The early returns have been positive on the Dolphins’ top three draft picks, with safety/slot cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, tight end Mike Gesicki and linebacker Jerome Baker all playing well and assuming prominent roles.
But what about the Dolphins’ third-day rookie draft picks?
A look at their progress:
▪ Fourth-round tight end Durham Smythe (selected 123rd overall): He has received some first-team snaps in three tight-end sets, paired with Gesicki and MarQueis Gray, and should get lots of work in Friday’s second preseason game against Carolina — even more so with Gray in the concussion protocol.
“It’s always exciting getting out there with the first group because the talent on the other side is so high,” Smythe said.
Smythe assuredly will be on the team, but the question is whether he gets early regular-season playing time ahead of Gray or A.J. Derby, who is competing with underdogs Thomas Duarte and Gavin Escobar for a roster spot. Gesicki appears the front-runner to be the starter, though Gray could join him in two tight end sets.
Asked this week if Smythe’s excellent blocking at Notre Dame has translated to the NFL, coach Adam Gase said: “I do think it’s translated. There’s been a large amount of time where he’s done a really good job. I think any time he gets thrown in there with that first group, that’s really the big test for him, where he has to play fast and if he thinks too much, you’re going to pay for it because those guys are coming off the edge hard.”
Smythe said there has been an adjustment in blocking at the NFL level because “the schemes are different. The footwork is different. There is a learning curve at this level in every aspect.”
Smythe caught only 28 passes in four years at Notre Dame (for 381 yards, 13.6 average per catch), but the Dolphins believe he has upside as a receiver. And he has been sure-handed throughout training camp.
He hopes for opportunities to play with Gesicki: “Mike and I are starting to have a little bit of a bond, so I hope to keep that going.”
▪ Fourth-round running back Kalen Ballage (selected 131st overall): This hasn’t been a good week; he was admonished by Ryan Tannehill for not picking up Charles Harris in pass protection and is now in the concussion protocol, making it less likely he plays Friday at Carolina.
He had 10 rushes for 37 yards and three receptions for 23 yards in the preseason opener, showing nifty speed, but had a fumble after unnecessarily leaping on a run for a first down.
“He was solid” against Tampa Bay, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said.
But … “To win in this league, you have to find ways not to lose,” Loggains said. “When you put the ball on the ground on a third-down conversion … That’s the other thing, when you’ve run over two guys and sent two guys to the sideline, and then you’re hurdling people; it’s a great show of athleticism but we’ve got to keep working with him. He’s got to keep getting better, and he will.”
▪ Sixth-round cornerback Cornell Armstrong (209th overall): He continues to work as the third team slot corner, behind Fitzpatrick and undrafted rookie Jalen Davis.
He tied for the team lead with five tackles against Tampa Bay and made a nice tackle for a one-yard gain on a pass but allowed completions of 5, 17 and 4 yards. He will need to excel on special teams over the final three games to improve his chances of sticking on the 53-man roster.
▪ Seventh-rounder linebacker Quentin Poling (selcted 227th overall). Had an interception early in training camp and tied for the team lead with five tackles against Tampa Bay, including one for no gain on a running play. But he badly missed a tackle on a long gain on Tampa Bay’s final drive.
His special teams work the next three games will be critical to his chances.
“He’s a guy that played a lot of defense in college and not a ton of special teams,” special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said. “He had some good plays the other night; he had some plays that we can’t have on film. We’re going to get him a lot of plays in these next few weeks. He probably had the most special teams reps of anybody the other night.”
▪ Seventh-round kicker Jason Sanders (selected 229th overall): He missed four field goals between 30 and 40 yards in the first week of training camp and pulled a 48-yarder against Tampa Bay. But he has been more consistent in practice in the past week and hit two 61-yard field goals minutes apart during Sunday’s session.
Sanders appears to have a slight lead over undrafted FAU rookie Greg Joseph for the kicker’s job, but nothing has been settled.
“There’s no doubt that both guys have NFL ability,” Rizzi said.
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