Last year, I remember watching the draft, and being impressed as Ireland systematically drafted to fill the team's needs for interior O-lineman, RB to replace Ricky and Ronnie, speed WR/KR, tight end, CB, and backup nose tackle with our draft picks. Of those picks, Center Mike Pouncey went on to become Pro-Bowl alternate at center (and outplay his brother according to Pro-Football Focus.com), RB Daniel Thomas had a couple of 100 yard rushing games as a rookie before Reggie Bush (who we got for Jonathan Amaya and a swap of 6th round picks) broke out and stole the show, WR/KR Clyde Gates had one of the top kickoff return averages in the league, TE/FB Charles Clay came up with huge catches all over the field, DB Jimmy Wilson outperformed all expectations for a 7th round pick, and NT Frank Kearse showed enough potential for the Carolina Panthers to sign him off our practice squad - all with no offseason to help with the transition to the NFL. Sure, Ireland didn't grab a QB, but Sparano knew his job was on the line, and he had to win immediately, so Ireland did his best to draft guys who could make an immediate impact. Though Sparano eventually lost his job, it became clear during the last 9 games that this roster had talent, so poor coaching probably held the team back more than roster deficiencies, so Ireland was allowed to keep his job.
Fast-forward to this year. Before the draft this year, our needs were (in no particular order)
1. QB of the future - a QB to define this regime, assuming Matt Moore or David Garrard don't have a Pro-Bowl season this year. In today's NFL, a headcoach without a quality starting QB can't expect to keep his job. Mike Shanahan won two Super Bowls for the Broncos, but years of subpar QB play led to him being fired. As a first time headcoach, Coach Philbin won't be allowed to go without a franchise QB for long, so he needs a guy who can help this team win games or he'll be gone too.
2. Right Tackle - An immediate starter was needed, so that there would be no debate that the New York Jets have the worst right tackle in the AFC East, without any true competition. Marc Colombo was almost as bad as Wayne Hunter last year, and Lydon Murtha looked good in the 2011 preseason but is coming off a foot injury and has never had a coaching staff trust him with a starting position before. That made RT a need.
3. OLB/DE pass rusher - A guy for passing downs was absolutely needed since Misi is great for first and second downs when the goal is to stop the run, but he has struggled in pass-rushing situations to the point where the regime that drafted him asked a past-his-prime Jason Taylor to come in for pass-rushing downs instead of the young guy. Ideally, we'd get a "complete" DE/OLB (good against run and the pass) who is versatile enough to play DE in 4-3 and OLB in 3-4, in order to take advantage of the double teams Wake draws. Again, a past his prime Taylor got 7 sacks. Imagine what a young guy with burst and athleticism could do!
4. WR - starter was needed to be the "Z" receiver in a West Coast offense. Brandon Marshall's talent was undeniable, but his unreliability in the Endzone, off-the-field issues, big contract, and need for 10-14 targets per game were all incompatible with a West Coast offense, where I expect the running game to play a prominent role and pass targets will be based on who has the most favorable matchup (WRs, TEs, RBs), not based on who is designated the "Number 1 guy."
Then, other than those needs, we had what I called, "Desirables" that would make us a better team but were not critical. This group included
5. Pass catching tight end - Everybody in the league wants a Jimmy Graham-Antonio Gates type TE who can run down the seam and put pressure on safeties and LBs. We have Charles Clay, a guy with plenty of potential, and the incredibly versatile Anthony Fasano, who I would say is a top 10 blocking TE and a top 10 receiving TE who has had limited opportunities to run routes due to our crummy offensive line forcing him to stay back and block so often. Also, UDFA and recent accountant Les Brown has a lot of potential but hasn't played ANY football since graduating high school 6 years ago, so it's probably optimistic to say he'll be on the practice squad, much less on the field, in 2012.
6. Defensive tackle depth - It's been confirmed that we'll be running a 4-3 look more often this year, and we cut the underachieving Phillip Merling due to him, well, underachieving. Defensive Tackle depth, both 4-3 and 3-4, would be good to give our defensive coordinator options.
7. Safety/Cornerback - between free agent pickups Tyrell Johnson and Richard Marshall this year and Tyrone Culver last year, and young drafted guys Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons, we have potential starters at both safety spots. At Cornerback, we have Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, with Nolan Caroll as young drafted developing talent. The Wildcard is Jimmy Wilson, with there being some talk of moving him to safety. Still, until we find a couple of guys to lockdown the safety positions and someone to lockdown nickel cornerback, it wouldn't have hurt to get a DB.
