DAVIE — There’s a lot of pressure on the Dolphins’ rookies right now between trying to learn the playbook and adjusting to everything else that comes with playing in the NFL.
One challenge is tempering their enthusiasm during offseason practices that allow for minimal contact. Linebacker Jerome Baker, a third-round pick, said it hasn’t been easy to restrain himself and pull back at the last second from hitting someone.
“Sometimes it’s hard when you’re running full speed,” he said. “It’s a regular play, you just run through them. But we’re pros now. You just got to take care of each other. It’s pretty cool.”
It’s been a significant change for Baker from Ohio State, where the coaches apparently didn’t discourage contact. When the Dolphins held a walk-through last week, it was much more low-key than what he was used to.
Dolphins defensive players have occasionally been scolded for getting too physical in offseason practices, or for getting too close to the quarterback, and Baker’s already heard it from some veterans.
“I have players be like, ‘Alright, calm down,’” he said. “Especially at walk-throughs. Even in college, it was a full — We were going hard. You just weren’t hitting anybody. Here, the walk-throughs are a little toned down, but I was still in my college mind of going hard and sometimes it gets you in trouble a little bit. But it’s all good.”
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.
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.”
DAVIE — Jerome Baker has heard throughout his football career, including in the leadup to the NFL Draft, that he’s too small to be playing linebacker.
The Dolphins didn’t agree with that when they took him, and Baker’s new teammates buy in as well. As a third-round pick from Ohio State, he arrived with the endorsement of fellow Buckeye Raekwon McMillan, and he’s sold veteran Kiko Alonso after two weeks of practice during Organized Team Activities.
“He’s athletic,” Alonso said today. “He flies around and looks good.”
At 6-foot-3, 233 pounds, Alonso rejects the idea that he or anyone else with his build is undersized for the position. Neither he nor Baker is much larger than Miami’s starting safeties, but that’s partly by design because linebackers are required to do so much in coverage now.
DAVIE — Jerome Baker’s heard it his whole life. Even when he was dominating youth leagues and high school football, everyone kept telling him he was too small.
And at every turn, he’s quieted those concerns. Ohio State and Florida went to battle trying to recruit him, and his time with the Buckeyes was impressive enough that the Dolphins took him in the third round of the draft with the thought that he could be a long-term answer at linebacker.
They felt good about what he can do at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds with a 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash, and Baker plans to show people once again that there’s nothing small about the way he plays.
“If you ask anybody that plays against me, they don’t mention my size at all,” he said. “Guys say it, but once I actually play against you, you really don’t even notice how small or big I am. It’s all good.”
Baker’s most appealing attribute is his ability in coverage, which would help the Dolphins shore up a deficiency that hurt them last year. He had 72 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three pass breakups for Ohio State last season.
Miami goes into the season with Raekwon McMillan, another Buckeye, returning at middle linebacker and Kiko Alonso a certain starter on the outside. Baker is competing for role against a group that includes Mike Hull, Chase Allen, Stephone Anthony and seventh-rounder Quentin Poling.
All of the team’s linebackers are taller and bigger than Baker except for Hull (6-foot, 232 pounds) and Poling (6-foot, 235 pounds).
DAVIE—The Dolphins’ second- and third-round draft picks faced each other in college, and they’re about to spend the next month and beyond going head to head again.
Jerome Baker is the type of linebacker who can cover tight ends, and that’s exactly how Ohio State used him against Penn State: to handle Mike Gesicki. He covered Gesicki each of the last two years, and that’s almost certainly going to be an ongoing assignment for him when Organized Team Activities begin.
“He’s a great player and he’s definitely gonna compete,” Baker said. “Individually, he’s big and he can go get the ball. But I look at it from a team aspect. He got me one year and I got him the last one.”
Penn State spoiled the Buckeyes’ bid for an undefeated season by beating them in 2016, and Ohio State squeaked by with a 39-38 victory last year.
Gesicki totaled 10 catches for 113 yards in the two games, while Baker had 11 tackles including 1.5 for negative yardage.
Gesicki was a major matchup problem in college because of his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame and a 41-inch vertical leap to go with it, and the Dolphins are hoping he’ll continue to be a threat in the passing game as a pro.
Baker, meanwhile, is just 6-foot-1, 225 pounds and has always been knocked for his size. It would be particularly disadvantageous against Gesicki, but he held his own.
