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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2018 NFL Draft: Five second-round targets for Miami Dolphins at No. 42

Derrius Guice is one of the best running backs this year. (Getty Images)

The longer the NFL Draft goes, the more difficult it becomes to predict which players will still be around and which positions teams feel they need to address.

The second round is still a reasonably stage as far as figuring out who’s going to be available. The Dolphins’ second-round pick is 42nd overall (their three-way tie with the Raiders and 49ers puts them in a round-by-round rotation that you can read about by clicking here), and what they do there will be somewhat predicated on who they take at No. 11.

If one of the best tight ends, Hayden Hurst or Dallas Goedert, happens to be around at No. 42, it’s hard to imagine them missing that opportunity. And if they take a linebacker at No. 11, they probably won’t do it again in the second round.

With all the disclaimers in place, here are five good players that could reasonably be on the board when Miami picks in the second round:

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
Vander Esch is the versatile type of linebacker the Dolphins could really use. They need to pull a starter out of this draft, and he provides the full spectrum of run stopping, pass rushing and covering tight ends. He had 141 tackles, 8.5 of which were for a loss, to go with two interceptions, five pass breakups and four forced fumbles as a junior at Boise State. Miami met with him at the NFL Combine and could luck into him being available.

Tyrell Crosby, OT, Oregon
Offensive tackle remains surprisingly unsettled for the Dolphins. A year ago, they wouldn’t have expected to be in this position. Laremy Tunsil is an uncertainty on the left side, and Ja’Wuan James still has something to prove on the right. James will be a free agent at the end of the season, and drafting a 6-foot-5, 325-pound blocker like Crosby would give Miami flexibility. NFL Network’s Mike Mayock ranks him the fourth-best offensive tackle in the draft.

Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
Do the Dolphins really need to take a running back this high? No. They already have Kenyan Drake, and this position continues to be one that teams believe can be filled by just about anybody. But Guice is so explosive out of the backfield and has such exceptional speed that Miami has to take notice. Over his sophomore and junior seasons, he ran for 2,638 yards and 26 touchdowns.

Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State
It’s a little bit of a long shot that Goedert will still be around 10 picks into Round 2. The Dolphins might need to explore trading up a few spots if they like him. “He’s a huge kid with that Zach Ertz, Todd Heap ability,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper said. “Here’s a kid who could get into the late first round and be one heck of a pass receiving weapon in the National Football League.” He’s 6-foot-5, 256 pounds and topped 1,100 yards each of the last two seasons. Miami currently has A.J. Derby as its starting tight end.

Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
The Dolphins must get a valuable quarterback in the draft this year, which means they probably can’t wait past the second or third round. Rudolph isn’t the top tier at his position, but he’s a borderline first-rounder. He threw for 86 touchdowns against 22 interceptions and averaged 327 yards per game in three seasons as Oklahoma State’s starter.

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