes for 357 yards. With an uptick in snaps, he should pass those marks in 2023.

Offensive line: Kendall Lamm starts at least six games.

There is still a lack of clarity on whether left tackle Terron Armstead will be ready to play in the season opener after injuring his leg during joint practices in Houston. And even if he is able to suit up for Week 1, he has a lengthy injury history and has never played in every regular-season game in his career.

On the right side of the offensive line, Austin Jackson enters a pivotal season to prove he can be a reliable starter but also has dealt with injuries in his young career. It’s tough to field the same five players along the line for the duration of the season. Miami might not need to use nine different starting combinations like last year, but it feels more likely the team will have to turn to Lamm at some point.

Defensive line: Christian Wilkins will be named to his first Pro Bowl.

While much of the attention this summer has been on Wilkins’ contract situation, he was one of the Dolphins’ top performers in camp before he began to stage a hold-in in early August. In defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s scheme, Wilkins was his usual self as a stout run defender but was also a disruptive pass rusher. With a lucrative extension on his mind, this feels like the year Wilkins puts it all together and firmly cements himself as one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL with a Pro Bowl honor.

Outside linebacker: Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb will become the first Dolphins duo since 2003 to record double-digit sacks in the same season.

Adewale Ogunleye and Jason Taylor were the last Dolphins to record at least 10 sacks in the same season, finishing with 15 and 13, respectively. Since then, it’s only been a few seasons in which Miami even had a pass rusher reach the 10-sack mark. Phillips and Chubb look like they could be one of the league’s best pass-rushing duos. Chubb is healthy and reunited with Fangio, whom he played for in Denver. And there is local and national buzz surrounding Phillips as he enters his third season. Those two should lead what will be an impressive defensive front.

Inside linebacker: David Long Jr. will set a career-high in tackles.

Injuries have been the only question for Long, who has yet to play an entire season in his first four years in the NFL. But when healthy, Long is a speedy and aggressive linebacker who could be a perfect complement to Jerome Baker. Long’s previous career-high for tackles is 86, which he set this previous season in just 12 games. With lighter boxes in Fangio’s scheme, a linebacker described as a “run and hit” player by teammates and coaches should do plenty of that in 2023.

Cornerback: Eli Apple will start more games than Cam Smith.

The Dolphins traded Noah Igbinoghene to the Dallas Cowboys as part of their roster cutdown moves, leaving Apple and Smith as the candidates to replace Jalen Ramsey. While Smith has a higher ceiling, Apple has fit in well after signing to the team in the first week of camp. Smith will get some playing time but Apple, an eight-year veteran, will assume the starting spot until Ramsey returns late in the season.

Safety: Verone McKinley III will start the most games alongside Jevon Holland.

There is a lot of ambiguity at the safety spot next to Holland. DeShon Elliott, who has 35 starts in his career, entered camp as the favorite. 2022 starter Brandon Jones was limited throughout camp as he continued his return from last year’s ACL tear. Meanwhile, McKinley and Elijah Campbell had strong camps but Campbell will be sidelined after injuring his knee in the preseason finale. This is a position in which the Dolphins could rotate multiple players in different packages. But McKinley is the closest thing the Dolphins have to a free safety outside of Holland, his teammate at Oregon, and allows the two safety spots to be a little more interchangeable. He’ll be the full-time starter by the end of the season.

Specialists: The Dolphins will record their first return touchdown since 2020.

The impact of returns has been diminished in the NFL, but Miami has especially struggled in recent years. The Dolphins ranked 32nd in kick return average and 31st in punt return average in 2022. However, Miami added a pair of players — Achane and wide receiver Braxton Berrios — who have significant return experience. Between those two, the Dolphins will break one return for a score.