Getty Images

Miami Dolphins All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey underwent a full meniscus repair on Friday morning after suffering the knee injury in training camp on Thursday. It will sideline Ramsey until December and represents a massive blow to a team with Super Bowl aspirations. 

Not to mention it's a gut punch for a team that hasn't won a playoff game since the 2000 wild-card round against the Indianapolis Colts when Jay Fiedler started against Peyton Manning. Think about that for a minute.

Miami has tough road games to start

Take a look at Miami's schedule. The first three months of the season includes road games against Justin Herbert and the Chargers, Josh Allen and the Bills, Jalen Hurts and the Eagles, plus Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs and Aaron Rodgers and the Jets. That's five of their first 11 games against superstar quarterbacks and a few talented No. 1 WRs.

The Dolphins finished 2-5 against playoff teams in 2022, including losing their final five games against top competition, so they need all the help they can get against the cream of the crop.

Dolphins 2023 scheduleOpponent

Week 1

@ Chargers

Week 2

@ Patriots

Week 3

vs. Broncos

Week 4

@ Bills

Week 5

vs. Giants

Week 6

vs. Panthers

Week 7

@ Eagles

Week 8

vs. Patriots

Week 9

@ Chiefs

Week 10


Week 11

vs. Raiders

Week 12

@ Jets

Week 13

@ Commanders

Week 14

vs. Titans

Week 15

vs. Jets

Week 16

vs. Cowboys

Week 17

@ Ravens

Week 18

vs. Bills

Ramsey should be back late in the year, but a slow start could be costly in a loaded AFC. This is a team that doesn't want to make an entire playoff run on the road. They've had one season with a winning record on the road in the last 11 years (2020).   

Dolphins defense struggled in 2022

We already know what Miami's offense can do when Tua Tagovailoa is healthy, but the defense has been holding them back. They were bottom 10 in the league last year in a number of categories under former defensive coordinator Matt Burke, including:

  • Defensive EPA
  • Points allowed
  • Takeaways
  • Third down defense
  • Passer rating

Their secondary was the weakest link. Miami allowed the highest passer rating of any playoff team (95.3) last year. Although to be fair, they battled several key injuries in 2022 to Brandon Jones, Byron Jones, Trill Williams, Mackensie Alexander and Nik Needham

The Dolphins allowed 23 touchdown passes with only one interception on throws 10 or fewer yards downfield in 2022. It was the worst ratio of any team in the NFL last season, and tied for the second worst by any team in the last 15 seasons. 

That's where Ramsey's press-coverage skills could really come in handy. Ramsey didn't have a great year in 2022 by some measures, but he still received the third-highest Pro Football Focus grade for any CB behind only Sauce Gardner and Patrick Surtain II

Who needs to step up on defense

With all that being said, here's who needs to step up in Ramsey's absence:

Vic Fangio: The new Dolphins defensive coordinator has led a top-10 defense in four of his last five seasons. It'll start with him on how to make up for Ramsey's injury, and he's got plenty of talent to work with at his disposal.

Xavien HowardHoward, 30, is giving up more big plays than he's making these days. He had 10 interceptions in 2020 but has had six in two years since, including just one in 2022. Meanwhile, no player allowed more 20-plus yard completions in coverage (13) than Howard last year. He also allowed the second-most passing yards (826) in 2022. If someone is gonna step up in Ramsey's absence, it's got to be Howard, who makes $18 million a year and will be targeted often with Ramsey out. 

Cam SmithThe Dolphins drafted South Carolina CB Cam Smith with their second-round pick in 2023 and he could get pressed into a starting role earlier than expected. He allowed the lowest completion rate (38%) of any SEC player targeted 30-plus times last season and appears up for the challenge. "I was already planning on playing -- it's an opportunity," Smith told the Palm Beach Post after Sunday's training camp practice. Smith hopes to make a similar impact as his defensive backs coach and former Pro Bowler Sam Madison, who was a Dolphins' second-round pick in 1997. "He just really kind of, he kind of sees himself in me," Smith said. "He makes sure that I'm keying in on everything. And I'm staying locked in."

Eli Apple: If not Smith, then veteran Eli Apple will get a shot at replacing Ramsey as the starter opposite Xavien Howard. The Dolphins signed Apple on Saturday after he spent the previous two seasons in Cincinnati. Other options to fill Ramsey's starting role include Noah Igbinoghene (2020 first-round pick) and Kader Kohou, who performed well last year, though mostly as a slot corner. 

Bradley ChubbA pass rush could be the best way to cover for a leaky secondary, and Miami had a good one in 2022. It ranked top five in PFF's pass-rush grade and ESPN's pass rush win rate. Jaelan Phillips and Chubb were the only duo in the NFL last year to both rank top seven in ESPN's pass rush win rate metric. Considering Miami invested a first-round pick in Phillips (18th pick in 2021) and Chubb (2022 trade acquisition) they need continued elite production from both.

There's no way to sugarcoat it. This injury is tough for the Dolphins, but with a new defensive coordinator, a talented rookie cornerback and an elite pass rush, their defense could tread water for three months.