Armando Salguero

Miami Dolphins have done a lot of work on first-round player with huge boom (or bust) potential

Jimmy Johnson, the story goes, was trying to decide on a first-round draft pick prior to the 1990 draft. And the then-Dallas Cowboys coach needed a running back because he’d traded Herschel Walker the year before and had a huge void to fill.

Johnson studied and planned and talked to people, and he kept coming back to Emmitt Smith.

Except Smith was only 5-foot-9. Didn’t bother Johnson.

Smith ran only a 4.6 in the 40. Didn’t bother Johnson.

Smith left the University of Florida early -- as a junior -- and since 1990 was the first draft that allowed underclassmen to be draft eligible, that was still viewed dubiously. But, again, didn’t bother Johnson.

You know why none of these questions bothered Johnson enough to bypass Emmitt Smith?

Because Smith was productive.

“Everyone kept giving me all these reasons not to pick Emmitt but all I kept coming back to was he made plays,” Johnson said. “He made plays in Pop Warner.. He made plays in high school. He made plays in college. He produced at every level he ever played.”

Johnson selected Smith with the No. 17 overall pick.

Before his 15-year career was over, Smith was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and the Cowboys won three Super Bowls with him in the backfield.

And, of course, that leads me to the Miami Dolphins in 2019.

I know the Dolphins have done extensive investigating of Michigan defensive lineman Rashan Gary.

There are multiple plausible reasons for all this grinding on this player: Gary plays a position of serious need for the Dolphins. -- along the defensive line. Gary offers serious potential. And Gary is quite familiar to Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who is such a huge Wolverines supporter he typically flies to every game on Saturdays before moving on to Dolphins games on Sundays.

Even draft pundits are starting to connect dots, which might be the reason ESPN’s Mel Kiper slotted Gary to the Dolphins in his latest mock draft.

Gary is 6-foot-4 and 277 pounds. He runs a 4.58 in the 40 (faster than Emmitt Smith) and NFL scouts say he is not only physically gifted but could be very versatile in that he can play a five technique, three technique or even stand up on the edge.

“I played base end, but you’re able to throw me inside to D-tack, I could work over a guard,” Gary said. “I could stand up, rush off the edge. I could really do anything anybody wants me to.”

Great. Because what I’d want him to be more productive.

Gary, you see, looks the part but the tape simply doesn’t suggest he’s a first-round pick. There is a ton of sound and fury in that package. But it doesn’t often enough lead to sacks, or tackles for loss, or consistent disruption of the quarterback.

Gary had 3.5 sacks in 12 games last season, which was 2.5 fewer than he had the previous year.

Now, think about this: The guy is a physical stud. He looks like a man among boys. But on Saturdays in 2018 the boys often blocked him.

In fact, practically all Gary’s stats were down in 2018. And that’s kind of understandable because if you study his tape, he seems to have just one pass-rush move.

The bull rush.

And his explanation for the production gap?

“I love my coaches at Michigan,” Gary told the NFL Network, “but it wasn’t the right scheme for me.”

NFL Network draft analyst Lance Zierlein rates Gary a first-round talent. Obviously Kiper does as well. But both do so with the caveat that Gary’s production didn’t match his potential.

And Zierlein adds that Gary, “Lacks instincts and awareness for misdirections and counters.”

I get it. NFL teams draft on projections. And there is no definitive way to predict if a player who struggled to produce on Saturdays can develop into a productive player on Sundays.

But I agree with Jimmy Johnson on this one. Give me guys who produced.

One way to avoid huge busts is to pick guys that you’ve seen do what you’re going to ask them to do for your team. I don’t see that in Rashan Gary’s 2018 tape.

He might develop into a huge boom.

But the Dolphins should be warned, because he could as easily go the other way.

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Armando Salguero has covered the Miami Dolphins and the NFL since 1990, so longer than many players on the current roster have been alive and since many coaches on the team were in middle school. He was a 2016 APSE Top 3 columnist nationwide. He is one of 48 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters. He is an Associated Press All-Pro and awards voter. He’s covered Dolphins games in London, Berlin, Mexico City and Tokyo. He has covered 25 Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, and the Olympics.