Miami Dolphins rookie LB Mike McCray, a favorite of Stephen Ross, retires before training camp

McCray ended his NFL career before it really got going. (Getty Images)

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 was a favorite of owner Stephen Ross, a fellow Michigan man, and looked good in his first few months with Miami. Defensive coordinator Matt Burke praised him and fellow undrafted linebacker Cayson Collins late in Organized Team Activities, and the team has been looking for depth at the position.

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).

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Former first-round pick Stephone Anthony: ‘I have to become starter’ for Dolphins

Stephone Anthony is trying to get his career back on track. (Getty Images)

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.

While Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan can be marked down as certain starters, the rest of the Dolphins’ linebacker corps is wide open. Third-round pick Jerome Baker is likely to be in the mix, as well as undrafted scrappers Cayson Collins and Mike McCray and returning players Mike Hull and Chase Allen.

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.”

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Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill: Minkah Fitzpatrick is ‘what you want to see’

Ryan Tannehill likes Minkah Fitzpatrick’s play so far. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Everyone in the Dolphins organization has been impressed by rookie safety Minkah Fitzpatrick over his first month or so as a pro. His teammates in the secondary and Miami’s coaching staff have said he’s as good as advertised coming out of Alabama, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill has taken note as well.

Fitzpatrick had two interceptions in the first two weeks of offseason practices, though he didn’t say which quarterback(s) he got, and the offense is well aware of his presence.

“He’s been good; He’s flying around at practice,” Tannehill said. “You see his mentality and his aggression. He plays what he sees and he plays fast, and that’s what you want to see out of a DB. You might make a mistake here or there but if you’re out there playing fast, you’re going to make some big plays and really change games for us.

“I’m excited with what I see so far. I can’t really speak on details because I don’t know how he’s being coached or what positions he’s being put in, but from what I’m seeing, he’s playing fast and he’s working hard, so I like what I see.”

Regardless of it still being three months before the regular season begins, the early reviews on Fitzpatrick have been encouraging. At 21 years old, he’s picking up the defense quickly and demonstrating great work ethic.

That’s a strong start toward securing a spot in Miami’s crowded secondary. Two-time Pro Bowler Reshad Jones is a virtual lock at one safety spot, leaving Fitzpatrick to compete mainly against T.J. McDonald for snaps.

“We keep giving him more and he keeps taking it,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke said. “We are moving him around to some different spots and trying to play him in some different places to get a feel for sort of what his best fit is or what the best way to utilize him is, and he’s responded well.”

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Dolphins’ offseason drama peaks with Josh Sitton’s beard decision

The heat is wearing on Josh Sitton. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — His initial plunge into Organized Team Activities and minicamp with the Dolphins has pushed right guard Josh Sitton to the brink of parting with trademark wilderness man look.

After a decade in the cooler climates of Chicago and Wisconsin, Sitton’s been sweating through a brutal spring that’s seen temperatures over 90 degrees and South Florida’s usual humidity. He admitted two weeks ago it might be time to cut his long locks and shave his beard.

That’s somewhat understandable, but here’s the counterpoint: Defensive coordinator Matt Burke has had his long beard for a decade-plus now and it doesn’t seem to be bothering him.

Should Sitton man up and get it out? Would it be selling out to clean up because it’s too hot down here? Would fellow facial hair aficionado Burke lose respect for him?

“No, I would never say that,” Burke said. “I have a lot of respect for Josh Sitton. Quote that. He’s been getting after us pretty good.

“I don’t know. Every man makes his own decision. The heat doesn’t bother me. I’m sweating a little right now. But no, I wouldn’t lose respect for him. He’s a good player, he’s playing hard and he’s tough. What else can I say about him? He’s a real man.”

Sitton’s had his long hair and beard for about 10 years as well, though he kept it close-cropped in college. When discussing the possibility of having to cut it, he admitted he would “probably cry” about having to do so.

“I’ve thought about it,” he said. “I’m going to see how OTAs go and then it might be gone come training camp.”

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Which Dolphins undrafted rookies have impressed DC Matt Burke?

