Armando Salguero

Young players, led by first-round pick Christian Wilkins, delivering small victories to Miami Dolphins

The 2019 Miami Dolphins season is going to be about something other than winning big or competing for a spot in the postseason, so everyone (fans, the media and even the team) will have to appreciate smaller victories. Everyone will have to acknowledge improvement as a win even if it doesn’t always feel like a grand achievement.

That’s the reality of where this team seems headed. Sorry if that’s a surprising gut punch to you.

But the good news is the baby steps — the small victories, if you will — are apparent already.

Progress is apparent even at this stage.

Take the first day of the Miami’s mandatory minicamp. It was a rain-drenched exercise that could have understandably led to sloppy play and head-shaking moments.

But I saw some positive signs.

Small positive signs. But positive nonetheless.

One such sign? First-round draft pick Christian Wilkins is already one of the team’s best three down linemen.

That was obvious time and again when Wilkins was getting his repetitions Tuesday — particularly with the starting defense against the starting offense.

Wilkins created push. He was a bundle of energy. It just felt right with him among the starters even when it didn’t always meet coach Brian Flores’ high technical standards.

And that is an improvement from the days immediately after Wilkins was drafted with the No. 11 overall selection out of Clemson. That Wilkins of four weeks ago seemed lost.

Wilkins now is not complete. But even to untrained eyes he has come a noticeable distance.

“I definitely see and feel an improvement,” Wilkins said after Tuesday’s two-hour practice. “The first day everything was real fast. And you have to adjust. You’re going up against guys that have been in the league so long, and you’re throwing things at them they’ve seen before. It’s kind of a challenge, but I love a challenge.”

Wilkins is not to be confused with Warren Sapp out there. He’s not Aaron Donald or J.J. Watt.

But he’s also not lost. Not overmatched.

He belongs.

“I feel like each day I try to come in with the mind-set to improve,” Wilkins said. “Not to be the most dominant player on the field but just to get better every day.

“This is the best of the best. There’s going to be times when I slip up and not do right and lose. And even when I do my best and it’s a stalemate. This is part of the growing process and growing pains but I’m still loving it.”

You should love that he’s moving forward. Because if he’s doing that, the Dolphins are getting better.

And he’s not alone.

I’m looking to the top three players delivered to this roster by the last four Dolphins drafts. Those players must form the nucleus of this team — and not just this year but for years to come.

Sure, there’s much attention now on Reshad Jones joining the team for the first time this offseason. There’s always a focus on whether Ryan Fitzpatrick remains the sharpest quarterback in camp — which he has consistently been.

But Jones is 31. Fitzpatrick will be 37 in November.

Neither will be on the team in 2022 or ‘23 when the current Dolphins rebuild is supposed to start paying playoff dividends.

The players that will lead that charge to the postseason (if there is one) have to come from Miami’s young nucleus — the recent high draft picks.

And my quick report on those guys suggests mostly good tidings:

Dolphins third-round pick Michael Deiter hadn’t signed his contract Tuesday but he’s already getting occasional run with the starters as well as backups. He has worked both on the left and right side of the offensive line this offseason.

The possibilities are wide open for him.

And while that doesn’t say he’s definitely a keeper, it does say this: He’s advancing. He has not stalled.

Coaches are trying new, harder things with him, because he passed the test with easier assignments.

From last year’s draft I see Minkah Fitzpatrick doing work all around the defensive backfield. He’s working at safety. He’s working at nickel.

He was a starter as a rookie. He’s on the same course this year in Miami’s new defense.

Mike Gesicki, 2018’s second-round pick, was something of a non-factor late last season when the experiment of turning him into a three-down tight end failed. But the bright side is that under a new staff, and in a new offense, Gesicki is getting another chance to prove he belongs in key offensive packages.

He has not been shelved as he seemed to be at times last year. He’s getting his chance to put his 20 or so extra pounds to work.

Jerome Baker, the third-round pick in 2018, walked into the Dolphins bubble Tuesday and former receiver Nat Moore joked with him about looking like a running back.

Baker is listed at 215 pounds now. That is not exactly prototype for a linebacker.

But he has been a three-down linebacker this offseason and one supposes his speed, agility and nose for the football is going to keep him manning those duties into the season.

So who cares if he weighs 215 or 255 as long as he can get the job done?

Obviously the 2016 draft class is looking great with Laremy Tunsil and Xavien Howard already secured as cornerstone players. It’s the 2017 class that worries a bit because none of the top three picks escape serious questions.

Enough to say that linebacker Raekwon McMillan is looking mostly like a two-down linebacker, and he has shown the best of the ‘17 top picks so far. Because both Charles Harris and Cordrea Tankersley have been managing injuries this offseason.

So, no, this isn’t an exclamation point report. There are question marks.

But this is certain: Several young players are making progress. They’re advancing.

So there are small victories.

And this coming season, small victories are something we will come to appreciate.

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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.