This is not a lost season for the Miami Dolphins.
The narrative is the 2019 team is going to stink, there will be nothing to watch and Hard Rock Stadium will be a cavernous chamber where infrequent cheers will echo off wide swaths of empty seats. And part of that might indeed manifest before this season is over.
But this season remains important for the Miami Dolphins.
While the team is pointed toward 2020 and 2021 and what it can do with multiple first- and second-round picks in the drafts those years, there are players on the roster now who the personnel department must hope can be part of the future build-up.
All those premium picks in the future still aren’t enough to field a playoff team.
So the Dolphins need some of their current players to, you know, contribute to the effort. The Dolphins need some of their current players to be part of the future.
And that will be largely determined in 2019.
So who are we talking about?
The Dolphins this season need to know what they have in Christian Wilkins, Kalen Ballage, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jakeem Grant, Jerome Baker, Kenyan Drake, Preston Williams, Mike Gesicki, Michael Deiter, and yes, Josh Rosen.
Until now you have probably only heard that Miami needs a strong and complete evaluation on Rosen to figure out if he’s the right quarterback to lead the team into the future. And that’s fair. The Dolphins definitely need that evaluation.
But the Dolphins have tabled that one because coach Brian Flores selected veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starter for the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. So the Rosen evaluation will have to be done largely in practices as he runs the scout team (the other team’s plays) and gets limited repetitions running Miami plays.
But the other guys mentioned above are going to be evaluated in games. And that’s very important.
The Dolphins need to see if Wilkins, the first-round pick in the most recent draft, is their Vince Wilfork. He doesn’t have to be Wilfork in his prime this season. That would be nearly impossible for a player who is still learning to play with leverage along the interior of the line of scrimmage.
But the Dolphins need to see good production from Wilkins to have confidence they have a building block on the interior of their line with which to pair a much-needed outside pass rusher.
Baker, a 2018 third-round pick, was the star of the Miami defense this preseason. He was active. He made plays. He was generally assignment sound, according to a club source.
But is he a building block?
The Dolphins believe he is. And this coming season is the time for him to prove it.
The Miami defense needs at least one three-down linebacker. Actually, it needs two. But if Baker is one of those for now and the future, the Dolphins will feel quite good about that.
The Dolphins need to see more out of tight end Gesicki. He was a disappointment in some respects in 2018 after being drafted in the second round.
The draft knocks on Gesicki was he wasn’t a good blocker and, worse, wasn’t a physical player. And he proved the draft knocks to be accurate last season.
So does that change in 2019?
The Dolphins need Gesicki to be a consistent seam target in this offense. They need him to physically overmatch cornerbacks and safeties and outrun linebackers.
The team in the preseason split him out wide quite often to see if he could gain an advantage on smaller defensive backs. The results were mixed.
It’s up to Gesicki to perform to keep the Dolphins from looking for a new answer at tight end next offseason. This is his time to do that.
Fitzpatrick was the much-heralded 2018 first-round pick. General manager Chris Grier not only signed off on Fitzpatrick but actually resisted requests from owner Stephen Ross to bypass Fitzpatrick and trade down for more picks in the draft room.
So Grier’s reputation is on the line with this pick — as with the others, but this one glows in neon.
And it went well in 2018. Fitzpatrick took on every assignment he was given by the last coaching staff and played up to expectations.
But this is the year he has to make a new first impression. And it’s not going to be easy because he has to do it in a new system, for a staff that doesn’t seem to have a clear vision of what they want Fitzpatrick to do.
At one point this preseason, this coaching staff had Fitzpatrick playing out of position at strong safety. He. Is. Not. A. Box. Safety.
He’s a nickel cornerback.
He’s a free safety.
Pick one, please.
No less an authority than Nick Saban, who was coordinating NFL defenses when many of Miami’s current coaches were in junior high, believed Fitzpatrick to be best suited to play nickel cornerback. And Fitzpatrick did that very well as a rookie.
So he needs to build on that — assuming he’s put in a position to succeed.
Ballage is going to get a chance to succeed — sort of.
The 2018 fourth-round pick is going to be Miami’s lead back. He’s going to be Miami short-yardage and goal-line back.
Ballage is going to get the ball on many key downs and be asked to extend drives and put points on the board.
Is he up to the task? Is he the guy?
The Dolphins need him to be, even behind a subpar offensive line, to avoid going shopping for running back help next offseason.
Running back Drake also is going to get a chance to show he’s a playmaker. No, he probably won’t be the bellwether back. And that says something because now two different coaching staffs have decided he’s not that.
But Drake, a 2016 third-round pick, needs a good season because 1. he’s a free agent after this season and 2. the Dolphins decided not to extend him before this season began — which suggests they have questions about him.
So it’s up to Drake to provide answers in 2019.
The Dolphins did indeed reward receiver Grant with a contract extension this offseason. Miami signed their punt returner and No. 3 or No. 4 wide receiver (depending on who is available) to a four-year, $19.7 million deal with $3.72 million guaranteed at signing.
The thing is that deal really only guarantees Grant a spot on the roster this season. His cap value rises above $4 million in 2020-23 and the team can save salary cap space each of those seasons by cutting him, if it wants.
So Grant needs to continue to build trust equity in ‘19. He needs to stay healthy. That’s job one.
And obviously, he needs to produce.
This also: Grant has to realize that players on their rookie contracts are gold to a team. They’re cut breaks when they’re not producing at a high level or when they’re unavailable. But players on second contracts are judged more harshly by the team because the expectations and costs are higher.
Deiter, a guard, and Williams, a receiver, are in great spots right now.
Deiter is a 2019 third-round pick who is starting at left guard. That means he has the team’s trust that he has great potential to improve and grow and learn. And he can do that by actually playing, which is a big bonus.
The thing is, he has to show marked improvement between now and the end of the season.
If Deiter does this, he’s golden. If he doesn’t, the Dolphins might see him more as a backup-type and go shopping for a replacement next year.
Williams will get a chance to learn with playing time as well, although how much remains unclear. He needs to ball out on the scout team. He needs to be a professional in the building and outside the building.
The expectation for Williams is not that he’ll lead the team in receptions or be a star. It’s not that.
But he must contribute in ways beyond catches in games — the number of which may or may not be very high. If he does that, he’s going to be working for Miami for some time as the team rebuilds.