Assessing Miami Dolphins' 2013 Free Agent Impact After 3 Weeks

Chris Kouffman@@ckparrotContributor ISeptember 27, 2013

Assessing Miami Dolphins' 2013 Free Agent Impact After 3 Weeks

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    Now that the Miami Dolphins have played three games of the 2013 NFL season, we have the opportunity to tally up some of the early returns on the team’s free agent activities from the offseason.

    Understandably, these marks will not constitute any kind of final grade. A final evaluation cannot be made for most players until after the 2013 season is complete. For some players, a final evaluation will not be appropriate until after 2014.

    However, we can at the very least tell how these players have looked on the football field thus far, and describe how they are trending.

    Throughout the piece I will use statistics gathered via Pro Football Focus (subscription required), unless otherwise noted. There are a number of highly specialized statistics that can be gathered there that provide an excellent basis for evaluation of players at different positions. I will explain the nature of them as we go along.

    My grading method will be based on a combination of how the player looks on film as well as some of the metrics above. The grades will be split into five categories:

    1. Stunning Success
    2. Moderate Success
    3. Needs Improvement
    4. Failing
    5. Incomplete

    Let’s take a look at the Dolphins' main acquisitions, listed in order of average contract value.

Wide Receiver Mike Wallace

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    Through the first three games, Mike Wallace was thrown to 20 times with 12 catches for 152 yards and a touchdown. According to Pro Football Focus, he has run 116 passing routes on the football field. He is on track for a final season tally of 64 catches on 107 attempts, 811 yards and five touchdowns.

    Two metrics that tend to be important for wide receivers are: 1) the player’s yards per passing route, and 2) the player’s yards per attempt. Of course, touchdowns are nice as well.

    Unfortunately Mike Wallace ranks poorly amongst NFL peers in both measures. Out of 89 wide receivers in the NFL having run at least 60 pass routes per game during the season, Mike Wallace’s yards per route ranks only No.58 among them. Out of the same group of 89 players, Wallace’s yards per attempt ranks No.48 among them.

    On the field and off the field, Wallace had a challenging start to his career in Miami during the first three weeks. He struggled to get open against long-time rival Joe Haden in the first game of the year, causing so much frustration that he vented after the game at the coaching staff by directing all of the media’s questions to the coaching staff and their game plan.

    This created a distraction during the week leading up to the team’s second game of the season, as he, the coaches and his teammates were forced to answer awkward questions about why Wallace is upset even though the team won the game by two touchdowns.

    However, the fallout brought about a positive change. The Dolphins made the decision to use Mike Wallace against the Indianapolis Colts in ways that he had never been used before either in Pittsburgh or his first week in Miami. They shortened up his routes, broadened his array of assignments, and were repaid with a fantastic nine catch, 115 yard performance that included a touchdown off a screen pass.

    The problem is now that the controversy he himself created with his frustrated words after Week 1 is dead, and the team is no longer focused on getting the football specifically to him, he fell back into low production against the Atlanta Falcons. He was targeted even fewer times than against the Cleveland Browns, and finished with two catches for 22 yards.

    Contract: 5 years, $60 million

    Grade: Needs Improvement

Linebackers Dannell Ellerbe & Phil Wheeler

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    We will take a look at these two players together instead of individually, since they were acquired by the Dolphins in a pair to replace another pair of linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett.

    One of the reasons Ellerbe and Wheeler were tabbed to replace Dansby and Burnett is because of their pass rush success at their previous stops. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle operates an aggressive scheme which often blitzes linebackers, or shows the threat of blitz from linebackers presnap.

    Pro Football Focus has a “Pass Rush Productivity” statistic which is purely a function of the number of quarterback sacks, hits and hurries the pass rusher has produced relative to the number of times he has rushed the passer. Philip Wheeler ranks No.6 among the 23 outside linebackers in the 4-3 that have at least 10 pass rush reps. He appears to be the player the Dolphins imagined him to be, in this regard.

    On the other hand, among the 26 qualifying inside linebackers, Dannell Ellerbe ranks dead last in this pass rush efficiency measure. His predecessor Dansby, now with the Arizona Cardinals, ranks No.13 in the group of 26 players.

    On film, Ellerbe’s size comes into play when he is rushing the passer. He is sudden and disguises his blitzes well, but he is easily absorbed by offensive linemen and has far too little success against backfield protectors.

    The early returns suggest that while Wheeler’s success as a blitzer may have been inherent to his nature as a player, Ellerbe’s success as a blitzer may have been driven by his surroundings in Baltimore.

    A big measure for linebackers involves tallying up their missed tackles. Pro Football Focus creates a “Tackle Efficiency” number which is a simple function of how many tackles you have versus how many tackles you missed on tape.

    Amongst inside linebackers with at least 60 snaps on the season, Ellerbe ranks only No.37 out of 49 in this measure, as he’s missed five tackles while tallying 31 total tackles. Wheeler has not done any better, as he ranks No.22 out of 30 qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers in the same measure.

    On film, missed tackles have been a big problem among Miami’s linebackers. The poor play of  Ellerbe and  Wheeler is a big part of the reason the Dolphins defense has allowed 4.7 yards per carry on the ground, which ranks No.27 in the NFL according to ESPN’s team statistics.

