Miami Dolphins rookie LB Mike McCray, a favorite of Stephen Ross, retires before training camp

McCray ended his NFL career before it really got going. (Getty Images)

It’s always surprising to see a young player retire from football, but the recent decision by Dolphins rookie Mike McCray was especially unusual considering he was headed into training camp with a realistic chance of making the roster at linebacker.

McCray, a 23-year-old who shined at Michigan before joining the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent, went through all the rigors of the offseason before opting to step away Tuesday.

“I am so much more than just (an) athlete,” McCray wrote on Twitter to announce his move. “For some time now, I have been playing the game of football for the wrong reasons and during this time I sacrificed my happiness and well-being. I want to encourage those reading this to do what feels good on the inside and not what looks good on the outside.”

He added that he intends to stay involved with football despite no longer being a player. The Dolphins placed him on the Reserve/Retired List and signed undrafted rookie linebacker Frank Ginda to fill his spot.

McCray was a favorite of owner Stephen Ross, a fellow Michigan man, and looked good in his first few months with Miami. Defensive coordinator Matt Burke praised him and fellow undrafted linebacker Cayson Collins late in Organized Team Activities, and the team has been looking for depth at the position.

McCray had 79 tackles, including 16 for negative yardage in his senior season, and was named to the honorable mention list for the all-Big Ten team. He felt teams underestimated him leading up to the draft and said in May he was bent on proving them wrong.

“Everybody that wasn’t drafted probably feels the same way, but right now I’m just coming in and trying to help the team win,” he said. “That’s my biggest goal right now.

“I bring a good football IQ. I work hard and play hard every play, no matter if we’re winning or losing. I just want to help the team win. I’m a good leader as well.”

The Dolphins are going forward with Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan as projected starting linebackers, with another 3-4 spots open for competition. Veterans Stephone Anthony, Mike Hull, Chase Allen and others will battle with draft picks Jerome Baker (third round) and Quentin Poling (seventh).

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Former first-round pick Stephone Anthony: ‘I have to become starter’ for Dolphins

Stephone Anthony is trying to get his career back on track. (Getty Images)

DAVIE — Stephone Anthony was a first-round pick just three years ago and he’s only 25, but there’s a sense that he’s already running out of time.

The NFL is turbulent, and things change quickly. Anthony was one of the most promising rookies in the league for the Saints, then found himself shipped to the Dolphins for a fifth-round pick last year and is fighting for a job this offseason. He’s battling a rookie, among others, for one of Miami’s starting linebacker spots and he knows it’s a critical point in his career.

“Before I can do anything else,” Anthony said, “I have to become a starter.”

That’s a key step toward righting his career, and he’s in a good position to do it.

While Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan can be marked down as certain starters, the rest of the Dolphins’ linebacker corps is wide open. Third-round pick Jerome Baker is likely to be in the mix, as well as undrafted scrappers Cayson Collins and Mike McCray and returning players Mike Hull and Chase Allen.

Anthony said he’s been taking snaps with the first- and second-team defense during Organized Team Activities.

He’s slightly leaner than last year, checking in at 6-foot-3 and somewhere between 235 and 240 pounds (as opposed to 245), but the most important thing is he’s far more familiar the Dolphins’ scheme than when he arrived.

Miami needed a linebacker when Lawrence Timmons deserted the team early last season and found an eager trading partner in the Saints, who had lost interest in Anthony when he wasn’t producing in their new defensive scheme. After opening with 112 tackles, two defensive scores and an all-rookie selection, he started three games in 2016 and was inactive last year while New Orleans looked to deal him.

Anthony played eight games off the bench for the Dolphins and totaled 15 tackles, plus some special teams work. He showed promise at times, but not nearly enough for the organization to exercise a 2019 option on him last month that would have paid him around $9 million.

General manager Chris Grier and vice president Mike Tannenbaum didn’t explain that decision to Anthony, but they didn’t need to.

“It was kind of what I expected,” he said. “I needed more snaps and there’s a lot that goes into it. But that’s not my job to worry about. My job is going to be to put my best foot forward.”

He’ll be an unrestricted free agent next spring, which heightens the importance of the upcoming season. A good year will put him in position for a long-term deal with Miami or somewhere else. Otherwise, he’ll probably be looking at single-year, prove-it contracts until he shows he’s worth more than that.

One factor working in his favor this season is stability. Having done his best to catch up on the Dolphins’ defense last year, he’s now had a full nine months with the team. He’s been around for all of OTAs and minicamp, plus he’ll work through training camp and the preseason. He had none of those benefits last year.

“The biggest difference is the amount of time I have and the time I’ve spent trying to learn the system and getting myself comfortable with it,” Anthony said.

Defensive coordinator Matt Burke sees that as the only barrier to Anthony being a significant contributor. He said last week, “It’s always difficult to come in the middle of the season, come from a different scheme and pick things up… But he works really hard. He works really, really hard.”

