As the Patriots visit Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, it will be natural for Dolphins fans to daydream of an eventual Tom Brady retirement and Miami finding its quarterback panacea in the 2020 draft.
But even though everything starts with Brady and Bill Belichick, there’s so much more that has accounted for the disparity between these franchises this century, areas that shouldn’t be overlooked as Miami embarks on its rebuild.
Start with these three non-QB areas where the Dolphins must do better:
▪ Offensive line: The extent to which this has been a blind spot in Miami’s ability to evaluate has been staggering, because it extends not only through several front office regimes but also through the entire 21st century to date.
From 2000 to 2018, the Dolphins drafted 18 offensive linemen in the third round or later. Not a single one became a longterm starter for the Dolphins (four years or more), with Rex Hadnot (3.5 years) the closest to achieve that. John Jerry became a mediocre longterm NFL starter but started only three years here before Miami moved on.
Conversely, the Patriots have found two clear-cut starters in the third round or later in the past four years alone: fourth-rounder Shaq Mason (a Pro Football Focus All-Pro in 2018) and Joe Thuney (a third-rounder who started every game his first three seasons).
And while the Dolphins have found one young serviceable undrafted offensive line starter in the past decade (Jesse Davis), the Patriots have found several under Belichick during his reign: starting center David Andrews (out for the year with blood clots), Ryan Wendell, Stephen Neal and Joe Andruzzi.
Third-rounder Michael Deiter has a chance to be Miami’s first longterm offensive line starter selected in the third round or later this century. But the Dolphins need to uncover more good values on their offensive line so they can use cap space on other positions and don’t keep having to fill holes with veteran retreads (Marc Columbo, Tyson Clabo, Jordan Mills before his release, J’Marcus Webb and many others over the years).
▪ Tight end: The Dolphins have drafted two starting-caliber tight ends since 2000: Randy McMichael in 2002 and Charles Clay in 2011, with Dion Sims a contributor, too.
They struck out on third-rounder Michael Egnew and third-day picks John Nalbone, Arthur Lynch and others, and might have some reason to regret selecting Mike Gesicki over more productive Dallas Goedert in the second round of the 2018 draft.
The Patriots, in the Belichick era, have drafted a Hall of Famer (Rob Gronkowski, two picks after Miami took Koa Misi); a player who had 18 touchdowns in three years before his arrest and incarcaration (the deceased Aaron Hernandez); plus longtime NFL starters Daniel Graham and Ben Watson (who was drafted in 2004 and still playing).
Advantage: New England, and it’s not close.
It’s remarkable that the Dolphins have never had a tight end catch 80 passes or amass 1000 yards in receptions - something Gronk did four times this decade before retiring after last season.
Miami must improve in the evaluation process at the position and here’s one place to start: The Dolphins - in two different regimes - overlooked deficient blocking with Gesicki and Egnew and overestimated each player’s ability to use his size to break free from press coverage. Miami has gravitated toward big school players, but Goedert (South Dakota State) clearly had FBS Power 5 level talent.
A Dolphins official insists Adam Gase pushed for the Dolphins to select Gesicki instead of Goedert, and management acquiesced to him.
Through 17 NFL games, Gesicki has 24 catches for 233 yards and no touchdowns, with low Pro Football Focus blocking grades. Goedert, with the benefit of playing with a better quarterback, has 35 receptions for 350 yards and four TDs, and was ranked by PFF as the NFL’s fifth-best run blocking tight end last season.
“Goedert was a small school guy and a little bit of a different personality,” the team official said. “Gesicki was charming [in his interviews] and fit Adam’s vision of a third down and red zone threat. Goedert is a more point of attack guy.”
Now let’s be clear: Gesicki has improved and still has a chance to be a good player. But Goedert - to this point - looks like the better one.
▪ Pass rushers: Aside from Olivier Vernon (who left for the Giants after his rookie contract with Miami), the Dolphins haven’t unearthed a really good one in the draft - or an unknown young player in free agency - in the past decade.
There’s hope that multitalented Jerome Baker can become that, but it’s too soon to tell and he’s needed some in pass coverage. But in 2017, Miami clearly should have selected T.J. Watt (20 sacks for Pittsburgh) or Takk McKinley (13 for Atlanta) ahead of Charles Harris (three career sacks in 28 games).
So why did the Dolphins choose Harris over Watt? Here’s what a Dolphins official told us: “Harris had more production in college and more consistency. T.J. was a Johnny Come Lately, and the concern was he was being overvalued because of the connection to his brother. He got penalized for being JJ’s brother [a reference to Houston Texans All-Pro J.J. Watt]. Takk McKinley had a track record at UCLA, but we leaned toward Harris.”
Harris, selected 22nd by Miami, had 16 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss in his final two seasons at Missouri. Watt, chosen 30th by Pittsburgh, had 15.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in his final year at Wisconsin, but the year before, he had 1.5 tackles for loss and no sacks. McKinley, chosen 26th by the Falcons, had 25.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks his final two years at UCLA.
That draft choice, incidentally, was a group decision among general manager Chris Grier, scouts and others.
Conversely, the Patriots - over the past decade - plucked Chandler Jones (traded to Arizona three years ago but 77 sacks in four seasons), Dont’a Hightower (2016 Pro Bowler), Trey Flowers (fourth rounder with 21 sacks the past three years and now with Detroit) and fourth rounder Deatrich Wise (9.5 sacks his first two seasons).
And oh yes, they took a second-round bust with Detroit, Kyle Van Noy, and molded him into a high-impact linebacker. Van Noy had 39 tackles and one sack in three years with the Lions. He has 194 tackles and 10 sacks in three years with New England and could be a Dolphins free agent target next spring.
So here’s what’s clear: Even though Brady and Belichick remain the obvious edge the Patriots enjoy over Miami and the other AFC East teams, there’s so much more to it. Finding a franchise quarterback will be an enormous first step in closing the disparity, but the Dolphins also must quickly and dramatically improve their ability to evaluate players at these other key positions.
Here’s my Friday full wrap-up of all the Minkah Fitzpatrick news, including where things stand and comments from Fitzpatrick, Brian Flores and multiple teammates, plus news on Miami losing three starters for Sunday.