A football fan need not dive deep down the rabbit hole of analytics to know the simple truth about any NFL roster. Four positions are paramount. Essential. They are: quarterback, a fearsome pass rusher, a lockdown cornerback and a premier left tackle. Start with QB and place the others in any order you wish.
The Miami Dolphins’ understanding of this at last has come clear. Say this much: After most of 20 years of floundering irrelevance and lurching shifts in personnel and philosophy, the franchise’s current regime at least has a plan. A clue.
It is why Miami gave shutdown corner Xavien Howard, who just turned 26, a record five-year, $75.3 million contract extension through 2024.
It is why left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who just turned 25, is off the board, untouchable in terms of trade inquiries, and why his contract (still dirt-cheap on his rookie deal) surely will be extended before he becomes a free agent following the 2020 season.
It is why the Dolphins presently are looking hard into a trade for disgruntled Texans pass-rush star Jadeveon Clowney, 26, and more proven-elite than even Howard or Tunsil. (More on Clowney in a second.)
And it is why Miami has stocked draft capital in a hell-bent plan to claim its long elusive star quarterback in 2020, buying up into the draft order if needed, ideally to get grand prize Tua Tagovailao of Alabama.
(The present quarterback “battle” between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen, to be decided with Thursday night’s preseason finale at New Orleans, is moot, really. The old Fitzpatrick would be a one-year placeholder for certain. If Rosen won the job, he’d likely be playing for the 2020 backup job or to enhance his trade value. Rosen would have to reprise Dan Marino ‘83 to shift Miami’s focus on drafting at QB next spring.)
The combination of an expected bad Fins season ahead, draft capital accrued and the diminishing number of other teams also still in need of a QB strongly suggests Miami is favored to land Tagovailoa in ‘20 — surely a selling point in the pitch to land Clowney, who would be here on a one-year deal of just under $16 million, a contract that could not be extended until after the 2019 season.
It should go without saying (but won’t) that Miami should only continue to pursue Clowney if the cost does not include Tunsil or a first-round draft pick. Any other combination should be on the table. Running back Kenyan Drake and a third-rounder? Done! Welcome to Miami, Jadeveon. (Or if we may be so bold as to call you by your nickname ... welcome to Miami, Doo-Doo!)
The Fins signing Clowney also should come with expectations of a long-term deal, not a one- or two-year rental.
Would he be worth it? Yes! I don’t believe I share the same planet with anybody who says Clowney has underperformed in his career. Overshadowed by J.J. Watt? Yes. That. But after a couple of early injuries, Clowney has shown he’d be the pocket-wrecking force Miami desperately lacks and needs.
Three straight Pro Bowls for him, and over the past two seasons 18 1/2 sacks, 37 tackles for loss and 42 quarterback hits. That is impact. (Put it this way: Tom Brady is not rooting for the Fins to get this guy.)
The Houston Chronicle reported Clowney would prefer being traded to the Eagles or Seahawks, teams with quality quarterbacks, teams in a win-now mode. But Clowney was serious enough about Miami to take a meeting with coach Brian Flores and others here.
Who’s to say Clowney couldn’t be convinced to become the Dolphins’ third essential piece, joining Tunsil and Howard, if sold on the idea the missing fourth piece — the biggest one in the jigsaw — will come in the 2020 draft?
Even if the Clowney pursuit doesn’t end successfully, I like the Dolphins’ aggression. I love the understanding that this ground-first reboot cannot come entirely from the draft. That a judicious trade or two for young stars are avenues to consider.
Shutdown corner? Done.
Premier left tackle? Done.
Elite pass rusher? Stay tuned.
Franchise quarterback? Wait eight months.
They are not there yet, no. But the Dolphins clearly are locked into the four essential positions as fundamental building blocks. They have a plan, and they’re going after it hard.