As the Miami Dolphins head into a transitional year at the coaching and general management levels, the Dolphins hope to find future starters to bring in a new era of successful Dolphins football.
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The 2016 National Football League rookie draft will take place on Thursday, April 28, 2016 through Saturday, April 30, 2016. The Dolphins head into the draft with pick numbers 13, 42, 73, 107, 147, 186, 227, and 231. Recent history indicates that the first 125 picks should provide productive starters, so the first four rounds of the draft are critical to future success. The team has further stated a goal that their first round draft pick be an immediate starter.
The Dolphins has well-documented deficiencies at the positions of running back, offensive line (guard especially), tight end, defensive end, linebacker, cornerback, and free safety, mainly caused by injuries, free agency losses, mistakes in the draft, and perhaps coaching problems. Of those deficiencies, the play of the offensive guards, linebackers and cornerbacks has been particularly bad over the past few years, and directly led to multiple losses.
In order to look ahead, one should also look to the recent past, to build on successes and avoid repeating mistakes. With that in mind, I looked through the Dolphins’ recent drafts to find out why our guard, linebacker and cornerback positions have been so problematic lately.
Guards: The usual storyline is that the Dolphins have poor offensive line play because the team did not invest enough picks in those positions. However, over the past seven drafts, dating back to the 2009 draft, Miami has drafted eight linemen, including four players (Jamil Douglas, Billy Turner, Dallas Thomas, and John Jerry) to play guard. Seven of those draft picks have come in the first three rounds of the draft, so that is a heavy investment that the team has made since 2009.
But don’t forget, of those eight linemen, the team lost Jerry and Jonathan Martin to the bullying scandal that rocked the team in 2013, and also cost us (highly) offensive guard Richie Incognito, who the team had signed as a free agent but did not draft. The team probably is still counting on either Douglas, Turner, or Thomas to step up and get the job done at guard, especially considering that guard is generally considered one of the easier football positions, and not worth multiple early round draft picks. However, considering the beatings that quarterback Ryan Tannehill has taken over the past four seasons, and the amount of money invested in him, and that left tackle Branden Albert has injury and age concerns, there is a strong chance that Executive Vice President for Football Operations, Mike Tannenbaum, and General Manager, Chris Grier, will draft both a guard and a tackle in the first 125 picks. Remember that Tannenbaum’s very first draft picks with the Jets were first rounders D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, so he knows the importance of drafting linemen early.
Cornerbacks: Unlike guards, cornerbacks are highly valued around the league. A good one is hard to find, and even harder to keep. Look at the contract signed recently by Josh Norman for the idea of the value of a great one.
Over the past seven drafts, the Dolphins have drafted twelve defensive backs! Of those twelve, Reshad Jones, drafted as pick number 163 in the 2010 draft has been a star for the team. Unfortunately, the rest of the twelve picks have either been lost to other teams or have been ineffective. Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, drafted in the first and second rounds, respectively, of the 2009 draft, now start for other teams, and picks like Jamar Taylor and Will Davis, each drafted in the third round of the 2013 draft, were wasted due to injuries and poor play. Currently, the Dolphins have Byron Maxwell expected to start at one cornerback position; Walt Aikens or Bobby McCain will compete to start at the nickelback slot. Since the league has become so pass-happy, a team needs to have three starting quality cornerbacks, so there is a high chance that the team will select a cornerback with their first pick, especially a cornerback who can cover the opposing team’s primary receiver, whether that be Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots, Brandon Marshall of the Jets, or Sammy Watkins of the Bills. That diversity of body types means that we need a versatile cornerback, who can match up with the bigger receivers as well as the small speed burners.
Linebackers: The Dolphins linebackers have been a mixed bag lately. On one hand, Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi are homegrown players, drafted with the 104th pick in the 2013 draft and the 40th pick in the 2010 draft, respectively, who have been consistent starters for the team. On the other hand, their mediocre play in 2015, along with that of recently departed Kelvin Sheppard, who signed with the Giants as a free agent this offseason, has been a major cause of the team’s porous run defense last year. Opposing teams were able to run at will in 2015, even with a defensive line that featured stars Ndamukong Suh, Olivier Vernon and, for the first seven games, Cameron Wake. Further, the linebackers have been unable to slow Gronkowski, and other tight ends in the league, so that has been a major weakness of the defense, going back for at least three years. If the Dolphins expect to perform better in the AFC East, where the Patriots feature a two tight-end offense, and the Bills and Jets are both run-heavy offenses, the Dolphins must improve their linebacker play.
Over the past seven drafts, the Dolphins have drafted eight linebackers. Of those eight linebackers, only three were selected among the first 125 picks; Dion Jordan with the 3rd pick in 2013, Jenkins with the 104th pick in 2013, and A.J. Edds with the 119th pick in 2010. The less said about the Jordan situation, the better; suffice to say that the team will not be counting on Jordan to contribute to the team. Edds was injured in his rookie training camp, and never made an impact in the league. Jenkins is a starter. It should be noted that the Dolphins spent a third round pick on Olivier Vernon, who came into the league as a linebacker, and played defensive end well enough that the Giants signed him for a huge contract this past offseason.
The recent trade for Kiko Alonso, and the continued development of Chris McCain, leads me to believe that the Dolphins will not select a linebacker with the first pick, because there is no available starting spot, and the Dolphins have stated that their goal is for their first rounder to be a starter as a rookie. However, since the Dolphins did not draft any linebackers in 2015, and only one in 2014 (Jordan Tripp with the 171st pick), they will probably select a linebacker in the early rounds this year, who can start in 2017.
Taking all of their needs into account, the Dolphins probably cannot afford to draft my favorite player, running back, Ezekiel Elliot, in the first round. Discounting that running backs tend to have shorter careers than other positions, and that a lot of great running backs have been selected later than the 1st 125 picks, or as undrafted free agents, Elliot’s passion for the game is visceral. After he was only handed the ball twelve times in the late season loss to Michigan State, he lobbied for the ball the following week, and had 214 yards and two touchdowns, on 30 carries, the following week in a win over Michigan. That sort of hard running is something we have not had in Miami since Ricky Williams was stomping our opponents on a weekly basis.
Unfortunately, the team has to have someone to neutralize the star receivers in our division. I think that the Dolphins should trade up to get Jalen Ramsey. He can play both the cornerback and the safety position at a high level. He reminds me of Rod Woodson, and that is the sort of player who can change your franchise. Look at the impact that players like Woodson, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, and Earl Thomas had on their teams at the safety position, and you will understand why Ramsey has to be your guy. Granted, he will probably be gone by the 5th pick, or maybe as early as the 3rd pick but look at the recent trades made by the Rams and Eagles, and realize that certain teams are willing to do whatever it takes to grab great players. It is a risk, but Tannenbaum has always been aggressive with draft trades, so I would not put it past him and Grier to trade up for Ramsey.
If they can’t get Ramsey, then the Dolphins should target cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves, William Jackson III, Eli Apple, or Mackenzie Alexander with their first pick. Then they should select a guard and a tackle in rounds two and three, and a linebacker in round four. If the Dolphins can find three players in this year’s draft who are starting by the 2017, then this draft can be considered successful.