Armando Salguero: It’s up to Joe Philbin to develop Miami Dolphins’ rookies

05/11/2014 12:01 AM

05/11/2014 1:52 AM

The Dolphins selected five players from the small-school Football Championship Subdivision and three players from the big-school Football Bowl Subdivision during this draft. So the success of their rookie class will rely largely on players from Montana, Liberty, Coastal Carolina, North Dakota State and Marist — whose program had a player drafted into the NFL for the first time Saturday when Miami took Terrence Fede in the seventh round.

Excuse me, but I’d feel a little better about this talent haul if players such as sixth-rounder Matt Hazel had been good enough to play in, say, the Southeastern Conference instead of the Big South.

As one wise football man once told me, a team can make exceptions when adding talent from small schools, but if you add too many small-school players, you’ve now got a small-school team.

So there’s that minor concern, even if it’s one general manager Dennis Hickey dismisses.

“The level of competition varies from week to week and opponent to opponent,” Hickey said. “You focus on the players’ traits and whether those traits translate to the next level. … We don’t evaluate a school, we evaluate a player.

“Several of these guys played at the Senior Bowl or they played East-West [Shrine] game where the level of competition is risen. How did they respond to that? That’s how we judge them and put a lot of stock into them.”

Great, but the problem with that is the Dolphins are relying on one or two All-Star games to judge some players whereas players from the Big Ten or SEC or Pac-12 play the best competition week after week, sometimes six or seven times every season. And then those big-school players also play at the All-Star games.

So big-school players offer a bigger window of evaluation, and the small-school players offer a smaller one. Despite this, Hickey describes his first Miami draft class as “exciting.”

Poor track record

To keep that description from raising eyebrows, it’s now up to Joe Philbin and his coaching staff to develop these players quickly and make the skeptics into believers.

It’s important for this coach to get his new players sufficiently prepared to not only compete but also to actually contribute in 2014. If we’re talking about first-round pick Ja’Wuan James and third-round pick Billy Turner, the coach has to find a way to get the youngsters good enough, fast enough, so that they can start.

But that hasn’t been one of Philbin’s strengths.

In the 2012 and ’13 drafts, the Dolphins picked 17 rookies. The only ones who started were quarterback Ryan Tannehill, right tackle Jonathan Martin … and kicker Caleb Sturgis.

And, by the way, none of those three actually played well as rookies.

So the coach with a poor history of milking the most out of his rookies has to find a way to, well, get the most out of his rookies.

This draft that was supposed to address the Dolphins’ troubled offensive line did exactly that. Well, it addressed the dire needs because James might compete to be the starting right tackle, and Turner will compete for a starting guard job.

But what about the upgrade to the linebacker corps?

What about addressing the strong safety position?

What about cornerback?

Handling the easy question first, the Dolphins didn’t select a safety the past three days. So they are obviously counting on often-injured Louis Delmas to avoid any major collisions and be on the field for all 16 games for only the second time in his six-year career.

(That or Michael Thomas, who famously intercepted Tom Brady last season to seal a victory, will once again be pressed into the spotlight.)

The issue at cornerback is interesting because the Dolphins added Walt Aikens in the fourth round.

So the team can rely on Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan as experienced and proven veterans while also hoping youngsters Jamar Taylor, Willie Davis and now Aikens develop.

“I want to come in and learn the system and then get incorporated into the mix,” Aikens said. “I want to be a starter. That’s my goal. I want to come in and be a dominating [cornerback], I want to be a dominating player. That’s what I’m competing for.”

Linebacker woes

The Dolphins linebacker corps has been a fascinating study in underachievement for several years.

Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett were fine players who were paid handsomely to come to Miami and make linebacker a strength. Didn’t happen. Burnett and Dansby were good but not as good as their salaries suggested they should be.

So the Dolphins dumped them and signed Phillip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe last year to come to Miami and make linebacker a strength. Didn’t happen. Ellerbe and Wheeler weren’t even as good as the guys they replaced.

So the Dolphins are trying to find answers this offseason, experimenting with moving Koa Misi to middle linebacker and moving Ellerbe outside.

Unfortunately, that plan still asks Wheeler, who struggled most among Miami linebackers, to continue covering the opposing team’s tight ends.

That’s where Jordan Tripp might become a factor. Tripp has to make this team on special teams, but if he himself is special he might give the Dolphins options at outside linebacker.

Tripp, 6-3 and 234 pounds, started 12 games at strong-side linebacker and 24 games at weak-side linebacker at Montana. So maybe Tripp is a revelation. No one can know for sure — not even the Dolphins, by the way.

And regardless of what they say, the chances would sure be better if Tripp had played at a recognized football power.

About Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero

@ArmandoSalguero

Armando Salguero has covered South Florida sports since 1982. He's covered the Dolphins since 1990. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and annually votes on the Associated Press All-Pro team. He has worked nationally for ESPN and also writes general sports columns for the Miami Herald.

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