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.”
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.
DAVIE—The ankle injury Jordan Phillips suffered in the Dolphins’ season opener seemed to have the worst possible timing. Not that there’s ever a convenient time to get hurt, but he was really trending upwardly at the time.
He fought back to reclaim his starting job from rookie Davon Godchaux with a strong close to the preseason and was playing well in that game, a 19-17 win over the Chargers, then spent the next two weeks on the sideline because of the injury.
That allowed Godchaux and fellow rookie Vincent Taylor to get some valuable snaps, and that’s the most important aspect of the injury to Phillips.
“If anything, it made our room stronger,” he said. “It made the young guys get a little bit more experience and it’s put us in a better place.
“It’s not about me. That’s the way I’m looking at it. If we’re better as a group now because I was gone, then it served its purpose. When I get back, I can help the room out like we’ve been doing.”
Phillips missed the Jets and Saints games and remains in question for Miami’s home opener against Tennessee on Sunday. He was a full participant in today’s practice, which is a good sign that he’ll return soon.
Phillips declined to say whether he was close last week and described it as a day-to-day injury. He’s still not back to full strength.
While he’s been out, he’s been very attentive to Godchaux and Taylor. Phillips thinks of himself as essentially an extra defensive line coach.
“I’m just a third pair of eyes between (Terrell Williams) and (Andre Carter), just trying to help out,” he said. “Godchaux and Vince come to me if they think they didn’t see something right or just want to have a question about something, they can feel comfortable enough to come talk to me about it. That’s what I try to do for them.”
DAVIE — For six members of the Dolphins, last weekend wasn’t just a dramatic opening start to the season, but a start to their NFL careers.
Six rookies shook off jitters and helped the Dolphins defeat the Los Angeles Chargers 19-17. Maybe a year or 10 from now, it’ll be forgotten by many fans. But not these six men.
“It’s a game I’m going to remember the rest of my life,” punter Matt Haack said. “So to be able to look back and say I won my first NFL game with a great group of guys like this, it’s something special.”
How special? Here are their stories.
LB Chase Allen: Starting was ‘kind of a shock’
As if your first NFL game weren’t enough of a nerve-racking experience for a rookie, imagine getting word at the last minute that you’re starting.
“Finding out the night before is always kind of a shock,” Allen said. “But I felt ready.”
Turns out coach-speak isn’t always just a cliche.
“They told me all week that if anything happens, I’m going in, so to be ready, so I felt prepared,” Allen said.
Chances are “if anything happens” usually doesn’t mean “in case the guy in front of you goes AWOL,” but that’s exactly what happened with Lawrence Timmons.
Not only did Allen start, but he was in on three tackles, including the first play of the game. Talk about a welcome to the NFL moment …
“We brought some pressure and I was untouched and got a TFL (tackle for loss) in the backfield with Kiko (Alonso),” Allen said. “That was like, ‘All right, I knew I could play at this level.’ ”
P Matt Haack: Keeping mouth shut a veteran move
Who says rookies aren’t smart?
Haack had an underappreciated role in the win. Keeping his mouth shut was half the job.
Haack was the holder when Cody Parkey nailed that 54-yard field goal that beat the Chargers. What was the communication like before and after the kick?
“I try to stay away,” Haack said. “I would assume that he trusts me that I’m going to get it down and everything. I mainly talked with (holder) John (Denney). We warmed up on the sideline together. In a situation like that you kind of let the kicker be.”
Haack’s job is to get the ball down as quickly as possible for Parkey to get a good, long look at the placement.
“You kind of have to go out and treat it like every other kick, but you’re always going to have that in the back of your mind, ‘This is the game-winner,’ ” Haack said.
Haack averaged 43.3 yards on three punts, starting his career with a 53-yarder but following with a 19-yarder.
“It was very uncharacteristic of an NFL guy,” he said. “No one was more frustrated or upset than I was at it.”
Haack said while trying to drive the ball farther, he caught it with the side of his foot and swung across it, “But coach Gase told me not to worry about it, stay aggressive.”
S Maurice Smith: ‘I’m a real NFL player’
Smith hopes many more memories are still to come, but last Sunday seemed about as good as it gets.
Smith is the type of rookie who takes pleasures in the simplest of things. Such as?
“The fact that I got to represent everything I worked for,” he said. “I think the fact that we came out of the tunnel and I was just looking up and seeing all those fans out there and actually being able to say I’m a real NFL player. It’s a blessing. That was the best feeling.”
Well, maybe not The Best. Because in the closing seconds, the Chargers missed a 44-yard field-goal attempt, making Smith a winner.
“I knew once I looked at it,” he said. “I was like, ‘Man, that’s a miss. It’s wide.’ Once it didn’t go in, it felt like we won the Super Bowl. But it’s just the first game.”