“Ohio State was a big game for us each and every year, and he was the leader of their defense,” Gesicki said. “There were situations where me and him were matched up together and all that kind of stuff. He’s a great player, really athletic, uses his speed to his advantage.
“People are gonna say whatever they’re gonna say (about his size). He’s a great example of blocking that out and getting to where he is today without listening to that.”
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.
The Dolphins’ recent NFL Draft class looked pretty good overall, with the exception of them being unable to land a quarterback they liked, but there doesn’t seem to be much praise for the work they did.
The Dolphins were surprised they could get Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick at No. 11, thinking he was no worse than a top-six talent. They followed by addressing needs at tight end in the second round (Mike Gesicki) and linebacker in the third (Jerome Baker), then went for a playmaking running back in Kalen Ballage in Round 4.
“The addition of Fitzpatrick adds more consistency and a strong presence to the back end,” Zierlein wrote. “It will be important for the Dolphins to fit Gesicki into the right role — he’s pass catcher who shouldn’t be asked to do much blocking—but if they do, he could pay off in a big way.
“The rest of the their draft was relatively solid but unspectacular, with the performance of (fourth-round tight end Durham Smythe) and Ballage potentially determining whether this draft was a success.”
Here’s the Dolphins’ full draft class, which reports for rookie minicamp next week:
First round, No. 10 overall: Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama Second round, No. 42 overall: Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State Third round, No. 73 overall: Jerome Baker, LB, Ohio State Fourth round, No. 123 overall: Durham Smythe, TE, Notre Dame Fourth round, No. 131 overall: Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State Sixth round, No. 209 overall: Cornell Armstrong, CB, Southern Mississippi Seventh round, No. 227 overall: Quentin Poling, LB, Ohio Seventh round, No. 229 overall: Jason Sanders, K, New Mexico
The upcoming season will be a prove-it year for Dolphins linebacker Stephone Anthony.
The former second-round pick will play the final year of his contract and become a free agent after Miami turned down its 2019 option on him. Had the team exercised it, it would have put Anthony in line for a $9.2 million salary next season.
That would have been the highest 2019 cap number for any linebacker currently on the roster.
Anthony, a first-round pick by New Orleans in 2015, will have to fight to secure a starting job this offseason. The Dolphins already have Raekwon McMillan and Kiko Alonso marked down as starters, and the third spot will be up for a competition. Chase Allen (four starts last year), Mike Hull (three) and newly minted third-rounder Jerome Baker all figure to be in the mix with Anthony.
The Dolphins acquired him in exchange for a fifth-round pick in September and played him off the bench in eight games.
“I think we got a good first look at him,” coach Adam Gase said in March. “I thought he did a great job in practice. The times that we got him into games, he did a lot of good things. We’re just going to kind of see how it plays out. I don’t want to promise anything to anybody. I think we’re just going to … Competition is going to be a good thing for us.”
Anthony, 25, was a PFWA all-rookie selection in 2015 before falling out of favor with the Saints. He had 15 tackles last year and goes into the upcoming season with a $1.5 million cap number.
It’s not amazing, it’s not particularly thrilling, but it’ll do.
The Dolphins got most of what they needed out of this year’s NFL Draft, including at least two players who should be instant starters at need positions, and they look a little better today than they did at the start of the week. Filling holes and getting better is what the draft’s all about, and Miami accomplished both of those.
And the team got all that done without giving in to any impulsive trades that sacrifice its chances of continuing to upgrade next spring. All eight picks for 2019 remain intact.
“You always want to make sure you have ammunition for next year,” said general manager Chris Grier, who added that the Dolphins would’ve made a trade if a good one presented itself. “We got great value.”
And, as vice president Mike Tannenbaum pointed out, they’d already brought in former all-pro defensive end Robert Quinn for one of this year’s fourth rounders, and they weren’t going to pick anybody better than him this late in the draft.
The crown jewel of Miami’s class is No. 11 pick Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was thought to be a borderline top-five talent out of Alabama. At the time, it seemed like bad luck for the Dolphins that all the best quarterbacks were gone before its spot came up, but that’s part of the reason Fitzpatrick fell to them in what they believe will be an incredible value pick.
