Miami Dolphins: Rookies on Defense Look to Make Impact Tonight

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 04: A general view prior to the game between Miami Dolphins and New York Jets at Wembley Stadium on October 4, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Jed Leicester - NFL/Pool/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 04: A general view prior to the game between Miami Dolphins and New York Jets at Wembley Stadium on October 4, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Jed Leicester - NFL/Pool/Getty Images) /

The Miami Dolphins’ defense, which gave up a franchise-record 6,122 yards last season, addressed the issue by drafting five defensive players in the 2017 NFL draft. Tonight, the journey into the NFL begins for four of these players.

The Miami Dolphins play host to the Atlanta Falcons tonight for the team’s first preseason game of the 2017 season. And while many Dolphins’ fans in attendance will get a sneak peek of the new $50 million in renovations and amenities added to Hard Rock Stadium, including new parking, food and drinks, everyone will get their first glimpse at the team’s rookie class on the defensive side of the ball.

Raekwon McMillan, who the Dolphins selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft (No. 54 overall), is the biggest surprise thus far in training camp. McMillan is the only Dolphins rookie listed as a starter, according to a depth chart released by the team Monday morning.

After Dolphins linebacker Koa Misi was put on injured reserve due to a lingering neck injury, a three-man competition for Misi’s roster spot ensued. McMillan, however, began to distance himself from three-year players Mike Hull, who players nicknamed “scrappy,” and Neville Hewitt, who finished fifth in tackles the last two seasons for the Dolphins.

McMillan, who played inside linebacker at Ohio State, has earned respect from his coaches.

“That’s why we drafted him. He’s really smart,” Gase said last week, per the Sun Sentinel’s Omar Kelly. “He does a good job of being vocal. He’s very clear. He knows what he’s doing.”

McMillan, known for his physicality in the run game, was a Butkus Award finalist in 2015. But despite his impressive start in camp thus far, McMillan, like all rookies, is likely to make mistakes. Luckily for McMillan, however, he has veterans like Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons to show him the ropes and how to succeed at the next level.

“At Ohio State, I came in and I started as a freshman,” McMillan said. “So I was in early and I kind of built leadership early; but here, I don’t have to be that leader out there. They’ve already got leaders on the team.”

Charles Harris, the Dolphins first pick (No. 22 overall), will likely be put in during passing downs this season, and tonight’s game shouldn’t be any different. Many draft analysts saw Harris as the best pure pass rusher in the draft.

Mike Mayock, a draft analyst for NFL Network, said Harris “has a good first step and is explosive off the edge,” which, at the beginning of camp, proved true. However, Harris has fallen off a bit and struggled to get to the quarterback once the team began 11-on-11 drills. Despite this, Harris has impressed coaches with his play against the run.

Thus far in camp, Harris’s run defense hasn’t been a liability, according to Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson. Like McMillan, Harris has impressed coaches and veteran players alike.

Last week in a press conference, Dolphins’ defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said he’s impressed with how Harris has handled himself during minicamp.

“Charles, in my opinion, is a very focused kid,” he said. “He’s very excited about his approach to the game. He’s very detail oriented. [He] obviously takes coaching very, very well [and] implements it very quickly as you coach him up in-game, and [he] listens.”

Harris was brought in to rush the passer. And although sacks are sexy, he’s ability against the run is what will set him apart from other pass rushers. Of course, I’m dying to see Harris showcase his burst off the edge and get to the quarterback tonight, but it will also be interesting to see how the rookie does against the Falcons’ talented backfield.

Davon Godchaux’s recent promotion over third-year defensive tackle Jordan Phillips is either one of two things: a coaching experiment to encourage Phillips to play harder and exceed expectations; or it means that Godchaux, the fifth round pick out of LSU, has earned his spot outright.

I believe it’s the latter. Phillips, despite a handful of plays, has been a disappointment since he’s put on a Dolphins’ uniform. Godchaux, on the other hand, has impressed coaches from the start. For him, it’s football as usual.

“At the end of the day it’s football,” said Godchaux, per The Sun-Sentinel’s Chris Perkins. “I feel like a lot of people over-think it too much. At the end of the day, I’m going to line up and I’m going to this man. That’s really all it is. It’s really about attitude. If you have the right attitude, you can do anything.”

Remember, Phillips was brought in during the Philbin-era, and the current coaching staff isn’t tied to him. Tonight, Godchaux will have the chance to prove why he’s been starting over Phillips the last few practices. For Phillips, time appears to be running out.

Cordrea Tankersley, the third round selection from Clemson, is an interesting story. Labeled a “steal” by some analysts on draft day, Tankersley is in a Dolphins’ secondary with a tremendous amount of upside.

Presumably, the two starting cornerbacks will be Byron Maxwell and second-year player Xavien Howard. But Tankersley, who is fighting Tony Lippett, Lafayette Pitts and Bobby McCain for playing time, will get his first tonight against the second- and third-string receiving corps of the Falcons.

Tankersley, at 6-foot-1 inches, is the prototypical size for the type of system the Dolphins’ defense runs. However, he had a tendency to be grabby with receivers in college. Refs at the NFL level will catch on to Tankersley if his style of harassing receivers continues on to the next level.

Tankersley has the tools to be successful at the NFL level. Going against a talented receiving corps in practice should only help him improve on his play. At some point during the preseason, I’d like to see him compete against opposing starters and see how he does.

The preseason is designed to see where your team is at physically, mentally and emotionally. For rookies, it’s about showcasing your talent and how that talent transcends to the next level. In the Dolphins case, we can only hope that their 2017 rookie class is as talented as advertised.

Their defense certainly could use the help.