The Miami Dolphins are a team that is looking to make one of the most challenging leaps in all of football—transitioning from a young, rebuilding roster to an annual young contender. This is the critical time in which winning windows are fortified or, alternatively, demolished. The Dolphins themselves signaled as much with their aggressive maneuver this offseason to bring in standout offensive stars such as WR Tyreek Hill and OT Terron Armstead. This team thinks they’re ready.
And while the focus will rightfully be on Hill, Armstead, and the team’s other big-name investments from out of town, the ceiling for the 2022 Dolphins and beyond will ultimately be defined by a different group of talent: the ones the Dolphins have chosen to invest in over the course of their three-year dive into a rebuilding effort.
General Manager Chris Grier embraced a “build through the draft” approach back in 2019 and in the three offseasons to start that effort, Miami selected six times in the first round and another seven times on Day 2. THAT is the group that will either push Miami over the top or cause the team to teeter on the brink for yet another season after teasing fans with 10-6 and 9-8 campaigns that left the team out of the playoffs by one game in each of the last two seasons. Miami’s investment over that stretch?
- IDL Christian Wilkins
- IOL Michael Deiter
- QB Tua Tagovailoa
- OT Austin Jackson
- CB Noah Igbinoghene
- OG Robert Hunt
- IDL Raekwon Davis
- SAF Brandon Jones
- WR Jaylen Waddle
- EDGE Jaelan Phillips
- SAF Jevon Holland
- OL Liam Eichenberg
- TE Hunter Long
This group, not Hill and Chase Edmonds and Armstead and Melvin Ingram, will decide just how high these Dolphins can rise in the NFL ranks. The influx in established NFL talent raised the floor. But these young players will be the catalyst for any special leap in competitiveness we see from a Dolphins team that is CLOSE.
An assessment of this talent can carve out several different subsections of expectation as the Dolphins begin to forge their way through the training camp marathon that awaits. Waddle and Phillips set rookie franchise records in 2021, while Holland very well may have been the best of the group. Hunt and Wilkins also took major steps forward in 2021, elevating their play to give Miami standout performers in the trenches—despite what the world would tell you about the Dolphins’ offensive line and how offensive it was last season.
But building through the NFL draft is a bet on the law of averages, and Miami’s outcome distribution certainly has its share of underperformers to this point in each player’s personal development.
The 2020 first-round trio looms as a defining collection of talent. Can Jackson become a viable offensive tackle after two seasons of struggling on the left side of the line? Is Tagovailoa able to progress in an offense that is run by viable coaches and committed to running the football? Can Igbinoghene crack the lineup in any capacity (although we don’t expect that at cornerback with Byron Jones and Xavien Howard in-house)?
The Dolphins’ three-year draft haul offers 10 secured starters for the 2022 team entering the regular season:
As many as seven can be classified as suitable, good, or great players in starting roles. I’d consider Wilkins, Waddle, and Holland to be great starters. I’d consider Hunt and Jones as good starters. And I’d give Phillips and Davis the nod as adequate starters, both with upward mobility.
For Phillips, the addition of Ingram has him poised to absorb a great deal from a veteran pass rusher who won with versatility for a long time in the NFL. Davis’ impact can grow after being one of several players to arrive at Dolphins’ camp this season having lost significant weight in the offseason. That was also the case for Jackson, whose campaign in 2022 may be his last chance to stick the landing as a starting player. And with his best work over the last two seasons coming in the running game, a more athletic version of Jackson in a more run-heavy system is where you can hang your hat for optimism. This isn’t to say that it is guaranteed to take place. But his story, along with that of Tagovailoa, Eichenberg, and then players like Long give Miami the wiggle room to enjoy rapid growth depending on their performances.
The focus is, naturally, centered around Tagovailoa. Miami’s pursuits elsewhere, plus the success of his contemporaries from the 2020 NFL Draft, have put him squarely under the microscope of pundits and fans everywhere. And yes, the Dolphins will need Tagovailoa to show growth in order to be a better, more complete team. And I think he will be better—maybe not by exponential leaps and bounds, but you’re seeing plenty of throws with touch and timing to all levels of the field this week at Dolphins’ training camp. It’s not perfect, but Tagovailoa played in imperfect conditions essentially all season. The more well-rounded and complete the offensive attack can be, the less the Dolphins will need to ask Tagovailoa to be something he’s not. And the weight of playing a more well-rounded style of football fittingly falls at the hands of Jackson, Eichenberg, Long, and others.
Building a team in the NFL is about a lot more than just finding an elite quarterback—although having one certainly affords more flexibility and wiggle room to have sustained success. And Miami’s youth movement courtesy of their rebuilding draft ideology has afforded them plenty of success stories and hits along the way. Just remember that the core of Miami’s roster is tied to that grassroots effort, even if the headlines focus on the young quarterback and the new-found star power this offseason. That core, those established and unestablished alike, are what offer Miami their most exciting range of outcomes in growth.
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