Not long after Dolphins defensive end Charles Harris was whiffing on an attempted sack on Andy Dalton’s touchdown pass on Sunday, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt was sacking Matt Ryan for the third time in Pittsburgh’s rout of Atlanta.
Why is this worth noting?
Let’s recall that the Dolphins, seeking a pass rusher in the 2017 draft, at No. 22 had a choice of three highly-regarded front seven defenders: Missouri’s Harris, UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley and Wisconsin’s Watt.
The Dolphins believed Harris would be the best pro of the three – a decision they made a month before the draft – because, as one team executive said at the time, they loved his “quickness, speed and explosiveness” off the edge and that he “loved football” and was a “gym rat.”
Fast forward 18 months. Harris has two career sacks, none this year, and has made a negligible impact. Atlanta took McKinley 26th, and he has five sacks this year and 11 in his young career. Pittsburgh took Watt 30th and he has six sacks in five games this season and already 13 in 20 career games.
And that, in a nutshell, is a microcosm of what this century has been like for the Dolphins – missing out on difference-makers and ending up with mediocrity because of regrettable personnel evaluations. We were reminded of that again on Monday when Drew Brees became the NFL’s all-time passing yards leader. The Dolphins, of course, bypassed him twice – in the draft and later in free agency.
But this goes far beyond draft-day mistakes such as Jamar Fletcher over Brees and Ronnie Brown over Aaron Rodgers and Jake Long over Matt Ryan, which far predates this regime.
Let’s be real here: The first round represents the best chance for any NFL team to find greatness, or at least Pro Bowl caliber players.
The Dolphins? They’ve had a bunch of competent first-rounders this decade – Ryan Tannehill, Laremy Tunsil, Ja’Wuan James, Jared Odrick, DeVante Parker.
But special players? Center Mike Pouncey would qualify, and Miami prematurely released him this past spring to save cap space; he has stayed healthy for the Chargers and been the fifth best center in football this season, per Pro Football Focus, while his Dolphins replacement, Daniel Kilgore, was rated 30th by PFF and is out for the year with a biceps injury.
Perhaps Dolphins rookie first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick will be special – as CBS’ Rich Gannon predicts – but it’s too soon to know.
And here’s what’s more frustrating about the Dolphins’ inability to find elite players in the first round of the draft:
In this decade, Dolphins first-round picks have accounted for three Pro Bowl appearances (all by Pouncey). The players selected immediately after the Dolphins’ first-round pick this decade has accounted for 10.
So excluding Fitzpatrick, the Dolphins had six top-15 picks this decade and not a single one has yielded a Pro Bowl player currently on the Dolphins. How does this happen?
Recapping draft mistakes can be an irksome exercise for Dolphins fans, but now that we have the benefit of perspective, let’s review a few things so we all understand why this franchise remains lost in the wilderness, while keeping in mind that most of these moves cannot be blamed on the current regime:
▪ 2010: Had the Dolphins stayed at 12 instead of trading it for picks 28 and 40, they could have selected All-Pros Brandon Graham, Earl Thomas and Jason Pierre-Paul, who all went in that range.
Instead, they moved down and took out-of-football Odrick (while the next defensive end drafted, Jerry Hughes, is still going strong with three sacks for Buffalo this year and 43 in his career). Then at 40, they took out-of-football Koa Misi, while New England took four-time first-team All Pro Rob Gronkowski two picks later.
▪ 2011: Unlike Pouncey, who has made three Pro Bowls, the Redskins have retained the three-time Pro Bowler selected directly after him at No. 16, defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, who has 71 career sacks.
▪ 2012: While the Dolphins found an average starting quarterback in Tannehill at No. 8, Carolina found a five-time Pro Bowler at No. 9 in linebacker Luke Kuechly. The four players selected immediately after Tannehill – Kuechly, Stephen Gilmore, Dontari Poe and Fletcher Cox – have 11 Pro Bowls between them, Tannehill none.
▪ 2013: Dion Jordan, whom Jeff Ireland traded up to draft third overall, was a bust who’s now a Seattle backup, while the player drafted fourth (Philadelphia offensive tackle Lane Johnson) was first-team All Pro in 2017 and the player taken fifth, Detroit end Ezekiel Ansah, was second-team All Pro in 2015 and has 45 career sacks.
▪ 2014: While James has been an average right tackle – his breakdown led to the strip sack that sealed the Bengals win – the next two players drafted at 20 and 21 have been high-end pros: receiver Brandon Cooks (28 touchdowns, 306 receptions) and safety Ha-Ha Clinton Dix (second team All Pro in 2016).
▪ 2015: While Parker, chosen 14th, has had an injury-plagued, unremarkable career, the player selected immediately after at No. 15, San Diego running back Melvin Gordon, is a 2016 Pro Bowler whose 595 all-purpose yards this year are seventh in the league. Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters went three picks later.
▪ 2016: Tunsil, picked 13th and first player drafted by the current regime, has been a bit better than average but not yet what Miami expected – not the Pro Bowl player than Atlanta found four picks later in safety Keanu Neal.
▪ 2017: Harris. See above for how this has turned out so far. FYI: Evan Engram, the Giants tight end picked 23rd (immediately after Harris), has 74 catches for 826 yards and seven TDs in 18 career games.
Say this in the Dolphins’ defense: Aside from Jordan, the Dolphins’ first-rounders this decade haven’t been busts, with judgment withheld on Harris.
But the inability to find greatness in the first round, when it was there for the taking, ranks highly on any list of reasons why Miami has no playoff wins since 2001.
Here’s my Friday post with a lot of news on the Dolphins’ injury front.