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NFL Draft

Miami Dolphins 2021 NFL Draft Class Breakdown

  • The Draft Network
  • May 5, 2021
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Miami Dolphins Post-Draft Team Guide

Bet against the Miami Dolphins at your own risk. The Brian Flores/Chris Grier regime has led Miami into two consecutive seasons of low expectations and promptly outpaced the consensus each time. Miami was, in 2019, supposed to be one of the worst teams in the history of the game. One outlet even declared them the worst team in NFL history after Week 2. They won five of their final nine games that season. 2020 was more of the same, with Miami entering the year as a team expected to flirt with .500—but most outlets had Miami as a 6-win football team. Miami parlayed a 1-3 start into a 9-3 finish and narrowly missed the postseason.

Now, Flores enters Year 3 of his time with the Dolphins and looks to climb out of the hole his tenure started in with a 0-7 start in 2019. The roster? It appears ready for the challenge. Miami has churned the roster aggressively for the past two seasons and entered this past weekend’s NFL draft with a handful of premium picks. What they did with them has provided Miami with the missing link from last year’s 10-6 squad:

Difference makers. 

The Dolphins are going to need their top choices to have a greater net impact than the 2020 class did if Miami is going to once again outperform expectations, but that feels like a strong possibility when you compare the dynamics of last year’s top of class versus this season’s group. 2020’s first-round featured a college star quarterback coming off of a dislocated hip, a raw but toolsy offensive tackle that was a pick for need as much as anything else, and a two-year player at the cornerback position who was drafted for development purposes because the Dolphins’ regime had the luxury of long-term stability.

The tone of this year’s group is different in that these feel like ready-made impact players from the jump. 

Here’s who got the call for Miami and why this class is positioned to be the one that pushes the Dolphins back into postseason contender status for the first time in over 15 years: 

Round 1: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

Skeptics will point to a lack of production for Waddle and suggest this was a ploy to put a familiar face around Tua Tagovailoa. Those with an analytical background are likely to bristle at the idea that Miami surrendered a top choice in 2022 to jump back up to No. 6 overall from No. 12 after trading down with San Francisco. And maybe that price was rich. 

But Miami executed their trade back up and got reportedly the No. 2 overall player on their board according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. And I’d argue that the valuation of Waddle that high on the board is an accurate one for the Dolphins’ specific needs. Kyle Pitts is a more rare talent, but Miami’s offense needed a few obvious upgrades: 

  • RAC ability
  • Explosive plays
  • Speed

No one in this class does big plays better than Waddle. His average distance on touchdown receptions? 45 yards. He had more than 10 yards after the catch per reception in 2020. GPS tracking logged him as the 2021 draft’s fastest receiver. Waddle, when paired with free agent signing Will Fuller, gives the Dolphins a “blink and you’ll miss them” pairing at wide receiver that offers a stark difference to the targets Tagovailoa threw to down the stretch last year. 

Former NFL QB Trent Dilfer has worked closely with Tagovailoa for years and has referred to him as the best four-verticals thrower he’s ever seen. Miami’s offense worked inside the 10-15 yard box all season long last year; four verticals wasn’t even considered on the menu. It should be now. And while Waddle is likely to take most of his snaps from the slot, he’s going to create one hell of an impact on the field — whether it is as a receiver or pulling the roof off the defense and creating bigger voids in the intermediate range to allow for easier receptions and more yards after the catch for his teammates. 

Round 1: Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami

Did you know that the Miami Dolphins’ pass rush was among the slowest in the NFL last year to get five yards of depth? Some of that is surely by design. But between Shaq Lawson, Emmanuel Ogbah, Kyle Van Noy, and others, Miami simply lacked juice off the edge. Enter Jaelan Phillips. 

Phillips is the 2021 draft’s best pass rusher. His explosiveness off the snap ranked among the best in college football last season and he displays it while also possessing a prototypical build for Flores’ defense. The big question with Phillips is his health history, but if Miami gets the 2020 version of Phillips that wreaked havoc at Hard Rock Stadium with the Hurricanes, this might be as big of an upgrade to the defense as Waddle is to the offense. Among Phillips’ top athletic profile comparisons courtesy of 

  • Jadeveon Clowney
  • Robert Quinn
  • Mathias Kiwanuka

That’s good company — and Phillips has the pass-rush prowess to win one on one. That’s an area no one Dolphins defender can say with consistency on any given week. Expect Miami to continue being blitz-heavy and aggressive up front. But when they need to drop into coverage and try to get home with the front, Phillips is instantly their best option. 

Round 2: Jevon Holland, S, Oregon

Holland is the first choice for Miami that wasn’t a true “need” pick, but the argument can be made for Miami that it was still the best player available and that there’s enough of an intersection with needs here to expect big things from Holland as early as this year. Holland sat out the 2020 season but in 2019 was implemented all over the field. High post safety? Check. Nickel linebacker? Check. Slot defender? Check. 

You can be rest assured Flores has a role for a player with this level of versatility. But one of the big trends in football right now is fielding three safeties simultaneously. It allows for the coverage benefits of nickel defense to match up versus 11-personnel but doesn’t compromise the run fits as much as true nickel would. Holland’s likely landing spot from the jump? Nickel defender. Don’t mistake that for a subpackage role, however—incumbent nickel Nik Needham has logged >60% of defensive snaps in each of the last two seasons for the Dolphins. With over 50% of snaps to be had, it is fair to project Holland into a starter role. And when Miami gets into their pressure packages, Holland is someone who can own a presence in press coverage, back deep, or in the box when Miami looks to mug the center and create chaos. 

Initially, this selection was a bit of a surprise given the report of how much Miami liked 2020 rookie Brandon Jones, but Holland has a greater coverage ceiling than Jones and will help Miami negate passing offenses in Buffalo (10-personnel heavy) and New England (12-personnel heavy after signing Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith) alike. 