Dolphins linebacker Mike McCray seems like a good early bet to make the roster. (Getty Images)

DAVIE — The Dolphins did well sifting through undrafted free agents last season and found six that were good enough to play for them. That group included linebacker Chase Allen, who was an opening day starter.

This year, Miami signed a dozen or so rookies after the draft, and a few of them have already turned up in offseason work. Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said cornerback Jalen Davis, linebacker Mike McCray and linebacker Cayson Collins have all made an impression during their first few weeks on the field.

“We’ve had a couple of years in a row now where we’re getting the right type of (undrafted) guys that are putting the work in,” Burke said, crediting general manager Chris Grier and his scouting staff. “So I have no complaints with any of those guys, the work ethic, and what they’re trying to do out there. The nature of a rookie, they’re going to have some plays and they’re going to have some flubs and we’ve got to work through those.”

Davis, from Utah State, has been one of the most consistent rookies over the first eight practices between Organized Team Activities and minicamp. He’s looked good working outside and against slot receivers.

McCray (Michigan) and Collins (North Carolina) have both picked things up quickly at linebacker, where the Dolphins badly need to establish depth behind starters Raekwon McMillan and Kiko Alonso. The third starter looks like it will be third-round pick Jerome Baker or Stephone Anthony.

“The linebackers, they’ve all had their moments,” Burke said. “I’ve probably dog-cussed them all a couple of times, but they’ve all had their moments. Mike McCray had a pick yesterday… Cayson is actually showing a little bit of ability to absorb some things. He’s got some savvy about him and stuff.”

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What Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said Wednesday

Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke is working with a lot of moving parts this offseason. (Andres Leiva/The Post)

DAVIE — Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke should be pretty happy this week. His side of the ball has been winning a lot of the 11-on-11 drills during offseason practices, and it looks like he’s got more than enough talent throughout the depth chart.

But Burke has a lot on his plate over the next few months. He’s trying to turn around a defense that wasn’t particularly great at anything last year. Miami wants to be a defense that swarms the quarterback up front and presents danger on the back end with a trio of good safeties. There’s also the issue of linebacker, which has been a problem area for the Dolphins for years.

Here are some notes from Burke’s press conference after practice today:

— He thinks first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick has been as good as the Dolphins expected. “He’s probably about as advertised,” Burke said. “He’s really sharp. He’s thirsty for knowledge and for more, and we’re trying to overload him a little bit. We keep giving him more and he keeps taking it. He spends a lot of extra time in the building on his own, working out, studying film.”

— Burke reiterated that nothing is set in stone at this point in the year. He’s not going to decide position battles until it gets closer to the season. That’s especially true at cornerback and linebacker.

— He said that current free agent safety Eric Reid was never a consideration for the Dolphins this offseason because their roster was already well put together at the position. The Dolphins met with Kenny Vaccaro as well and did not sign him.

— Defensive end Cameron Wake, at age 36, has shown little sign of decline during Organized Team Activities and minicamp. “It always just amazes me, at his age,” Burke said. “I hate to keep saying that. He probably gets mad when I keep bringing up his age and telling him he’s old and stuff. I actually talked about it in a defensive meeting this morning… I mean for how long he’s been here, the joy never goes out of it for him. He’s out smiling, loves practice, loves getting better, and competing.”

— Ever the adventurer, Burke is headed to Bora Bora for some diving and a six-day backpacking trip in Olympic National Park in Washington during the upcoming break. Dolphins coach Adam Gase will not be able to get him on the phone. “Probably not,” he said. “Whether I have cell phone service or not, he probably won’t be able to reach me.”

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Dolphins ‘thought it was a joke’ when presented with chance to trade for Robert Quinn

The Dolphins got defensive end Robert Quinn (94) for a fourth-round pick. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — The sequence in which the Dolphins landed former all-pro defensive end Robert Quinn literally unbelievable to the people at the center of it.

This was not a possibility the team had thought much about and it came as quite a surprise in February when the Rams offered him for the mere price of a fourth-round pick. Miami defensive coordinator Matt Burke, who has enjoyed a fortuitous offseason, thought Adam Gase must have been messing with him when he called and said, “Take a look at Robert Quinn and let me know.”

