Stability gives Dolphins TE A.J. Derby chance to win starting job

A.J. Derby is undaunted by the Dolphins drafting two rookie tight ends. (AP)

DAVIE — It is a widespread assumption that second-round pick Mike Gesicki will be the Dolphins’ starting tight end this season. He comes in with a higher pedigree than anyone else Miami has at the position, making him the most intriguing player in a room made up mostly of journeymen.

But A.J. Derby isn’t conceding anything.

After three-plus years bouncing around, Derby has gotten some stability since coming to the Dolphins on a waiver claim last November. Before the draft, when Miami took Gesicki and fourth-rounder Durham Smythe, coach Adam Gase talked about him as a candidate to start this year.

It’s a much different situation for Derby than last season, when he arrived in the middle of a game week from Denver and had little time to learn everything before the season ended a month later. Now, after spending the whole offseason in South Florida and buried in Gase’s playbook, he’s got a better chance to prove himself.

“Last year I was learning week by week the plays that were installed,” he said after practice today. “It didn’t get the full install in camp, but now I get to learn the ins and outs of the offense, so that’s awesome.”

As for the team drafting two players at his position, Derby added, “I don’t pay attention to the draft. They have their own reasoning for everything they’re doing. I don’t really look at. I’m just looking forward. I’m not worried about that.”

He has a significant edge over the rookies at this point because of his familiarity with the offense and the work he put in with quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Derby said he hit the field for many offseason throwing sessions, which has already helped him play better in Organized Team Activities.

Derby is a 6-foot-5, 255-pound pass-catcher who, at his best, has been a viable threat. He closed out the 2016 season in Denver with 16 catches for 160 yards over the final five games. He was solid in the first half of last season, too, going for 19 catches, 224 yards and two touchdowns in nine games while playing with some of the worst quarterbacks in the league.

Those numbers aren’t amazing, but the Dolphins would gladly settle for adequate production out of that position at this point.

Derby’s run with the Broncos ended with an unspecified injury, which prompted them to waive him. When he arrived in Davie, he said he was healthy and cleared to practice. He’s not sure why he wasn’t able to stick in New England or Denver, but he’s optimistic about what he can do for the Dolphins this year after a full offseason with the team.

“Being with Coach Gase is exciting,” Derby said. “He’s done a lot of great things with tight ends in his past. That’s why as a room we’re really excited and working so hard. We want to be there for the offense and make as many plays as we can.”

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Throwing sessions with Ryan Tannehill give Dolphins TE A.J. Derby advantage

Dolphins TE A.J. Derby is battling two rookies for a starting spot. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill always likes to organize some off-site throwing sessions in the offseason, and those workouts have been particularly important this year.

Not only does Tannehill need the repetitions after being out long-term with a knee injury, there are several key skill players who have emerged since he last played in December 2016. Tight end A.J. Derby is part of that group and benefitted tremendously from working with Tannehill before Organized Team Activities began.

Derby, who came in from Denver on a waiver claim late last year, stayed in Jupiter this offseason and drove down whenever Tannehill wanted.

“That’s what that time of year is for, to get that connection and get going,” Derby said after OTA practice today. “And hopefully by the season everyone will be clicking.”

That also gave Derby a head start on fighting for his spot on the depth chart. The Dolphins drafted a pass-catching tight end in Mike Gesicki in the second round this year and took Durham Smythe, a blocking specialist, in the fourth.

This is Derby’s third team since New England took him in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, and he’s played with a variety of quarterbacks over his time with New England, Miami and Denver.

As a former college quarterback, he prides himself on helping someone like Tannehill as much as possible. There were no monumental breakthroughs during their throwing sessions, but they hammered out some nuances that should help as they continue to work toward the start of training camp next month.

“He’s a very detail-oriented quarterback,” Derby said. “He wants you exactly where he wants you, and I was just trying to take exactly what he wanted and implement it in my game — just certain routes being in the right spot and looking at the right time.

“It’s just the timing and me being ready when he wants me to be ready, like on a little diagonal route, he wants me to look a little bit earlier, so that’s what we worked on. It’s just small details.”

