Miami Dolphins Must Focus on Three Specific Prospects in 2016 NFL Draft
Mike Tannenbaum is confronted by three doors. He can see the contents of each room. The first shows him Cody Whitehair, the Dolphins’ long-term solution at left guard. The second shows him Vernon Hargreaves, arguably the best cornerback in the draft and an immediate starter for his defense. The third shows him Karl Joseph, a scheme-defining deep safety who would improve multiple positions on his defense.
The Miami Dolphins GM turns to jump through a nearby window, distracted by the flashy skill set and reputation of Ezekiel Elliott.
At this stage, the Dolphins don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. Tannenbaum definitely doesn’t. The Dolphins should be picking in the top 10 of this draft. They should be in position to pick up one of the top tier prospects from this class as multiple quarterbacks are expected to go in the top five. Instead, Tannenbaum swapped out the eighth overall pick for the 13th pick, Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell.
Alonso and Maxwell were players the Eagles were looking to dump. The Dolphins shouldn’t have given up any picks to take them on, not least drop down five spots in the first round. But that is how Tannenbaum works. If there is a chance to add a reputable player, he will take it. Alonso and Maxwell were once celebrated players, Alonso a high draft pick and celebrated rookie, Maxwell a Super Bowl winner and marquee free agent. Reinforcing this perception of his approach, Tannenbaum followed up that move by adding a past-his-prime Mario Williams.
Williams could rebound as effort seemed to be his main issue in Buffalo last year. He will be paired with an overpaid Cameron Wake though. Wake is a great player but is overpaid because of his age coming off of a torn Achilles. The Dolphins couldn’t have realistically re-signed Olivier Vernon regardless, but the money invested in Wake and Williams could have been used to bring back Lamar Miller.
Having invested in two older defensive ends for the 2016 season, the Dolphins are still interested in adding a defensive end for their rotation. They also now need a running back because Jay Ajayi’s cartilage issues make his long-term outlook concerning. Because of those moves, the Dolphins are often being discussed as landing spots for Elliott or Clemson defensive end Kevin Dodd.
Adding Elliott or Dodd wouldn’t improve the personnel available over last year. Instead, both players would need to over-achieve as rookies to match the players they are expected to replace. Ideally, the Dolphins would have retained Miller to ease their needs but regardless of those moves the three listed players at the beginning of this article should be the Dolphins’ top targets in this draft.
Of the trio, Joseph would be the best fit. However, Joseph is coming off a torn ACL so he could fall as far as the Dolphins’ pick in the second round.
From a sheer talent and value perspective, Joseph is the best pick for the Dolphins. He would immediately become an integral part of Vance Joseph’s secondary. To get the most out of Byron Maxwell, the Dolphins need to incorporate a heavy amount of Cover-3. Maxwell thrived in Cover-3 with the Seattle Seahawks before faltering with different assignments in Philadelphia. While the Dolphins can’t offer the same talent around Maxwell that the Seahawks did, they can try to recreate the conditions that best suit his skill set.
Coincidentally, Cover-3 would also allow the Dolphins’ best back-seven defender, Reshad Jones, to play a role that works to his skill set.
Jones is best suited to play closer to the line of scrimmage. He can be an effective deep safety also but lining him up in the box and giving him underneath zone responsibilities will allow him to impact the game more with his physicality and intelligence. Jones can’t play that role unless the Dolphins have someone they can trust in space on the backend. This is where Karl Joseph comes into play.
The West Virginia prospect is a free safety with the range and discipline to be trusted as the single-high safety in Cover-3. His skill set perfectly complements that of Reshad Jones, because not only would he allow Jones to move closer to the line of scrimmage more often but both safeties are also versatile enough to swap roles and cover ground if the Dolphins new defensive coordinator wants to try and deceive opposing quarterbacks.
When the offense spreads the field like they so often do in the NFL, the deep safety’s role becomes exponentially tougher because he is tasked with covering more ground. If you don’t have a player with that kind of range, you can’t be as aggressive with your coverages or receivers/tight ends will be running free down both seams for four quarters each week.
The free safety takes on a greater responsibility in space to release the strong safety underneath and alleviate the pressure on both outside cornerbacks. In this coverage, it’s much tougher to isolate Maxwell in space because he will have Joseph inside of him and a linebacker dropping beneath him more often than not. From there, Maxwell can use his length to disrupt receivers at the catch point. It’s no coincidence that Maxwell and his predecessor, Brandon Browner, struggled so much when taken away from the Cover-3 scheme in Seattle.
There is the unlikely but possible scenario where the Dolphins can come away from the first two rounds of this draft with two of their three best options in round one. Joseph and Vernon Hargreaves are two of the most talented players in this class, but both are strong candidates to slide further than they should. Joseph falling to the second round is a possibility because of his ACL tear but Hargreaves is fully healthy. Hargreaves could slide out of the top 10 because of his size. NFL teams have become more inclined to take bigger cornerbacks since the sucess of the Seahawks, so it’s plausible that the 5’10” Hargreaves suffers.
Passing on Hargreaves because of his size would be foolish. He was one of the best jumpers at the combine, though it was overlooked because everyone focused on his 4.5 forty time. What makes Hargreaves a potentially special player is his combination of fluidity, quick feet and physicality.
Hargreaves is the type of cornerback who should fit into any defensive scheme. He can read and react to routes with controlled aggression in off coverage while also lining up in press coverage to comfortably transition into aggressive man coverage. He understands how to adjust his positioning in zone coverages and can work through blockers to shut down screen plays or support the run. The Dolphins didn’t have a cornerback of that kind on their roster last season and they don’t currently have one either.
The Florida prospect would be similar to Brent Grimes, but Grimes during his prime not the limited player who was repeatedly exposed last season.
Matching Hargreaves and Joseph over the first two rounds of the draft would have a huge impact on the state of the Dolphins defense moving forward. They desperately need to upgrade their back seven so they should be aggressive in pursuit of both players. Trading up for either, so long as it’s only a few spots and not a huge leap, should be a consideration. Despite the appointment of Adam Gase, the Dolphins aren’t in position to enter a full-on rebuild.
With Ryan Tannehill under center and a plethora of older players as part of their foundation, the roster isn’t built to be developed. It’s built to win now in spite of its obvious holes. Most of those holes are on the defensive side, with the guard position being the most glaring on the offensive side. Cody Whitehair would be a huge improvement over Dallas Thomas at left guard.
Thomas is a natural anchor. He torpedoes the Dolphins pass protection and in turn shuts down their passing game all too often. With him on the field, the Dolphins are always going to be asking Tannehill to create outside of structure. Whitehair would not only take away that limitation that Thomas creates, he would offer the offense a foundational piece who could be featured heavily in the running game while being trusted in one-on-one situations in the passing game. Whitehair is a natural tackle who is expected to move inside.
Whitehair is worthy of going 13th overall in this draft and he’s much more likely to be available at that spot than Hargreaves is.
It may not be as enticing as taking a running back or a pass rusher with huge potential, but building a quality team isn’t just about collecting as much talent as you possibly can. You have to construct a roster where the pieces complement each other well and can be put on the field at the same time. Each of Whitehair, Hargreaves and Joseph would project to play full-time roles as rookies while offering just as much talent over the long term as other options Tannenbaum is likely considering.