8. Running Back - With Reggie Bush coming off his breakout year, and Daniel Thomas showing potential, and Jerome Messam signed after becoming a CFL star, and Steve Slaton under contract for depth, running back is LOW on the list of needs. However, Reggie Bush's well documented injury history can't be ignored. Bush didn't finish 2011 injury free - he had a knee injury that kept him out of the last game of the season. Also, Bush is entering his final year of his contract, and if he produces like last year, he might ask for too much money. So, speedy running back to replace Bush in case of injury or unreasonable contract demands is something the team could use, but not 100% necessary.
9. Wide receiver depth - As before, we need guys to fit Philbin's system, and it's never good to put all your eggs in 1 basket. The more options we give Philbin and Sherman on offense to round out our WR corps, the better, because the West Coast offense demands 3-4 reliable WRs who can win individual matchups.
Whew. So, in my mind, Jeff Ireland systematically addressed all the needs and almost all of the "desirables" in 1 draft. Let's begin
Round 1: We filled the need for QB of the future - Ryan Tannehill was taken a little high for a guy likely to ride the bench for a year, but the coaching staff wanted him, and it was too risky in a draft where Brandon Weeden went in the *First Round* to pass on Tannehill at #8. I could see Cleveland trading up to the middle of the first round to take him if we didn't at #8, given that they valued a 30 year old QB with only 2 years starting experience as a college QB as worthy of a #22 overall pick. I give the pick a B+, but really, you can't judge this pick till he takes the field, and you can't fault Ireland for taking a QB that the new coaching regime apparently loved.
Round 2: We (hopefully) locked down our starter at RT, while also giving us a viable backup at LT - Jonathan Martin is a late first round talent who spent 3 years protecting Andrew Luck's blindside and blocking for a potent rushing attack. He was projected as a viable starter at LT, and we got him in the second, and he'll transition to the easier spot of RT. When you combine best player available with immediate team need, you earn a solid A. Martin is intelligent, hardworking, and has been well-coached. His only weakness is the need to improve upper-body strength, which for a professional football player with mandatory workouts and fitness programs won't be an issue.
Round 3, pick 1: We began addressing OLB/DE pass rushing by choosing Olivier Vernon. He was a top 10 prospect at his position who can play DE in 4-3 or OLB in 3-4, and he was a good pick as a potential pass rushing specialist. His "character concern" that led to suspension was taking some money as a college athlete - unlike drug abuse or other crimes, him accepting money won't be something we will have to worry about now that he's a professional. He showed incredible potential, based on his combine numbers. He isn't nearly as NFL ready as Melvin Ingram, but that's what happens when you address OLB/DE in the third round instead of round 1 - everybody has flaws. He's not a complete player yet, but he'll be able to step in on third downs, just like Cam Wake did his first year in Miami. I give this pick a B due to the developmental nature of this pick but potential upside.
Round 3, pick 2: We got the pass-catching TE people have been clamoring for in Michael Egnew. He was the third TE taken in the draft, and he was a top TE receiving target with Blaine Gabbert in 2010. His numbers only dropped in 2011 due to scheme change, which he accepted without complaint or accusations of lack of effort. He's a TALL target with excellent hands, as you would expect from a converted WR. His blocking needs work, but that can be coached and Fasano will be in whenever we need a key block from a TE, so Egnew has time to learn. He and Clay will compete for playing time and pass targets, while Les Brown develops on the practice squad. Unlike Clay, Egnew comes to the Dolphins having had a 90 catch season while in Missouri, so we know this guy can be a high-volume target and someone who sees plenty of playing time in 2012. I give this pick an A-.
Round 4: We get the Reggie Bush backup/Replacement with UMiami RB Lamar Miller. This is a bit high to draft a guy who might be 3rd on the depth chart, but Miller is a late 1st/early 2nd round homerun threat who fell to the fourth and could fill Reggie Bush's role if needed and complement Daniel Thomas for years to come. Combine that with Jerome Messam of the CFL and Steve Slaton, and we're more than set at RB. If anything, we will probably cut 1. Miller's pass-blocking is suspect, but he'll have a year to develop those skills before possibly replacing Reggie Bush as a 10-20 carries-per-game guy. I give this pick an B because of the high value (4th round pick for 1st round talent), with the only negative being the chance he might not be used much this year.
