When you think of Mike McDaniel's debut as Dolphins head coach, you don't necessarily think defense. Miami's 2022 campaign was all about what happened on McDaniel's preferred side of the ball: Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made a noticeable leap as the starter (before a polarizing string of concussions sidelined him indefinitely), wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle dominated as the speediest duo in the game and the team's explosive aerial attack offset one of the shakiest defenses in the league -- a unit that ranked in the bottom half for points and passing yards allowed, and second-worst in total takeaways.
In today's NFL, the offense does take precedence. And it's arguable Miami's biggest, most underrated need going into the 2023 offseason remained under center. As promising as Tagovailoa looked out of the gate in his first year under McDaniel, the former first-round pick remains unproven as an off-script passer. More concerningly, he hasn't played a full, healthy season of football since 2018, his sophomore year of college.
With Tom Brady, a potential quick-fix target, now out of the question after retiring "for good," the Dolphins have little choice but to follow through with their public commitment to Tagovailoa, who just this week cleared concussion protocol, more than a month after suffering his latest head injury. Save for a blockbuster acquisition of the Ravens' Lamar Jackson, there just aren't other clear, justifiable alternatives on the veteran market. That doesn't mean McDaniel shouldn't still prioritize better insurance at the position; future free agent and ex-49ers starter Jimmy Garoppolo comes to mind.
But it does mean, with Tua on track to return and both Hill and Waddle in tow as his elite targets, the Dolphins may have already made their biggest acquisition of the offseason: Vic Fangio.
The former Broncos head coach, who's consulted the NFC champion Eagles this year, decided Thursday to become Miami's new defensive coordinator after speaking with other interested teams. From a leadership standpoint, his arrival should only help McDaniel, offering a well-worn lens of the NFL. We've seen plenty of other first-time coaches successfully lean on former head coaches as coordinators; two recent examples include Doug Pederson, who led the Eagles to a Super Bowl with Jim Schwartz as his DC; and Sean McVay, who helped build the Rams into a contender with Wade Phillips at DC.
More than that, Fangio brings not only name recognition but a long, proven resume of results as an actual defensive coach. In more than 20 years as both a coordinator and head coach, he's overseen eight different top-10 scoring defenses, nine different top-10 overall defensive finishes (yards per game), and seven different top-10 takeaway ranks. Those ranks were achieved with four different teams -- the Panthers (1995-1998), 49ers (2011-2014), Bears (2015-2018) and Broncos (2019-2021) -- and vastly different rosters.
If anyone can elevate the Dolphins "D," it figures to be Fangio. It helps that Miami wasn't necessarily lacking in talent as much as a shepherd of said talent. The top edge rushers are Jaelan Phillips, who's just 23 with 15.5 sacks and 41 quarterback hits in two years, and Bradley Chubb, an old Fangio pupil who's just 26 with an All-Pro ceiling. The interior is anchored by Christian Wilkins, 27, one of the NFL's steadiest and most durable. And the secondary, damaged by injuries in 2022, boasts a proven cover man in Xavien Howard as well as a sterling young safety duo in Jevon Holland and Brandon Jones.
Even without an abundance of money for splash upgrades, that's a lineup that should make an instant leap with better oversight; three years ago, previous coordinator Josh Boyer had the unit sitting No. 6 overall in terms of points allowed. Why is that especially important in 2023? Because the offense, for better or worse, is what it is: McDaniel is poised to effectively run it back with the same starters at premium positions, in his trademark timing-based system. Even with all the QB mayhem in 2022, that was largely enough to get the Dolphins to 9-8 and in the playoffs. Pair it all with a Fangio-led "D," however, and maybe you can start talking yourself into something more.