Speaking of Fitzpatrick, that should be it for the gun-slinging journeyman. It’s been a pleasure. Watching Fitzpatrick play when he’s rolling is akin to admiring a great playground athlete. He’s daring, with a vintage rambling quality to his game. But now, the team is 3-6. They will almost certainly miss the playoffs and fade into the background without much noise down the stretch. Unless Sunday’s backup Bryce Petty is entirely incapable, the team needs to discover what they have — and potentially activate 2016 second-round pick Christian Hackenberg on game day to simulate a more intense preparation. The future is now.
Our resident scouting expert Bucky Brooks helped peg nicely the rise of Jay Ajayi this week, noting that the Dolphins scheme finally came to meet the running back’s desire to make one-cut attacks from seven or eight yards deep. That was evident when the bruiser put up 111 yards on 24 carries with a touchdown against the Jets on Sunday. While it wasn’t another 200, it may have been the most encouraging performance by the promising young power back yet. Ajayi showed Sunday an ability to roll with the punches early in the game and counter a vicious Jets defensive front with some smart, efficient running. He now has 529 yards and four touchdowns over his last three games.
It’s a brutal blow for IAQ and the Dolphins. The rangy safety was enjoying the best season of his seven-year career.
Miami is already without strong safety Reshad Jones, who went on IR after just six games. When Jones and Abdul-Quddus were on the field together, they offered versatility versus both the run and pass. For a few weeks, the duo looked like it could become the best safety tandem in the NFL.
Owner Stephen Ross has made his share of hiring mistakes since taking over in Miami, but with coach Adam Gase running the show the Dolphins finally have reason to believe the future will be different. Ross can smell what Gase is cooking.
“I think we’ve come a long way from where we started,” Ross told reporters in the locker room at Heinz Field after the game, via the team’s official website. “Certainly unhappy right now. But I’m happy with the direction we’re going. I think we have the right coach, the right people in place and I have the basis for something. Everybody is smelling it. They want it more and that gives you optimism for next year.”
After struggling to start his career, Branch played well last season, proving he can become a reliable veteran who can eat up snaps — even if he’s not dominant in any one facet. Branch played the best football of his career last season and the Dolphins paid to keep him off the open market. The hefty tag for a former second-round disappointment displays a market bereft of pass rushers. Miami is betting Branch won’t regress after getting paid.
Keeping the 27-year-old to pair with Wake was a solid move for the Dolphins and gives them two quality starters. But the Dolphins shouldn’t be done adding edge players. Miami will certainly look to add a young pass rusher in a deep draft at the position
There are still plenty of questions for the Miami Dolphins to answer in a schedule that only gets tougher. They will be doubted and challenged, and it won’t be nearly so easy to find supporters outside the confines of South Florida. This is what happens when a team blossoms so quickly. That rapid evolution will leave many people stunned, as if progress is only believable when it’s easier to see coming.
The reality is that the Dolphins are legitimate enough when considering no team in the AFC is without its share of flaws. They’ve won six straight games after a 1-4 start and they would qualify for a wild-card spot if the postseason started today. So it really doesn’t matter if they’ve defeated only two teams currently above .500 on the way to their 7-4 record. It’s more important that they’re beating the teams set in front of them, and doing that in clutch situations.
Miami lost both starting safeties to injury last season. Reshad Jones returns as one of the best all-purpose safeties in the NFL, but 2016 free-agent signee Isa Abdul-Quddus was released this offseason after suffering a neck injury that jeopardizes his NFL career.
Sitting at No. 18 on Around The NFL’s list of the top 101 free agents, if McDonald lives up to his athletic abilities after serving his suspension, his midseason return could give Miami one of the best safety tandems in the NFL.