Derby came to the Dolphins in late November last season and got on the field for the final two games. He was targeted nine times and caught two passes for 20 yards.

Prior to that, he appeared in 19 games for the Patriots and Broncos, totaling 35 receptions, 384 yards and two touchdowns.

A few months ago, coach Adam Gase said the team didn’t get a full opportunity to see what Derby could do, and the staff has much better grasp of his skillset now.

“I’m really interested to see what we can do with him,” Gase said in March. “We’ll kind of see what we can do developing him. I think he’s one of those guys that has a great feel in the slot and kind of that one-on-one spot versus a safety or linebacker. We’ll see how it plays out.”

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2018 NFL Draft: Going against own philosophy puts pressure on Dolphins

Roquan Smith could be a Miami Dolphin by the end of the night. (Getty Images)

The Dolphins try to be as guarded as possible about their intentions in the NFL Draft, which starts with Round 1 tonight. The trio that runs football operations for the organization does all it can to avoid tipping its hand.

The only morsel of insight vice president Mike Tannenbaum has been willing to divulge over the past few years is a core philosophy of not relying on the draft to fill holes in the lineup. Miami’s intention is to already have a game-ready starting 22 and enjoy the flexibility of choosing the best available talent.

That didn’t happen this year.

The Dolphins enter draft weekend with only two clear starters at linebacker and without an established tight end. If they’re serious about competing for a playoff spot this season, they’ll try to find those answers in the draft.

Their best shot at that will be in the first two nights, when they select No. 11 overall, No. 42 in the second around and No. 73 in the third. On Saturday, they have two fourth-rounders, a sixth and two sevenths.

Unless they get lucky and have a top quarterback slide to them in the first round, they’re well-positioned address linebacker at No. 11. They need someone who can be a starter this season and a fixture beyond it.

Georgia’s Roquan Smith and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds are thought to be the best two at the position. Smith’s a little more pro-ready, but Edmunds is a tremendously talented prospect who’s only 19.

The Dolphins currently have Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan in place, and there’s good cause to be optimistic about both of them.

McMillan was a second-rounder last year who was so impressive that he claimed the starting middle linebacker job before tearing his ACL in the preseason. Alonso had some issues last season, but he was good enough the year before to earn a three-year, $29 million contract extension.

The trouble is the Dolphins don’t have proven depth behind them. While a third linebacker often isn’t necessary for their defense, it is a need and they’d also like to have contingencies set up in case they run into snags like last year. Plus, they need to be prepared for Alonso’s contract running out after the 2020 season.

The other four linebackers currently on the roster are Chase Allen (four starts last year), Terence Garvin (three), Mike Hull (three) and Stephone Anthony (none).

As thin as the Dolphins appear at linebacker, their tight end situation is even more concerning. They’re currently proceeding with A.J. Derby as the logical starter, and he has 37 catches for three teams since being drafted in the sixth round of the 2015 draft.

The other options are MarQueis Gray (one catch last season), Gavin Escobar (none) and Thomas Duarte (none).

In the draft, top prospects Hayden Hurst of South Carolina and Dallas Goedert from South Dakota State are projected to go in the 20s at the earliest. The Dolphins probably wouldn’t be getting ideal value for such a high pick by taking one of them at 11th. If they really want Goedert or Hurst, the route would be trading back and acquiring extra picks or exploring a move up from No. 42 into the late first round.

Trading up in general seems highly unlikely for Miami in the first two rounds because it needs its full stock of picks as it tries to reshape a roster that went 16-16 over the last two regular seasons.

If the Dolphins can’t get Hurst or Goedert, or if they go for a quarterback in the second round, they can target someone in the next tier of tight ends in the third.

Penn State’s Mike Gesicki and Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews could go in the second or third round. Indiana’s Ian Thomas, Central Florida’s Jordan Akins, University of Miami’s Chris Herndon and Washington’s Will Dissly are later possibilities.

The roster holes put a ton of pressure on the Dolphins to get it right tonight and Friday. Hitting on the perfect combination of picks in the first three rounds is extremely difficult, and that’s without taking into account what the other 31 teams will do. It’s smart that they typically strategize their offseason in a way that avoids this situation, but this year they’ll have to make it work.