Everything’s more routine for Anthony now, including his living situation. He took up residence in a local hotel for almost a month after being traded to the Dolphins last season, but now he’s settled. That makes life easier.

It helps to have perspective, too. Going from first-round pick to castoff and now trying to climb his way back to the top hasn’t been fun, but he’s learned throughout that journey.

“I think it’s just growth, honestly,” Anthony said. “I think it’s just being in the league, going into my fourth year, understanding the game, how this game is played from the college game and just honing in and packing that information in.”

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Which Dolphins undrafted rookies have impressed DC Matt Burke?

Dolphins linebacker Mike McCray seems like a good early bet to make the roster. (Getty Images)

DAVIE — The Dolphins did well sifting through undrafted free agents last season and found six that were good enough to play for them. That group included linebacker Chase Allen, who was an opening day starter.

This year, Miami signed a dozen or so rookies after the draft, and a few of them have already turned up in offseason work. Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said cornerback Jalen Davis, linebacker Mike McCray and linebacker Cayson Collins have all made an impression during their first few weeks on the field.

“We’ve had a couple of years in a row now where we’re getting the right type of (undrafted) guys that are putting the work in,” Burke said, crediting general manager Chris Grier and his scouting staff. “So I have no complaints with any of those guys, the work ethic, and what they’re trying to do out there. The nature of a rookie, they’re going to have some plays and they’re going to have some flubs and we’ve got to work through those.”

Davis, from Utah State, has been one of the most consistent rookies over the first eight practices between Organized Team Activities and minicamp. He’s looked good working outside and against slot receivers.

McCray (Michigan) and Collins (North Carolina) have both picked things up quickly at linebacker, where the Dolphins badly need to establish depth behind starters Raekwon McMillan and Kiko Alonso. The third starter looks like it will be third-round pick Jerome Baker or Stephone Anthony.

“The linebackers, they’ve all had their moments,” Burke said. “I’ve probably dog-cussed them all a couple of times, but they’ve all had their moments. Mike McCray had a pick yesterday… Cayson is actually showing a little bit of ability to absorb some things. He’s got some savvy about him and stuff.”

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Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross welcomes Michigan LB Mike McCray

Stephen Ross personally reached out to Mike McCray when the Dolphins signed him. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — The Dolphins have an expansive and thorough team of scouts, and owner Stephen Ross might have been part of that operation this year.

He didn’t use a clipboard and a stopwatch, but Ross thought highly of Michigan linebacker Mike McCray and that couldn’t have hurt when McCray was looking for a team after going undrafted. It’s always nice for a job applicant when the owner of the company went to the same school, and Ross is one of Michigan’s most notable alums.

“It’s that Michigan connection,” McCray said this afternoon. “We’ve all got that certain connection.”

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McCray is one of 21 players in town this weekend for rookie minicamp, but it’s likely few — if any — of his peers got a phone call from Ross after they landed with the Dolphins. McCray said he told him congratulations and advised him to be ready for a challenge.

“He told me when I come here, just come to work,” McCray said. “That’s what I’m gonna do.”

Ross graduated from Michigan in 1962 before going into law and becoming a real estate developer. He is the biggest donor in the history of the university, with a $50 million gift last year pushing his total contribution to $378 million, according to the Detroit Free-Press.

Ross remains highly attached to the football program, and McCray said they’d met multiple times while he was in college.

“We didn’t really talk a lot because he’d come to visit and be in and out, but just kinda being able to talk to him and learning what he knows,” he said. “He’s a really smart guy and he’s one of the richest people in the world. Just coming in and building that connection, maybe in the long term it’ll help me out.”

That’s not the only reason Miami snatched up McCray. Not even close. He’s a 6-foot-4, 242-pounder who made the all-Big Ten team honorable mention list after piling up 79 tackles, 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble last season. He also had 73 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions and six pass breakups as a junior.

That was a strong comeback by McCray, who missed all of the 2015 season after having shoulder surgery and battling other injuries. The Dolphins saw potential there, and he’ll get a real chance to make the roster.

The top two linebackers are Raekwon McMillan and Kiko Alonso, and third-round pick Jerome Baker figures to be one of the top candidates for the third starting job. Beyond that, McCray is one of 10 players vying for what will probably be three or four additional spots.

“I really don’t know anything like that,” he said. “But I’m gonna come in and try to earn my keep.”

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2018 NFL Draft: Goals for Miami Dolphins’ draft class this offseason

What’s realistic for Minkah Fitzpatrick? (Getty Images)

With the Dolphins’ recent draft class reporting for rookie minicamp this weekend, they’ll need an iPad more than shoulder pads.

The first step toward securing a spot on the depth chart will take place indoors as 20 rookies dive into a playbook they’ll need to nail down by the time Miami hits the field for Organized Team Activities in two weeks.

