Miami Dolphins’ 2021 draft looking like best in awhile

This time of year, when we typically review the Dolphins’ rookie draft picks compared to the players that they bypassed, there’s a lot to second-guess. A lot.

That’s not the case this year, and that’s a credit to the work of general manager Chris Grier and the scouting staff. Grier’s job security — which was never as shaky as some might have believed — has been further solidified because of his 2021 draft.

If the Dolphins had a draft do-over, they likely would — and should — still select the first three players they picked: Jaylen Waddle, Jaelan Phillips and Jevon Holland. They presumably wouldn’t pick Liam Eichenberg, but he has at least begun to salvage a difficult rookie season.

Reflecting on the top four picks, how players selected near them are doing and the Dolphins’ decisions:

Waddle at No. 6

The Dolphins decided to trade from 3 to 12 to 6 because they concluded that Waddle, Ja’Marr Chase and Kyle Pitts were comparable talents and they were confident that one of them would be available at No. 6.

They believed getting two future first-round picks from the 49ers offset needing to relinquish their own first-rounder in the trade with the Eagles to move from 12 to 6. And they were pretty certain that Waddle, Chase, Pitts and DeVonta Smith would not make it to 12. All were off the board by No. 10.

There were “four players we felt really good about taking at six and we’d be tremendously happy to have,” Grier said in the offseason, noting that what made Waddle stand out is “the explosiveness that [he] gives you, as well as the return game. You can only imagine the texts [Dolphins coach] Brian [Flores] and I got from people talking about what a great pick and how explosive this guy is.”

Though Chase had the better start this season, Waddle has caught up and is on pace to break Anquan Boldin’s rookie record for receptions in a season (101). Their rookie numbers:

Waddle: 86 catches (second most in the league), 849 yards, 9.9 per reception, four touchdowns

Chase: 55 catches, 958 yards, 17.4 per reception, eight touchdowns

Pitts: 49 catches, 709 yards, 14.5 yards, one touchdown

Smith: 50 catches, 701 yards, 14.4 average, four touchdowns

The caveat in the Chase/Waddle comparison is that the Bengals throw deep far more than the Dolphins do, largely because of Miami’s offensive line shortcomings.

Among players selected immediately after Waddle, Detroit offensive tackle Penei Sewell has been solid (ranked 25th among tackles by Pro Football Focus), Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn has played in only three games because of foot and groin injuries, Denver cornerback Patrick Surtain has started 11 games and has four interceptions and Smith — Waddle’s Alabama teammate — has been productive for the Eagles.

Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons, selected 12th, has been great (72 tackles, 10 sacks). But receiver was a bigger priority than linebacker, so the Dolphins made a justified call with Waddle.

Why is Waddle going to be a special player? Just ask two other Dolphins receivers and one cornerback.

Cornerback Nik Needham: When he catches the ball, “he instantly hits top speed. That creates a big issue for a lot of defenders, and he can also go up and reach the high point and get the ball, too.”

Mack Hollins: Beyond being fast, “he knows how to attack a ball when it’s in the air. He understands offenses. He understands defenses. That stuff is critical in being successful. As the season goes, he’s getting better because it’s coming quicker. Now, he’s able to play loose. He’s able to hit higher speeds. He’s able to get in and out of breaks quicker.”

Albert Wilson cites “the way he gets open, speed, the toughness, the want-to. He wants to go out there and be the best guy on the field every time, and to be so young, to want to take that role and put it on himself, it’s awesome to see.”

The draft pick component of the deal (trading Miami’s own first-rounder in 2022 to the Eagles but landing the 49ers’ 2022 and 2023 first-rounders and the 49ers’ 2022 third-rounder) looks far better than it did when Miami opened 1-7. Miami’s current pick (due the Eagles) stands 12th. The 49ers are 6-6 and their pick could end up in the late teens.

Phillips at 18

His 8.5 sacks (tied for 11th in the NFL) and the recent play — including six sacks in the past three games — validate that this was the right selection instead of the players chosen immediately after:

Washington linebacker Jamin Davis (seven starts, 52 tackles), Giants receiver Kadarius Toney (35 catches, 392 yards, no TDs), Colts defensive end Kwity Paye (22 tackles, three sacks in 11 starts), Titans cornerback Caleb Farley (started only one game before sustaining a torn ACL in October), Vikings offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw (PFF’s 52nd-rated tackle), Steelers running back Najee Harris (873 yards rushing but just 3.7 yards per carry) and Jacksonville running back Travis Etienne (missed his rookie season with an ACL injury).

Grier admitted “we didn’t think [Phillips] would be there. You can never have enough pass rushing.”

Dolphins outside linebackers coach Rob Leonard recently recalled interviewing Phillips before the draft, by phone. What struck him? “Smart kid, humble kid. The character aspect of the conversation stood out,” he said.