Robert Quinn? Really?

Take a look at his film? Really?

“Yes, I’m good,” Burke replied. “Absolutely, 100 percent. I’m on board.”

Still, Gase insisted they do their due diligence anyway, so Burke went to freshly hired defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and told him they needed to watch Quinn’s film from last season to make sure there weren’t any red flags. It’d have to be a quick review because Mike Tannenbaum, Gase and Chris Grier didn’t want this opportunity to get away from them.

Much like his boss, Kocurek was slightly suspicious that this was some kind of prank. Not having worked there long, perhaps this was some kind of hazing. Maybe the next request would be for him to look over J.J. Watt’s film just for a laugh. The first words out of his mouth were, “Come on, now.”

“(Burke) came into my office and … he thought it was a joke to begin with,” Kocurek said. “I kind of said the same thing when Coach Burke said he wanted to watch Robert on film.

“And then I figured out we were possibly going to get him. Obviously, I got excited about it. He’s been a guy that going all the way back to North Carolina that I’ve had my eye on. I liked him coming out of the draft.”

Kocurek and Burke went through five or six Rams games, and everything they saw validated their initial thoughts on Quinn.

It’s been three years since he was a Pro Bowler, but his overwhelming talent was still evident. Los Angeles was using him as more of an outside linebacker, and when Kocurek and Burke envisioned him moving back to a traditional defensive end role opposite Cameron Wake, they believed the perfect fix to their defensive line issues had landed in their laps.

Burke called Gase back and said, “Hey, my answer is still the same: 100 percent, yes.”

The deal got done during the NFL Combine — it couldn’t officially be processed until the start of the new league year mid-March — and everything fit perfectly on Miami’s end. The team had an extra fourth-round pick (No. 130) from trading Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia, so parting with this one (No. 111) wasn’t devastating.

It also set them up to revamp a defensive line that needed a fundamental change. After shelling out for the fourth-most expensive d-line in the NFL and finishing 26th in sacks, as well as 28th in opponent passer rating, the new plan is to go all-in on guys who make quarterbacks nervous. Quinn was the type of guy they hoped to get but didn’t think would be realistic.

With Quinn and Wake as the top two defensive ends, and two of the five costliest players on the roster, the Dolphins accepted an NFL-record $22.1 million dead money salary cap hit in order to release star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and eventually free up $17 million in space for this season.

Now they have Quinn and Wake, plus $10 million man Andre Branch and 2017 first-round pick Charles Harris at defensive end and they’re putting far less of an investment into the tackle position.

The Dolphins weren’t the only ones stunned to see the Quinn trade materialize.

Quinn, who sounds like he had been hoping to get out of Los Angeles, had the bad luck of being without his phone when this all went down. He was searching all over for it when his brother pulled up the news on his own device.

Miami? Really?

“Well, let me go finish finding my phone and I’ll figure the rest of life out from there,” Quinn told his brother. “I was pretty much shocked, honestly.”

Once he got to Davie and got a taste of what his new team was like, he felt rejuvenated almost immediately. That’s a good thing for the Dolphins considering he’s still in what should be the prime of his career at age 28.

“You don’t realize you’re suffocating until you can’t breathe no more,” Quinn said. “I’m glad I can have a new breath of fresh air down here in Miami. It’s allowing me to clear my mind and have a fresh start.

“It’s a new beginning and new possibilities. I’m excited for this new start. Honestly, I think it was best for me and my family, and sometimes things work out funny, but they always work out for the best.”

Whether this really works out for the best depends on whether Quinn still has the talent to be one of the most fearsome edge rushers in football and whether Burke and Kocurek can facilitate this comeback.

After starting with two promising seasons, Quinn caught fire in 2013 with 19 sacks, seven forced fumbles, 57 tackles and a touchdown. He and Watt were the all-pro defensive ends that year.

Quinn followed with 10.5 sacks the next season, but declined after that. Thanks to injuries and other issues, he managed 17.5 sacks in 32 games over the next three years.

