DAVIE — Charles Harris feels like a new man heading into his second season with the Dolphins, and it’s clear just by looking at his face that something is different.
After being selected No. 22 in last year’s draft, the transition to the NFL left Harris dazed at times. He had gone from being one of the biggest defensive stars in the SEC to a backup for the Dolphins, he wasn’t getting many sacks, he was unprepared for the financial windfall, work sometimes felt like drudgery and he was struggling to adapt to life on his own in a new environment.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact impact all of those factors had on Harris, but he was often downcast in the locker room after practice. He kept to himself mostly as he fought his way through what he now describes as “a dark place.” An offseason of prayer and reflection led to a renewed enthusiasm for Harris, and the change in his demeanor seems to have more to do with his personal life than anything football-related.
“Now I’m cool,” he said. “I understand that everything that happened the way it was, it was for the better of me and my family and everything like that. I understand that everything I do on the field and off the field affects everybody around me.
“I’ve got me a community down here being in Florida, being away from home, and that was a big thing. Now I have a community, I’ve got friends, I have everything I need to get to the top.”
Harris played all 16 games last season, but started just twice because he was behind Cameron Wake and Andre Branch. He played 47.5 percent of the defensive snaps and posted two sacks.
While no defensive end goes into the season targeting two sacks as an ambitious goal, he was satisfied with how he played. So were the Dolphins, who have several next-level statistics that indicate he was a strong presence as a pass rusher despite not racking up sacks.
There was still a constant feeling of confusion, and that often led him to treat football like merely a job. “I was just checking boxes every day; I came in, punched in, punched out,” he said. A lot of jobs are like that, but the NFL isn’t one of them. It takes a deeper commitment, especially for someone like Harris who aspires to be an elite defensive end, and his offseason soul-searching prompted a different approach to football.
“I feel like I just got better mentally, spiritually and things like that,” said Harris, who is a Christian. “Being able to take care of my family, get stuff done off the field and understanding grace and stuff like that. I’m better mentally. (That) is going to transition everything else.”
As for the direct effect that had on him football-wise, Harris said it motivated him to use his abilities to honor God: “This year it’s like I love it. I love it because I understand what it means to work. This is my work and use it as my worship.”
There’s an increased comfort level that comes experience, too. Not that he ever had trouble learning the playbook as a rookie, but he’s got a better handle on every aspect of the job now compared to a year ago.
“It’s less of a burden, for real,” he said. “It’s just free. Just playing free.”
With his mind in a better place on and off the field, Harris is heading into an amorphous opportunity this season.
The Dolphins are set on Wake and new trade acquisition Robert Quinn as their starting defensive ends, but the coaches have said multiple times the second wave of Branch and Harris will get ample snaps. The goal is spread playing time more evenly now that the team believes it has four starting-caliber defensive ends, plus veteran William Hayes and anyone else who emerges during the preseason.
That’s part of why Harris was undeterred by the team trading for Quinn, rather than simply let him battle Branch for a starting job. As accomplished as Wake and Quinn are — they’ve combined for seven Pro Bowl selections and 154.5 career sacks — Harris believes he’ll get enough chances if he shows he deserves them.
“Light is always going to shine,” he said. “I feel like you can’t contain nobody. You can’t keep anybody off the field. It’s the coaches that make sure … the best players are out there. That’s something they handle. I’m going to take it every single day and work as hard as I can, and we’ll see on game day.”
DAVIE — The simplest and most ideal solution Kenny Stills is offering amid the NFL’s national anthem policy debate is to get rid of it altogether.
The league and the NFLPA are discussing revisions to the rules the owners enacted in March, and the mandate for players to stand or stay out of sight is on hold for now. The two Dolphins players who have demonstrated in the past, Stills and defensive end Robert Quinn, are waiting for that resolution until they decide how they’ll handle the anthem this season.
“I’ll just say one thing: It’s called freedom of speech,” Quinn said when asked what should happen. “Simple as that. It’s freedom of speech.”
