On Dec. 29, 2019, the Miami Dolphins waltzed into Gillette Stadium and handed the New England Patriots — a team that had blown them out 43-0 two months earlier — one of the most shocking and costly regular-season defeats in franchise history.
The Patriots will see a very different Dolphins team this Sunday.
After stocking their roster with Patriots practice squadders and other castoffs during Year 1 of head coach Brian Flores’ tenure, the Dolphins spent big on free agents this spring and made two key coaching changes.
A 5-11 team a season ago — one that scored five wins in its final nine games, including the 27-24 upset of the Patriots in Week 17 — Miami now looks poised to compete in an AFC East that no longer features Tom Brady.
“(They) turned over some coaches but also brought in a number of significant players, both in the draft and free agency that, in my opinion, would reflect the type of team that (Flores) trying to build,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday.
“I think I can see what he’s trying to do (with) the players that he brought in. I can see how he would think that they would fit into the culture and the type of program that he’s trying to establish. It looks like they’re a lot better than they were last year based on the acquisitions that they?ve made.”
Ahead of Sunday’s season opener in Foxboro, Mass., here’s a closer look at the 2020 Dolphins:
WHAT’S THE SAME?
Most notably, the quarterback. Well-traveled veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who engineered last season’s monumental upset, will begin the campaign as Miami’s starter while top-10 draft pick Tua Tagovailoa develops. (It’s worth noting Tagovailoa won the top backup job, indicating he’s recovered from the hip injury that ended his college career.)
The Dolphins also return top wideout DeVante Parker, who capped the best season of his career by shredding Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore last December (11 targets, eight catches, 137 yards). Parker has been dealing with a hamstring injury but is expected to play Sunday, as is No. 2 receiver Preston Williams.
Williams, a 2019 UDFA, was one of the few bright spots in a terrible Dolphins offense during the first half of last season (32-428-3 in eight games) before tearing his ACL. He was Miami’s leading receiver in the first Pats-Phins matchup, catching four passes on six targets for 63 yards in Week 2.
Both Parker and Williams could have their snap counts limited Sunday, which may be the case for many players on both teams given the absence of preseason warmup games. Tight end Mike Gesicki, who ranked second being Parker in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns for Miami last season and caught the game-winning strike from Fitzpatrick in Week 17, also is back.
On defense, the Dolphins return D-linemen Christian Wilkins and Davon Godchaux, linebacker Jerome Baker and safeties Eric Rowe and Bobby McCain, though McCain spent the tail end of last season on injured reserve.
Cornerback Xavien Howard has been with Miami since 2016, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be active as he recovers from a knee injury that limited him to five games last season.
A whole lot, beginning with the coaching staff. Miami will have new coordinators on both sides of the ball this season, with Chan Gailey taking over for Chad O’Shea on offense and Josh Boyer replacing Patrick Graham on defense.
The 68-year-old Gailey hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2016. Boyer, like Flores and O’Shea, was a longtime Patriots assistant before landing in Miami before the 2019 season.
The Dolphins also were one of the most active teams in free agency this offseason, addressing a few problem areas on offense and overhauling a defense that ranked last in points allowed and last in DVOA in 2019.
Several of those imports came from Foxboro, with center Ted Karras and linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts all choosing to join Flores in South Florida. The three ex-Patriots are team captains and projected starters this year.
Along with Van Noy and Roberts, the Dolphins signed the top cornerback available in Byron Jones, bolstered their front seven by adding edge rushers Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson and linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, and used a first-round draft pick on slot corner Noah Igbinoghene.
Karras centers a revamped Dolphins O-line that will feature four new starters, including converted tackle Ereck Flowers at left guard and rookies Austin Jackson (first round) and Solomon Kindley (fourth round) at left tackle and right guard, respectively.
Miami also made moves to improve its horrendous rushing attack, signing two solid backs in Jordan Howard and Matt Breida. The Dolphins ranked 32nd in rushing yards per game and 31st in yards per carry last season, and 37-year-old Fitzpatrick finished as their leading rusher (243 yards on 54 carries).
Parker, Williams and Gesicki are Miami’s three main receiving threats, but with wideouts Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson both opting out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns, multitalented rookies Malcolm Perry and Lynn Bowden Jr. could see a few offensive opportunities, as well.
Perry and Bowden both played quarterback in college — the former at Navy, the latter as a senior at Kentucky after being moved from receiver — and both garnered attention from the Patriots during the pre-draft process. Perry, a seventh-round pick, is listed as a running back/wide receiver on Miami’s roster, and the Las Vegas Raiders planned to use Bowden (third round) as a running back before trading him to the Dolphins over the weekend. Miami has him listed as a wideout.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images