The goals are incremental, starting with simply proving they’re serious enough about this opportunity to stick around for the four weeks of offseason practices. After that it’s earning the right to stay for training camp in July, when the real competition for jobs begins. The 85-90 players Miami has in camp will scrap for 53 spots.

Of the 20 players expected in Davie this week, only the first five draft picks can reasonably assume anything about their future. Anyone picked in the sixth or seventh round, as well as the dozen undrafted free agents, has nothing close to a guarantee.

As the rookies class begins its venture into this new world, going from college stars to that guy who carries Cameron Wake’s pads off the field, here’s the outlook for the eight players Miami drafted last month:

Minkah Fitzpatrick, safety, first round
As good as he is and as much as everyone raves about him being pro-ready, Fitzpatrick is no guarantee to knock T.J. McDonald out of the starting lineup. McDonald is 27 and looked good enough a year ago that Miami gave him a four-year, $24 million extension before he ever played a game. The test run of him and Jones on the back end didn’t go smoothly, and he’ll probably show up to OTAs ready to prove himself again.

The key for Fitzpatrick is to learn quickly and show versatility. The more he can do, the more defensive coordinator Matt Burke will look for places to get him on the field.

Mike Gesicki, tight end, second round
Gesicki is the most likely player in this draft class to earn a starting job, and the Dolphins are banking on him doing so. They have no one like him at the position. He was drafted to be the receiving threat this roster is missing at tight end, and his physical ability should be overwhelming compared to his competitors on the depth chart.

Route-running is the No. 1 job for Gesicki. If he is reliably in the right spots for Ryan Tannehill during offseason practices, it bodes well for his role in the offense going forward. A good showing will prompt Adam Gase to rework his plans over the monthlong break between June minicamp and training camp.

Jerome Baker, linebacker, third round
As thin as the Dolphins are at linebacker, Baker’s in for quite a fight at the position. Undrafted veterans Mike Hull and Chase Allen have stayed on the team because they’re technically sound, and former first-round pick Stephone Anthony is in a contract year. Beyond those players, Baker’s also got to outplay seventh-rounder Quentin Poling.

Baker is more of a coverage linebacker than a thumper, which should work well with what Miami needs. The plan for now is to install Raekwon McMillan at middle and Kiko Alonso on the outside. Baker’s got the requisite speed to capture the other outside job.

Durham Smythe, tight end, fourth round
By their own admission, the Dolphins basically drafted one tight end to can catch passes and one to block. Smythe is the blocker, but he’ll have to be more than that. Even Anthony Fasano, a role model for him, was a factor in the passing game. Over an eight-year span beginning in his third season, Fasano averaged 31 catches, 352 yards and four touchdowns.

That’s a good goal for Smythe. The Dolphins currently have A.J. Derby as a pass-catching threat and MarQueis Gray as a seasoned, savvy player who blocks well and occasionally springs loose as a receiver.

Kalen Ballage, running back, fourth round
Be fast and know the plays. Gase won’t ask much more than that out of Ballage. Kenyan Drake is the clear starter for the Dolphins at running back, and Frank Gore isn’t here merely to play professor. Ballage needs to get himself ready to fill in for Drake this season and to play with him starting in 2019.

In the meantime, he’s got an opportunity to be a threat on special teams. He clocked a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine and was an effective kick returner each of his last two seasons at Arizona State.

Cornell Armstrong, cornerback, sixth round
The Dolphins’ plan for cornerbacks is to have a lot of them. Xavien Howard and Cordrea Tankersley are the starters, Bobby McCain and Tony Lippett are reinforcements and it’s Hunger Games for everybody else.

Armstrong has 4.4 speed, but wasn’t a particularly outstanding high school or college player. He’ll have to be convincing to assure himself of making the cut over the next four months and he’ll be competing with Torry McTyer, Tracy Howard, Jordan Lucas and others to do so.

Quentin Poling, linebacker, seventh round
The Dolphins currently have eight linebackers on the roster, and Poling is last in line of that group. Additionally, the team is bringing in Cayson Collins from North Carolina and Mike McCray of Michigan as undrafted free agents, and there typically isn’t a huge difference between seventh-round picks and undrafted guys.

Poling’s got good strength and speed, which gives him a nice start in trying to win a job as a special teamer and second-string linebacker. While he’s got some decent competition, this is a position that’s mostly wide open for Miami.

Jason Sanders, kicker, seventh round
Sanders’ situation comes down to the fairly simple question of whether he can outperform undrafted Florida Atlantic kicker Greg Joseph. Whoever makes more kicks and looks better on kickoffs will take Cody Parkey’s old job — unless, of course, someone better becomes available in free agency.

Sanders made 25 of 35 field goals (71 percent) in his college career and hit 111 of 112 extra-point tries. Joseph, who played at American Heritage in Delray Beach, made 57 of 82 field goals (70 percent) and 165 of 170 extra points.

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