Round 5: We took a second DE/OLB, this time it was Josh Kaddu. Kaddu is another top 10 OLB/DE prospect who perhaps fits better as a 4-3 OLB, but can contribute on special teams and in coverage situations, and he shows potential as a pass rusher. I actually like what Ireland did here. Pass rusher was one of the 4 *Needs*. He used the first two rounds to fulfill two of those needs. He used a third round pick on a third need, but it's less clear-cut that Olivier Vernon can develop into a quality pass rusher, so Ireland selected a SECOND guy, just in case Vernon isn't the answer. Rather than squander another year of Wake's prime away, Ireland decided that one way or another, Wake will have a good pass rusher lining opposite of him, whether it's Misi, Vernon, or Kaddu. The New York Giants have proven you can never have too many quality pass rushers, so if Ireland hit on both picks, great. If he screwed up 1, the other can hopefully fulfill the role. I give this pick a B+. Again, like Vernon, Kaddu isn't a complete OLB, and we'll see how he develops, but getting this kind of talent in the fifth round is more impressive than getting a guy like Vernon in the third round, so that explains the slightly higher grade.
Round 6: We *FINALLY* addressed WR in this round with BJ Cunningham. If you read any writeups to Cunningham, one theme is clear. This guy is a prototypical West Coast Z receiver. To everyone who says, "Ewww, he runs a 4.59 40-yard dash, he's slow!" I say Hall of Famer Jerry Rice ran a 4.7, and Greg Jennings (a pretty good WR you might have heard of) ran a 4.51, so the West Coast offense doesn't need a Randy Moss-like speed guy. While not the most physically talented WR in the draft, he's an excellent route runner, has sure hands, and has been the number 1 WR target of Kirk Cousins at Michigan State for years, with excellent production in between the 20's and in the red zone. I give this pick a B+, because he's a fourth or fifth round talent taken in the 6th round. He doesn't have freakish athletic ability, but does everything a West Coast receiver needs to do, with multiple years of production demonstrating that.
Round 7, pick 1: With Kheeston Randall, we got a defensive tackle who played nose in a 3-4 defense in college but currently lacks the size to play nose in the NFL. He's a high character, high motor guy who, as you expect from a 7th round pick, has a serious weakness. He's fantastic against the run, but contributes nothing against the pass. I like getting some defensive line depth now that Merling is gone. Paul Soliai has been remarkably injury free, but this is a guy who might, MIGHT be able to step in to fill a limited role as Soliai's backup if Soliai is injured for a game or two, since I prefer Randy Starts at DE. I give this pick a C+. He's a projected 7th rounder who we got in the 7th round, who might make the roster but could end up on the practice squad like Frank Kearse from last year (who got poached from our squad by the Carolina Panthers). He gives us depth but little else.
Round 7, pick 2: We get another WR, this time Rishard Matthews. As before, Jeff Ireland seems to be following the principle that if a position is a NEED but we can't get a surefire starter in the first two rounds, then there's no reason to only draft 1 guy at the position. We needed pass rusher, so we got 2 of them. We needed a wide receiver, so we got 2 of them. Matthews combines production, size, and a fair amount of speed, and was a projected mid-to-late rounder that we get with our last pick. I give this pick a B, since when it comes to your very last pick in the draft, getting a potential starter in the 7th round is pretty darn good, but I doubt this guy ends up ahead of Hartline, Bess, Gates, or Cunningham on the depth chart, limiting his opportunities to actually contribute this year. He will likely compete with Roberto Wallace and Marlon Moore for a roster spot, and might end up on the practice squad.
The way I see it, even if Ireland only "hit" on half of his picks, we'll enter next year's draft with significantly fewer holes than this year. *All needs were addressed,* some more than once, and we bolstered depth all over except the defensive secondary. Not bad.
We also got more than a few guys at a cheaper price than we should have (Martin, Miller, and both WRs), and we gained clarity about our QB position for the next 4 years (Tannehill after this year unless either Matt Moore or David Garrard has a career year).
I give the draft a B+, knowing full well the real evaluation of the draft only can be done after these guys take the field.