In theory, it is difficult to quibble with the smart and progressive approach the Dolphins have taken to their rebuild under general manager Chris Grier. I've long been a proponent of them finally taking the long-view – and full roster teardown – in order to best position themselves for potential sustained success.
And Friday's trades – moving out of the third overall selection in a trade with the 49ers, and then eventually back into the sixth spot via a swap with the Eagles – are again a testament to that. There is a clear vision and execution and method to their maneuvers and roster/asset manipulations. I'm not wavering from championing any of that as an organizational strata. However, we have reached a point now, with expectations raised, when this enterprise is shifting from theory to practice – as in finding and developing the best from those draft selections with all involved working in synergy. It's about how much production those young players yield every week, and how that translates to wins.
And I'd be lying if I said I didn't have some trepidation about how this will play out. Will there be unity between the front office and the coaching side of things? Will Brian Flores' staff – which seems to be ever-changing – be able to bring out the very best of the draft haul? Is this coaching staff – which played a lot more of the yo-yo stuff with Tua Tagovailoa than I would have liked – going to expertly incubate and cultivate the QB, after even more turnaround on the offensive staff and now with a fairly bizarre system with dueling offensive coordinators?
Because at this point – with how this is set up – it's all about Tua. This rebuild will go as he goes. He is everything, and all parties need to be all-in with him. Some around the league wonder how sympatico things will be in this regard in Miami, and whether in his heart Flores coveted Justin Herbert, who shocked the football world by lighting the league up when rushed into duty as a rookie with the Chargers. And Flores comes from a culture in New England where the coach has unfettered power; checks and balances don't really exist. And we've seen that leap to the hasty demise of many a young Bill Belichick disciple as they have moved on to take over their own team.
What many in the scouting community would tell you is that – one year out – the Dolphins may not have maximized their haul from their three first-round picks from 2020. Draft classes aren't cemented in 12 months – not even close – especially when a first-round quarterback is involved. But Tua is already a polarizing figure among those who hold stopwatches for a living, some thought they reached for offensive lineman Austin Jackson and the verdict is out on corner Noah Igbinoghene, too. It's not as if this first-round haul took the world by storm in 2020 and emerged as sure things.
And it's fair to revisit Flores' inability to properly utilize safety Minkah Fitzpatrick – who became the last of the great exodus out of South Beach in trade – and wonder if the decision to deal him for what amounted to the 18th overall pick (used on Jackson) was misguided (Fitzpatrick was selected 11th overall in 2018 and quickly became a star for the Steelers).
Miami took a much more tempered approach to free agency this year, by and large, after splurging all over a year ago, getting to take a look-see at Will Fuller, and otherwise adding depth players who in many cases they are familiar with from the past. But it's not as if they added anyone you can absolutely count on for immediate impact (Fuller enters the season on a suspension and his injury woes are well chronicled). And the Dolphins' 2020 class included pumping a whopping $32M into cornerbacks alone, though the Emmanuel Ogbah and Erick Flowers signings were inspired. But they also already dealt Shaq Lawson – who was supposed to spearhead their new-and-improved pass rush – and they've already cut Kyle Van Noy (a New England guy) a year after making him their offseason centerpiece; less than ideal and perhaps disconcerting.
It may be sour grapes, but what Van Noy has said, and left unsaid, about his brief dalliance in Miami doesn't reflect well on Flores, either. Let's just say it's fair to have your antennas up a bit with this stuff, and Van Noy's speedy retreat back to Foxborough adds some spice to this rivalry and keeps the Dolphins' odd year with him under the microscope moving forward. So, it's hardly been all roses and chocolates to this point, some feelings have been hurt and mistakes have certainly been made.
"If you go back and look at everything they did last year – draft included – it's not like they are hitting home runs," said one team executive who has done business with the Dolphins. "Does the coach like Tua as much as the GM? Is everyone fully invested in that? Because it didn't always look like it with how they yanked him around. A lot of the guys they signed (last March) are gone, and those three first round picks have a lot to prove. If you use Fitzpatrick the right way (able to range as a ballhawk) on his rookie contract, do you have to spend all that money on corners?"
Another executive said: "They get a lot of positive headlines from you guys (the media), but how good is that roster right now? How many do-overs would they want?"
And now comes the hardest part. Finding the right player and the right fits when you are expected to start contending.
The Dolphins currently have 13 picks in the first three rounds over the next three drafts. Yeah, read that last sentence again. Pretty staggering. They hold the sixth and 18th pick this year, and two picks in the second round (36 and 50), and one in the third round. Four picks in the top 50 is where you want to be, although this draft is fraught with a little more peril and ambiguity given the massive scouting restrictions that were in place and the very limited sample size of games for many prospects (including many opting out entirely).
And, it's worth pointing out, I suppose, that the Dolphins have just one selection between picks 81 and 230, taking them almost out of day three of the draft entirely, where the best organizations do some of their best work.
Next year, Miami has the 49ers' first-round pick, one pick in the second round and two in the third round, and in 2023 they currently have two first-round picks, and one in each of the next two rounds. Of course, a lot could change between now and then with how this team flips picks. And, again, full marks to Grier for astutely managing all of this and getting in position to cash in.
But without all sides pulling together and without some stability in the coaching staff and approach, no amount of draft capital is enough. Merely revisit the several failed versions of this stuff that the Browns have attempted (before finally getting it right after constant front office and coaching churn), or go back and look at what the Rams turned all of those draft picks from the RG III trade into (more specifically, how little value they ultimately gleaned).
A full-scale rebuild is hardly foolproof, and there will be considerable heat on the Dolphins with expanded playoffs, and with some perennial AFC powerhouses like New England and Pittsburgh in transition (if not sliding), and others like Tennessee and Baltimore losing key talent in free agency. The spotlight will burn bright on this team, and its 2020 draft class, in particular, to lead a charge back to the postseason. And, with another odd staffing construct with two offensive coordinators, questions will continue to be asked of Flores as well.
The honeymoon, one suspects, is over (it's already quickly ended for several prominent coaches and players there), and results will be judged in the standings, and not the number of first round selections, moving forward.