Kocurek believes he’s still the Quinn of 2013 and ’14, and the first step toward getting him back there is to reestablish him at his natural position.

“It’s just scheme,” he said. “He was asked to do something differently than he had done in the past, going from strictly a 4-3 type guy to being more of a stand-up, outside-linebacker-type. It’s not an easy transition sometimes.”

Then he added, “It’s not like he played bad.”

That’s true. It wasn’t perfect, but Quinn made the best his situation last season and stayed mostly healthy. He played all but one game, was on the field for 59 percent of the Rams’ defensive snaps and had 8.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Even that level of production, which Quinn likely felt could’ve been better, would be welcomed. Other than Wake, no Dolphins player has had that many sacks in a season since Olivier Vernon in 2013.

The regular season is still well off in the distance, but the first few months of Quinn’s arrival have made the Dolphins even more optimistic than when his name first surfaced in their building. He could be the key to transforming their pass rush, and the early phase of this relationship has heightened that expectation.

“He’s been a good worker,” Burke said. “He doesn’t say much. He’s kind of a quiet guy. He just comes to work every day with a smile on his face and gets after it.

“I think he feels comfortable being in, hopefully, a scheme that fits his skillset. I’m really excited to see what he can do for us. I think that position is going to be an area of strength for us.”

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It was easy to forget Dolphins LB Raekwon McMillan, but now’s the time to start watching

Raekwon McMillan starts out as the Dolphins’ middle linebacker. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — It’s easy to forget about Raekwon McMillan in a Dolphins offseason full of swirling storylines that range from the dismissal of longtime stars to the return of a starting quarterback.

Maybe a second-round pick isn’t flashy enough to keep people’s attention after a year away, or perhaps the blur of nondescript linebackers that have come through Miami over the past decade has makes it hard to remember that position matters. It could also be that he’s never played a snap in the NFL.

But, man, don’t miss this guy’s re-arrival.

McMillan is back on the field for Organized Team Activities and the medical staff hasn’t put any restrictions on him as he returns from the torn ACL in his right knee that erased his rookie season last year.

In his first three months or so after being drafted at age 20, he was already good enough to secure the starting middle linebacker job. The expectations were enormous inside Dolphins headquarters, and the coaching staff was ready to trust him with all the responsibility that role entails.

“I was still a rookie last year and I was being thrown into the fire, but I was very confident in myself and what I could do on the field,” McMillan said after today’s practice. “I felt like I could have done big things last year, but it just had to wait until the next year.”

The next year is here, and McMillan’s as important as anyone other than Ryan Tannehill as the Dolphins try to stun a football world that has written them off for 2018. They’re making a string of little bets, counting on a rookie here and a new face there, but McMillan is the closest they have to a sure thing.

His healthy return is better than anything the Dolphins could have done at the position in free agency. Here’s the infusion they’re getting in the middle of their defense: the No. 7 linebacker in his draft class, a 6-foot-2, 248-pound bruiser who can run and a player who rolled up 221 tackles in his last two seasons at Ohio State.

Take that weapon and allow defensive coordinator Matt Burke a year to refine it. That’s what happened. Much like Tannehill, McMillan didn’t allow the injury to entirely wipe out his season. He was around the team all last year, listening and learning to ensure he wouldn’t fall behind.

“It was hard at first,” he said, “but then I sucked it up and told myself that I could either let this year be a waste or prepare myself for next year.”

Consider that McMillan arrived at that conclusion after dreaming of the NFL all his life and working relentlessly once the Dolphins drafted him only to have it ripped away from him in the opening minutes of his first preseason game. That didn’t send him spiraling whatsoever.

It’s been a refreshingly mature approach for someone who will be 22 when he hits the upcoming season, and that way of thinking was influenced in part by doing practically every step of his rehabilitation alongside Tannehill. As grown up as McMillan seems, there’s no substitute for time, and a 29-year-old teammate keeping him steady throughout the process made a meaningful impression. If McMillan’s as good as the Dolphins think he’ll be this year, credit Tannehill for a big-brother-like assist at a time when he had plenty of his own problems.

