The team with the most talent wins. Isn’t that usually right? Isn’t that how it often works?
And so if you study the Miami Dolphins, it might make you feel heartened to know the roster is lined with players the team considered very, very highly. And those well-considered players are, well, backups right now.
So there’s a couple of ways of looking at this:
The Dolphins are so talented they can relegate former first-round pick Charles Harris to the second-string defensive line at the start of the current training camp. They’re so good that Andre Branch, whose salary-cap cost of $10 million is the second-highest on the team, is also on the second-team defense along with Harris.
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This team is so deep at wide receiver that after signing Albert Wilson to a three-year, $24 million deal this offseason, he currently finds himself working with the second-team offense while three other receivers — Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker, and Danny Amendola — play ahead of him.
Former third-round pick Leonte Carroo, who cost the Dolphins three selections in a 2016 draft-day trade up, is a second- or third-team player.
One year ago, the team signed T.J. McDonald to a four-year, $24 million extension that suggested he’s one of the starting safeties of the future. And then Miami drafted another safety, Minkah Fitpatrick, in the first round last April. And did I mention Reshad Jones is one of the NFL’s highest-paid safeties and he’s on the team, too?
That means at some point, a highly-regarded safety is not going to be on the field with the starters.
So, if you’re so inclined, you can make the case that the Dolphins have a ton of talent because multiple positions have players who cost significant cash or draft-pick resources starting this training camp as backups.
And then there’s the other possibility: The Dolphins have overpaid for some players because they thought the guys would be starters, spent on them like they were starters, and only got backup players out of the investment. As for early-round draft picks, the expectation is that they start and even become stars. But a couple of those guys are working as reserves.
That picture of what the Dolphins have is not a pretty one. It’s a portrait of overspending for depth.
Those are the two choices we have now. There is no happy medium, even though coaches at all levels try to convince you there is by saying things like, “We have more than 22 starters.”
No, you don’t.
The Miami defensive line is the epicenter of where the choice of what is true will be tested:
Cameron Wake, a stalwart for nearly a decade, is still a starter at age 36. So is newly acquired Robert Quinn, who came to the Dolphins from the Rams in what so far seems like a smart trade even though Quinn is the team’s highest-paid player.
With Quinn and Wake as starters, the investments that Miami made in Harris (in the draft) and Branch (in free agency) raise questions.
Because the Dolphins felt the need to add Quinn to be a starter despite having both Harris and Branch itching to be starters.
The Dolphins would tell you this is smart team building.
“We just knew how we were going to play this year when we got [defensive-line coach Kris Kocurek],” coach Adam Gase said. “It’s not going to be as many plays for our defensive linemen this year. We’re not going to have a guy that’s going to play 60-plus snaps or 65 snaps. The way we’re running to the football, the way we’re going to pursue every game, it’s going to be less snaps, and we’re going to have more of a rotation. And I think everybody is going to get their shots.”
Except, the best shot that all defensive ends want to fire is when they have a chance to sack a quarterback. Typically, that happens on obvious passing downs. And, no, the Dolphins aren’t likely to roll in a lesser player to sit a better Wake or Quinn in those instances.
That would be competing with your best players on the bench. Who does that?
So the Dolphins could have a very highly drafted or highly-paid defensive end on the bench on most passing downs.
“I think it’s going to be a battle to get in on the third-down rush unit, which is a good thing because now those guys are all pushing each other,” Gase said. “It’s going to be one of those things because if you’re on that group that means you’re doing the right stuff. You’re working well with that group.
“That’s what we want. We want to create that type of competition where guys are hungry to get out there on third down.”
Last season, Harris didn’t perform up to the level that one would expect of his draft pedigree. That’s not the Dolphins saying that. They love Harris and think he’s really good.
But all that love and hope came amidst a modest two-sack season. That is not good enough. The Dolphins need more. If they don’t think so, that simply makes no sense.
Harris, meanwhile, emerged from last season a confused young man.
“I was in a dark place last year, for sure,” he said Thursday. “As a rookie, I was in a dark place. Now I’m cool. Like I said, I understand grace. I understand that everything that happened the way it was, it was for the better of me and my family and everything like that. I understand that everything I do on the field and off the field affects everybody around me.”
Harris says he cleared his mind and soul through prayer.
“This offseason I just prayed a lot, prayed about my lifestyle, prayed about things off the field,” he said. “Before you know it, just like Revelation, I asked God for Solomon-like wisdom and he blessed me with it. Since then, I’ve been in my word and waking up with grace every day, taking it one day at a time and responding to life better. No matter what happens, everything is good.”
Everything is good only if Harris produces. And that can only happen if he earns significant playing time. The same is true for the other players whom the Dolphins expected big things from.
The ones currently working as backups.