    The final category for which we can evaluate the pair is coverage. Unfortunately, Wheeler does not come out well in this category. On film we have seen him give up touchdowns to tight end Jordan Cameron and tailback Jason Snelling, as well as some big plays to tight end Coby Fleener. He ranks No.17 among the 19 qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers with at least 60 snaps in coverage in terms of yards given up per coverage snap. He ranks No.18 out of 19 in yards per attempt in his direction.

    Fortunately Ellerbe has ranked much better in this regard, though it should be noted that his coverage responsibilities have not been as onerous as those of Miami’s strong side linebacker Wheeler. Ellerbe ranks No.12 of 38 qualifying inside linebackers in yards per coverage snap. He ranks No.2 out of 38 in the category of yards per attempt.

    Contracts: 5 years, $60.75 million

    Grade: Needs Improvement

Corner Brent Grimes

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    Brent Grimes has impressed most onlookers from the first time he stepped onto the field in training camp. His combination of professionalism, athletic ability and pure skills as a corner have been tremendous, making him by a large margin Miami’s most successful offseason free agent acquisition. This has proven out both on tape, as well as through the metrics.

    On tape, Grimes has largely blanketed his coverage assignments.

    There were a few initial bumps in the road against the Cleveland Browns, as he let up a big play to tight end Jordan Cameron in single coverage on the outside. Later, he failed to pick up the double-team of Cameron in the endzone which led to a touchdown catch.

    However, he quickly recovered to have stupendous outings against the Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons. T.Y. Hilton caught a big play on Grimes’ direct coverage early in that game, but sometimes you just have to tip your cap to a player for an incredible play because Grimes’ coverage on the play was excellent and Hilton managed to leap up and catch the football anyway. Grimes got the last laugh with an extremely timely interception while covering Hilton in the endzone. In the Falcons game, he virtually shut down every receiver on his side of the field.

    From a metrics standpoint, we look at the yards a corner has given up per coverage snap. We also look at yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdowns given up, interceptions as well as passes defensed. Grimes gave up 139 yards on 145 coverage snaps, an average of 0.96 yards per snap. That is an excellent number for a team’s top corner. It ranks No.25 out of 87 corners with at least 60 coverage snaps on the season.

    His yards per attempt ranks more in the middle of the group at No.42 of 87, however his being one of only 14 corners with at least one interception while not having given up a touchdown comes into play.

    Contract: 1 year, $5.5 million

    Grade: Stunning Success

Tight End Dustin Keller

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    The grade for an acquisition of Dustin Keller is the very definition of an “incomplete” grade. While some amount of injury trouble could have been predicted based on his injury issues in 2012, there was no way to predict the hit that exploded his knee and could threaten his football career.

    Contract: 1 year, $4.25 million

    Grade: Incomplete

Right Tackle Tyson Clabo

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    Based on film of his play in Atlanta, Tyson Clabo initially looked like a solid addition to the Miami offensive line. At 31 years of age, he clearly looked like a savvy but powerful pass protector, though his run blocking left something to be desired.

    On film in Miami, he has been a disappointment. At times he has even drawn comparisons by the fans to ill-fated right tackle acquisition Marc Colombo, whom the Dolphins acquired as a free agent from Dallas in 2011.

    His pass protection is the most disappointing aspect of his game, since on film with the Atlanta Falcons this looked like an area of strength. Pro Football Focus has a measure it dubs “Pass Blocking Efficiency” which is purely a function of quarterback sacks, hits and hurries given up as a percentage of pass blocking snaps. Among offensive tackles with 60 or more pass blocking snaps, Clabo ranks No.48 out of 63.

    On film, his run blocking prowess has been exactly what one would predict based on a film examination of his play at Atlanta. It has been weak.

    All told, calling him one of the worst-performing offensive tackles in football thus far through Week 3 would not be far off the mark, and to me that means the move gets a “failing” grade. This is true even if his contract is reasonable, because you should never aim to put one of the worst performers in the league on the field and Tyson Clabo was signed as a starter. Clabo needs to turn around his performance in a hurry.

    Contract: 1 year, $3.5 million

    Grade: Failing

Wide Receiver Brandon Gibson

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    Using the same measures of success established with Mike Wallace, we see that Brandon Gibson ranks No.60 out of 89 in terms of yards per attempt, and No.50 out of 89 in terms of yards per route.

    Those numbers do not speak well of Gibson as an impact acquisition.

    However, a few points must be made. For one, Gibson was signed to be a third wide receiver and his contract fits that role. He should not be held to the same standards as Mike Wallace. For another, the video evidence shows some positives that the statistics do not capture.

    Gibson has become a resource for Ryan Tannehill on third down. He has caught all but one third down pass Tannehill has sent him, and produced a first down each time. This includes, remarkably, five catches for first downs on 3rd-and-8-plus.

    Additionally, his size has factored into the production of both Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace, because he is able to hold the safety in place from the slot which frees up the receiver to the perimeter on his side.

    It is arguable whether Gibson has been a pure upgrade over departing wide receiver Davone Bess, who was a very well thought of high performer for the Miami Dolphins.

    It is also arguable whether Brandon Gibson is giving the Dolphins something unique that they feel they cannot replace down the road by elevating a cheaper player from the depth chart, such as receiver Rishard Matthews.

    However, what is not as arguable is that for the money the Dolphins paid Brandon Gibson, they have gotten good work out of him.

    Contract: 3 years, $9.78 million

    Grade: Moderate Success