It happens to the downtrodden in the NFL. We have seen it. Something clicks, and worst-to-first actually happens.
We saw the Los Angeles Rams go from really bad to really good really fast. Now the Cleveland Browns, of all teams — longtime poster child for woe — seem finally to be rising up.
The Miami Dolphins have been waiting for their turn, waiting far too patiently at times, for most of the past 20 years. Waiting to be the “it” team generating the buzz. Waiting to again be the national franchise Don Shula and Dan Marino built, not the shrunken regional outfit irrelevant beyond its own market.
It is beginning to happen now. There are signs. You can feel it. You can sense a long-beleaguered fan base maybe still hesitant to say it aloud but daring to think it: “Finally!”
This may be odd for me to to say now, admittedly. The Fins on Friday began their weekend rookie mini-camp engulfed in outside doubts. The betting over/under on 2019 Miami wins is in the four or five range, at or near the bottom of the league.
Nobody is buying in yet, and why should they? When Miami last won a playoff game, No. 1 draft pick Christian Wilkins was a 4-year-old toddling around Springfield, Massachusetts. This franchise has spent most of this century not mattering, crushed under the thumb of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Something is stirring, though. I’m not singing “Happy days are here again.” I’m saying they’re coming.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” as new coach Brian Flores put it Friday.
That might not exactly be a outspoken rallying to electrify the masses, but it is true, which it hasn’t been around here for awhile.
Moving on from the seven-year treadmill of Ryan Tannehill has lifted a cloud from this franchise. The arrival of Flores, a Belichick protege’ ripe for his shot as a head coach, brings with it a gust of fresh air and promise.
Thirty-nine rookies and 11 guys with minimal NFL experience took the field Friday in Davie for the weekend non-contact camp, “a learning camp,” said Flores. Included are four ex-Hurricanes in quarterback Malik Rosier, running back Mark Walton, tight end Darrell Langham and defensive tackle Kendrick Norton.
Top-pick Wilkins, the Clemson defensive tackle, and at least a few other April draftees are sure to make the team. Otherwise, everybody at rookie camp is a longshot. The hope is to unearth a diamond or two from among the undrafted free agents.
“Those guys have a chip on their shoulder,” Flores said of the UFAs. “They know their margin for error is slim. I wish all players felt that way.”
Wilkins, the newest piece of a hardening Dolphins foundation, arrives as maybe the club’s most decorated draftee ever. A two-time national champion. A three-time first team All-American. Named the nation’s top scholar-athlete as a senior. He joins a growing core nucleus of players you want in your locker room and in your future.
“He brings a lot of energy. Good energy,” Flores said. “He’s working. He’s asking questions. I’m excited.”
Wilkins follows 2018 top draft pick Minkah Fitzpatrick, the safety from Alabama who had a very promising rookie year and displays the versatility the new coaching staff covets all over the field.
Fitzpatrick and Wilkins both have a great chance to be Pro Bowl-caliber players, and I don’t say that lightly. The last two times Miami had consecutive top draft picks make a Pro Bowl were in 2008-09 with tackle Jake Long and cornerback Vontae Davis, and in 1982-83 with guard Roy Foster and some guy named Dan Marino.
And the club just told you with ts spending they below they have another defensive cornerstone in top cover guy Xavien Howard, who this week became the NFL’s highest paid CB with a five-year, $76.5 million contract extension including $46M guaranteed. He has 11 interceptions in his past 17 games and made the Pro Bowl last season at one of the most essential positions in the field.
Oh, and young outside linebacker Jerome Baker is going to be really good.
Miami still needs a dynamic end/edge rusher, but the makings of a strong defense are beginning to show.
On offense, in Laremy Tunsil the team has its best left tackle since Richmond Webb patrolled there in 1990-2002 and went to seven Pro Bowls. He’ll soon be given the contract to reflect that value.
Trading for Josh Rosen on draft day was a low-risk, low-cost move that could hit big. Flores was asked Friday about the quarterback competition and had to pretend there was one., going all coach-speak and saying may-the-best-man-win. We all know better. Rosen will be the starter, and veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick the ideal backup.
Rosen could prove himself good enough to carry a team and be a great safety net in the event the 2020 draft doesn’t shake out like Miami hopes. But odds are the Dolphins will do enough losing in this transitional year to be in play for the grand QB prize Tua Tagovailao. It’s a huge break for the Fins that the one team predicted to be as bad as Miami this year, Arizona, just drafted its franchise QB in Kyler Murray.
Beyond what tantalizes about perhaps/likely getting Tua, the Dolphins figure to have 12 draft picks next year, double this year’s total. Miami also is positioned to have close to $100 million to spend entering the 2020 season, with the contract just given Howard conveying a willingness to spend that cannot but help the Fins be attractive to top free agents.
Everything is falling in place for it to be the Miami Dolphins’ turn, for it to finally to be time.
Not this season. But soon.
The long cloud is lifting.