Greg Cote

Everyone’s shouting defense, but Dolphins smart to think talent-first in draft, not position

If Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku falls to 22nd (a possibility, though not a great one), nobody who’s been paying attention should be surprised if Njoku becomes only the fourth Miami Hurricane to stay in town as the Fins’ No. 1 draft pick.
If Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku falls to 22nd (a possibility, though not a great one), nobody who’s been paying attention should be surprised if Njoku becomes only the fourth Miami Hurricane to stay in town as the Fins’ No. 1 draft pick. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Any NFL team’s pre-draft news conference is typically an exercise in obfuscation if not outright subterfuge as team officials play dodgeball to media queries, artfully revealing as little as possible of their plans. So it was with the Miami Dolphins this week in terms of specifics — although one broad strategy (what football folks flatteringly refer to as a “philosophy”) came through unmistakably.

This team will draft for talent first, not to fill a particular need. That is especially so in the first round, when the fishing is most bounteous and the talent most special. The Dolphins will trust their own scouting and research that grades and ranks every player, and draft accordingly.

That’s smart. Teams that draft based on position need are either desperate, poorly run or so good they can afford that luxury. Miami is none of those things. The Fins have many needs but none greater than hitting big with the 22nd overall pick next Thursday night by adding an impact guy, a playmaker, regardless of position.

That also is a strategy that will be mightily tested this year as Miami’s most pressing needs are lopsidedly on defense.

Fans know it.

The amateur general managers holding the pens and microphones know it.

Surely veep of football ops Mike Tannenbaum, actual GM Chris Grier and coach Adam Gase know it, too.

And yet all we need to do is go back one year for proof Miami is serious about adhering to its talent-first, position-second mind-set.

The Dolphins were not shopping for a left tackle entering the 2016 draft. They had a solid veteran starter there in Branden Albert and plenty of other needs more pressing.

The Dolphins have a ton of needs, but here's who Adam Beasley thinks the team might pick in this year's draft.

But when Laremy Tunsil fell into the franchise’s lap with the lucky 13th pick, the Dolphins looked at the name left atop their draft chart and did not hesitate. Position needs became secondary.

So did all the draft-night drama over that embarrassing bong-mask video. All that mattered is that Miami saw in Tunsil its future left tackle, saw an elite exclamation point who’d be a Pro Bowl fixture for a decade-plus.

“We rely on the board to make decisions,” Tannenbaum put it unequivocally. “Last year, we didn’t think we were going to be drafting a left tackle, but when a guy is so much higher rated than anyone else that’s an easy decision.”

Grier: “At the end of the day, we’re always going to listen to our board.”

It looks like they heard right on Tunsil, based on his rookie year.

They’ll give themselves a chance to hit big again on Thursday night with that same flexibility, and with the understanding that while the latter rounds might be for targeting needy positions and adding depth the first round is for adding elite talent, instant impact. (It is why the Houston Texans, even though not shopping for a defensive end, could not resist a surprisingly available J.J. Watt.)

A tie on the draft board likely would tip Miami’s top pick to defense, yes. To a pass-rushing end, an outside linebacker, a cornerback or safety.

But if an offensive player who is clearly more highly graded by Miami is available, don’t be surprised by another Tunsil Moment — a pick steered by potential, not position.

With that in mind, keep an eye on a name most Miami fans know well.

Miami Dolphins GM Chris Grier talks about the upcoming draft and the importance of players being tough, competitive and loving football but character is just as important when they look for potential pick.

David Njoku.

If he falls to 22nd (a possibility, though not a great one), nobody who’s been paying attention should be surprised if Njoku becomes only the fourth Miami Hurricane to stay in town as the Fins’ No. 1 draft pick.

Teams talk about a player’s upside or ceiling.

Njoku’s ceiling is the Sistine Chapel.

A Dolphins executive I’m text buddies with told me the team grades him “very high” on its overall draft board, thinks UM underutilized him and believes Njoku could be All-Pro caliber. He’s 6-4 with freaky-long arms and speed.

Does Miami “need” a tight end?

Not desperately, after trading for Julius Thomas and reacquiring Anthony Fasano. But Njoku is special and, as Tannenbaum said, “some of the things we did in the offseason were designed to give us the most flexibility in the draft.”

He mentioned the signing of Lawrence Timmons, William Hayes, Nate Allen and T.J. McDonald, all defensive players targeting a position need.

Clearly, to me, the flexibility Tannenbaum mentioned is going offense at No. 1 if the player is right.

Also clear, as my front-office source put it, “We think our defense is better than some of you [in the media] seem to.”

The GM Grier echoed his boss, saying much of the team’s work in free agency is “so you don’t have to draft for need in the first couple of rounds.”

Why is that flexibility so important?

Miami happens to need another guard, so the example Grier gave was interesting. He said: “You can always find offensive linemen, especially guards, later in the draft. But if you pass up on a Larry Allen (the Hall of Fame former Cowboys guard) sitting there because you think you can get him later, that’s a huge mistake.”

I like the open-mindedness of Miami’s approach.

The Dolphins should not have blinders on and automatically think defense for their first-round pick just to please the sway of conventional opinion.

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