Kelly: Dolphins banking on Austin Jackson-like development from other young players

A year ago this time Austin Jackson greeted every reporter he was addressing by name, informed them he had heard everything that was said and written about him the past few months, and declared that his plan was to prove them wrong.

Jackson intended on silencing all the talk that centered on the former USC standout being a first-round bust for the Miami Dolphins.

There was a confidence about Jackson that reverberated from that spring interview at the conclusion of an early OTA practice, and carried over to the 2023 season, where Jackson established himself as Miami’s most consistent offensive lineman.

In one season, Jackson became a success story in Miami’s draft and development program, and the hope is that others — particularly 2021 second-round pick Liam Eichenberg, and a few other slow-starting youngsters, such as cornerback Cam Smith — will follow his lead.

“If you look at a picture of a player last year, part of the thing that [is] our mantra, if you’re signing up as a Dolphin, we’re going to invest and develop you. So what you saw last year, our bottom line we’re expecting as coaches and players is that [the player becomes] a different guy the next time you see him,” Dolphins head coach McDaniel said, referring to Miami’s player development program. “I think when guys are continuing to develop, sometimes it can come off like — we’re investing.”

Jackson openly admitted that earlier in his career, when he was struggling as Miami’s left tackle, and then as the Dolphins’ starting left guard in 2021, there were instances where he lacked a “sense of urgency.”

“You could fall asleep,” Jackson said, offering advice to the 2024 draftees, which includes Houston offensive tackle Patrick Paul, whom the Dolphins selected in the second round. “So if you get three reps in training camp, those three reps need to look great. There shouldn’t be a rep where you’re making a mistake someone on the first team made, because technically you already saw that mistake. I would just say [don’t fall] asleep.

“You have to constantly be on yourself more than what’s asked of you at the time,” Jackson continued. “ Just because it’s not asked of you right now doesn’t mean you don’t want to be in that situation later in your career one day. And a lot of times I’ve seen guys come in and just kind of let themselves fall asleep with their work ethic.”

Jackson woke up during the 2022 season, when he played a total of 84 offensive snaps in two games because of a lingering ankle injury. It was that offseason that Miami decided against opting into his fifth-year option, and instantly a fire was lit.

Jackson put in the work to redefine his body, and now resembles more of a hulking defensive end than a chunky offensive lineman.

He put in the extra hours with offensive line coach Butch Barry to work on creating a tailor-made technique for Miami’s wide zone scheme, and formed a habit of meticulously going through his practice and game film.

The maturation helped him settle into the starting right tackle spot, manning it for a full season for the first time in 2023, and he even played half the year with a tear in his oblique area.

His performance landed him a three-year, $36 million extension, which guaranteed him $20 million. But the journey doesn’t stop there.

This season the goal is to refine his technique, turning up the volume on his pass protection (four sacks allowed last season) and run blocking, which helped the Dolphins finish first in yards per carry (5.06 per attempt) and sixth in rushing yards per game (135.8) gained in 2023.

“My vision for myself this offseason is to be more consistent in how I want my technique to look,” said Jackson, who has started 46 of the 48 games he has played in four seasons. “This was my first full year playing in this system last year. So now that I have more of a real baseline, I feel like I can improve a lot from there.

“I’ve watched every game and recollect what I was thinking in those games,” Jackson said. “So I think from there I can make all my technique as consistent as I want it to look.”

And the hope is that Eichenberg, Robert Jones, and some of the other young linemen, players such as Kion Smith, will follow his lead, becoming the next veteran who undergoes a metamorphosis, transforming himself from a question mark to an answer.

“I think I’m at a great point in my career to keep getting better,” Jackson said. “I’ve been able to [improve] in my first five years, and I’m looking forward to taking the experience I have and to be the best player I can be.”