Dolphins' playoff run was brief, but their future is bright

The Miami Dolphins ended the season with a 30-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round at Heinz Field. Here is a look at the season and what’s next:

Season grade: A-minus

Season summary: The Dolphins exceeded everyone’s expectations this season by winning 10 games and advancing to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Most pundits projected Miami to win six to eight games this season, which was a fair assessment of the roster, especially after big injuries to key players such as center Mike Pouncey (hip), safety Reshad Jones (shoulder) and quarterback Ryan Tannehill (knee). But coaching matters in the NFL, and rookie head coach Adam Gase and first-year defensive coordinator Vance Joseph did a masterful job of making no excuses and getting the most out of what they had. Gase’s offensive scheme did wonders for Miami and helped fifth-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill take positive steps forward before his knee injury. Second-year running back Jay Ajayi also had a breakout year and proved he is the long-term solution at the position. The only thing that could have made the season grade better for Miami was a deep run in the playoffs.

Biggest draft need: The Dolphins need two athletic outside linebackers. Miami finished ranked 29th in total defense in large part due to its shaky linebacker play. Opponents often attacked this position via the running and passing game. The Dolphins began the season with Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi, who were both injury-plagued. Jenkins is a pending free agent, and Misi could be a salary-cap casualty this offseason as Miami looks to upgrade the position. The trade for middle linebacker Kiko Alonso proved to be a good move. Alonso led the Dolphins with 115 tackles in addition to two interceptions and plugged one hole at the position, but he needs some help. Expect Miami to address this area both in the draft and free agency.

Key offseason questions

What’s next for Tannehill? Miami’s starting quarterback had one of his better seasons and played well before suffering a sprained ACL and MCL in his left knee against the Arizona Cardinals. Tannehill was 8-5 as a starter in 13 games and appears to have done enough to keep his $96 million contract intact for next season. But here is the rub for Miami: Tannehill will get a significant raise in base salary from $9.34 million in 2016 to $18 million in 2017. Previously, Tannehill was a bargain for his position with the Dolphins. Next season that is no longer the case.

Will Jarvis Landry get paid, and how much? Speaking of big money, perhaps the most intriguing contract situation for Miami next season will be with its leading receiver. Landry led Miami for the third straight season with 94 catches and has outperformed his rookie contract by a wide margin. He’s entering the final year of his rookie pact and does not want to play for his slotted $893,850 salary in 2017. The Dolphins don’t intend to lose Landry, and the smart play would be to pay him before the start of next season. But figuring out how much is tricky. Landry does most of his work in the slot, which is paid less than outside receivers, but his numbers match up well with many star receivers who get $10 million per year or more. Both sides may need to find a middle ground.

Will Joseph depart for head-coaching gig? Joseph arrived in Miami with the label of a “future head coach.” That time could come sooner than expected for the Dolphins, as Joseph already has been contacted by various teams for head-coaching interviews, according to Gase. Joseph did a good job with a patchwork Miami defense this year that was hit hard with injuries. Although some of the stats don't show it, the Dolphins’ defense played winning football most weeks and kept the team in position to win games. Getting interviewed doesn’t guarantee Joseph will be a goner, but it does mean Miami must have a contingency plan. Dolphins linebacker coach Matt Burke is one possibility if they stay in-house.