Barry Jackson

As college football season starts, a look at players Dolphins fans should be watching

The Laremy Tunsil trade gives Miami two picks in the first round of next April’s NFL Draft, meaning the Dolphins can select a quarterback first (likely first overall) and then address one of many other roster shortcomings with its other first-rounder.

Additionally, the Dolphins will have two draft picks in the second round and two in third.

For Dolphins fans, here’s a primer on what top college players to watch at various positions this season and how the top quarterbacks played in their openers this past weekend:

▪ Quarterback: Yes, the Dolphins love Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. But they’re also very much intrigued by Oregon’s Justin Herbert and will enter this season with an open mind about who’s the better prospect, according to a source briefed on the situation.

They intend to scout a lot of their games and also will have their eye on Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Iowa’s Nathan Stanley and Utah State’s Jordan Love (how he plays Oct. 5 at LSU will be telling in by far his most difficult assignment this season).

Tagovailoa is considered a very good prospect, but not a generational talent or can’t miss prospect as Andrew Luck was perceived.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper has rated Tagovailoa only fourth among all prospects (behind Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy, Ohio State defensive end Chase Young and LSU safety Grant Delpit) and said: “Tua didn’t finish strong. You want to see improved arm strength. The one-year sample size just isn’t enough to declare him the surefire No. 1 pick, and there were some worrying moments in the games against Georgia and Clemson. I want to see how he plays on the road in College Station in October, and of course what he does at Auburn to end the season. He’s an extremely accurate thrower with great athleticism and advanced footwork.”

Still, ESPN’s Todd McShay projects Tagovailoa first overall to Miami in his initial mock draft, using Football Outsiders projections to determine draft order. And Tagovailoa, as of now, is clearly the front-runner to be Miami’s first-round choice in April.

“The 6-foot-1, 218-pound lefty looks as if he could be the Dolphins’ long-term answer at quarterback, but most other teams likely to land the first overall pick would also take Tagovailoa without a second thought,” McShay wrote.

“Tagovailoa is a special talent. The lefty has elite accuracy at all three levels, displaying a smooth delivery, solid arm strength and excellent touch. His high-end anticipation and fast eyes helped him to 3,966 passing yards, 43 touchdown passes and only six interceptions in 2018. Tagovailoa threw a touchdown on 12.1% of his passes, the highest in FBS history. And he does have some twitch to him, allowing him to add another five scores on the ground. Durability is a bit of a concern, but he’s my top prospect at this point in the process.”

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Tagovailoa aced his opener against Duke on Saturday, completing 26 of 31 passes for 336 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-3 win.

As for Herbert, McShay has him seventh among all prospects on his draft board entering 2020 and no other QB besides those two among his top 32 prospects.

Herbert was good but not extraordinary against Auburn on Saturday, completing 28 of 37 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown with a depleted receiver group. But he overthrew a pass into the end zone on the final play of a 27-21 loss.

McShay said Herbert is a “big QB has a huge arm and good mobility, and in that regard, he reminds me a little of the Bills’ Josh Allen. There’s a whole lot of ability there, but Herbert needs to find some more consistency and iron out some decision-making issues.”

Kiper ranks Herbert eighth among prospects and voices this concern: “You watch his games against Bowling Green and San Jose State, in which he completed less than 50 percent of his passes and had four picks. What happened there? Herbert misses some throws that first-round picks just can’t miss. He must get his completion percentage from 59 to 65.”

But Kiper added: “Herbert just looks like a potential No. 1 overall pick -- great size, a powerful arm to make every throw, limited interceptions, good athleticism. And yet, he took a step back in consistency in 2018. I want to see him be more accurate on throws of 10-plus yards. I want to see him make better decisions in his reads.”

Fromm, at this point, is considered a second-half-of-the-first-round talent but like all good QB prospects, has the potential to move up dramatically. He was 15 for 23 for 156 yards and a touchdown in a 30-6 win against Vanderbilt on Saturday.

Kiper has Fromm 25th among all prospects, and adds this on ESPN.com: “How can he become a first-round pick? It starts with arm strength, which is what I really want to see him improve upon this season. We’ve seen quarterbacks improve their arm strength at the next level -- Tom Brady is the best example -- but it’s important for Fromm to show that he can make every throw. He’s already a great anticipatory thrower who doesn’t make many mistakes.”

Love - in one of his two games against Power 5 teams this year - completed 33 of 48 passes for 416 yards and three touchdowns, but also three interceptions, in a 38-35 loss Friday at Wake Forest.

Iowa’s Stanley was 21 for 30 for 252 yards and three touchdowns in Saturday’s 38-14 over Miami of Ohio.

▪ Receiver: Miami needs a clear-cut No. 1, but it’s highly unlikely that Houston’s first-round pick will be high enough for Miami to draft Jeudy, a likely top three to five pick.