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2018 NFL Draft: Miami Hurricanes TE Chris Herndon has big upside

Chris Herndon has a big upside if he makes it all the way back from his knee injury. (Andres Leiva/The Post)

Chris Herndon refused to consider that a season-ending knee injury his senior year at the University of Miami would derail his dreams. He’s been fighting his way back from it for months, and as the NFL Draft nears, it looks like he’s in the mix to be picked.

He’s probably one of the top 10 tight ends in this year’s class despite not getting the chance to finish last season and having to rehabilitate his MCL. While most players have spent the last few months training and trying to climb draft boards, Herndon’s knee has limited what he’s able to do.

“It started by letting it heal from the surgery and then finally getting into some therapy and lifts, then some cardio and getting on the field,” he said. “I started jogging and running as fast as I possibly can (in late February) and practicing cutting as well. I feel like I’m coming along pretty well.”

He was close, but not quite full-go at Miami’s pro day last week. Nonetheless, many teams are intrigued by how Herndon progressed with the Hurricanes, increasing his catches, yards and touchdowns every year.

He met with more NFL representatives at the combine than he could recall, including the Dolphins, and looks like he could be a mid-round pick.

“I met with one of their scouts and he told me he liked my game,” Herndon said. “He talked to my coaches and he heard good things, like I’m a hardworking person and very focused. They like me.”

The Dolphins are familiar with him since he played most of his games in their stadium and they could be on the lookout for multiple tight ends in this year’s draft. It’s arguably their thinnest position depth-wise this offseason.

At present, Miami will be counting on A.J. Derby as its starter, which is a role he’s never held full-time. Since being drafted in the sixth-round in 2015, he’s been on three teams and started four games.

Behind him, the Dolphins have veteran MarQueis Gray and seldom-used backup Thomas Duarte. Gray had one catch last season. Duarte hasn’t dressed for a game since his debut in 2016.

That’s why it would make sense for the team to look for more than one this year. The Dolphins have never drafted a tight end in the first round and haven’t picked one higher than the fourth round since 2012, but that’s likely to change this year.

Miami could target Hayden Hurst or Dallas Goedert if one of them slides to the second round and is available at No. 42. There’s a decent crop of tight ends in the second tier, then there are some later options like Herndon.

He’s 6-foot-4, 253 pounds and was described by coach Mark Richt as “a warrior for us” and an easy player to coach.

“He’s going to have a really wonderful NFL career,” Richt told reporters when Herndon got hurt. “He’s been a mainstay in this offense the last two years that I’ve been here. And this year, especially, he’s been getting the lion’s share of all the reps of when the tight end’s in the game.”

Herndon capitalized on that opportunity from Richt by catching 40 passes for 477 yards and four touchdowns, making a big jump from playing behind first-round pick David Njoku in 2016. Those aren’t amazing numbers, but his overall athleticism suggests there’s a higher ceiling for Herndon at the next level as he develops.

He’s a solid blocker, too, which is something he’s emphasized in his pre-draft training in Tampa. Herndon said he’s been studying video of plays in which he got beat and has worked on corrections. He’s also been doing a lot of upper body workouts because of his knee injury.

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Miami Dolphins starting tight end for 2018? Probably A.J. Derby

Is A.J. Derby ready for his first crack at a starting job? (AP)

ORLANDO—Two key positions the Dolphins haven’t addressed this offseason are tight end and linebacker. With the majority of free agency wrapped up, at least until more players get cut, those figure to priorities in next month’s NFL Draft.

At tight end, for now, Miami looks like it’ll proceed with A.J. Derby as the leader to win the starting job. He has four career starts and appears to be ahead of MarQueis Gray and Thomas Duarte as the team moves toward the upcoming season.

“We’ll kind of see what we can do developing him,” coach Adam Gase said this week. “I think he’s one of those guys that has a great feel in the slot and that one-on-one spot versus a safety or linebacker. We’ll see how it plays out.”

The Dolphins are also recruiting 12-year veteran Anthony Fasano, who hasn’t decided if he wants to keep playing.

Derby, 26, was a waiver pickup from Denver last season and caught two passes for 11 yards in two games with the Dolphins. He supposedly had an injured shoulder when the Broncos decided to let him go, but said he was ready to play in a game when he arrived in South Florida.

The Patriots made him a sixth-round pick in 2015, then traded him to the Broncos the following season. In 21 career games, he has 37 receptions, 404 yards and two touchdowns. Almost all of that production came in Denver.

Gase believes Derby has yet to get a full opportunity to see how good he can be, and it looks like he’ll get that chance this season.

“I’m really interested to see what we can do with him,” Gase said. “Seeing him go out the first day and he’s running around and he’s fine and I could tell the quarterbacks really liked working with him. Anytime you get a guy that has been a former quarterback, he seems to have a great feel for where to be, where to fit in, kind of what that guy is thinking.”

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2018 NFL free agents: Tight ends disappearing, Dolphins still need one

Jimmy Graham might’ve looked good in aqua and orange. (Getty Images)

Maybe this is the year the Dolphins finally spend a high draft pick on a tight end. It’s looking they won’t have a choice.

They weren’t players when it came to the top two free agents at the position, with Jimmy Graham going to Green Bay and Trey Burton landing in Chicago shortly after the legal tampering period opened.

There are still some worthwhile options, but none are sure bets.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins is only 25, but has never come close to reaching the potential Tampa Bay saw in him as a second-round pick in 2014. Spotrac estimates his market value at a tolerable $12.5 million over three years.

Martellus Bennett has been a monster in his career, but he’s 31, has injury concerns and was all set to retire until last month.

Tyler Eifert is a former first-round pick who’s had one good season in five years and underwent two surgeries in 2017. Spotrac predicts he’ll draw offers in the neighborhood of four years, $30 million, which would seem to rule him out for Miami.

Then there’s Ed Dickson, a guy who is turning 31 this summer and hasn’t had a 500-yard season since 2011. Last year, with Carolina, he had 30 catches for 437 yards and one touchdown. That’s not far off of what Julius Thomas gave the Dolphins last season.

Thomas is likely to be cut by the end of today, which leaves Miami with three tight ends on its roster: A.J. Derby (37 career catches), MarQueis Gray (27) and Thomas Duarte (none). The team could also explore re-signing Anthony Fasano, who is known more so as a run blocker and had 12 catches for 107 yards and a touchdown last year. He turns 34 next month and hasn’t said whether he’s going to keep playing.

“That’s always going to be a position we look at and try to figure out what’s going to be best for us,” coach Adam Gase said at the NFL Combine. “Any time that you can have a tight end that can be effective in the pass game and still be effective in the run game and pass protection, that’s what you want there. The last two years, we’ve had some movement where guys have been in and out. We’ll kind of see what happens this year.

“Picking up A.J. late last year was good for us. He did some things that really impressed us in practice and we tried to get him involved a little bit in a game.”

Furthermore, Miami is losing its best red-zone receiver and third-down hero in Jarvis Landry.

Tight end has been a long-neglected area for the Dolphins, who have never drafted one in the first round. Their most recent picks were Duarte (2016, seventh round), Arthur Lynch (2014, fifth round), Dion Sims (2013, fourth round), Michael Egnew (2012, third round). Sims, whose career-high in catches is 26, has been the best of the bunch. Lynch never played an NFL game, and Egnew lasted two years in the league.

The last time Miami took a tight end in the second round was when it selected Loaird McCreary in 1979, and the highest tight end it’s ever selected was second-rounder Jim Mandich at No. 29 overall in 1970.

They passed on Evan Engram and David Njoku in the first round last year to take defensive end Charles Harris. Engram, from Ole Miss, had 64 catches for 722 yards and six touchdowns for the Giants. The last Dolphins tight end to put up those numbers was Charles Clay in 2013, and before him it was Randy McMichael in 2004.

In an era that has seen tight ends emerge as one of the most explosive threats on the field, the Dolphins are in the unenviable position of never having one and always getting crushed by someone else’s. If any team has seen the value of the tight end over the last several seasons, it’s this one.

