Barry Jackson

Dolphins’ player development better than pre-Gase, but more projects await; Dolphins nuggets

Miami Dolphins' Ja'Wuan James, speaks to the media at the Dolphins Training Facility in Davie on Wed., June 7, 2017.
Miami Dolphins' Ja'Wuan James, speaks to the media at the Dolphins Training Facility in Davie on Wed., June 7, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

One of the hallmarks of our NBA franchise is that Heat players usually become better after they arrive. And one reason for the Dolphins’ turnaround last year is that began to happen during their first season with Adam Gase and his new staff, something that’s vital for longterm success (as the Patriots have proven).

Instead of players going elsewhere and playing better or coming here and declining – and there are long list of those in the decade before Gase arrived, from Karlos Dansby to Vontae Davis to Mike Wallace and others – we instead saw admirable player development. Jay Ajayi became appreciably better. Ryan Tannehill was clearly better.

Among non-rookies, Kenny Stills, Damien Williams, Dion Sims, Andre Branch, Isa Abdul Quddus and Tony Lippett all became better than what they were.

Now this staff needs to perform that type of elevation-game with about a half-dozen players, and let’s be clear: The onus falls more on the players than the coaches.

Among critical Dolphins, there’s nobody higher on that list than defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James.

Phillips was essentially the only player defensive coordinator Matt Burke criticized in his press conference a month ago. “He has been inconsistent,” Burke said. “He has had some flashes. Very talented player. We need to be more consistent from that spot.”

James, meanwhile, is being pushed hard by coaches to be something more than a decent starting right tackle. Pro Football Focus rated him 32nd of 78 tackles, but the Dolphins don’t put much stock in PFF’s offensive line grades and the Dolphins want more. James said Tuesday that coaches have been tough on him.

“They are always going to hold us accountable,” he said. “I like that I need someone to get on me when I do something wrong, so I can correct it. They are hard on us.”

His problem? A lot of times “I will be playing off athleticism” and he said he needs to get better with technique.

The Dolphins also want him to play with more aggression. He rebounded to play well for a stretch after his late-game benching against Cleveland, and he showed enough for Miami to exercise his $8 million fifth-year option. But more is being demanded.

“I’m working to be the best right tackle on the field every Sunday,” he said.

The other five non-rookies where improvement is absolutely essential: DeVante Parker, Xavien Howard, Bobby McCain, Jakeem Grant (as a returner with regard to fumbles) and Julius Thomas. If there’s an eighth player in this category, it’s Leonte Carroo, who might not be needed to play nearly as much as the others. And players who improved last year, like Tannehill, obviously need to take the next step.

The early signs with Howard and Parker this offseason are particularly promising, albeit without pads.

“One day you’d think you had a Hall of Famer and the next you weren’t sure if he was going to make it to the game,” Clyde Christensen said of Parker. “I think his routine and how fast he’s played has been really, really different from last year. Last year, the reason was injuries; but it was still a hard target. If you’re a quarterback and you’re trying to build an offense and you’re trying to get your game plan together and you’re building it that he’s full go and then all of a sudden he’s not (there) or he doesn’t practice Wednesday, all of those things. So he’s been there (at practice), he’s been consistent and he’s been really fast. So that’s good news for Dolphins fans and Dolphins coaches.”

Defensive coordinator Matt Burke is encouraged with McCain, who simply must be better after allowing a 112 passer rating in his coverage area. “Bobby started every game for us. He’s had a good spring,” Burke said.

With Grant and Carroo, the jury is still out. Both have had multiple drops in three practices open to the media. Adam Beasley has more here on Carroo’s brutally blunt media session with us today.

With Thomas, the challenge is making a player who was once very good, then declined, very good again.

“If Julius Thomas is healthy and we catch some breaks, he can be and has been a 10-touchdown guy,” Christensen said. “That’s a big number. He can be that. The thing I’d tell you about Julius that’s been most impressive to me is what a pro he is. I happened to have dinner with him when he came on his (visit) and that’s a thing that jumped out. I left the restaurant going ‘This guy’s a pro.’

“For a guy who has played as little football as he had, just he’s a pro – how he approaches the game, how he sees things, how he critiques himself, how he sees himself. He’s a rare pro. He’s been huge. I think he’s been huge in our locker room; he’s been huge in our meetings. I think way beyond whatever he does on the football field – which I think will be big things if he can stay healthy – I really think his presence has been enormous.”

• Here’s the challenge with William Hayes: He’s of greatest value to the Dolphins on traditional running downs. But the Dolphins already have said Cam Wake will start, and Andre Branch is expected to start as well.

Burke declined to say how exactly he would use Hayes, but he assuredly will start some series to give Wake and Branch a breather.

Though the 278-pound Hayes said he’s getting some work at defensive tackle, Burke said he is not a realistic option for the No. 3 tackle job – a position that rookie draft picks Vincent Taylor and Davon Godchaux are the top contenders for.

“He’s an end for us,” Burke said. “Early downs and passing situations. I don’t see him bumping in as a full time inside guy.”

• Regarding linebackers, Burke said he’s not yet sure who will be playing where. “You hope roles stat crystallizing a little bit.” But he has been pleased with Raekwon McMillan’s snaps at middle linebacker.

“He’s done a really good job with it,” Burke said. “Bright kid, very serious about it. That’s always a concern with young kid. He did a lot of that in college. He has a presence about him. He doesn’t present like a rookie.”

Burke also said: “Mike Hull and Neville Hewitt have taken big steps for us.”

• On rookie first-rounder Charles Harris, Burke said: “Probably the biggest thing with Charles is his work rate. He’s non stop. Every snap he’s going. He’s playing hard. He never lets up. For him to practice at tempo he practices at, he never stops. Some of flashes he has made are his effort and his energy out there. That has been pleasant to see. Until we put pads on, nobody is getting overly excited about anything.”

• I asked Burke which of his dozen or so fairly anonymous players fighting for roster spots have impressed. He mentioned two: undrafted Georgia rookie defensive back Maurice Smith and draft pick Godchaux.

“Mo Smith has done a pretty solid job, headsy player,” Burke said. “He’s a guy we’re moving around. Godchaux actually has shown a little bit. Has power in his body. Another guy who’s a real worker. Doesn’t say three words to me. I see him watch Ndamukong Suh and follow him around. Those are two guys that have shown a little bit.”

• I asked TJ McDonald both about his decision to sign now with a team (instead of September, during his suspension) and his thinking in accepting a one-year deal and trying to prove his value in eight games (after suspension) instead of seeking a multiyear deal.

Regarding signing now, he said he liked the culture in the Dolphins’ building and believed he would have a chance to play here, so waiting to see what other offers arose would have been pointless.

And as for his longterm strategy, “I’ve been a four year starter in this league. I feel like I’m confident in my ability and that’s something I have to restablish. I am willing to put that confidence in myself and do what I have to do this year and see where it takes me.”

Once the regular season starts, McDonald can be at the Dolphins facility but can’t practice during his eight-game suspension.

Here’s some news on the Heat’s search for a backup center. And please follow me on Twitter: @flasportsbuzz

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