DE Charles Harris: Welcome to the … damn!
This isn’t in college anymore.
Harris, the Dolphins’ first-round pick, was reminded of that after his pass-rush attempt.
“I was kind of like, ‘Damn,’ ” he said.
OK, so maybe that puts Harris in the same category as 100 percent of the other rookies. Next, he had to figure out what just happened.
“I went to the sideline and looked at the little pictures of the play,” said Harris, who played 27 snaps and made a tackle. “It was, ‘OK, this is why they have these resources. This is why they have these coaches on the sideline, to help us out, to teach us. This isn’t like college where you can go in and you have a game plan. You have to mix it up mid-game.’
“I think that’s probably the biggest ‘welcome to the NFL,’ that you were switching up what you had been studying all week because you’ve seen something different. Being able to adjust on the fly.”
DT Davon Godchaux: View from trenches quite intense
Godchaux knew playing in the NFL was intense, but his indoctrination was under the most intense conditions you can get.
“When we did goal line, it was pretty rough down there, you know,” Godchaux said. “Welcome to the NFL, rookie. Coach T (DL coach Terrell Williams) always talks about you never want to end up in the back of the end zone. You always want to be across the line.
“But it got real down in that moment.”
The Chargers scored, which reinforced what coaches had been saying.
“You’re usually not seeing guys come off that low (in normal situations),” said Godchaux, who played a rookie-high 32 snaps and made two tackles. “So as a defensive lineman you have to come off first, get them in their charge so they can’t knock you back.”
Godchaux already knows what he’ll tell his kids years from now about last Sunday.
“Your dad played in the NFL and it was pretty good. My first game, we won.”
DT Vincent Taylor: ‘Kind of shed a little tear’ during anthem
At last, a rookie who’ll admit it.
“At the national anthem, I kind of shed a little tear,” Taylor said.
In that moment, Taylor was reflecting on the road traveled to reach the point football players dream of.
“Just knowing everything I’d been through, my journey, going through Katrina and me playing in an NFL game — that was emotional,” he said.
He endured three days without power after Katrina and now was making his NFL debut on the heels of Hurricane Irma. Taylor said fellow defensive tackle Jordan Phillips saw how worked up he was and “told me to make the best of it, take advantage of it.”
Taylor was inserted in a goal-line situation and made a tackle on one of his first pro plays.
“It’s only the beginning,” he said. “I’ve got a long way to go.”
DAVIE — The Dolphins drafted Oklahoma State defensive tackle Vincent Taylor in the sixth round Saturday.
Taylor and his family were forced out of their home in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. The moved to San Antonio, where football helped him ease the transition.
“We lost everything we had,” he said. “We got new furniture. Our roof caved in.”
Taylor is 6-3, 304 pounds.
“It was a blessing when I got the call,” Taylor said. “I told them I’m grateful and I’d love to be a Miami Dolphin.”
He led the Cowboys last season with 13 tackles for loss. He had seven sacks and also blocked four kicks.
“I don’t take plays off,” he said. “Special teams plays, I take that as a regular play.”
Taylor has a standard response when people ask who he models his game after: “I like the way Ndamukong Suh plays,” he said.
Pro Football Focus’ scouting report on Taylor:
“Taylor’s intriguing potential will likely see him selected some time on Day 2. Although far from perfect, his flashes of brilliance are hard to ignore. Taylor ticks the boxes for size, athleticism and production. His length is instantly noticeable, particularly on first contact. Centers have a difficult job at the best of times, and Taylor compounds the problem with his capacity to overwhelm blockers heads up. If there is one weakness, he might be overly-reliant on dominating early in reps. He does not always win his duels if the first contact is neutral, and he can be vulnerable to chips from a second blocker as well as genuine double-teams. Those concerns are mitigated somewhat by the dual-threat he represents. Taylor moves extremely well for a man his size, helping him generate pressure with finesse as well as power. He is a potential Day 1 starter.”
The last Dolphins sixth-round pick to have an impact was tight end Charles Clay, taken 174th overall in 2011.
The Dolphins didn’t enter the draft with a sixth-round pick but obtained the 194th overall selection from Philadelphia in a trade involving four picks. The deal allowed the Dolphins to move up a couple of slots in Round 5 to take Utah guard Isaac Asiata.
This is the sixth year in the past seven that the Dolphins have made trades involving at least one sixth-round pick. The only time they stood pat was 2014, when they took receiver Matt Hazel.
The Dolphins had four sixth-round picks at one time or another last year, dealing two to Minnesota but selecting receiver/return man Jakeem Grant and cornerback Jordan Lucas.
The Dolphins had set the tone for this draft over the first two days by going all-in on defense, taking end Charles Harris, linebacker Raekwon McMillan and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley in succession.