It is no secret that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross believes he’s finally found the right formula for sustained success within the football side of his organization.
The hiring of head coach Adam Gase and promotion of general manager Chris Grier last year to couple to the hiring of executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum the year before is working in Ross’s eyes.
(A winning record and playoff berth last season obviously helps a lot).
“You can see how the team has developed,” Ross said recently. “The chemistry of the team is totally different. The chemistry of the organization is totally different. And I think you look and see where you are. People feel we’re making a lot of progress. We’ve had conversations how to continue that progress. And this is the path we’ve picked.”
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The path the Dolphins picked this offseason is to keep as many of their own players as they could. It was a departure from what happened even as late as the 2016 offseason.
But that approach of growing your own talent and sprinkling in key free agents here and there to round out the roster is dependent on the ability to not just draft well but to “kill the draft.”
That’s what the Dolphins hope to do starting April 27.
I’ve had multiple people within the organization tell me they want to “kill the draft” so that’s Dolphins vernacular now.
The question is can the Dolphins kill it this year because last year the team kind of just punched it out a little bit without really killing it.
Oh, Ross thinks the Dolphins did well in the 2016 draft...
“Chris and Mike, they do a great job,” he said. “And we have a great department in scouting. They’re very thorough. You look at our draft picks last year and I think they showed you an awful lot in the direction they wanted to go. We got some really ... it was a good draft. And I think we’ll continue to have good drafts.”
All modesty aside, there are two people that decide whether the Dolphins had a good draft or not -- and they are Father Time, and moi. And as not enough time has passed to actually give us a substantive grade on the ‘16 draft, it is up to me to give you a report of where things stand with the understanding this is not a final grade.
So let’s see if the Dolphins did indeed have a good draft in 2016, as Ross contends, based on where we sit today:
In the first round the Dolphins picked Laremy Tunsil with the No. 13 overall selection. The fact the team was picking No. 13 was news because Tannenbaum traded down from No. 8 in a trade with Philadelphia. And the Dolphins got two veteran starters in Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso from that trade. And then on draft night, Miami got a guard they believed would eventually be their starting left tackle in Tunsil despite the fact the player was graded No. 2 on their draft board. And then Tunsil played well as a rookie. He was not amazing. But he was good while playing out of position. The team expects much improvement this year.
So the Dolphins didn’t just have a good first round in 2016 but, to use their term, they killed the first round of that draft.
And then things got a little dicey.
In the second round the Dolphins picked cornerback Xavien Howard with the 38th overall selection. The good news is the Dolphins’ coaching staff is convinced Howard is going to be really good. In the limited time they had to work with him, I’m told coaches believe Howard displayed everything you want to see that suggests he’s going to be a good NFL cornerback. The problem is Howard also showed he’s a little fragile. He injured a knee in an offseason practice session and that required surgery and so he missed most of training camp. Still, he was good enough that he could start the opener with maybe 10 days of preparation but after only four games, he injured the same knee in a practice. And he needed a second surgery in less than six months. And he missed nine games. That means Howard only played seven games in 2016 and he was solid but not spectacular in those games. So the payoff on that pick is not exactly in yet (remember this is an early look at what Ross already says was a good draft). Howard may well turn out to be a good pick. But until he proves he’s durable, and then plays well, everyone is merely projecting.
In the third round the Dolphins picked running back Kenyon Drake with the 73rd overall selection. Drake played all 16 games and was mostly a special teams player. He had a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown that beat the New York Jets in Week 9. He showed promise. He showed off his 4.3 speed. But he also had some bonehead moments, like that time he ran out of bounds one yard short of the marker on a second-and-long against Tennessee. Rookie running backs should never run out of bounds when they can put their heads down and pick up that extra yard for a first down. Drake’s role is expected to expand on passing downs in 2017. The Dolphins do not expect him to ever be a load-carrying running back in the traditional sense. That’s fine. If he does his job, that will be good. James White was a huge factor in the Super Bowl and if Drake can fill that role for the Dolphins, then everyone will be happy. But if Drake’s role doesn’t expand fairly soon, investing a third-round pick on a special teams player is not value.
In the third round the Dolphins picked wide receiver Leonte Carroo with the 86th overall selection -- a pick they added by trading away a sixth-round pick last year and a third- and fourth-round pick in this looming draft. So the Dolphins invested a lot to take Carroo. And the investment seemed worthwhile early on when Carroo started the first game of the season and caught two passes right out of the gate. Except he caught only one more pass the rest of the season. And by the end of the season he had fallen out of favor to the point that he was a healthy scratch the final three games of the season, including the playoff game while Rashawn Scott, who came to the team as an undrafted free agent, was active ahead of him. Gase said at the recent NFL annual meeting that he believes Carroo will be better this coming season. That’s good because Carroo didn’t get it done as a rookie.
In the sixth round the Dolphins picked receiver Jakeem Grant with the 186th overall selection. And there was a lot of noise made about how fast the 5-7 Grant was and how that would be an asset on both offense and special teams. Didn’t happen. Grant had a 74-yard punt return touchdown against Buffalo and that was his highlight moment for the season. Although the team wanted to use packages on offense for Grant to get him in space, it never really panned out. Grant didn’t catch a pass all season. He also struggled at time catching punts -- perhaps because he’d never done it before. Look, I’m not going to ding a sixth-round pick for not being a huge factor in his team’s success his rookie year. But the hope and buzz about Grant was far beyond the actual output. As with the second and third round picks, Grant needs to improve in 2017.
In the sixth round the Dolphins selected defensive back Jordan Lucas with the 204th overall selection. He was picked to compete at cornerback but it quickly became apparent Lucas wasn’t ready for that. So the focus turned to him playing perhaps more in the back end at safety. But let’s be honest, the focus turned to him contributing on special teams, which was his role most of the eight games he played. Interestingly, however, undrafted rookie cornerback Lafayette Pitts kind of passed Lucas on special teams.
In the seventh round the Dolphins selected quarterback Brandon Doughty with the 223rd selection. And Doughty made the team...for about two days. And then he was cut. Then he was signed to the practice squad where he spent the remainder of the season. The interesting thing here is that in December when Ryan Tannehill injured his left knee and the Dolphins needed QB help. But they did not promote Doughty. The team signed T.J. Yates off the street because he had more NFL experience. Doughty was deemed not ready to serve as Matt Moore’s backup. Moore solidified his spot as the back up and the Dolphins added street free agent David Fales to compete in camp so Doughty is going to have to work to stick around.
In the seventh round the Dolphins selected tight end Thomas Duarte with the 231st overall selection. Right away it became apparent Duarte had to grow into an NFL player. He looked like a big wide receiver except for the part about muscle definition and speed. So he was cut and he spent the first seven weeks of the season on the practice squad. Then injuries befell the tight end room and Duarte was signed to basically play in one game, against the Jets in November. And then he was inactive the remainder of the season. This offseason the Dolphins traded for Julius Thomas and signed Anthony Fasano and re-signed MarQueis Gray. None of that suggests the team is banking on Duarte to figure prominently in their plans.
So the draft Ross calls “good” has a ways to go before it can actually be considered, you know, good.
The Dolphins got steady production out of one draft pick -- the first-rounder. Everyone else was hit-and-miss, or often injured, or needing honing, or inactive, or not likely to stick around.
Obviously what happens in 2017 and perhaps a couple of years beyond will determine what final grade this draft gets. But safe to say so far the Dolphins didn’t kill the 2016 draft.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero