There’s been very little questioning of Jordan Phillips’ talent, but his actual performance has been up and down since the Dolphins drafted him in the second round in 2015. They expected more from a player selected No. 52 overall, but it’s been difficult to predict what he’ll give them throughout his career.
Phillips has been open about some of his struggles at times, vowing to change, and it appears as though he’s going into this season ready to back that up. He’s in shape as the Dolphins begin training camp and he’s got his biggest opportunity yet now that Ndamukong Suh is gone.
“So far, through two days, he’s done a good job,” coach Adam Gase said. “When you’re a bigger guy like he is, the way that we’re running the football, it’s one thing to do it in the spring, but now that the temperature is slightly up, when you’re a big guy like that and you’re running as much as he is, it’s fatiguing but he’s doing a good job of embracing it because it’s gonna help him get in really good shape.
He’s listed at 6-foot-6, 341 pounds, but those weights aren’t updated regularly and he looked slimmer than usual when he arrived for training camp this week.
The Dolphins felt good about where Phillips was near the end of the preseason last year, battling back up the depth chart after falling behind fifth-round pick Davon Godchaux.
Health was an issue, however, and Phillips missed three games after getting hurt in the season opener. He ended up starting 11 games and posted 16 tackles, including two sacks. Pro Football Focus rated him the No. 71 defensive tackle in the league.
Phillips did not reach a deal for an extension this offseason and will likely hit unrestricted free agency in the spring. He’ll play for about $1.4 million this season in the final year of his rookie contract.
He appears to be healthy again going into this season, which is spurring optimism within the Dolphins. They’ve been working Phillips and newcomer Akeem Spence as the starting defensive tackles the last two days, with Godchaux pushing for a spot as well.
“Athletically, he does some things that you just don’t see many people be able to do,” Gase said. “For a guy that size, the way he moves — his athleticism is really off the charts.”
DAVIE — Former Dolphins star Ndamukong Suh has a reputation for being surly and aloof, but multiple Miami players have said that wasn’t their experience with him.
Defensive tackle Vincent Taylor, who spent his rookie year in Suh’s corner of the locker room, called him an ideal mentor and an excellent teammate.
“I was learning from him,” Taylor said this week. “Last year I played some snaps when he came out, so this year hopefully I can bring those numbers up… Replacing him will be hard.
“It was good coming in my first year to be able to learn from a guy like Ndamukong Suh. What more could you ask for? People always ask me how was Suh in the locker room. Suh was a great teammate, a great guy. I think he’s like a big kid. He likes to joke. Suh is a great guy.”
Suh was with the Dolphins for three seasons before they released him in March to get out of a scheduled $26.1 million salary cap hit for this year.
The move was part of a philosophical overhaul of the defensive line. The Dolphins have now allocated the bulk of their money in defensive ends and will proceed with much cheaper defensive tackles in Davon Godchaux, Jordan Phillips, Akeem Spence and Taylor.
Taylor and Godchaux came in as late-round draft picks a year ago and quickly found Suh to be a willing teacher. Godchaux described him as a “great mentor” who spent lots of time working with him after practices, and Taylor echoed that.
“It’s hard losing a guy like Suh just knowing what he’s capable of doing, but at the end of the day, it’s a business decision,” he said. “All of the things when I was coming in, what he taught me — I learned some of the things that he taught me. Like I said, it’s hard losing a guy like him.”
DAVIE — A big part of the Dolphins’ plan on the defensive line is that second-year defensive tackle Davon Godchaux will grow into a great player. He’s comfortable with those expectations.
“You have to take that and run with it,” he said. “Each and every day, you have to come out and get better. I want to restart my mindset each and every year. I don’t want to come in like last year and I’ve got the first six games and now I’m big time now. No, you don’t want to take that approach. That’s when you get complacent and guys pass you up each and every day.
“You want to have a new mindset each and every practice. It’s hard. It’s hard coming out there each and every day and try to reset your mindset and try to refocus and try to do the same thing over and over; but you have to do it in order to stay in this league.”
Godchaux had 40 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble in 15 games last season while playing 48 percent of the defensive snaps. That was the most playing time out of any defensive tackle other than Suh.
Godchaux came out of LSU with serious question marks and slipped to the fifth round, but he’s clearly taken a mature approach as a pro. Coaches credited him for diligent work on and off the field this offseason, and he’s working to change his diet.
Of all the second-year players Miami is banking on this year, Godchaux might be the most important. The Dolphins cut Ndamukong Suh in part because of their confidence in Godchaux developing into a full-time starter.
He’ll miss Suh, who was a mentor to him, but he seems to grasp the gigantic opportunity in front of him now.
“We expect to make a major leap — me, as a player,” he said. “You always want to set high standards for yourself, whether that’s personal goals for me. I’m not going to tell them, but there’s personal goals for me. I want to reach those goals. If I don’t reach them this year, then I’ll come back next year next year and try to reach those goals, too.”
DAVIE — Davon Godchaux isn’t Ndamukong Suh, but he benefited from a one-year mentorship under the five-time Pro Bowler and gained a lot from watching him work on a daily basis.
The Dolphins let Suh go this offseason and will proceed with Godchaux as a likely starter at defensive tackle. He came in as a fifth-round pick and played well, which is partly a credit to Suh’s influence. He described him as a “great guy” who embraced the role of being a teacher.
“Great mentor,” Godchaux said today. “I think after practice everybody saw me and Suh getting together and working on pass-rush moves, run fits, things he learned… Just a lot of things he taught me off the field, whether that’s eating right (or) things like that.”
He added, “You finally get to be on the same side with him and play with him and see how nasty he really is in a game and how physical he really is. It’s a major part for me. I’m glad I got to play with him.”
Godchaux played 15 games, including five starts, last year and is among the young players Miami is counting on to have a breakthrough this season. He had 40 tackles, one pass breakup and a forced fumble last season. Pro Football Focus ranked him the No. 84 defensive tackle, which is a decent starting point as a rookie.
Suh ultimately signed a one-year deal with the Rams, who are not on Miami’s schedule this season. He reached out to Godchaux after he left to encourage him to keep improving on the things that served him well last season.
“I reached out to him and told him best of luck and things like that,” Godchaux said. “He sent me a message, ‘If you keep working hard, the sky is the limit for you.’ I’ll try to stay in touch with him.”
DAVIE — Star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh played an insane 84 percent of the Dolphins’ defensive snaps last season, and they don’t want to see anyone doing that this year.
The new template for the renovated defensive line is to send players in “waves,” as position coach Kris Kocurek put it today. Miami believes it has enough talent to do that, and the collection of defensive ends and tackles will theoretically be better in smaller doses.
“Right now we don’t really have any depth chart set, but all I know is we’re looking for 8-10 guys,” said Kocurek, who was hired in January to replace Terrell Williams. “We’re gonna roll guys through games. We want to keep our guys fresh throughout four quarters and keep our guys fresh through 16 games… and try to keep snap counts down as much as we can and go as fast as we can and as hard as we can.”
That’s a different approach than last year, but change should be a good thing in this case. The Dolphins didn’t get nearly the return they expected from the fourth-most expensive defensive line in the NFL.
Last season, at a cost of $36.1 million on the line, the team finished 26th in sacks at 30, with 25.5 of those coming from linemen. That works out to one every 19 pass plays, which is part of the reason the Dolphins were among the worst in the NFL in opponent passer rating and completion percentage.
They reallocated their spending to emphasize pass rushers and accepted a massive dead money hit to their salary cap in order to let Suh go and get out of some of what they owed him. The key pieces on this d-line are defensive ends Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn, each of whom has a 15-sack season on their résumé.
Wake is 36 and continues to make that number mostly irrelevant. He has 22 sacks over the last two seasons since coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Quinn is still considered to be in his prime at 28, but it’s been four years since he was considered elite at his position. He was an all-pro selection in 2013 with 19 sacks and followed up with 10.5 the next year, but managed a total of just 17.5 over the next three seasons in part due to injury. He had 8.5 last year to go with 32 tackles and two forced fumbles.
“It’s just scheme,” Kocurek said. “He was asked to do something differently than he had done in the past going from strictly a 4-3 type guy to being more of a stand-up outside linebacker type. It’s not an easy transition sometimes. It’s not like he played bad.”
Behind those two are a pair of enigmas: Andre Branch and Charles Harris.
Harris was the team’s first-round pick last year and played well as a backup, but had only two sacks. He graded out well overall and was among the team’s most disruptive players in some nuanced statistics like passes batted down, quarterback hurries and penalties drawn.
“Very serious about his craft,” Kocurek said of Harris. “Works extremely, extremely hard. It’s hard to outwork Charles. Wants to get better (and) strives to get better every single day.
“As a rookie, it’s always hard. As a defensive end coming in as a rookie, I thought he played well. Now we need to take that next step.”
Branch impressed the Dolphins in 2016 and earned a three-year, $24 million extension in the ensuing offseason, but was limited by injuries last season and didn’t produce like he wanted. If he’s healthy this year, he’ll be a valuable part of the line.
The Dolphins also have veteran William Hayes, who is particularly excellent as a run stopper, on their bench.
The interior is less of a priority, as indicated by the Dolphins’ spending. With an emphasis on creating a crew of top-level edge rushers, the team is willing to go young and cheap at defensive tackle.
One reason they think that’ll work is second-year player Davon Godchaux, who performed well enough last year to be a part-time starter and is expected to take over that spot permanently this year. Miami also has veterans Jordan Phillips and Akeem Spence, as well as second-year man Vincent Taylor.
If Kocurek can find at least eight really good weapons from among that group, he feels good about the defensive line making a resurgence in 2018.
“So far, I like the talent, but the talent’s gotta work,” he said. “That’s the thing these guys have been doing. Since Day One, they’ve bought into the work ethic that we’re looking for. They show up every day prepared and just make sure we get better one day at a time and maximize the abilities the best we can.”
As the Dolphins try to stitch together their defensive line following the release of superstar Ndamukong Suh this offseason, they’re hosting a veteran defensive tackle at the team facility in Davie today.
Miami is in talks with Terrell McClain, a journeyman who was let go by Washington after the draft. McClain, 28, signed a four-year deal with the Redskins a little over a year ago, but slipped on the depth chart and fell out of their future plans for good when the they drafted Da’Ron Payne last week.
McClain, 6-foot-2, 302 pounds, is looking for his sixth team since entering the league as a third-round pick with the Panthers in 2011, and the Dolphins are on the lookout for a backup defensive tackle. That could be a match.
Last year, he played 12 games but started just twice. He registered 20 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery. Pro Football Focus ranked him the 120th-best player at his position.
The Dolphins are a little over two weeks away from Organized Team Activities and appear to be pushing forward with Davon Godchaux and Jordan Phillips as their starting defensive tackles. They also have Vincent Taylor and Gabe Wright as backups, plus they added former Lions defensive tackle Akeem Spence in a trade Wednesday.
AVENTURA — Davon Godchaux had just finished saying how he can’t be expected to “replace” Ndamukong Suh because, in his eyes, it’s impossible for any player to match what any other player has done.
But in the next breath, Godchaux couldn’t help but admit that with the Dolphins releasing Suh, who later joined the Los Angeles Rams, he knows how much the team will be counting on him in 2018.
No, Davon Godchaux no longer is just a fifth-round draft pick, a rookie with minimal expectations placed upon him.
There’s little chance the Dolphins would have released Suh had it not been for Godchaux’s emergence. Now, it’s up to Godchaux to build on that, and for fellow young defensive tackles Jordan Phillips and Vincent Taylor to make the Dolphins’ cost-cutting move look shrewd.
“Most definitely,” Godchaux said of the extra motivation. “Got to. To replace his shoes, got to. Got to pick up the game. What? Five-time Pro Bowler? Got to pick the game up.”
Cornerback Bobby McCain said he has confidence in the trio.
“It’s big shoes to fill, but we can get it done,” McCain said.
Godchaux appeared in 15 games, starting five. He finished with 40 tackles, a forced fumble and one pass defensed.
“Always can be better,” Godchaux said at the Dolphins Cancer Challenge annual golf tournament at Turnberry Isle to benefit the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I think this year you’ll see a lot of improvement each and every day.”
If so, a bit of credit goes to Suh. Godchaux said he learned plenty by observing Suh’s professionalism and getting his advice.
“Taking care of your body — I mean, the guy was a genius at that,” Godchaux said. “Eating the right things. Those things help a lot, especially when you’re in South Florida weather. Just preparing for film study. Picking up on tendencies on offensive linemen.”
Although the Dolphins didn’t consummate a trade with the Rams, they in effect swapped defensive linemen, picking up end Robert Quinn from L.A.
“A damn good pass rusher at that,” Godchaux said. “I watched him at the Rams a little bit. Didn’t really study his film a whole lot but I know he’s a damn good pass rusher.”
Splashy free agent signings are fun. Really fun. But they aren’t always prudent.
The Dolphins got what they wanted out of Ndamukong Suh, who continued to be among the absolute elite defensive tackles in the NFL during his three seasons with the team, but from the start he was a luxury they couldn’t afford. They finally see that, and ESPN reported this morning they’ve made the painful decision to cut him.
It’s not as simple as letting him go and erasing the $76 million they would’ve been paying him over the next three seasons. Miami gets out of some of that, but it’s still going to cost about $9 million in salary cap space this season to send Suh packing.
That stings, but it’s worth it.
Not because Suh is any kind of problem, but because this isn’t how good teams typically allocate their money. One defensive tackle taking up a little over 14 percent of the total payroll forces a team to cut too many corners at other positions.
No single player on the Patriots last season, for example, ate up more than 8.6 percent of their cap space. For the champion Eagles, the high was 6.2 percent.
Think of the positions where the Dolphins struggled last year. Offensive line, linebacker and tight end immediately come to mind. They were in the bottom 11 in spending at each of those positions. Even with the brutal dead money left on Suh’s contract, there’s a newfound ability to address those deficiencies.
And as well as Suh played the last three years, he wasn’t enough to give the Dolphins the ferocious defensive line they imagined when they signed him for a staggering $114 million over six years in 2015.
They’ll try it a different way with cheaper defensive tackles in Davon Godchaux, Jordan Phillips and Vincent Taylor and high-priced ends in Cameron Wake, Robert Quinn and Andre Branch. They also have 2017 first-round pick Charles Harris.
The Dolphins had the third-most expensive defensive line in the league last season and finished 26th in sacks. The year before, they were No. 1 in price tag and 19th in sacks. Even with Suh mauling people in the middle and constantly drawing double- and triple-teams, the plan wasn’t working.
Nobody was afraid to stand in the pocket against Miami’s d-line last year. It’s the reason so many quarterbacks had their best performances of the season when they faced the Dolphins.
Miami averaged one sack every 19 dropbacks, which equates to once or twice a game. That backfield was cozy compared to what quarterbacks encountered against Jacksonville, which spent its d-line money far more effectively. The Jaguars had the second-priciest unit in the league, but delivered a sack every once every 10 opportunities.
The Dolphins’ inability to infiltrate the pocket was a huge reason they ranked near the bottom of the league in opponent passer rating (94.8) and completion percentage (64.2).
The Dolphins were also 28th, 30th and 14th in run defense in his three seasons.
It’s hard to say that’s Suh’s fault when every indication was that he’s been playing some of the best football of his career.
He had 4.5 sacks, 48 tackles, two forced fumbles and Pro Football Focus ranked him No. 4 at his position. He did everything he could for Miami, playing all 48 games and staying on the field for 88.2 percent of the defensive snaps over three years. He totaled 15.5 sacks and 181 tackles.
It just didn’t matter.
Regardless of how cool it is to have a marquee name like Suh or how excellent he’s been individually, it’s impossible to justify paying that much money for someone who isn’t making an overwhelming difference in the defense. It was an unwise signing at the time, and it would’ve been even more foolish to keep proceeding down this path.
Among Grier’s seven draft picks last year, none proved to be a better value than fifth-round defensive tackle Davon Godchaux. The Dolphins saw a premium talent despite some red flags and, after thorough investigation, found a starting-caliber player with the 178th overall choice. Not only did he play well, he adapted well to the team’s expectations of professionalism
“He’s been exactly what you want a guy to be,” coach Adam Gase said.
Godchaux wasn’t the only good pick in the Dolphins’ 2017 draft class, which produced starting cornerback Cordrea Tankersley in the third round and a promising defensive end in Charles Harris with the No. 22 overall selection. Vincent Taylor, a defensive tackle they took in the sixth round, also was a contributor.
Among the three rookies who didn’t do much on the field this year, linebacker Raekwon McMillan (second round) and wide receiver Isaiah Ford (seventh) were on Injured Reserve the entire season. Fifth-round pick Isaac Asiata, a guard, took what the staff described as “a red-shirt year” because he needed significant work to get ready to play.
On top of those selections, the Dolphins found six undrafted free agents who can hack it in the NFL. Linebacker Chase Allen, from Southern Illinois, was the best of them and appeared in all 16 games with four of those being starts.
