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Off in the distance, just beyond what the eye can see, is a promissory note of hope: a growing war chest of draft picks that ostensibly will be used to regrow the forest after the recent burn.
The Dolphins now own three first-round picks, and seven total in the first three rounds, in the 2020 NFL draft. They also own two first-round picks and two second-round picks in the 2021 draft.
But somewhere amid this “Trust the Process”-esque campaign lies a whole lot of unknown. Draft picks can be fool’s gold. And that’s assuming the would-be gold even wants to be a part of the Dolphins’ solution.
Given that a player such as Minkah Fitzpatrick, the team’s 2018 first-round pick who was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night, wanted out that badly (and was granted his wish quickly) … how are we so sure that a prospective 2020 first-rounder wants to be there seven months from now?
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This is a warning to Dolphins fans that the hope of a quick reset next season might not be as clean as it’s being sold.
Fitzpatrick asked out and got his wish. The growing trend of NFL players flexing their muscles to control where they play is not confined to Miami. Jadeveon Clowney worked the system and got his wish of a trade from the Houston Texans. Antonio Brown, right or wrong, did what he had to do to get out of Oakland. Ditto for Duke Johnson in Cleveland. Jalen Ramsey and Melvin Gordon have tried to force their teams’ hands by requesting trades. It’s happening all over the place.
Like it or not, NFL players are taking matters into their own hands over their employment. And that sense of empowerment might not be relegated to those currently in the league.
How ‘Tanking for Tua’ could backfire
Are Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon’s Justin Herbert (or maybe Ohio State’s Chase Young) watching the Dolphins’ situation from afar and hoping to be part of the Great Miami Resurrection? Or are they already plotting to find ways to avoid it?
We have no idea of the intentions of these young men, nor of any other draft prospects the Dolphins might be considering next year. We also don’t know if the Dolphins will end up with the first pick in the 2020 draft — and whether they’re for certain taking a quarterback with said pick.
What we do know is that the idea of a prospective first overall selection finding a way to avoid an NFL franchise is hardly unprecedented. Eli Manning did it a generation ago, using his power to avoid landing with the San Diego Chargers. A generation before that, it was John Elway telling the Baltimore Colts not to draft him. Both players ended up getting what they wanted. Neither’s reputation ended up being hurt by it as Super Bowl victories have a way of rewriting and cleansing history.
Thus it wouldn’t be a surprise that someone the Dolphins want to take high in the draft could “pull an Eli” (or “an Elway”) and let the franchise know during the pre-draft process that, despite the Dolphins’ noblest efforts to rebuild, that they don’t want to be a part of that process.
Take Tagovailoa. This is purely dot connecting here, but it’s not hard to see how he might have enough direct connections and concerns to the Miami situation to see the warning signs. His former teammate at Bama, Fitzpatrick, just forced his way out of Miami. His coach, Nick Saban, doesn’t appear to have much love for the Dolphins franchise either.
And it might not even be Tagovailoa himself who could thrust such a movement. Remember, his father reportedly pushed Tua to Bama in the first place, so it’s possible that the decision to railroad a team isn’t ultimately his to make. Remember, Elway’s father, Jack, also played a significant role in his son getting traded to Denver. Archie Manning certainly did his share of media interviews in 2004 when Eli was coming out as a way to deflect criticism from his son.
If the Dolphins want a player who doesn’t want to be there, they could take him regardless and try to hold his feet to the fire. But what a disaster that could be, especially after a year’s worth of blowout losses and bad press, if the player fights back and refuses to sign. We haven’t seen that strategy played out to that degree, but to suggest it never would happen is presumptuous. In this era? It’s something that must be determined while the Dolphins now shift all their resources toward vetting the 2020 draft’s QB pool.
And this is not to single out Tagovailoa, the odds-on favorite to be the top pick. It’s far from a stretch to suggest the Dolphins want a new QB. Herbert or Young or any other elite prospect certainly could be part of that discussion, too, and for all we know they might not want any part of Miami either.
Many top prospects try to execute some measure of control over where they’re going, even if it doesn’t pan out. At this time a year ago, no one was pegging Kyler Murray into the top spot, but Murray and his camp carefully managed when and where he’d work out and for whom he’d interview. Baker Mayfield wasn’t keen on meeting with certain teams before the 2018 draft, exhibiting some measure of control over where he landed.
Selling the Dolphins’ vision will be crucial
The Dolphins can do a few things to change the narrative about their lack of appeal. First-year head coach Brian Flores can do some brilliant coaching and get his young roster to look more appealing. And next offseason, Dolphins general manager Chris Grier can use another asset — potentially as much as $160 million in salary-cap space — to add respected, big-name veterans.
“I would say to the fans: I appreciate their support. They deserve a winner and we’re trying to build them a winner,” Grier said on Tuesday. “I would think the fans would also say the cycle we’ve been through the last 10 years has not been good enough. We’re trying to right that as fast as we can. But they deserve a winner, and we’re trying to do that for them.
“We’ve talked about building this long term with sustained success right away. For us, we’ll be very aggressive.”
That’s all fine and dandy, but it could fail to answer key questions. If the Dolphins are so willing to tear down the roster by trading young players, why might that not apply to someone they’re drafting next spring a few years down the road if they don’t win?
Fitzpatrick, drafted in 2018, is still only 22. Laremy Tunsil, 25, also was shipped out. Of the seven veteran players the Dolphins have traded since March, only Ryan Tannehill (31) was over the age of 29. It’s one thing to ship out overpriced veterans past their expiration date. It’s another to be shedding players who even one month ago were thought to be part of the rebuilding process.
Can Dolphins convince people they’ll get it right?
What is the rebuild plan? And are we certain that Grier and Flores will be allowed to execute it? There could be a new coach or general manager in place if Dolphins owner Stephen Ross decides to tack on his course again. In his 10-plus years as the boss, the Dolphins have had six men hold the title of head coach and a muddled front office that has shuttled power to and fro among several people with little clear hierarchy at times.
At the heart of both Elway’s and Manning’s desire not to be drafted in Baltimore or San Diego was those franchises’ ownership situations. There’s a sense in league circles that Ross’ constant tinkering is a big reason why the team has been mired in a state of mediocrity — a 72-90 record since Ross took full ownership of the franchise, with one playoff appearance.
A club can sign all the fancy free agents and accumulate all the draft assets it wants, but if players and agents are not convinced that the team owner knows how to build a winning culture, it will end up a lost cause.
The recent evidence suggests that the franchise’s best-laid plans could change at a moment’s notice.
Grier appears to have the right approach in terms of not passing up on deals that could turn out to be whoppers for the franchise. He’s also smart enough to know that being bad this season — really bad — isn’t good enough to ensure a quick makeover down the road.
And yet the Dolphins should be prepared for the worst-case scenario: that a twentysomething prospect might not see the wood for the trees in this grand vision of NFL draft reverie. It might turn out great, and the Dolphins’ rebuild hopefully is being crafted beyond one savior draft pick. But it’s also easy to see how not everyone would want to be part of this process of indefinite length.
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