How the Miami Dolphins’ very good 2021 draft could become one for the ages

The Dolphins’ 2021 draft — headlined by Jaylen Waddle, Jaelan Phillips and Jevon Holland — already has secured a spot on any list of general manager Chris Grier’s greatest hits.

At the very least, Miami has found three skilled long-term players in Waddle (104 catches, 1015 yards as a rookie), Phillips (8.5 sacks) and Holland (Pro Football Focus’ fourth-best safety last season).

But what if Liam Eichenberg and Hunter Long can also become good players?

Then you’re talking about a draft for the ages — potentially one of the five best in Dolphins history — and something worthy of headlining Grier’s resume.

With Eichenberg, everyone should know by midseason whether he can become an above-average starting left guard.

With Long, the evaluation could take awhile longer. Long has improved, but he remains stuck behind Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe on a team that isn’t expected to use two tight-end sets as often as it has in the past.

As a rookie tackle last season, Eichenberg allowed 45 pressures (most among all NFL tackles) and nine sacks (third most). The Dolphins moved him to guard, where he has remained with the starters since offseason practices began in May.

Mike McDaniel said Friday that when he was with the 49ers, they projected him as a guard. The previous Dolphins regime saw him as a tackle who could play guard.

“We had him targeted in San Francisco at guard,” McDaniel said, noting he liked Eichenberg’s “attention to detail, his aggressive composed play. He was consistent with his technique. He understood angles and played with good pad level... [In Miami, we] gave him an opportunity to start at left guard to start and he won the job.”

Austin Jackson — who moved from left guard to right tackle — turned to Eichenberg one day in recent weeks and said: “I know what you’re feeling. It’s a little bit different at guard.”

Eichenberg, who gained weight to facilitate playing guard, said “you don’t have to move as far” as what’s necessary to play tackle.

“For me, I’m used to moving a little further at tackle. Austin was talking to me about mistakes he made last year at guard and the learning curve at that position. I’m enjoying it.”

Another upshot is that he’s not switching between positions, which he did multiple times before and during his rookie season.

“It’s nice being at one position and working at it. Watching guys play the position [on tape], it’s different with hand placement and the run game. I’m excited. And it’s good having two veterans next to me who communicate well” in left tackle Terron Armstead and center Connor Williams.

The question with Long is whether he impresses the staff enough in the coming months for Miami to project him for a major role in 2023 and allow the Dolphins eventually to move on from Gesicki, who’s playing on a one-year franchise tag.

Long was impressive — often getting open — in the offseason program and early in training camp before hitting a wall. That changed after a lecture from tight ends coach Jon Embree, who had a “heart-to-heart” talk with him three weeks ago, according McDaniel. What followed was Long’s best week of camp, before the second preseason game.

What exactly did Embree say? Long was reluctant to share, but he did say what has changed specifically for him since that conversation:

“My work ethic and how I’m attacking each play. We had a great talk. It’s great having him have my back and demand the best out of me. My game has definitely changed since then. Had a different mindset out here, and it’s been for the best for me and the team. It’s been productive and I’m glad it happened. This coaching staff is demanding the most out of me, which has been tough. It’s hot out here and it’s a grind, but it’s making me better, getting the best out of me.”

Long left Boston College as a developed, skilled receiver; he caught 89 passes for 1,297 yards and nine touchdowns in three seasons for the Eagles. He seems to be getting more separation from defenders than during his first training camp.

“The game is starting to slow down for me, and I can play like myself,” he said.

But Long said the most growth has come in blocking; he was more advanced in that area coming out of Boston College than Gesicki when he left Penn State.

ESPN’s Todd McShay said after the draft that think Long “could end up being a steal in Round 3; he is a complete player who has great hands and is tough after the catch.”

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said at the time that Long is an “awesome player who will compete as a blocker and catch a few passes up the seam.” And former Chiefs and Falcons executive Scott Pioli has predicted he will become a Pro Bowler.

All of that remains to be seen.

Long said his “most growth is definitely blocking. I’ve always been a receiving tight end. Blocking has had to come along. I feel I’ve come a long way in that regard.”

One thing Long already has mastered: Rubik’s cubes.

Long solved a “standard one” in 47 seconds. This past offseason, “I got the 5-by-5 Rubik’s cube; it took me 2 ½ minutes. They go up to 19-by-19, but that takes six hours and I’m not doing that.”