The next time the Miami Dolphins gather as a team will be in late July for the start of training camp and a 2019 season that promises to be unlike any other season in team history.
This season, you will eventually see, is going to be mostly about future seasons.
That’s not an opinion. Dolphins ownership has said the franchise is focused on the future. The moves of the recently completed offseason — jettisoning or losing nearly a dozen veterans and team leaders, while not adequately replacing them — showed hopes are not set on 2019 excellence. And even the opening of a new training camp site and other aesthetic changes are planned for beyond 2019.
So the Dolphins are looking to a brighter future.
And that begs the question, how are they going to get there? More importantly, who is going to help get them there?
Well, that’s where 2019 serves a purpose.
Think of the coming season as a bridge to the future. And what happens on that bridge will help determine who makes it to the other side of the current rebuild.
That leads us directly to the Dolphins roster. There’s 90 players on it today. It’s going to be interesting to see how many of those players are around one year from now. Because an overview of that unremarkable roster suggests the number will be shockingly low.
There are maybe 17 offensive and defensive players currently on the Miami Dolphins who seem certain of being with the team just one year from now. Obviously more might survive, but they must do so by playing themselves into that extended tenure. They are not currently certain of being back beyond 2019.
New Dolphins coach Brian Flores doesn’t love the idea of his team announcing cornerstone players. Oh, the team might have cornerstones but Flores doesn’t love the idea of saying so.
So ask him about left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who seems to be an excellent candidate for cornerstone status, and Flores treads carefully.
“I think I’m measured when I talk about everyone,” the coach said. “It’s not specific to Laremy. He’s a really good player. I’m looking forward to working with him. I try not to put labels on players. That’s where I’m at with him. That’s where I’m at with everyone.”
Regardless, Tunsil is headed to cornerstone status. He’s young. He’s very good. And he plays a premium position.
Despite Tunsil’s contract status, which only stretches his time in Miami to the end of 2020, it’s logical to believe he will be a Dolphin for many years. And that makes him unique because he’s probably the only player on offense with that certainty.
So the Dolphins have one cornerstone player on offense. Everyone else seems on a year-to-year basis and even the list of offensive players certain to be on the team beyond this year is short.
That list of probable 2019 survivors includes running back Kalen Ballage, receiver Kenny Stills, third-round pick (and offensive lineman) Michael Deiter and perhaps lower 2019 picks such as tackle Isaiah Prince, and running backs Myles Gaskin and Chandler Cox — assuming the rookies are at least able backups, special teams or practice squad players.
Ballage is on the list because despite some struggles catching the football this offseason, he’s starting his second NFL season and players on rookie contracts are bargains. Same with Prince, Gaskin, Cox and Deiter, who are rookies.
Stills, who is a starter, has been productive and is signed through 2020 when he will be 28 years old. So he sticks.
And now you’re wondering about ...
Running back Kenyan Drake? He has been productive but he’s unsigned after this season and seemingly headed to unrestricted free agency. Same with receiver Jakeem Grant. Both players are great values on their rookie contracts, but 2019 will determine whether Miami brings them back on bigger contracts.
Receiver Albert Wilson? He proved last year that he’s a playmaker. But he lasted only seven games before injuring his hip, and he’s still not 100 percent, which is why he missed the entire offseason program and camps. So in 2019 he has to regain his health, prove he’s the same player and can stay healthy.
Receiver DeVante Parker should be a cornerstone player based on his 2015 first-round draft status. But he’s basically playing on a one-year prove-it contract because he hasn’t performed to expectations the past four seasons. If Parker plays well, he will make it to 2020 with the Dolphins. If not, he won’t.
Tight ends Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe are attractive to keep because they’re in their second seasons so they remain bargains beyond this season. But both nonetheless have to play better this year to assure staying in Miami, even for 2020.
On the offensive line, veteran Daniel Kilgore is a consummate veteran. He’s a starter. He’s knows the position. He’s solid.
But Kilgore must stay healthy (he didn’t last year) and perform well because he’ll be 32 and in the final year of his contract next year, which could tempt the Dolphins to find someone younger and cheaper.
Starting right guard Jesse Davis is a restricted free agent in 2020 so the Dolphins will be able to keep him if they choose. But that choice will depend on how well Davis plays either as a guard or tackle or both in 2019.
At quarterback, everyone understands there is no permanence guaranteed to anyone — not for 36-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick nor 22-year-old Josh Rosen. This season will determine if either stays around for 2020.
The defense has several more players than the offense who are likely to be on the team beyond this year.
That defensive list: Cornerback Xavien Howard, defensive back Bobby McCain, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, defensive linemen Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor, linebackers Charles Harris, Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker and obviously the rookies from this year’s draft — Christian Wilkins and Andrew Van Ginkel.
Howard and probably Fitzpatrick are cornerstone players for Miami. That’s where it begins on defense. But there’s uncertainty beyond those two, and even within the group mentioned in the paragraph above.
Akeem Spence, Eric Rowe, Tank Carradine, Nate Orchard, Adolphus Washington are all on one-year deals or in the final year of their contracts, so 2019 is a tryout season if they even make the team.
Former Pro Bowl player Reshad Jones? He will be 32 in 2020, and the Dolphins would be able to save up to $11.5 million in cap space by simply cutting him. Uncertainty.
T.J. McDonald? He’s a starter right now, but he and Jones might have to divide the work at strong safety this season. So if Jones stays next year, the Dolphins would need an alternate plan for keeping McDonald and his $7.6 million cap cost. Or they might just jettison him.
And, yes, the Dolphins’ depth at strong safety now is good but expensive. Maybe too expensive.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso? The coaching staff really, really likes him. He’s starting. He’s good for 2019, but 2020 is the first year his contract allows for a significant cap savings ($6.4 million) if he’s cut. So Alonso’s play this season has to convince the team he’s more valuable than any potential 2020 cap savings.
The Dolphins have 10 defenders and perhaps seven offensive players who could be considered certainties for the 2020 roster. They have two cornerstone players in Tunsil and Howard, and maybe three if one adds Minkah Fitzpatrick, around which the team can build.
No wonder 2019 is a rebuilding year.