He caught 68 balls for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, averaging nearly 20 yards per catch. Kiper said “Jeudy doesn’t have the size of Julio Jones and A.J. Green, who were picked in the top six in the 2011 draft, but he’s the most talented receiver since that duo entered the NFL.”

Other receivers to keep an eye on, with all considered first-round talents but all obviously capable of slipping to the second: Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb (caught 65 passes for 1158 yards and 11 TDs last season), Alabama’s Henry Ruggs 11 TDs last season), Colorado’s Lavisha Shenault Jr. (86-10111, 6 TDs); Texas’ Collin Johnson (great red-zone target at 6-6; 68-985, 7 TDs) , TCU’s Jalen Reagor (72-1061, 9 TDs) and Clemson’s Tee Higgins (12 TDs last season).

▪ Defensive ends and edge rushers: This will be a high priority position and Ohio State’s Young enters this season as the best draft-eligible edge rusher. He had 9.5 sacks, five passes defended, a forced fumble and 14.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore last season.

McShay has him fifth among all draft eligible players, Kiper second.

Others to monitor this season: Iowa end A.J. Epenesa (10.5 sacks, four forced fumbles last season): “He has long arms and the 6-foot-5 frame to be great against the run,” Kiper said. “I wouldn’t be shocked if he had 15-plus sacks this season. He could be an elite NFL pass-rusher.”

If Miami picks a quarterback with its own pick, it’s doubtful Young or Epenesa will be available with Houston’s pick.

Among those who could be: Penn State defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos: Had eight sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season, and Kiper has him 16th.

Clemson outside linebacker Isaiah Simmons: Among the best edge rushers entering the season. He had 89 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, with 1.5 sacks and three forced fumbles last season, with nine tackles in the national title game. Kiper ranks him 11th, saying “he’s is perfect for today’s pro game” with the ability to play all three downs.

Alabama defensive end Terrell Lewis missed last season with a torn ACL but scouts love the talent, even though he has played in just four college games (with one sack) and has a lot to prove. But the physical gifts are there. Keep an eye on him.

Also, Auburn’s Nick Coe (seven sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last season), UF’s Jabari Zuniga (6.5, 11.5) and Boise State’s Curtis Weaver (9.5, 15) would be potential possibilities in round two if they aren’t snapped up before. And keep an eye on Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara, a hybrid end/outside linebacker with eight sacks last season.

▪ Cornerback: Unless Eric Rowe has a great year and is re-signed, the Dolphins could look to use one of their two second- or two third-round picks on a cornerback.

The best prospects, going into the season, are Ohio State’s Jeffrey Okuda and UF’s CJ Henderson, who are rated 15th and 17th, respectively, by Kiper. Henderson, the 6-1 corner from Miami’s Columbus High has six interceptions and two forced fumbles through two seasons in Gainesville but was terrible in run support against UM. “At 6-foot-1, [Henderson] is a big corner with the athletic traits to be a shutdown defender,” said Kiper.

Okudah, also 6-1, “is a potential top-five pick with a high ceiling based on talent alone,” Kiper said. “The problem? I’d like to see Okudah make more plays -- he hasn’t picked off a single pass in two seasons for the Buckeyes.”

Also keep an eye on Clemson’s A.J. Terrell, Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, Virginia’s Bryce Hall (nation-leading 22 pass breakups) and LSU’s Christian Fulton; McShay has Fulton 10th overall but was suspended all of 2017 for reportedly tampering with a drug test.

▪ Offensive tackles: A half dozen names to keep in mind if the Dolphins address this need with Houston’s first-round pick or their first pick in the second round: Lucas Niang (TCU; McShay’s top tackle prospect), Walker Little (Stanford), Andrew Thomas (Georgia), Trey Adams (Washington), Alex Leatherwood (Alabama) and Triston Wirfs (Iowa) and Prince Tega Wanogho (Auburn).

▪ Safety: LSU’s Delpit enters as a consensus top five pick but it would be shocking if the Dolphins use a high pick on that position, even though he’s an elite prospect (five picks, five sacks last season).

▪ Defensive tackle: Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown is elite (McShay has him sixth, Kiper ninth), but that’s an unlikely spot for Miami’s top pick for a second consecutive draft.

Keep an eye on Purdue’s Lorenzo Neal and Alabama’s Raekwon Davis are the others highly-rated draft-eligible defensive tackle for 2020.

▪ Tight end: If the Dolphins conclude that Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe aren’t the answer, names to watch include Vanderbilt’s Jared Pinkney (50 catches for 774 yards and seven touchdowns last season) and Missouri’s Albert Okwuegbunam (17 touchdowns in two seasons). Both enter the season as potential first-rounders who could be available in the second.

Here’s my Thursday piece on why the Dolphins are failing Josh Rosen, according to ESPN’s Louis Riddick.

Here’s my Thursday piece on Jerome Baker, a linchpin in this Dolphins defense.

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