Round 2: Liam Eichenberg, OT, Notre Dame

A long-time starter with the Irish, Eichenberg is a bit of an outlier relative to the physical traits Miami has targeted thus far in their offensive line investments. But his style of play is not. Eichenberg is smaller (306 pounds) and shorter (32.38” arms) than most of Miami’s other tackle investments during the Grier/Flores era: 

  • Robert Hunt (now at guard): 323 pounds, 33.50” arms
  • Austin Jackson: 322 pounds, 34.13” arms
  • DJ Fluker (swing OL): 339 pounds, 36.75” arms
  • Julie’n Davenport: 318 pounds, 36.50” arms

But what Eichenberg surrenders in measurables, he offers in fundamentals. Eichenberg is the antithesis of Jackson and Hunt in many ways—not just for his physical stature but because of his polish and readiness to take the field from Day 1. It feels likely that Eichenberg, who Miami traded up and surrendered a future third-round pick for, will get his first look on Tagovailoa’s blindside as the right tackle. With Hunt inside of him and Eichenberg’s successes at Notre Dame on vertical releases and double teams in the run game, Miami should experience plenty of push on the ground when looking to rush off the right side of the line, too. 

It is hard to envision Eichenberg losing out on a starting job to Fluker or utility OL Jesse Davis at this point—which would give Miami effectively four rookie starters from this class early on. This snippet from Eichenberg’s TDN player profile reads beautifully when you project him into Miami’s offense: 

“Gap/power teams will unleash his power at the point of attack effectively and he’ll do well to create creases as guards pull or tight ends insert to lead the ball carrier through his gap. In all, Eichenberg is a part of a talented crop of 2021 offensive tackles and his ultimate place in the pecking order will come down to team preferences. He’s more impactful in the run game than he is in pass protection, but he was rather smooth protecting one of college football’s most unpredictable quarterbacks this past season, too.”

Round 3: Hunter Long, TE, Boston College

This was, more than any other pick, the surprise of the Dolphins’ draft. The Dolphins possess four tight ends that they appear to be invested in between Mike Gesicki, Durham Smythe, Adam Shaheen, and 2021 free agent Cethan Carter. But with Gesicki playing more than 60% of his snaps last year as a slot receiver, the Dolphins appeared to feel the upgrade opportunity at the traditional Y-tight end role was too good to pass up. 

And make no mistake: Long is a better blocker than Smythe and he’s exponentially more athletic as well. Given Shaheen’s durability questions, Miami appears to have elected to ride the fence between a 2021 upgrade and a 2022 replacement with this choice. 

The Dolphins’ offense was notably better in 12-personnel last season and with the new additions to the receiving group, having versatile receivers who can legitimately be a threat in both phases from an in-line position is a big boost to the versatility of the unit. Look for Long to be phased into the lineup throughout the year—he isn’t likely to have a major impact early on, but he’ll likely be gobbling up snaps in the final quarter of the season as Miami feels more comfortable with his ability to take on a bigger role physically and mentally. 

Round 7: Larnel Coleman, OT, UMASS

When you envision a developmental tackle, players like Coleman are the first that come to mind. At 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds (plus 36.25” arms), Coleman has all the length you could possibly desire on the edge. With a seventh-round pick, there’s little harm in hoping to draft a ball of clay and work him into a swing tackle for down the line when cutting bait with depth pieces like Jesse Davis due to cap considerations becomes a necessary evil. 

This is a pick that reflects Miami’s draft-and-develop mantra. Don’t expect an active roster spot, but Coleman is a strong candidate to make the practice squad in 2021.  

Round 7: Gerrid Doaks, RB, Cincinnati 

The only con you’ll hear brought up about the selection of Doaks is that the Dolphins didn’t invest in this position earlier—which isn’t exactly a fair framing of the selection. Doaks hasn’t been an overly productive back at Cincinnati but he absolutely fits the model Miami is looking for at 5-foot-11 and 228 pounds. He’s not fast (4.58s 40-yard dash) but he is explosive: 

  • 67th percentile in 10-yard split
  • 92nd percentile in Vertical jump
  • 61st percentile in Broad jump

Given Miami’s hunger for a better ground game in short spaces, Doaks projects as a viable fourth running back in 2021 and the backup to Malcolm Brown as Miami’s goal-line and short-yardage candidate in the run game. 

How did the Dolphins do? 

Some will lament Miami’s stagnant running back room. Others will bemoan Miami’s price of moving back into the No. 6 pick to draft Waddle. But Miami must leave this draft with their collective heads held high and with excitement for what 2021 holds. 

The Dolphins of last season were a tough, gritty, relentless group that played disciplined football and avoided mental errors. But top-shelf talent was a problem. Miami didn’t have X-factors outside of Xavien Howard, who logged a season that in many years would have warranted the Defensive Player of the Year Award. And for this team to take the next step, they were going to need to find game-changers and players who impact the opposing gameplan because of their physical ability, not because of what was drawn on the whiteboard.

That was achieved with Miami’s first three picks of Waddle, Phillips, and Holland. And the Dolphins’ continued investment in the offensive line will show anything but complacency with that group as well—after drafting Eichenberg and presumably moving Hunt inside, Miami is looking at two new starters along the offensive front in 2021 in four new spots.

Most importantly, Miami has catered their offense to their young quarterback, Tagovailoa. And with a sizable 2020 rookie class entering into their second season with ample experience from last season and a physically gifted group of top-shelf rookies from the 2021 class, Miami’s ceiling will be determined by how quickly their coaching staff can coach them up. 

If the last two seasons under Flores are any indication, you’ll need to keep your eye on the Dolphins in 2021.

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