The Dolphins’ 2016 draft class already has netted them a likely immediate starter at left guard in Laremy Tunsil, a potentially explosive returner in Jakeem Grant and possibly a soon-to-be starter at cornerback, if Xavien Howard can jump Tony Lippett on the depth chart.
But questions swirl around the other draft picks, with quarterback Brandon Doughty, tight end Thomas Duarte and cornerback Jordan Lucas battling to make the roster, and receiver Leonte Carroo and running back Kenyan Drake simply trying to get on the field.
First, the good news: Tunsil started for the second consecutive game at left guard on Thursday and performed capably, especially in pass protection. In 90 snaps this preseason, Tunsil hasn’t allowed a sack or quarterback pressure. His run blocking still needs work, but the Dolphins like what they’ve seen.
“I thought he was arguably the best player in the draft,” NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said during Thursday’s broadcast.
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Even though Howard has missed all three preseason games after June knee surgery, the Dolphins are ready to escalate his workload this week and believe he could contribute a lot in September.
“I wouldn’t say he’s far behind mentally because he’s dialed in to what we’re doing,” coach Adam Gase said. “He’s playing one-on-one coverage a lot of the times. That’s his strength and I’m sure we’re going to try to lean on his strength of just matching him up with somebody and letting him go. He gets his hands on a lot of balls and then when he does get both hands up to make a play on the ball, he usually catches it.”
Grant, meanwhile, appears close to winning the return jobs. He’s averaging 25.5 yards on four kickoff returns and 12.2 yards on seven punt returns. Less clear is how much the Dolphins plan to use him on offense.
He caught four passes for 68 yards in the opener but wasn’t targeted the past two games. In fact, Grant played only one offensive snap against Dallas and five against Atlanta, surprising considering that offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said recently that “every practice we’ve put him in, he’s made something happen.”
Grant said he wasn’t given a reason he has played so little on offense, and Gase was vague when asked whether he doesn’t want to show other teams how they plan to use him.
“I would like to play on offense and continue to prove I’m a great receiver,” Grant said.
After drafting Carroo in the third round, 86th overall, the Dolphins hoped he would seize their No. 4 receiver job, and he still might. He showed flashes in June practices, with quarterback Matt Moore raving about Carroo’s “strong hands.”
But he has just four catches for 23 yards in the preseason and played only eight snaps against Atlanta — fewer than roster long shots Rashawn Scott (18) and A.J. Cruz (12).
Carroo said it’s very important to him to be the No. 4 receiver but acknowledged he must work on details with route-running and “come off the ball a lot faster.”
Drake, selected 73rd overall, has missed all three preseason games with a hamstring injury and stands no better than fifth on the depth chart. He seems unlikely to play much early in the season, and it remains to be seen if Miami stashes him on short-term injured reserve, which would mean missing eight games. Drake strongly opposes that.
“They are trying to make sure I’m as healthy as possible going into the season,” he said. “I don’t necessarily have to be in the backfield to make a play.”
Drake had seven injuries at Alabama and already has injured his hamstring twice with Miami. But the Dolphins like the skill set.
“The speed and quickness jumps out at you,” running backs coach Danny Barrett said. “His ability to catch the football, coming out of the backfield or lining up in space shows up naturally. He will be a special-teams demon as well.”
Meanwhile, Lucas and Duarte appear to be facing uphill climbs to make the 53-man roster. Duarte’s in-line blocking, something he was never asked to do at UCLA, remains a work in progress, and he played just two offensive snaps against Atlanta.
Lucas, a sixth-round pick, has played better at times recently, but to win the fifth corner job, he would need to outplay several veterans on the bubble on Thursday against Tennessee and convince the Dolphins he’s a better option than the dozens of cornerbacks who will be placed on waivers on Labor Day weekend.
As for Doughty, the Dolphins must decide whether to keep him on the 53-man roster or risk stashing him on the practice squad, where any team could claim him. Doughty is 12 for 16 for 87 yards in the preseason, and “as far as his accuracy, it’s great,” quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree said.
When asked about Grant, Christensen injected Doughty into his response, saying “those two guys aren’t very pretty. They both have an ability to run the wrong route and convert a third down or make a wrong read and we get a completion. That’s a good ability to have, but we have to fine-tune it and corral it.”
▪ According to sources, starting linebacker Jelani Jenkins required a clean-up procedure on his knee and defensive lineman Terrence Fede has been diagnosed with a sprained MCL.
▪ The Dolphins cut 12 players: cornerbacks Brandon Harris and Albert Louis-Jean, receivers Matt Hazel, A.J. Cruz and Brandon Shippen, linebacker Akil Blount, guard Ruben Carter, tight end Gabe Hughes, kicker Marshall Koehn, offensive tackle Vinston Painter, long snapper Ryan DiSalvo and tight end Gabe Hughes. The Dolphins are down to 78 players and must reduce the roster to 75 by 4 p.m. Tuesday.