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Coach Brian Flores sent his Miami Dolphins players off on their monthlong vacation before the start of training camp in late July with a message:
“My message is to go on vacation, to take this time to recharge, get some rest, spend time with their families — friends, families, loved ones,” Flores said Thursday. “I think you need that balance in your life, so that was my message to these guys this morning.”
Yes, but ...
“But at the same time, keep themselves in some type of condition, train. Obviously this is what they love to do, and if they want to be at the top of their game come training camp, they’re going to have to train.
“But I think it’s a good time for them to get away and recharge and come back refreshed with a lot of energy and ready to go.”
This roster of players must come back recharged and ready to go because they face what will be the most important training camp of the Flores-Chris Grier tenure so far.
That first training camp in 2019, the one with the players from a poor roster running to the aptly named Takes No Talent wall? It was prelude to an intentionally authored terrible season.
The second training cap in 2020, with the highly improved roster full of free agents and an 11-man draft class? It served its purpose in preparing the Dolphins to return to competitiveness and even playoff contention until the season’s final week.
Next month’s training camp? It must serve as the door the club passes en route to the playoffs.
For the 2021 Dolphins, finally returning to the postseason after a four-year hiatus is the goal. Nothing else will suffice.
And this is where I report Flores is pleased with the baby steps his team took this offseason in preparing for the giant leap that awaits.
“Every year is different,” the coach said. “Obviously last year we didn’t have OTAs or really any offseason program like you mentioned. I think we’ve gotten a lot out of these OTAs and minicamp, just from a getting to know each other, camaraderie, team chemistry standpoint.
“I think on the field working the techniques, working the fundamentals — any time you can get on the field, work with our coaching staff or the players can work with our coaching staff and go through those techniques, fundamentals, get them corrected, go out there, do them again and get better at them — I think repetition is always a good thing.
“So we were able to get that accomplished. I’m happy with what we did this offseason and hopefully it helps us moving forward into training camp and preseason games and into the season.”
So the Dolphins are departing the offseason on generally good footing, it seems.
But there are significant unknowns that should start to reveal themselves once the team regathers for training camp.
So how significant?
▪ Well, we really don’t know about the quarterback.
▪ We really don’t know about the offensive line.
▪ We really don’t know about the secondary.
Other than that, the Dolphins are set for a postseason berth.
And right now you’re scratching your head because the Dolphins have done a ton of work making certain they have the right quarterback. And they have spent a ton of resources on the offensive line and the secondary.
How can these areas be mired in uncertainty?
Starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is set as Miami’s unquestioned starter. There will be no training camp competition for his spot, as general manager Grier announced way back in January.
But does anyone know if he’s good or not?
The truth is Tagovailoa could be on his way to becoming the franchise’s next Dan Marino.
Or he could be the next Dan McGwire.
Anyone who says they’re absolutely certain which one he’s going to be is lying because Tagovailoa is only now entering his prove-it season that will point him in one direction or the other.
Last year? Learning year. Growing year.
This year? Show us.
Tagovailoa has, by every account, “improved” on multiple fronts, according to Flores. Those fronts are how quickly and how well he reads the defense and the field, how he operates the offense and his conditioning.
Tagovailoa has also let there be no doubt this is now his offense.
“Yeah, I think each year you get a little more confidence,” guard Jesse Davis said. “I think that’s what he’s showing. He’s showing great leadership. He’s taking control of the huddle and he knows what he’s doing.
“He’s letting us know that he’s here to play and I think he’s done a great job with it.”
But will that all lead to a 30-touchdown season? Will it all translate on the field?
That’s what will be determined starting in training camp.
It would be nice if Tagovailoa had the benefit of a great offensive line to allow him to operate in 2021. Except, well, we don’t know if that unit is going to be great or not.
The offseason might have helped in that the Dolphins moved guys such as Robert Hunt and Davis to guard and added players, including second-round pick Liam Eichenberg, to play at tackle.
But is this a nasty, disciplined unit?
That’s hard to determine during an offseason program, during OTAs or even in a minicamp.
“You can’t evaluate an offensive lineman in this setting,” Flores said. “There’s no bull rushes, there’s no speed rushes, there’s no runs, there’s no contact, so it’s impossible to really get a good idea of what that is.”
The only thing the Dolphins know for sure about their offensive line is that training camp will determine who the best five or six (for an unbalanced line) are. And those guys will be the Miami wall.
“We’re always going to play the best five guys and if that happens to be five rookies or five vets or two rookies and three vets — I think we’re always going to do what’s in the best interest of the team for a particular game to try to win that game,” Flores said.
Now about the secondary:
Normally a team that ties for the NFL lead with 18 interceptions the previous season doesn’t have many questions about its secondary. But the Dolphins’ secondary is a unit in flux.
Starting safety Bobby McCain is gone. Rookie Jevon Holland will compete for the vacant job.
The nickel cornerback job filled by Nik Needham the past two years will be open to competition.
NFL interception leader Xavien Howard was a holdout the entire offseason with a contract dispute. And, obviously, the Dolphins might have to find a player to fill the Howard vacancy until he returns.
So three of the five spots in Miami’s secondary have some uncertainty about them.
“The dope thing about football is you really have to start from [step] one every single year,” cornerback Byron Jones said. “You’ve got to start with the fundamentals — breaking 90 degrees, 45 degrees, downhill, tracking the ball.
“For me, I’d love to work on my technique more and just be more of a technician and not rely just solely on my athleticism; and I’d also like to be more of a playmaker and get my head around and take more chances at the ball. Instead of batting them down, take those boys back to the house like [Xavien Howard] did last year. Those are the things that I’m working on.
“But like I said, you really have to build from the ground up every single year. That’s the fun part really.”
It all begins the next time the Dolphins gather as a team. In training camp.