They had Fitzpatrick as one of the six best players on their draft board and were surprised he was available. If he overtakes T.J. McDonald for a starting safety job this summer, it’ll be a good early indicator that the Dolphins played it well in the first round.
There were quarterbacks they liked in that top group, especially Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield, but they made the decision well in advance that they weren’t mortgaging the future — like the Jets and Bills did — to move up and take one of them. It was tense in the draft room waiting to see if someone would slip to them, but restraint reigned.
Are there bigger needs than safety? Definitely. But it’s an important enough position and a talented enough prospect that Miami had to pounce.
Addressing needs came later, and the Dolphins showed conviction once again by taking tight end Mike Gesicki in the second round at No. 43 overall. He’s the guy they believed in, even though most analysts had Dallas Goedert ahead of him at the position.
Goedert was thought to be going late in the first round at one point, and Gesicki was cast as possibly a fourth-rounder early in the pre-draft coverage. The Dolphins vetted both of them and stayed true to their board, which had Gesicki second only to South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst.
Gesicki and fourth-round pick Kalen Ballage, a speedy running back who can also make an impact in the passing game, give Miami some badly needed playmaking threats in an offense that has been dull and ineffective for way too long.
Adam Gase was brought in to change that and hasn’t been able to do so yet. Over his two seasons as head coach, the Dolphins have ranked 24th in points, 27th in yardage and kept the ball on offense more than just six teams. Bad and boring.
Gesicki and Ballage aren’t bad or boring. They bolster the speed and athleticism of a collection of skill players Gase says is very close to what he envisioned when he took the helm.
The big letdown of this draft is that Miami didn’t land a quarterback, and the roster certainly seems like it needed a promising rookie to work behind Ryan Tannehill this season and eventually challenge him.
But Gase warned everyone a month ago that might happen. If there’s one area in which he deserves to be trusted, it’s quarterbacks. Question him on a bunch of other things, but he’s built his career off his expertise at this position. He wasn’t on board with taking a quarterback just to appease people and get someone in the pipeline.
“Are we taking a guy just to take a guy?” he said in March. “I mean I’d love to add a quarterback as much as anybody else but at the same time, I want it to be the right guy for us.”
After the draft, Grier added, “We weren’t going to reach for any quarterback.”
None of the top four were convincing enough for him to sell of big-time future assets. He wasn’t sold on Mason Rudolph, a highly rated prospect from Oklahoma State who was available at No. 73 overall, and the Dolphins went for Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker there instead.
Baker solved another problem for a roster that was, and maybe still is, woefully thin at linebacker.
Everything after the fourth round is usually about scouring the list for talent that can at least make an NFL roster, but the Dolphins also made good use of that opportunity by locking in kicker Jason Sanders from New Mexico with their final pick rather than having to scramble for an undrafted free agent in frenzy of phone calls that always follows the final pick.
Filling the two most glaring roster needs in the first three rounds is sensible, and adding a talent of Fitzpatrick’s caliber makes that a good haul already. If Ballage and anyone else materializes into an asset, even better.
DAVIE–The Dolphins have keyed in on two positions of need in this year’s draft, double-dipping at tight end and linebacker.
They took Ohio’s Quentin Poling in the seventh round at No. 227 overall, adding him to a draft class that already includes fellow linebacker Jerome Baker.
Poling is a 6-foot, 235-pounder who was hugely disruptive at Ohio. He got significant playing time right away and piled up 43.5 tackles for loss over four seasons. Last year, he had 163 tackles, five sacks, five pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.
Baker and Poling join a linebacker crew that has few certainties beyond the fact that Raekwon McMillan and Kiko Alonso will be starters.
The Dolphins jumped on safety Minkah Fitzpatrick from Alabama in the first round at No. 10 overall, then addressed two big needs in the starting lineup by picking tight end Mike Gesicki in the second and linebacker Jerome Baker in the third.
Here’s the Dolphins 2018 draft class so far:
First round, No. 10 overall: Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama
Second round, No. 42 overall: Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State
Third round, No. 73 overall: Jerome Baker, LB, Ohio State
Fourth round, No. 123 overall: Durham Smythe, TE, Notre Dame
Fourth round, No. 131 overall: Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State
Sixth round, No. 209 overall: Cornell Armstrong, CB, Southern Mississippi
Seventh round, No. 227 overall: Quentin Poling, LB, Ohio
Their final pick is at No. 229 in the seventh round.