Build through the draft.
That’s the clarion call throughout the NFL because, sometimes, that’s how teams rise to greatness. But sometimes — as with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who added a certain star quarterback and a bunch of his friends to get a Super Bowl victory three months ago — the draft is a smaller part of the formula.
For the Miami Dolphins the draft is the thing.
That’s not my opinion. That’s the opinion of head coach Brian Flores.
“The guys we got in ’19, the guys we got in ’20, the guys we got in ’21, that we get in this draft, that’s the team,” Flores told Peter King in the latest Football Morning in America column. “You know what I mean? That’s the team moving forward.
“As we move forward, that’s going to be the crux or the big chunk of our team. They’ll be the reason why we make noise or don’t make noise.”
This is a bold statement in the context of the fact the Dolphins spent more money in free agency than any other team in 2020. It’s also notable considering the team’s top two most accomplished players — cornerback Xavien Howard and kicker Jason Sanders — were not drafted in 2019, ‘20 or ‘21.
But if the past three drafts is the reason the Dolphins will be good or not, as Flores says, then it makes sense to put a lot of focus on those players.
And here they are:
▪ 2019: DL Christian Wilkins, G/C Michael Deiter, OLB Andrew Van Ginkel, RB Myles Gaskin.
▪ 2020: QB Tua Tagovailoa, OT Austin Jackson, CB Noah Igbinoghene, G/T Robert Hunt, DT Raekwon Davis, S Brandon Jones, G Solomon Kindley, DE Jason Strowbridge, LS Blake Ferguson, WR Malcolm Perry.
▪ 2021: WR Jaylen Waddle, DE Jaelan Phillips, S Jevon Holland, G/T Liam Eichenberg, TE Hunter Long, OT Larnel Coleman, RB Gerrid Doaks.
Looking at this list and doing a little projecting, I count as many as 15 of Miami’s starting 25 — including the three specialists, kicker, punter and long snapper.
And that is being generous because I’m counting Van Ginkel, and Jones, who started some but not all games in 2020, and I’m also counting Waddle, Phillips, Holland, Eichenberg and Long — none of whom has had even one NFL practice.
Looking further at this group, it’s clear the Dolphins are hoping the veterans will make considerable improvements from how they played previously to account for some of the team’s noise-making ability.
▪ Because 2019 first-round pick Christian Wilkins has been a solid pick at No. 13 overall in the 2019 draft. But he has been primarily a run stopper.
He has only 3.5 career sacks and seven QB hits. And last year he had a half sack less and one QB hit less than his rookie year.
It’s clear the Dolphins need more impact plays out of Wilkins, and it would be good if they come in the form of pass pressure but even in the run game has has forced zero fumbles in two years.
▪ Because Gaskin was a pleasant surprise in his second season, earning the starting running back job after being taken in the seventh round in 2019. But where he went in the draft no longer matters.
He is likely going to be the starter when training camp begins. He needs to show more playmaking and needs to stay healthy after missing six games last season.
▪ Because the team is heavily relying on Van Ginkel to take a big step from his 5.5 sacks of last season. The expectation was partially the reason the Dolphins moved on from Kyle Van Noy.
So, like Gaskin, Van Ginkel was a pleasant surprise in his second year. But he must deliver more in his third season.
▪ Because none of the offensive linemen the Dolphins have drafted before 2021 — Deiter, Hunt, Jackson, Kindley — have been good enough.
They have all started at some point. But even the most ardent fan understands starting is one thing while playing well is something totally different.
The really encouraging news with this group is they all are very young and all are expected to improve based on their circumstances. All of them.
▪ Because the Dolphin are confident Tagovailoa is the right guy.
He had some troubles last year, especially the final two weeks of the season. But the Dolphins seem certain Tagovailoa will be more like the quarterback who played against Arizona (20 of 28, 248 yards, 2 touchdowns) than the one who finished the year at Buffalo (35 of 58, 361 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs).
The Dolphins are a team that has heavily invested in adding picks. General manager Chris Grier and Flores have done a very nice job of adding young players with high draft pedigrees throughout the roster.
In Year 3 of their administration (never call it a regime, as these guys aren’t an authoritarian government) Grier and Flores have set themselves up to ride or die with those many high-pedigreed picks.
Soon we will see if the picks develop into excellent players.