Making matters worse, this is a tricky year for them to find one in the draft. With the No. 11 pick, they’re way too high to take one in the first round and probably can’t pass up the opportunity to land a top quarterback in that spot. Their second-round pick is No. 42, which might be too late to grab a top prospect like Hayden Hurst, Mark Andrews or Dallas Goedert.

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2018 NFL Draft: Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki talks with Dolphins

Penn State’s Mike Gesicki already has the Dolphins’ attention. (Getty Images)

Early in his time at Penn State, Mike Gesicki’s role at tight end was in jeopardy because he was having a bad time with drops. That wasn’t promising for his future at the school or his chances of one day turning pro.

But Gesicki didn’t let that derail him. He dove deep into the problem with his mind bent on burying it. He spent hours doing tennis ball drills, caught around 300 balls each day at practice and reached a point where he was confident his hands would never be a liability again.

“It was three years ago, but it seems like forever now,” he said. “I just did whatever was in my power… My last two seasons were much better. It’s very rewarding to see the hard work pay off.”

Over his junior and senior years, Gesicki became one of the most surehanded targets in Penn State’s offense and totaled 105 catches, 1,242 yards and 14 touchdowns to turn himself into one of the best tight end prospects in this year’s NFL Draft class. He is widely considered to be a top-five player at his position.

Naturally, that interests a team like the Dolphins, who haven’t had an impactful tight end in years. Their most productive player at that spot last season was Julius Thomas with 41 catches for 388 yards and three touchdowns. The year before it was Dion Sims at 26, 256 and four.

With Thomas not expected back and there being limited choices in free agency, it’s time for Miami to draft a tight end and develop him into a weapon. It’s one of the main things that’s been missing from this offense during Adam Gase’s two years as head coach.

Gesicki, 6-foot-5, 242 pounds, is a good possibility. The Dolphins would likely have a shot at him in the second round with the 42nd pick and got started on their evaluation process by sitting down with him at last month’s Senior Bowl.

Gesicki described the meeting as in-depth and efficient, with team representatives getting straight to the point about what kind of player he is. He fielded questions about what plays he’d call on certain downs and distances and what defenses he’d expect to face in some situations.

“They were putting me to the test a little bit,” he said. “I’m getting to know them and they’re getting to know me.

“Ryan Tannehill’s a great quarterback. He’s proved that. And with their receivers, they have a lot of talent. If you add one guy here and one guy there that can make a difference, it’d be awesome.”

With the hands issue in the past, Gesicki’s goal leading up to the draft is to show teams he’s a capable blocker.

“Some people question my ability to do so,” he said. “I have a great desire to do it, I’m strong enough to do it and I’m big enough to do it.”

The Dolphins have never taken a tight end in the first round—second-rounder Jim Mandich at No. 29 in 1970 was the closest—and aren’t likely to do so this year. They have the No. 11 pick overall, which appears to be a reach for even the best tight ends in this year’s class.

South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert, South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst and Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews are thought to be the top-five tight ends, too, but it’s possible none of them will be first-round picks. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper has Andrews as the first one off the board at No. 29, and colleague Todd McShay likes Goedert going first at No. 31.

The consensus among draft gurus is that this is a year stocked with good tight ends, not great ones.

That said, Miami would be more than happy with a good one. The only tight ends currently expected to be on the roster for the upcoming season are A.J. Derby (37 career receptions), MarQueis Gray (27) and Thomas Duarte (none). The team also must decide whether it wants to bring back 33-year-old Anthony Fasano, who hasn’t said whether he intends to keep playing.

Those circumstances make it clear the Dolphins need to prioritize tight end in the draft, and Gesicki’s already got their attention.

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[The Palm Beach Post‘s first 2018 NFL mock draft]

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5 things Dolphins coach Adam Gase should do in season finale vs. Bills

Landry deserves a big day in the finale. (AP)

DAVIE—Because only one of the participants has something to play for, Sunday’s Dolphins-Bills game might be tough to watch. Miami coach Adam Gase has the power to change that.