Stills agreed, saying, “Obviously I’d like to see there be no policy at all, and the guys have a choice to go out there and do what they want to, and we can support each other and the decisions we want to make.”
This was the first time Quinn and Stills have spoken to the media since the Dolphins drew national attention last week when an Associated Press report indicated they submitted documents listing suspension as a possible penalty to for violating the anthem rules.
The team later said it hasn’t made a decision on the policy yet, and the NFL and the union are continuing to discuss a potential resolution. Dolphins coach Adam Gase said he’s waiting until something comes down from the league, but can’t envision a player being suspended over the national anthem.
The impasse didn’t stop Cowboys owner Jerry Jones from declaring that his players will be required to stand for the anthem and won’t have the option of remaining out of sight.
“I wouldn’t expect anything different,” Stills said of Jones.
Quinn and Stills said there hasn’t been much dialogue with management about the issue and their attention is centered on preparing for the upcoming season. The Dolphins opened training camp today and play their first preseason game Aug. 9 at home against Tampa Bay.
Stills has worked frequently with owner Stephen Ross in social justice efforts and appears to have had a good relationship with him during his four years playing for the Dolphins. He hasn’t spoken much with Ross about the national anthem issue since last season.
Quinn, who came in on a trade with the Rams this offseason, said he’s never discussed it with Ross.
“No one brought it up,” Quinn said. “Until we have a discussion, that’s just where it is right now. If the topic comes up, then it comes up. But right now, I’ll hold my opinion to myself and try to do my best to make this football team better.”
While Stills kneeled the last two seasons, Quinn raised a fist during the anthem last year. The NFL’s no-kneeling policy did not specifically address an action like Quinn’s, though it could be covered under the requirement to “stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.”
“If anybody knew actual rules in the NFL, good luck suspending somebody,” he said. “It takes about 5,000 things before anybody can get suspended by a club.”
He added, “I’m just telling you, other incidents that have happened in the past, it’s harder to suspend guys than what anybody realizes.”
Protests during the anthem have been an issue since 2016, Gase’s first year as head coach of the Dolphins. Since then, the team’s response has been all over the place. There was a stretch last season in which players were required to stay in the locker room if they weren’t going to stand, but that policy was pulled back.
It’s been a similarly turbulent ride for the NFL, which believed it finally solved the problem by laying down rules in March that required players to stand or stay off the field. It put that policy on hold after the NFLPA filed a grievance this month, and the league and players union agreed to continue trying to find a solution that suits both sides.
That takes the issue out of Gase’s hands for the moment. He doesn’t have to answer questions about a policy that currently isn’t in place.
“I just kinda wait and see what we’re told by the NFL and NFLPA, what’s going on as far as their conversations go,” he said. “I wait until we actually start games. It seems like things change a lot.”
The Dolphins have two key players who have demonstrated in the past. Wide receiver Kenny Stills kneeled during the anthem the last two seasons, and new defensive end Robert Quinn raised a first last year while with the Rams.
Neither player has indicated their plans for the upcoming season, but both spoke today in favor of players having the freedom to express themselves.
— The Dolphins remain upbeat about Ryan Tannehill’s recovery from the knee injury that wiped out his 2017 season, but there’s still some concern about eventually shifting into live contact situations. The team also wants to work with him on his sliding technique as a preventative measure.
— Gase declined to get into the national anthem policy debate, but couldn’t envision a player actually being suspended.
— Veteran slot receiver Danny Amendola looks “exactly like the guy we played against last year,” Gase said.
— The team will begin using shoulder pads at practice Saturday and be in full pads Sunday or Monday. That’s especially important when it comes to the rookies. Gase wants to see if they play like they did in college.
— It was in the low 90s for this morning’s work, and Gase thought it was possibly the hottest practice he’s had since he got here.
