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Several Dolphins young high round picks show growth. Where they finished regular season

None of the Dolphins’ three 2020 first-round draft picks (injured Tua Tagovailoa and Austin Jackson, and benched Noah Igbinoghene) were in uniform on Sunday when Miami clinched a playoff spot against the Buffalo Bills. But don’t let that glass-half-empty factoid fool you.

The Dolphins have hit on several of their young draft picks who are still on rookie contracts, and that’s a big reason why Miami is playoff bound. Consider:

▪ Even though he missed 4 1/2 games, Tua Tagovailoa led the league in passer rating at 105.5, barely edging Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (105.2). Four others finished above 100: the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo (103), Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts (101.6), Seattle’s Geno Smith (100.9) and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow (100.8).

Tagovailoa also led the league in average yards per pass attempt at 8.9; Mahomes (8.1) finished second.

Christian Wilkins finished with 98 tackles, the most by an NFL defensive lineman since 1994, topping Anthony Spencer’s 95 for Dallas in 2012.

Wilkins now has two of the NFL’s five highest totals for tackles by a defensive lineman in the past 28 years; he had 89 last season, which is tied for fifth on that list.

Also, Wilkins’ 98 tackles are the most by a defensive Dolphins lineman in a season (since record keeping on this began in 1986), topping Jeff Cross’ 93 in 1993.

Jaylen Waddle led the league in yards per reception (18.1, on 75 receptions) and finished third in franchise history for receiving yards in a season with 1,356, trailing Tyreek Hill’s 2022 season (1,710) and Mark Clayton’s 1984 season (1,389).

▪ Outside linebacker Jaelen Phillips finished sixth among 117 edge players in PFF’s evaluation of all qualifying NFL edge players in 2022.

Phillips cracked before the season that he wasn’t a fan of Pro Football Focus because it rated him poorly last season — 93rd of 113 qualifying edge players.

That was primarily because of his run defense, which the website rated 102nd. But Phillips’ run defense was much improved; PFF rates him 17th among 122 edge players as a run defender.

How has he improved against the run? He cited improved technique and hand placement.

“Mindset is a big one,” he said. “Playing the run is a tedious thing. It’s hard in the trenches.”

Phillips has seven sacks (tied for 43rd in the league), but only four edge players had more quarterback pressures than his 70. He had seven pressures in Sunday’s win against the Jets.

His improvement against the run - and continued growth as a pass rusher - explain why he played 73 percent of Miami’s defensive snaps compared with 54 last season.

“I’ve improved as an all around every down player, being able to come in first, second, third and be stout on the edge and do my job within the defense,” he said. “Last year, I was in that role of pretty much solely third down, playing around 50 percent of the snaps or so. I’ve been happy with the ability and the coaches trusting me to take on more snaps and more responsibilities.”

Linebacker Bradley Chubb said Phillips is “relentless. Everything physical you could think of, he has and the thing that separates him is how he runs to the ball 30 yards down the field and how he reacts just to the different adversity that goes throughout the game and he never wavers.... That’s what’s going to make him great.”

▪ Guard Robert Hunt was the 10th best among 78 guards this season, per PFF’s evaluations.

“He’s taken the physicality to another level,” offensive line coach Matt Applebaum said. “He’s improved on footwork and pass protection. his game is continuing to improve a lot.

Hunt said as a rookie, “I thought I played well at tackle, but the team had different ideas. It took a year to get the hang of guard” — even though he had played some guard in college.

But after Brandon Shell’s knee and ankle injuries, Hunt was needed at right tackle to finish Sunday’s Jets game - and might be needed there in the playoff game at Buffalo.

THIS AND THAT

The three final pieces of the Dolphins’ 2023 schedule fell into place on Sunday: With Miami finishing second in the AFC East, the Dolphins will host the second place teams from the AFC South (Tennessee) and NFC South (Carolina) and visit the second place team in the AFC North (Baltimore).

At home, the Dolphins also will face Buffalo, the Patriots and Jets, Denver, Las Vegas, Dallas and the New York Giants.

On the road, the Dolphins also will play the Bills, Patriots, Jets, Kansas City, the Los Angeles Chargers (for a second year in a row), Washington and Philadelphia.

▪ Some notable snap count decisions from Sunday on offense: Rookie receiver Erik Ezukanma, filling in for injured Cedrick Wilson Jr., made his regular-season debut, played 10 snaps and had a catch for three yards...

As usual, tight end Durham Smythe played more than Mike Gesicki (46 snaps to 25), with Hunter Long playing 11... Receiver Trent Sherfield played just one less snap than Tyreek Hill (43, 42), with Hill leaving briefly with an ankle injury before returning.

▪ Some notable snaps decisions from Sunday on defense: Bradley Chubb played only 18 of Miami’s 56 defensive snaps as he worked his way back from ankle and hand injuries. Andrew Van Ginkel started in place of Chubb and played 22 snaps, with Jaelan Phillips logging 48 and Melvin Ingram 31...

Elijah Campbell started at safety opposite Jevon Holland but played just 10 defensive snaps. The Dolphins gave 32 safety snaps to Eric Rowe and 21 to Verone McKinley. Holland and cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Kader Kohou played all 56 snaps.

Here’s my Monday piece with updates on Raheem Mostert and Brandon Shell, with Tua Tagovailoa still in concussion protocol.