Gase isn’t one for taking suggestions from the media, or for having a little fun during the game, and he seems like he’s intent on treating this game like any other from a play-calling standpoint. But if he’s willing to spice up the broadcast with a few creative moves, here are five ideas:

1. Treat it like a preseason game for Jay Cutler.
It’s not obvious why Cutler is even playing this week, though Gase said for sure he will start. He also left it ambiguous as far as how long he’ll be out there. The Dolphins should get as long of a look at David Fales as they possibly can, and the best way to do that is to get Cutler out after one or two series. Don’t wait for halftime or the score to get out of hand one way or the other. Get Fales in the game no later than the start of the second quarter.

2. Throw the ball to Jarvis Landry 20 times.
Gase said he’s hesitant to force feed any particular player for a statistical milestone because the last time he tried it, with Matt Forte in 2015, he was unsuccessful. Given how much the Dolphins have relied on Landry this year, he’ll probably get enough targets to reach the eight receptions he needs to set a new franchise record. Will that be enough to hold on to his slim lead for this season’s NFL receiving title? He’s got 103 now, followed by Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Brown at 101. Brown is out with a calf injury, but Fitzgerald and a few others are in range if they have a big day.

3. Get Cameron Wake out as soon as he gets a sack.
There are a few players Gase needs to protect from themselves. Wake would play every snap of this game if Miami left it up to him—so would Ndamukong Suh, Andre Branch and several others—but Gase shouldn’t let them. Wake should be in only for prime sack opportunities, and as soon as he gets one he should go straight to sideline. Double-digit sacks for the second year in a row would be a great accomplishment for him, and it’d be perfect if he got one in the first quarter to minimize physical wear and tear. This is a good game for Charles Harris and Cameron Malveaux to get their shot.

4. Play Stephone Anthony and A.J. Derby a ton.
The Dolphins gave up roster spots to acquire both of these players this season (plus a 2018 fifth-round pick for Anthony), but haven’t played them much. Derby made his debut at Kansas City last week with one catch for 11 yards on five targets in 28 offensive snaps. Anthony came aboard after the first game of the season, but didn’t get regular playing time on defense until mid-November. He played 41 snaps over the last two weeks and should get more Sunday. These are two players with a chance to be significant contributors in 2018, and everyone is eager to see what they can do in bigger roles.

5. Don’t punt.
No one other than Matt Haack’s family enjoys seeing Matt Haack on the field. Gase should show some guts and go for it on every fourth down unless Miami’s in field goal range or faces something absurd like a 4th-and-28 from its own 2-yard line. It’ll be fun to watch either way, the players will enjoy it and the crazy thing is it might even work. With no real consequences in this game, Gase might as well let loose.

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Dolphins TE A.J. Derby looks to continue progress in season finale

Relatively new Dolphins tight end A.J. Derby is one player out to prove something Sunday against Buffalo. (AP)

DAVIE—Given the way his first couple years in the NFL went, Dolphins tight end A.J. Derby knows anything can happen in this business.

A little over one season into his four-year rookie contract with the Patriots, he was traded across the country to Denver. When things didn’t work out with the Broncos, they put him on waivers and he was claimed by Miami. He was dropped into the locker room in November, unfamiliar with most of his teammates and coaches other than practice squad receiver Drew Morgan.

“It wasn’t exactly how I saw it going, but at the end of the day, I’m happy to be in Miami,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity.”

Derby didn’t get on the field his first three games, but made his Dolphins debut in last weekend’s loss at Kansas City. He’s likely to play again Sunday against the Bills.

Miami is intrigued in Derby, a 26-year-old who is 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, beyond this season. He’s got two years left on his deal at reasonable salary cap hits of $181,000 in 2018 and $705,000 in 2019.

As of now, MarQueis Gray is the only other tight end who looks like a near-certainty to be on the Dolphins’ roster next season. Anthony Fasano is an unrestricted free agent, and Julius Thomas can be released with no salary cap damage.

In nine games with Denver, including one start, he had 20 catches for 235 yards and a touchdown. Last week, his first game action since Nov. 12, he had one reception for 11 yards on five targets.

