During the final day of practice this week the Miami Dolphins were working in the red zone. Both Miami units need upgrade in this key area because the defense was 29th in the NFL in percentage of touchdowns allowed in the red zone last season while the offense was 19th.
And on this play from 15 yards out, quarterback Ryan Tannehill lofted one toward the left back pylon. That’s where tight end Mike Gesicki, all 6-foot-6 of him, was draped in coverage by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
And what everyone saw next was the future.
It was the Miami’s first-round versatile hybrid defender versus its second-round pass-catching tight end.
The two bodies seemed to become one up as the ball arrived with arms mingling as they reached for the ball and legs flying, showing off each man’s vertical leaping ability.
When both finally returned to Earth, Gesicki was holding the football, even as Fitzpatrick was still fighting to swat it out of his grasp.
It was a great individual battle to behold.
This one went to Gesicki.
Except ... a few periods later, defensive coordinator Matt Burke matched Fitzpatrick on Gesicki again at the line of scrimmage. And this time Fitzpatrick was ordered to blitz.
The first-round pick zoomed past his second-round draft classmate unchecked. Fitzpatrick got what would have been a sack of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Gesicki, who came to the Dolphins with a reputation for not blocking well, has shown a desire to improve on that front. But he got whipped this time as his delayed recognition betrayed him against the very quick Fitzpatrick.
So round two of the rookie battle to Fitzpatrick.
And this back and forth playmaking suggests the Dolphins are on the right course with their first two draft picks of 2018.
Two new players competing. Two new players learning. Two new players improving.
Both having success.
On the eve of the Dolphins first preseason game — a 7 p.m. kickoff against Tampa Bay at Hard Rock Stadium on Thursday — it’s fair to say the Dolphins should be pleased with their overall offseason talent haul.
While pundits and experts and Las Vegas bookmakers have shown a significant distaste for the Dolphins offseason work, the folks within the organization are heartened that the first 11 practices of training camp have been evidence that their offseason moves were good.
I have spoken to no one within the organization that is disappointed with the direction of the offseason talent haul — be it in the draft or via trade or in free agency.
I have spoken to no one that has seen a lesser player on the field than the one the club envisioned when the player was acquired in the offseason.
(Oh, and by the way, if there were significant complaints, I would have heard them because I’ve heard complaints about other players.)
So what follows is a player by player breakdown on the Dolphins offseason acquisitions and what the team thinks now -- after seeing them on the field in training camp and heading into the preseason:
First-round pick safety Minkah Fitzpatrick: “He’s as advertised,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke believes. I explained in this outstanding piece of journalism how Fitzpatrick’s work ethic is a great match with the team’s plans for using him as a hybrid player. Great.
But the thing that is most encouraging to me? I’m feeling Fitzpatrick more of late. He’s more active.
As you know, it’s not enough to be all over the field. It’s not enough to be in the right place. You have to make plays. I’m starting to see that more.
Second-round pick tight end Mike Gesicki: He is the most impressive rookie of training camp so far. He has scored more touchdowns in practice than just about anyone on the team, save Danny Amendola. He’s a red zone threat the Dolphins have been lacking since, well, this century.
Yes, his blocking remains terrible. His blitz recognition is about two steps slow and that’s unacceptable. But he’s trying to learn how to correct that while impressing when he’s out in the pass pattern.
Third-round pick linebacker Jerome Baker: He’s not likely to factor on defense a lot early in the season. The Dolphins have him learning a lot of weakside linebacker duties. Kiko Alonso is the team’s starting weakside linebacker. As a speedy but smallish linebacker, this player thrives on anticipating and getting there quickly. But because he’s learning, he often cannot anticipate nor get there quickly. Think special teams at this stage. Maybe four or five more weeks or games and practice will raise his play.
Fourth-round pick tight end Durham Smythe: The blocking tight end is not as smooth or quick as Gesicki down the field. But, huge surprise, he’s a much better blocker. Is he good enough to block people like Robert Quinn every down yet? No. Not yet. Might he be eventually? He has shown no signs that he cannot rise to that level.
Fourth-round pick running back Kalen Ballage: He looked a lot better before the pads came on. He is still inconsistent on where he’s supposed to be. But when he gets in the open the field, no one can catch him. He erases angles. The Dolphins love his promise. Still.
They don’t need him to factor right away, perhaps not even this season. But as a running back, he must be ready to factor fairly quickly because most of the good ones usually do.
