Miami Dolphins

Who you got: Bama or the Dolphins? A new twist on an old debate

It’s a question too preposterous to even consider:

Could the best college football team beat the worst NFL team?

Of course not — football lifers say.

It would be men vs. not-quite fully formed, much younger men.

The average age of an NFL team is 26 years old.

The average age of a college football team is around 20.

Plus, college football national champions have maybe 25 NFL players on it.

NFL teams, by very definition, have 53 NFL players on it.

But what if we’re talking about arguably the most talented college football team in years?

And what if we’re talking about perhaps the worst NFL team ever? A team one league source estimated has just 21 players worthy of being on an NFL roster, and 32 who aren’t.

Let’s stop with the hypotheticals.

The year 2019 has brought us the perfect storm: the supercharged Alabama Crimson Tide and the historically awful Miami Dolphins.

And smart football people say the conversation is as legitimate now as it has ever been.

No doubt, the Dolphins would be favored to win.

And the game probably would not be close.

But Lee Sterling, a football handicapper and founder of Paramount Sports, believes the Dolphins would be a 10-point favorite on a neutral field. And that line could get down to six by the end of the season if the Dolphins’ injuries mount.

That’s a stunning number, and reflects just how close these two rosters are — and speaks to just how far the Dolphins need to go to get to the top of the NFL. Double-digit underdogs win outright around 15 percent of the time, Sterling said.

Again, this defies all logic. NFL players are the best of the best, the very top of a massive pyramid that begins in Pop Warner. Studies suggest that just eight in every 10,000 high school players will eventually get drafted.

But a closer examination of Alabama, the best college program in the country, and the Dolphins, who have lost their first three games by a total of 117 points, suggests the talent discrepancy is not that great.

The best way to think about this debate: Alabama has the better athletes. The Dolphins have the more developed pros.

Jim Nagy, a former NFL scout who now runs the Senior Bowl, told the Miami Herald this week that this might be the most talented Alabama offense ever. Two of their past three recruiting classes — including the absurd 2017 class, which is the backbone of this year’s second-ranked team — have been two of the best of all time.

They have successfully recruited 100 players the past four years, and the average Rivals ranking of those 100 players is an absurd four stars.

And Alabama develops players as well as they recruit them.

CBSSports.com predicts five Crimson Tide players — quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, cornerback Trevon Diggs, wide receiver Henry Ruggs III and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood — will go in the first round of April’s draft. Nagy thinks the number is more like seven.

“I had lunch recently with a scout [for an NFL team],” Nagy said. “He told me Alabama will have 10 players go in the top 50. They’re absolutely loaded.”

And that doesn’t even take into account Alabama’s freshmen and sophomores who are not draft-eligible in 2020.

So a bit of historical perspective: Alabama produced 11 first-round, four second-round and four third-round picks from its 2013 to 2016 recruiting classes. They have two or three first-rounders in a down year.

So it’s fair to estimate that there are at least 10 more players on their team that will go in the first two days of either the 2021, 2022 or 2023 drafts.

“We had a lot of talent come through, so it’s hard for me to just point to one class and say this is the most talent,” said Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake, who attended Alabama and was a third-round pick in 2016. “Right now, they want to go out there and prove they can be a great team on any given Saturday but also win the meaningful game when it comes to getting to the playoffs and winning a championship.”

The biggest star, of course, is Tagovailoa. He’s the likely No. 1 pick in the draft and could be the Dolphins’ starting quarterback next fall.

Nagy favorably compares Tagovailoa to Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson — except an inch and a half taller and with better field vision and anticipation. The only criticism, if you want to call it that, is that his surrounding talent, including four potential first-round wide receivers, is so much better than most every team Alabama faces, it’s hard to get a feel for how Tagovailoa will perform when that talent gap vanishes in the NFL.

With Minkah Fitzpatrick gone, Drake is the lone remaining Alabama player on the Dolphins’ roster. And while he is much older than Tagovailoa and really only knows him in passing — “not necessarily close ... I don’t have his number or anything” — Drake is a huge fan from afar.

“I mean, [expletive], he’s a great player,” Drake said. “That goes without saying. I feel like he has the ability to spread the ball around that’s uncanny for somebody of his age, in the college game.”

The Dolphins, meanwhile, just don’t have those kind of athletes. And part of it is by design. They stripped down their roster this season with the plan to build it back up in 2020. As a result, they have the league’s lowest payroll by some $27 million.

Their roster is basically half as valuable as that of the Falcons, who are spending a staggering $258 million on players this year.

The Dolphins purged many of their better, and certainly more veteran, players over the past nine months — even trading high-end starters Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills and Fitzpatrick within the past month.

So what’s left? Not a lot.

They have just five first-round picks, four second-round picks and three third-round picks on their active roster. By contrast, they have 19 players who were not drafted. And remember Alabama’s Rivals average? Current Dolphins players were, on average, a full star lower coming out of high school (which, granted, is a better gauge of an 18-year-old’s potential than a 25-year-old’s ability).

So where are the Dolphins more talented than Alabama? Perhaps at tight end, linebacker and in the secondary. At the skill positions, Alabama has the edge. Bama’s high-end athletic talent is simply better than Miami’s.

But that’s not the whole story.

The game would probably come down to the trenches, where the Dolphins are stronger than Alabama, with bodies perfected by years of professional training and nutrition. The transformation NFL players go through between their first and second seasons is often incredible.

But even this might be overstated. Alabama’s offensive starting line is actually the same height and 10 pounds heavier than the Dolphins’. The program has all the financial resources it needs — and then some — to prepare its athletes for the next level.

Now, Dolphins defenders will surely point out that it doesn’t matter what round you’re drafted (if at all), but what you do with the opportunity once you get to the league. Neither Reshad Jones nor Albert Wilson was a high draft pick, and both developed into excellent pros.

Xavien Howard’s peers voted him the league’s 55th best player, regardless of position, and he was a second-rounder.

Rookie wide receiver Preston Williams went undrafted because of behavioral red flags, but he’s already proven to be a legit NFL player.

But these are the exceptions, not the rule, on the Dolphins’ roster. Of their 53 current players, 15 have been added in the last month. That means more than a quarter of their team is comprised of players that other clubs had a chance to keep, but decided they were better without.

And perhaps most damning: Howard was the only current Dolphin to crack the NFL’s Top 100 this offseason.

This is simply a talent-deficient roster, perhaps the likes of which we have never seen.

So it’s not a question of if Alabama could beat the Dolphins. Assuming Sterling’s fictional line is correct, such upsets happen all the time.

It’s a question of would they?

Probably not. But it sure would be fascinating to watch.

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