Draft a safety? Miami Dolphins’ hard-hitting tandem didn’t turn out as expected

Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald celebrates after a stop on Dion Lewis of the Patriots. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

It seemed like a bit of a head-scratcher. When ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper predicted the Dolphins would draft Florida State safety Derwin James in the first round, the obvious reaction was: Why?

Nothing against James, who by all indications is a fine prospect, but on a Dolphins team with holes everywhere, using the 11th overall pick on a safety seemed curious because it’s one of the few positions that appear to be both settled and solid.

But sold? Maybe, maybe not.

The Dolphins of course have Reshad Jones, a Pro Bowl safety, and they thought enough of T.J. McDonald to replace his contract with a two-year deal virtually sight unseen.

So what’s the problem?

“I don’t think it really turned out as well as we thought with what we saw in training camp,” coach Adam Gase said.

That’s both blunt and true. The Jones-McDonald tandem was a force on the practice field in Davie, so much so that McDonald received his extension even though the Dolphins knew he’d miss the first half of the season while serving a suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

“T.J. did a great job of being ready to go and being able to really get in there and physically be able to do it, but I think we didn’t have that chemistry we were looking for,” Gase said. “It took those guys awhile to really kind of get that feel with each other.”

That’s not to say the Dolphins are scrapping the plan.

“We’ll be better getting into training camp and for us being able to continue that growth,” Gase said.

The chemistry should automatically smooth itself out given how much time the two will have beside one another, both in practice and real games this year.

Derwin James.

But as that plays out, it’ll also be worth keeping an eye on whether Jones and McDonald complement each other. While they both pride themselves on being all-around talents, they have similar strengths as hard-hitting DBs.

Maybe this is where James comes in. Besides his FSU roots, he’s a Florida guy, from Haines City, is 6-feet-2 and 215, but the numbers that stand out most are 4.47 (his 40 time) and 40 (his vertical leap).

“He can be a versatile defender who plays in the box and also covers the deep middle of the field,” Kiper wrote.

And there’s this from WalterFootball.com: “Capable of playing man coverage on elite receiving tight ends.”

Yes, it’s hard to mention the Dolphins’ defense without the obligatory reminder of how tight ends shred it. Even in April, the mere word “Gronk” makes some Dolphins break out.

But what about linebacker, offensive line, quarterback and a hundred other needs on this team? I’ll remind you that GM Chris Grier and football operations chief Mike Tannenbaum subscribe to the “best-available” philosophy. If they believe James is the best player on the board, make no mistake: They absolutely will take him. And they should.

It’s one thing if the Dolphins were one player away and had to lock on that need. In the NFL, needs change in an instant — remember about a minute ago when we thought Miami was loaded at wide receiver? In other words, when a team like Green Bay drafts a guy it surely doesn’t need right away (think Aaron Rodgers), it eventually turns dumb GMs into shrewd ones.

Getting back to McDonald and Jones, they’re proud guys who likely think they’ve got this under control.

“I feel like we’re both capable to play deep, play in the box, whatever they want us to do – come blitz,” McDonald said late last season. “It helps us be able to show different looks because you never know which one’s down, which one’s back. We’ll be able to come out here and do some different things.”

Jones: “I think he’s a versatile safety, too. He can play free or strong and I, obviously, can play free or strong. I’ve played both throughout my career here, so I think we do complement each other well.”

The Dolphins were 16th against the pass last season and 15th the year before, so there’s plenty of room for improvement this summer.

“I was feeling something good there when we were in the middle of training camp,” Gase said. “T.J. was playing really well and Reshad and him were really doing a good job of communicating with each other and there was a good feel.”

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