With the 2021 NFL season fast approaching, the South Florida Sun Sentinel takes a look at 10 storylines to watch for in a 10-part series ahead of the Miami Dolphins’ first day of training camp, which is set for Tuesday.
The signature dish on the menu during the Brian Flores era is the second-season development the Miami Dolphins witnessed from members of the 2019 NFL draft class.
Nearly half a dozen second-year players elevated the level of their performance last season, as Christian Wilkins, Andrew Van Ginkel, Myles Gaskin, Nik Needham and Preston Williams became more valuable contributors.
The Dolphins are banking on the 2020 draft class taking a similar step forward, but for Miami to exceed the 10-win season that was achieved last year and qualify for the playoffs Flores’ team needs this year’s rookie class to shine because many of them are going to be asked to play prominent roles immediately.
Jaylen Waddle, the sixth pick in the 2021 draft, must terrify defensive coordinators to the point schemes shift and play-calls get altered based on the receivers pre-snap movement.
A healthy Waddle needs to be a threat to score every time he touches the football, just like he was at the University of Alabama on a team that featured three other receivers selected in the first round during the past two draft cycles.
Jaelan Phillips, a former University of Miami standout the Dolphins selected with the 18th pick, needs to immediately be a pressure player, routinely, if not consistently winning battles against offensive tackles so he can hound quarterbacks with pressure, hits, and sacks.
A player like Phillips is exactly what Miami needed to put on the opposite side of Emmanuel Ogbah, and if he thrives the Dolphins could be looking at a double-digit level of sack production and might not have to rely on the team’s exotic pressure packages so much.
Phillips is a next-level player who Miami hopes will help improve its defense, just like Waddle is supposed to add bite to the offense.
But the most important rookie might be Liam Eichenberg, the team’s first of two 2021 second-round picks, who needs to become a pillar of granite at right tackle and serve as the protector for quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s blindside.
If Eichenberg is good, he’ll fortify Miami’s young and inexperienced offensive line. But if he’s not, the Dolphins will spend all season trying to patch leaks and those leaks could stunt Tagovailoa’s development.
Then there’s Jevon Holland, the safety Miami drafted in the second round, who needs to become the vocal leader of the secondary that Bobby McCain was.
Asking a rookie to step in and become the leader of an entire unit is a Herculean request, but Miami’s confidence in Holland was what motivated the decision-makers to make him the first safety selected in the 2021 draft, and to release McCain, a former team captain.
The hope is that Holland won’t just become a reliable leader and backend defender, but that he’ll provide the playmaking, turnover producing plays that McCain lacked.
That’s four rookies penciled in to play prominent roles that will likely dictate the outcome of the 2021 season.
If they play well, the Dolphins will likely be good.
It has been years, if not decades since a Dolphins draft class has entered a season with this level of expectations.
Not even last year’s deep rookie class possessed this many potential Day 1 starters. And that group ended up with six rookies playing prominent roles, if not starting, by the end of the season.
But most of them — Tagovailoa, Raekwon Davis, Robert Hunt, Solomon Kindley — weren’t ready to answer the bell as Day 1 starters or struggled for a significant portion of the season, which is expected for young players.
What makes us think the same won’t apply to this year’s rookies?
That’s why it is safe to wonder if Waddle, Phillips, Eichenberg and Holland are ready for what’s about to be put on their plate. And if not, how long will it take them to stop biting off more than they could chew?