But mostly, the comeback speaks volumes about McMillan’s makeup.

His return should be an absolute thrill for the fanbase, but it easily slips to the background amid everything that’s happened since he went down.

Tannehill rightfully dominates that timeline. The Dolphins have had 17 different national anthem policies since then. Chris Foerster happened. And Lawrence Timmons.

Jay Cutler came and went fast enough that he might not have ever learned McMillan’s name. Rey Maualuga’s stay was even shorter. Franchise mainstays Mike Pouncey, Ndamukong Suh and Jarvis Landry were shipped out.

Adam Gase ripped apart his coaching staff with a flurry of moves in January, and a whole new crop of rookies was imported via the draft less than a month ago.

A million things have understandably distracted from the luster of what McMillan can bring to this team.

But now’s the time to start watching him closely.

He’s ahead of where he was last summer, which was already quite impressive. Few outside the team have seen much field work from McMillan, but Dolphins have analyzed and re-analyzed the film from what he did in practice last offseason and came away thoroughly convinced they have the right man at middle linebacker going forward.

“He was really getting to that point where he was about to make that move,” Burke said. “We really felt like he was just starting to take that step when we got him going before he got injured. We had high hopes for him last year. Nothing he’s done since then has discouraged that.”

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Dolphins CB Xavien Howard poised to prove himself as ‘top corner’

Xavien Howard needs to be a true No. 1 cornerback. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Xavien Howard knows it’s time.

The Dolphins took him No. 38 overall three years ago with the thought that he’d be a star cornerback, and there are no more qualifiers as he works toward the upcoming season. There won’t be explanations that he’s still learning or doesn’t have enough game experience. He’s been around, he’s been very good at points and now he needs to put it all together.

“I believe I can be a top corner in the league just going out there and really just playing,” he said after today’s Organized Team Activity session. “So, I’d just say just going out there and doing me.”

Howard has good reason to be confident after a sophomore season that was full of promise. He stayed healthy, which was big after playing just seven games as a rookie, and had four interceptions, 13 pass breakups and 42 tackles.

The way he finished the year prompted optimism throughout the organization, and his most memorable performance came during Miami’s biggest win over the season. In the Monday Night Football upset of the Patriots, Howard played through a case of the flu and intercepted Tom Brady twice.

A big part of that progress was getting better at press coverage and jamming receivers at the line, something defensive coordinator Matt Burke has been imploring his corners to do more often.

As Howard starts to look like more of a veteran cornerback, his emergence would be a huge breakthrough for the rebuilt Dolphins defense.

“He’s getting after it,” safety Reshad Jones said. “He’s out there trying to make plays for us. He’s getting more knowledge of the game and seeing things different. He is recognizing formations and different things like that.”

Howard said he’s much quicker at reading offensive schemes than he was as a rookie and has a better understanding of how to study quarterbacks.

“Stuff that I was doing in college I can’t do in the league,” he said. “You see different receivers and stuff like that. Really, I’m just learning the game and knowing what I can do, knowing what I’m best at and just sticking to that instead of trying to do everything else.

“In college, I wasn’t really watching film and stuff like that. I was just going on my athletic ability; but in the league, it’s a different level.”

The cornerback crew of Howard, Cordrea Tankersley, Bobby McCain and Tony Lippett could develop into an above-average unit, and there’s a lot to like about safeties Jones, T.J. McDonald and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Tightening up the secondary would solve a lot of Miami’s defensive issues.

That starts with Howard, who has to be capable of handling the opposition’s best receiver. If the Dolphins can’t trust him with that responsibility, the whole plan looks shaky.

They also need some evidence from Howard that he’s worth investing in beyond the next two seasons. His rookie contract ends after 2019, which puts him in position to earn an extension after this year.

“It’s a big season for me and the team,” Howard said.

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Matt Burke sinking teeth into ways Minkah Fitzpatrick can sharpen Miami Dolphins’ D

Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke talks about the newcomers he’ll incorporate into his unit in 2018.