Sixth round pick cornerback Cornell Armstrong: He needs to step up in the preseason because he’s buried on the depth chart. And unlike other rookies who are buried on the depth chart but still get significant snaps in practice with first- or second-teams, Armstrong is behind Jalen Davis, for example, on the depth chart and in reps. Davis is also a rookie and was actually undrafted.
Seventh-round pick middle linebacker Quentin Poling: He’s working in the middle and has had some good days and some not so good days since camp began. Think special teams (maybe) at this stage. He needs to make plays on special teams in the preseason. Chase Allen, by the way, has been way better.
Seventh-round pick kicker Jason Sanders: He’s locked in a battle for the kicking job with Greg Joseph. Joseph has been good. Sanders has been better so far. No significant issues that I know of.
Slot receiver Danny Amendola: I’ll say it right here, if he stays healthy there will be an argument to be made that the Dolphins improved at slot receiver from the past two years. Yes, I know, Jarvis Landry was often the slot the past couple of years. So why is Amendola an upgrade?
Amendola already has forged a chemistry with quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Coaches have wanted these two to know each well and the first couple of weeks of camp have been about that. Amendola has caught more passes than anyone in camp.
But why does this suggest improvement over Landry? Amendola is precise. He is going to be exactly where the playbook demands. And that wasn’t always the case with Landry -- which toyed with Tannehill’s head and hurt other receivers. Amendola is not as likely to give the team that stunning moment that fires everyone up like Landry often did. But he’s going to move the chains consistently and not be any sort of problem with coaches, teammates or during practice.
Running back Frank Gore: The competition for the starting job is real. Regardless of whether he wins it or not, Gore will share carries with incumbent Kenyan Drake. At least that’s the plan right now. Think about that. Drake averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season as the starter. And Gore has been good enough so far that he could replace Drake in the starting lineup.
Quarterback Brock Osweiler: Well, he says he’s had a “tremendous” camp. I don’t share that opinion. He’s been good the past five or six practices but he was poor on the first day. Regardless, the competition for the No. 2 quarterback job is real. The preseason will tell the tale.
Left guard Josh Sitton: I feel like the goal here is to keep Sitton healthy and fresh enough to get to the regular season. He doesn’t practice every day. He’s had some great moments and some moments that cannot repeat too often during practices. His pass blocking and pre-snap discipline is outstanding, however.
Wide receiver Albert Wilson: He’s not a slot receiver. That’s what coach Adam Gase said and has been repeated to me constantly the past few days. Why? The Dolphins don’t love his instincts in the slot. They love him in space. On the outside. On end-around plays. On screens.
I get the drift the Dolphins are going to throw Wilson at defenses as a change-up, as a gadget, as a way to maybe get a big play when it’s not expected. But as a grinder who lines up in the slot down after down to move the chains with consistency?
That’s Amendola. Not Wilson.
Linebacker Terence Garvin: Maybe it’s me but he’s seemingly made more plays than starter Stephone Anthony in practice. That could come from the fact he’s playing with the second team and against the second-team offense.
Center Daniel Kilgore: Here’s the trade-off between Kilgore and departed Mike Pouncey. Pouncey was great when he delivered at his best. He was able to do things most centers cannot. The problem, obviously, was his availability in practice and how that affected the offensive line’s chemistry. There was also the worry about a looming injury, given Pouncey’s troubling history with his hips.
Kilgore is not great. He’s solid. He will sometimes rise to good. But he’s there every snap. Of every practice. Of every game. He is an anchor on the line and I’m told he has an absolutely amazing attitude when he’s playing and when he’s around teammates in the locker room and off the field.
The Dolphins are satisfied with the trade off of great but sporadic versus solid consistency.
Defensive end Robert Quinn: He looked great in the Spring. He dominated left Laremy Tunsil. But he hasn’t been as dominant in training camp. He’s been ... good. Obviously, he’s a veteran who knows he has to really turn it on starting Sept. 9 for the regular season. So maybe he’s merely stacking good days until it’s time to be great.
(The fact Quinn is not dominating as he did in the Spring suggests good things about Tunsil, by the way, who is more than holding his own.)
Defensive tackle Akeem Spence: He’s been a Dolphins starter from the first snap he’s taken and that is not likely to change. He knows how to play. He knows what’s expected. He does not disappoint.
Is he Ndamukong Suh, who could deliver great play at times?
But Spence doesn’t make a ridiculous $19 million a year as Suh did. He makes less than $3 million per year. The Dolphins are good with that at this point.