DAVIE — Adam Gase believes the Dolphins have an ideal mix of skill players in the passing game this year and the right quarterbacks to make the most of that group. After about four months of formal and informal workouts together, that element of the offense looked sharp on the first day of training camp.
The passing attack starts with Ryan Tannehill’s return, and regardless of whether he can get back to the way he played in 2016, he’ll automatically be an upgrade over Jay Cutler. Tannehill has tested his surgically repaired left knee as much as possible, saying he took it beyond what was necessary to be cleared for football, and practiced most of the offseason without a brace on it.
He was in a brace this morning and is certain to wear one on game days. Now that Miami is in camp, he has no choice but to get himself reacclimated to playing with it even as the team works without pads the first two days.
His most proven weapon is Kenny Stills, who continues improve as he hits what should be the prime of his career. At 26, he’s already a six-year veteran and put up 100 catches, 1,573 yards and 15 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
The rest of the crew is somewhat unknown, though Gase’s confidence runs counter to the outside perception. He sees a dynamic, multi-faceted playmaker in new acquisition Albert Wilson and a technician with plenty left in the tank in former Patriot Danny Amendola. Tannehill hit Amendola over the middle a few times in 11-on-11 work.
They’re still hopeful that DeVante Parker will finally find his breakthrough, but they’re not depending on it as much as they did last year. It’s almost thought of as a bonus if he’s able to give them more than he did in 2017.
The three starting receivers at this point figure to be Stills, Parker and Amendola, plus the Dolphins have second-round pick Mike Gesicki at tight end.
Then there’s Kenyan Drake, who has a chance to be the most productive offensive player. Everything is lining up for him to have a big year, and Gase is enthusiastic about settling in with exactly his type of running back. Drake shined when he got the chance late last year, but has yet to do it over an extended period. He showed his speed — he’s faster than Jay Ajayi, though not as much of a bruiser — on several outside runs and short passes today.
Behind Tannehill, the Dolphins gave Brock Osweiler and David Fales snaps with the second team, though it still seems Fales is at least a slight favorite to win the backup job. Osweiler threw an interception early in those drills on a ball that bounced out of Jakeem Grant’s hands.
Gase declined to name either player as the leader for the job at the end of Organized Team Activities last month, but his comments going back to January have indicated a strong belief in Fales. New York Jets castoff Bryce Petty is also in camp.
As much as Dolphins coach Adam Gase loves his roster, he’s repeatedly painted it as a work in progress. There’s still plenty to figure out personnel-wise, and that process kicks into high gear when training camp opens Thursday morning.
As Gase approaches the start of a critical third season with Miami, here are five problems he has to solve over the next few weeks:
1. They need a backup quarterback. It’s fine for the Dolphins to be optimistic about Ryan Tannehill’s knee, and there appears to be good cause for that, but they know better than to assume he’ll make it through all 16 games. They actually came out and said that in January, which made it perplexing that they did not secure a proven backup in the offseason. Gase says he’s supremely confidence in David Fales and/or Brock Osweiler as the backup — he seems to favor Fales — but both of them come with question marks.
2. Their linebacker corps must improve. As a former linebackers coach, defensive coordinator Matt Burke must have been exasperated by how underwhelming the Dolphins were at that position last year. They’ve got a good start with Raekwon McMillan in the middle and Kiko Alonso on the outside, assuming they stay healthy, but there’s no certainty beyond those two. Stephone Anthony’s had an up-and-down career, Mike Hull and Chase Allen haven’t proven themselves as NFL starters, and it might take a while for draft picks Jerome Baker and Quentin Poling to materialize into contributors.
3. Kenyan Drake has to establish himself as a top weapon. The Dolphins’ collection of skill players has a lot of good talent, but is there a great one among them? Drake’s speed and versatility, combined with Gase’s inventiveness, gives him a chance to stand out. When he took over as pretty much the only healthy running back available late last season, he closed the year with a league-best 444 yards (4.9 per carry) over the final five games. He also caught 17 passes for 150 yards during that span. But the jump from there to becoming a premier weapon is a big one, and it’ll take more than just physical ability.