What did Leonard first notice before the draft on tape? “Good athlete that was still a little raw and had a lot of development to do. But from an athletic and strength standpoint, he had a good toolbox.”

This is what impressed Flores before the draft: “The one thing when you watch him play, you would never question his passion and effort because he plays 100 mph. He was one of the top players in the country in high school, and watching his growth over the last few years as we got to know him, we felt very comfortable with it.”

Defensive coordinator Josh Boyer said this week that the motor has been as advertised: “He plays with great effort, great effort. He’s blessed that he has a good amount of explosion to him. He has a good first step. When they play with that effort and that intensity, not only does it seem like they are all over the field, they literally are.”

The next frontier: Improving against the run. PFF ranks him 107th among 111 edge players in that category. That needs to improve to be a most-down player, which the Dolphins believe he can be.

But Phillips has proven to be the better pick than Harris, who’s just 44th in the league in yards per carry. Skilled pass rushers have far more value than running backs with a sub-4.0 per carry average.

Holland at 36

With running back Javonte Williams off the board to Denver (which traded up to 35 to get him), Holland proved to be the right call with the next pick.

So far, he has been better than the players selected immediately after him: Eagles starter Landon Dickerson (a former Alabama center who is now PFF’s 34th-ranked guard), Patriots defensive tackle Christian Barmore (13 games, two starts, 31 tackles), Bears offensive tackle Tevin Jenkins (one start all year), Falcons safety Richie Grant (12 games, no starts) and Lions defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike (11 games, no starts).

Dickerson has been very solid, and Barmore has flashed, but Holland was the right pick, a player with Pro Bowl potential.

Besides the physical gifts, Holland has impressed with his ability to grasp the defense, diagnose how offenses are lining up and crisply convey the calls to teammates. Some of that was a byproduct of his father pausing the video repeatedly while they watched football through the years so that he could explain nuances of the game to his son.

Even after studying film at the facility during the day, Holland studies more at night on his Ipad.

Miami targeted him from the start of Round 2. “We were nervous that [Holland] may not get there because there were a lot of people that called that really liked this player,” Grier said. “We heard that after we made the pick — we got numerous calls and texts. This guy just has a nose for the football. But it was his football intelligence… that stood out as well.”

How special could Holland be?

“I never told him this, but he reminds me of Eric Berry,” Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard said on The Richard Sherman podcast, a reference to the five-time Pro Bowl safety and a member of the NFL’s 2010 All-Decade team.

Pro Football Focus rates Holland fifth best among all safeties this season.

Cornerback Byron Jones said “his growth has been impressive — his leadership, his ability to understand plays and get us into the right calls. For a young guy to come in and play like that at this level is really impressive.”

Eichenberg at 42

Trading a 2022 third-rounder to the Giants to move up from 50 from 42 seems regrettable, but Eichenberg still could prove to be a competent right tackle, even if he doesn’t stick at left tackle.

If Miami had stayed at No. 50, they would have potentially had a choice among Georgia edge rusher Azeez Ojulari (went 50th to the Giants and has 6.5 sacks); Texas offensive tackle Sam Cosmi (was impressive as a starter for Washington early on this season before multiple injuries); Cleveland linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (50 tackles and a sack in nine games and six starts), Titans offensive tackle Dillon Radunz (no starts), Colts defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo (four tackles in six games) or Kansas City linebacker Nick Bolton (82 tackles, 11 for loss, in 10 starts).

In a do-over with Miami staying at 50, Ojulari, Cosmi or Bolton would be the better pick, at least from what each player has displayed to this point.

FYI: Three offensive linemen were selected between 43 and 49 and none has done much: Stanford tackle Walker Little (just one start for Jacksonville), Clemson’s Jackson Carman (five starts for the Bengals) and Notre Dame guard Aaron Banks (has played just five snaps for the 49ers).

Why did Miami move up to get Eichenberg? “There was a big run of offensive linemen; and so for us, it was important to get up,” Grier said. “We liked his toughness, his character. He’s a durable player who’s played a lot of football. He’s very smart.”

Eichenberg, mature and introspective, said last week that he recently realized that “maybe what I did in college isn’t going to work in the NFL. You have to adapt or change the things you do. Going to older guys like Jesse Davis and understanding how he plays the position” was helpful.

In recent weeks, he also sought input from former Notre Dame players, including Bears lineman Alex Bars.

Among the things he changed: “Mainly my routine during the week, getting massages, doing Pilates, stretching more.” He believes it has helped.

PFF said he hasn’t allowed a sack in the past three games, though he seemed to be beaten on the first of the Giants’ two sacks last week. But he allowed only one pressure all game, per PFF. As a run blocker, he’s 61st of 82 tackles. So there has been some progress.

This story was originally published December 10, 2021 1:18 PM.

Barry Jackson has written for the Miami Herald since 1986 and has written the Florida Sports Buzz column since 2002.

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