Cornerback Torry McTyer, safety Maurice Smith and punter Matt Haack also showed long-term potential. Haack was eighth in the NFL in punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line this year.
Any look at Grier’s draft from last year—in the Dolphins’ power structure, he spearheads that operation—must begin with Harris. While defensive end might not have been the greatest need at the time, he was the top player on their board and looks like he’s going to be very good.
Very good? With only two sacks and limited playing time stuck behind Cameron Wake and Andre Branch?
Yes, very good. Harris’ advanced numbers give a fuller picture of how well he played as a rookie. He was among the Dolphins’ best defensive linemen when it came to causing opponents to commit holding penalties, hurrying the quarterback and knocking down passes at the line of scrimmage. He did that despite playing just 47.5 percent of the snaps, including four games of 38 percent or fewer.
“His disruption numbers have been trending positively for us, so I think that those are blocks to build on and to move forward with,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke said.
McMillan and Tankersley are already marked down as 2018 starters, and Harris will get a chance to compete against Branch.
McMillan would’ve almost certainly been Miami’s starting middle linebacker in the opener had he not torn his ACL in the first game of the preseason. Tankersley took a much different track, coming on slowly in the preseason before coming on to take Byron Maxwell’s job in Week 4.
Tankersley had been inactive the first two games, but issues with Maxwell’s performance prompted the Dolphins to thrust him into the starting lineup against Drew Brees for his pro debut. He held his own and became a full-time starter.
If Tankersley can grow into an unquestionable starter, that gives Miami optimism about its secondary going forward with him, Xavien Howard and Bobby McCain all 24 years old.
If the Dolphins intended to pit Godchaux and Taylor against each other to battle it out for a job, Godchaux has the clear lead after Year 1. He had 40 tackles and a forced fumble, working his way onto the field for 47.8 percent of the defensive snaps.
But Taylor looks like a quality piece as well.
“We gained a lot this season from seeing Vincent do all of the things we asked him to do,” Gase said. “He was one of our high-energy guys. He practiced hard every day and he gave us value on special teams, which is great to get from a defensive linemen. I do think he’s a guy that we’re looking forward to keep developing and seeing how far we can help him grow as a football player.”
Even at this stage, with Godchaux and Taylor still trying to prove themselves, it looks like Grier has once again made good use of the late rounds. His best find was Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones in the fifth round in 2010, and in the last few years he found talent in Jakeem Grant (sixth round) and Jay Ajayi (fifth).
And if three or four players from this class are already full-time starters by the beginning of their second season, that’s another strong year for Grier.
The Dolphins should be able to get as much of a look at draft prospect Baker Mayfield as they want over the next three months. Mayfield is a possibility for them at No. 11 overall and he’ll be on the field at the Senior Bowl in two weeks.
He’s also expected to be at the NFL Combine, and the significant news on that front is that the NFL not bar him from participating based on his February 2017 arrest for public intoxication and resisting arrest, among other charges. That incident resulted in a plea deal and was resolved last year.
An NFL spokesperson told ESPN today that there is “no issue that would preclude him from attending” the Combine. Mayfield is nearly certain to be on the list of invitees when the NFL finalizes it. The Combine begins Feb. 27 in Indianapolis.
Mayfield, 22, will be the first Heisman Trophy winner to play in the Senior Bowl since Tim Tebow did so in 2010. As a senior at Oklahoma last season, he completed 70.5 percent of his passes, threw for 4,627 yards and had 43 touchdowns against six interceptions. He is widely thought to be a top-10 prospect, putting him potentially in reach of the Dolphins.
While players do on-field work and other testing at pre-draft events, the most valuable part for most teams is getting to sit down with prospects for extensive interviews about football and off-field concerns. Dolphins executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum and Grier were at the Senior Bowl with a team of scouts last year, and coach Adam Gase joined them for the Combine.
Teams also can bring in up to 30 prospects for pre-draft workouts and interviews at their facility.
One player who won them over in their Combine meeting last year was LSU defensive tackle Davon Godchaux. He declared for early entry into the draft despite a variety of possible concerns, including an arrest for domestic violence that got him briefly kicked off the team, and withstood a thorough investigation by the Dolphins.
“Once we got the facts, we interviewed the kid and talked to people in Baton Rouge about it, we felt comfortable with the result and with the information we got,” Grier said at the time of the pick.