“He’s smart,” coach Adam Gase said last week. “He’s done a good job of picking things up very quickly. It helped a little bit because Denver runs close to a similar offense. Some of the terminology is still carried over from a while ago, so I think that made it easier. We’ll see how it plays out for us.”

For Derby’s part, he’s far more prepared to contribute now than he was the day he arrived.

“I’m very comfortable with the playbook right now because I’ve put a lot of time into it since I got here,” he said. “Teammates-wise, I’m still learning everybody’s name. That’s really what the offseason’s gonna be for me, just getting to know everybody I’m surrounded with and getting more comfortable with the team.”

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Five Miami Dolphins who need to play over final two games

A..J. Derby arrived a month ago and has yet to play. (Getty Images)

KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Dolphins coach Adam Gase isn’t willing to concede that the playoffs are out of reach. While he’s technically correct, it would take a seriously unlikely sequence of events all going Miami’s way for this team to sneak into the postseason at 8-8.

Some might say it’s unrealistic.

(That’s code for I would say it’s unrealistic. But let’s keep that between us.)

If this season’s outcome is essentially inevitable, the final two games against the Chiefs and Bills should really be utilized for next year’s purposes. These are better than preseason games. The Dolphins can test out some younger players off their bench against starting units for two teams that have high stakes in these games.

Here are five players Miami really needs to get on the field Sunday at Kansas City and in next weekend’s finale against Buffalo:

1. TE A.J. Derby
Get this: Dolphins coach Adam Gase claims this guy can not only run, but he can catch—and block. Wow, really? “Yes,” Gase said. Man, that’s just great scouting right there. “Yes,” he said again. But seriously, there had to be something Miami liked about Derby, who was a sixth-round pick of the Patriots in 2015 and had 19 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns in nine games with Denver this year. He’s 26 and checks in at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds. He hasn’t played a snap since coming to the Dolphins, and it’d be worth finding out if he’s got anything to offer for 2018.

2. WR Jakeem Grant
Gase’s quest to establish someone has the fourth receiver behind Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker has come up empty so far. He’s tried Grant, Leonte Carroo and Rashawn Scott. The best of that bunch has been Grant, who faces some challenges at 5-foot-7, but has exceptional speed. He had a brilliant touchdown catch against New England’s Malcolm Jenkins, but he also dropped one would-be touchdown pass in that game and another against Tennessee early in the season. Grant’s gradually gotten into a small but more consistent role lately, something that was two years in the making, and he deserves an extended run these two weeks.

3. LB Stephone Anthony
There’s no question the Dolphins need to address the linebacker unit again this offseason, but they do have some young talents they like. Chase Allen was an undrafted free agent who did enough to not only make the team, but start in the opener. Anthony is another. He was a second-round pick in 2015, but fell out of favor with the Saints, allowing Miami to scoop him up for the low, low price of a fifth-round pick. He’s young (25), and the Dolphins have really liked what they’ve seen in practice. They should turn him loose with a full workload for a couple games so they know exactly what to work on with him in the coming offseason.

4. DE Charles Harris
Whether the Dolphins needed a defensive end badly enough to justify taking Harris at No. 22 is debatable, but he’s been good and looks like he’s on track to be an excellent pass rusher in the long run. He started last week when Andre Branch sat out with a knee injury and could get the start again Sunday in his hometown. Harris has only one sack this year, but he’s been very effective getting to the quarterback while getting about 50 percent of the defensive snaps this year. If Branch is still hurting, there’s no need to put him through the paces of the final two games. This would be a good reward for Harris’ season of keeping his head down and doing everything the staff wanted.

5. DT Jordan Phillips (without Ndamukong Suh)
Phillips claimed in the recent offseason that he was at a crossroads and was adamant about redirecting what had previously been an underachieving career, and it appears he’s made good on that promise. Despite an uneven preseason, he pushed through injuries this year to impress the coaching staff with his work on and off the field. The next step for him would be to prove he can be a force even when he’s not playing next to Suh, which makes every defensive tackle look good. Suh played 113 snaps the last two weeks, and that could certainly be dialed back. He doesn’t have to sit out altogether, but it’d be good to see more of Phillips out there with one of the rookies in a situation where he has to be the monster.

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