4. There’s a big vacancy at kicker. Kicker and punter are positions that fans (and teams, for that matter) sometimes take for granted, and that could hurt the Dolphins this season. They regret losing Cody Parkey in free agency and now move forward with seventh-rounder Jason Sanders competing against undrafted local product Greg Joseph. Neither seems to have an edge after their first three months in the organization, so training camp decide it.
5. Defensive end has to be an absolute strength.
The Dolphins’ salary cap ledger makes one thing undeniably clear: They value pass rushers above all else. It’s fine to spend big at that position, but they have to get results there. Robert Quinn and Andre Branch are the two biggest salary cap hits on the roster this year, combining for $21.4 million, and Cameron Wake is fifth at $9.6 million. Those three are eating up about 17 percent of Miami’s total spending, according to Spotrac. With a first line of Quinn and Wake followed by a second wave of Branch and Charles Harris, Miami needs to be in the top 10 in sacks this year.
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 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).
The Dolphins are worth $2.575 billion, which outranks some other notable franchises such as the Green Bay Packers (2.55), Boston Celtics (2.5), Manchester City (2.474), Arsenal (2.238) and the New York Mets (2.1).
As Forbes notes, the NFL is king in the world of sports.
Thirty-seven percent of Americans picked football as their favorite sport to watch in the latest Gallup Poll, Forbes reports. Basketball, baseball and soccer trail at 11, 9 and 7 percent.
NFL teams each earn $255 million in shared television rights. The most valuable franchises in the world are the: Dallas Cowboys (4.84 billion), Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, New York Yankees, New England Patriots, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Giants and Golden State Warriors.
The NFL lands 29 teams among the 50 most valuable sports franchises for the second straight year, according to Forbes.
Owner Stephen Ross reportedly completed his purchase of 95 percent of the Dolphins for $1 billion in 2009. The year before, Ross bought 50 percent of the franchise, Dolphin Stadium and surrounding land for $550 million.
Ross has spent more than $550 million to turn Hard Rock Stadium into a world-class facility, which also improves the value of the franchise.
DAVIE — The way everything has lined up for quarterback David Fales this offseason, it’ll be a surprise if anyone else claims the Dolphins’ backup quarterback job.
It’s a pivotal career opportunity for Fales after bouncing around the last four years. Miami coach Adam Gase is adamant that he’s going to pick from among Fales, Brock Osweiler and Bryce Petty rather than call a free agent veteran like he did with Jay Cutler a year ago.
Part of the reason he’s been so confident about moving forward with this group is what he’s seen from Fales over the past several months.
“I think after that last game, I was feeling good,” Gase said Thursday, referring to Fales’ passable performance in the season finale against Buffalo.
When he brought in offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, who coached Fales in Chicago, he confirmed what Gase thought. Fales looked like a much more polished quarterback than he’d been earlier in his career and appeared ready to be Ryan Tannehill’s backup.
Gase was encouraged enough by what he’d seen and what Loggains thought that he didn’t think it was necessary for the Dolphins to make any bold moves with quarterbacks in the recent free agency period.
“We felt like (keeping Fales) was a good first step for us and really we wanted to see how everything played out, because between free agency and the draft, you just never know how things are going to shake out,” Gase said. “By adding Brock and then Bryce, I think it’s been a good competition.
“That’s really what we’re going to be doing going into training camp. We’re just going to let those guys compete and see who wins out.”
As solid as Fales was last year and as well he’s performed in offseason practices, Gase isn’t installing him as the backup after the end of Organized Team Activities. He plans to keep the position battle open well into August.
“Right now I don’t even want to go in that direction yet because I don’t have a great answer for it,” Gase said. “I want to see guys play in preseason games. I want to see kind of how training camp goes. That’s a lot of time there and there’s a lot of football to be played. I want those guys all competing. I’m hoping those guys all have the same mentality that they’re the guy to beat.”