Barry Jackson

Miami Dolphins get mixed results from rookie class

Miami Dolphins’ Jakeem Grant returns a kick for a second quarter touchdown against the Tennessee Titians at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on October 9, 2016.
Miami Dolphins’ Jakeem Grant returns a kick for a second quarter touchdown against the Tennessee Titians at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on October 9, 2016. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Draft classes cannot be fairly judged for two or three years.

But here’s what the Dolphins already know: They have a longterm quality starter in offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, a skilled kick returner (Jakeem Grant) who must improve significantly as a receiver to make any impact there, and a talented change-of-pace running back (Kenyan Drake).

They also believe they have a quality longterm starting cornerback in Xavien Howard, though that cannot be said definitively because of a knee injury that has limited Howard to seven games.

Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil talks about how the SEC prepared him for playing in the NFL and about playing the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 7, 2016.

Where the Dolphins’ rookie draft class stands, heading into the playoffs:

• Tunsil, selected 13th overall, has impressed everyone, not only with his play but also his maturity (which was a question in light of his draft-day slide) and receptiveness to coaching. The only real hiccup: The Oct. 9 slip-in-the-shower incident that sidelined him that day.

Here’s what’s most impressive: He allowed no sacks and just two quarterback hits while playing at guard. He allowed one sack and three hits in limited snaps at left tackle. (Most of his 802 snaps were at guard.)

Pro Football Focus rates him 13th among all first-rounders and ranks him 47th of 76 guards, primarily because run-blocking (59th overall) dragged down his overall grade.

On Thursday, I asked offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen how he would assess Tunsil’s play compared with other left guards in the league, if he wasn’t grading on a rookie curve.

“He’s playing at a good solid starter level,” Christensen said. “There wouldn’t be anyone who wouldn’t say [that]. He has held his own in there. He’s had his moments. He keeps improving. He’s playing really good starting, solid level – better than that pass protection wise. He’s a very gifted pass protector. He’s done everything we’ve asked him.

“We haven’t been talking about him – that’s probably a good thing – where it’s not a story. His story is that he hasn’t been a story. We’ve been really, really pleased with him.”

• The rookie season for Howard, selected 38th overall, has been disrupted by two knee procedures – one in late June, another in October.

He had one very good game against the Jets and six others that were OK or below average.

PFF rates him only 103rd of 119 corners, and quarterbacks had a bloated 104.6 rating in his coverage area. But the Dolphins love the skill set.

“Xavien missed training camp, he has missed most of the season,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph reminded everyone on Thursday.

“He’s figuring out how he goes. He’s made some errors. From a skill set [standpoint], he’s what you want. He’s going to make some errors. I’m OK with X. The more he plays, the better he will play.”

Bills receiver Sammy Watkins victimized Howard two weeks ago, but Joseph said “it wasn’t speed with Watkins, it was more leverage, eye placement, experience [from Howard’s standpoint]. His issue is experience. [Howard’s] issue is know how. Once he gets that, he’s going to be a fine player.”

• Drake, selected 73rd, has had some good moments, averaging 5.4 per carry (sixth most among all NFL backs with at least 30 carries) and returning a kickoff for a touchdown.

He said he was disciplined for being late earlier in the season – he attributed that to changes in the schedule - but said he is much better in that area now, with only occasionally “hiccups.”

Drake said the lack of playing time has frustrated him at times, but running backs coach Danny Barrett has implored him not to allow “external factors to affect” his play.

“He’s cut out the critical errors and he’s been really good,” Christensen said. “We keep coming out of games and he has seven reps on offense [and 12 against New England]. His ability and production would warrant [20 reps], but those guys in front of him have done a great job too.

“From a coaching standpoint, he's really dependable. He's where he should be. He's worked hard on his discipline. He's real versatile. I think we probably haven't seen how good he can be as a receiver. He's a gifted receiver. He's really fast.

“I was teasing him, I got home that night and I thought he was maybe the fastest human being alive and then I watched that Kansas City game and watched that kid ([yreek Hill] go run. I said, 'You look slow compared to the guy on TV there.' But he can really run.”

• Receiver Leonte Carroo, the 86th overall pick, has just three catches for 29 yards and just 120 offensive snaps all season and was inactive the past two games. He has been a mild disappointment to this point, though he wasn’t going to crack the top three under any circumstances because Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills are simply better and more experienced.

Why has undrafted rookie Rashawn Scott been active ahead of Carroo the past two games?

Adam Gase cited Scott’s special teams play but then added: “I know everybody will look and say, 'Draft pick over an undrafted guy,' but I really don't care about that. I care about guys competing and trying to do it right and seeing if guys can contribute. That's part of what happens in that back half of the roster sometimes. We're trying to find as many guys as we can to (where) we trust them and they can do the right thing."

Special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said of Carroo: “I’m not going to say he performed poorly. But we need him to be a little bit better. I know Carroo is disappointed. Rashawn has given us a little bit of a lift at that spot.”

• Grant: The rookie sixth rounder (186th overall pick) has had a few exhilerating highs (a kickoff return for a touchdown) and several lows (four fumbles, including one more on Sunday).

He has been used as a decoy on 17 of his 19 offensive snaps, ran for just one yard on his only carry this season (on Sunday) and dropped the only pass thrown to him. The notion of Grant becoming a secret weapon on offense never materialized.

"We were trying to get him involved a little bit on offense,” Gase said. “He's an explosive player that we can get the ball more than what we've been getting it.”

Christensen said finding more ways for Grant to help on offense is “a fun offseason project. I do future wise think anything we can find for him that can get him in the open field is fair game.”

As a returner, Grant – fumbles aside – was better than average. He was 14th in kickoff return average (23.1) and 12th in punt return average (8.3), including a touchdown.

Gase said the fumbles won’t deter the Dolphins from using him on returns on Sunday.

“With the kickoff returns, everybody is trying to bang it out of the back of the end zone,” Gase said. “They don't want him or Drake touching the ball. We need him to hold onto that ball [Sunday].

“We need him to be consistent, consistent catching the football. We're going to put him back there again. The guy is too explosive. He's a game-changing player. You never know. This might be a good week for him to have one.”

Rizzi downplayed the fumbles on Thursday: “He’s got good hands. That punt return is one of the hardest things to do in football. I’m not puzzled [by the fumbles] because he doesn’t have boatload of experience doing it. There’s a learning curve. He gives us a chance to make a big play when he has ball in his hands. It’s not like he’s not working out. Nothing like game experience; that’s why he will continue to get it.”

Jordan Lucas: The rookie sixth-round cornerback from Penn State, who also can play safety, has logged no snaps on defense but done good work on special teams when called up.

Brandon Doughty: The only draft pick on the practice squad instead of the 53-man roster. The Dolphins opted for quarterback TJ Yates over Doughty, a seventh-rounder, after Ryan Tannehill’s injury because “we wanted to get an experienced guy in here,” Christensen said.

“We were hoping that we could redshirt Brandon. We're not discouraged with Brandon. That would be a misinterpretation. Brandon's developing, Brandon's coming along. It's hard to say he can do this. Until you get in a game, you don't know what he'll do.”

Thomas Duarte: The seventh round tight end’s receiving skills intrigue coaches, but will need to keep improving as an in-line blocker to have any chance to make the team next summer. Duarte, promoted due to injuries at the position, hasn’t played an offensive snap.

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