DAVIE — Noted world traveler and thrill seeker Matt Burke hasn’t settled on this summer’s excursion yet, but he did recently take a swim with hammerhead sharks. Much to Adam Gase’s relief, Burke, the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator, reported that his swimming buddies are more gentle than you’d think — if you were inclined to equate “hammerhead” with “gentle” in the first place.

That Burke returned with all limbs intact, though, might not be the first thing he mentions if you ask what has gone swimmingly for him lately.

At this time of year, a lot of what football coaches can do surrounds talking, plotting and dreaming about what the new “pieces” afforded to them can offer come fall.

And Burke has more new toys than he had a right to expect.

[Photos: Miami Dolphins rookies report to minicamp]

Burke thought someone was joking when he was awoken from his spring slumber by a call from Dolphins HQ asking what he thought of Rams defensive end Robert Quinn, a guy with three consecutive double-digit sack seasons on his resume who turns 28 next week. At first he gave a “yeah, fine.” When he realized it wasn’t a joke, he watched film, then basically said it was much better than fine with him.

Then, the offensively challenged Dolphins determined that the best available player with the No. 11 overall pick was a defensive guy, Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Toss in linebacker Raekwon McMillan, last year’s second-round pick who’s returning after missing his entire rookie season with a knee injury.

That makes three solid reasons Burke, a Dartmouth guy, has plenty of noodling to do about the options at his disposal to vastly improve a defense that ranked 16th overall and 29th in scoring in his first year as a coordinator.

“It’s always good to have different weapons for me,” Burke said. “ … We’re going to put this best 11 players on the field — maybe play to play, week to week, game to game — in terms of our matchups.”

In other words, Burke wants the defense to play the same kind of matchup chess match that Gase has wanted to do on offense but often has not had the means to pull it off. It’s already evident that three of Burke’s best players are safeties Fitzpatrick, Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald. Rather than try to divide three players into two slots, Burke confirmed that he may (read: will) use some three-safety alignments this year. Why wouldn’t he?

“To me, it’s all about matchups,” Burke said. “So if we feel that those body types or those players, whether it’s Minkah, T.J., Reshad at our safety spot are better matchups, whether it’s on tight ends or backs or whether it’s having a bigger body as a nickel on. … I just think the more players you get, again, that are multi-dimensional and have different skillsets, the more you can play around with how you’re utilizing them on the field on defense.”

Compared to what lies ahead, rookie camp is little more than a get-to-know you, here’s-your-playbook type thing, but even that has been enough for Burke to recognize Fitzpatrick isn’t your everyday rookie. When Fitzpatrick addressed the media Friday, he was almost incredulous when asked about all the extra work he famously puts in: Doesn’t everybody?, he all but asked.

Incredulous may have been an apt word to describe Burke on draft night. He had to know there was a great chance the Dolphins would go for offense in Round 1, especially if the right quarterback fell to them. Instead, Fitzpatrick, whom Nick Saban used in a variety of roles at Alabama, was the one who fell.

Of Fitzpatrick’s contributions as a rookie, Burke said, “That’s going to be up to him and how much he absorbs and takes on. Again, it’s been 48 hours or whatever it is (he has been in Davie). In the limited interaction I’ve had with him, he’s shown the ability to be sort of a big-picture thinker and he understands football and he’s a student of the game from that sense. So, I think he, again, my initial impression is that he’s got the ability to absorb a lot.”

Absorbing is about all McMillan could do after blowing out a knee on the opening kickoff of the first preseason game. Adding him is almost like getting an extra second-round pick to the Dolphins.

“If it works out the way we think it can and hope it does, that’s a huge acquisition for us,” Burke said. After watching tape of McMillan’s practices last summer, coaches were reminded that he looked ready to take that step as a starter before the injury. Burke added that McMillan has “worked his ass off” to get back to that state.

The biggest loss on defense, naturally, was Ndamukong Suh, but Burke thinks he’s covered there, too. He plans to roll in four tackles, with three jobs a virtual lock: Jordan Phillips, Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor.

All Burke has to do now is stay in one piece.

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