It is fitting that the NFL holds the draft in the middle of spring. Like spring, the draft conjures up images of renewal and rebirth. Fans of every team hope that a good draft can facilitate a swift move to the pinnacle of NFL glory, the Super Bowl. For Miami Dolphins fans, the draft is usually a reminder of past failures and the overall malaise of the franchise since Dan Marino last donned a jersey. From Jamar Fletcher to Ted Ginn, trading picks for A.J. Feeley and Daunte Culpepper to drafting John Beck, the draft seemed like an endless parade of dysfunction and ‘blech' to the fans. The Dolphins always seemed to miss out on the stars and end up with the chaff. Then along came the 2012 draft.
As Jeff Darlington pointed out in a piece for NFL.com, this draft just ‘feels right' for the first time in a long time. Even with solid draft picks over the last few years (a good number of starters and contributors), those drafts just felt like they were missing something. General Manager Jeff Ireland was feeling the heat from fans, who visibly protested his presence here after a lackluster (but decent) free agency period. The Dolphins organization was in dire need of a great draft to re-energize the fans and Jeff Ireland delivered in a big way. Don't get me wrong, I'm not christening this draft class as All-Pros before they ever take a real snap in the NFL. We have no clue how these players will turn out. What Jeff Ireland delivered was a monstrous helping of what fans needed most: hope. Allow me to list some things I take away from this draft that I think should give fans some hope.
Jeff Ireland is Forging His Own Path
There has been an ongoing debate on the site about Jeff Ireland and his failure to make good draft picks. On one side of the coin, there are fans who say that he is to blame for taking a left tackle over a quarterback, drafting linemen in the first round as opposed to ‘skill position' players. On the other side, fans are saying that former czar of football operations Bill Parcells was the reason we for the bland drafts. I don't really want to get into that debate here. We as fans don't know what was said in the draft room (I dislike the term ‘war room'). We don't know how influence Jeff Ireland had while Parcells was calling the shots. What we DO know is that Jeff Ireland has had two drafts that he can call his own. When you look at those drafts compared to the drafts where Parcells was involved, you can see a marked difference in style and approach. Most fans know the Parcells method of building a team. Parcells wanted a big, physical team that won in the trenches with power. He preferred size over speed. He had templates for what kinds of players he wanted on his team. We saw that approach heavily in the drafts from 2008 to 2010. There are some who believe this method is outdated and needs to be revised (raises hand). It was kind of assumed that Jeff Ireland would follow in that path, since he was Parcells' protégé. Ireland, it appears, is not simply following in the footsteps of his mentor. He is blazing a new trail based on his own convictions. As I mentioned in the last podcast, the 2012 draft does not seem to have the Parcells fingerprint on it. Ryan Tannehill did not meet all of the requirements for the prototypical Parcells quarterback (not enough starts). Jonathan Martin is not a prototypical offensive lineman for Parcells (more athletic and finesse than overpowering with brute strength). Vernon doesn't meet the height standard and Egnew doesn't block. The receivers that were drafted aren't huge and aren't known for their blocking. Even looking back to the 2011 draft, you can see that Ireland was breaking away from the mold (Clay, Gates, and Wilson).
Again, I'm not saying these draft picks will all pan out. I'm also not saying that Ireland's position as general manager is all that safe. But for fans who were disappointed at the previous drafts and the previous approach to those drafts, it's clear that Jeff Ireland is not going down that road. This draft shows that Jeff Ireland is taking the team in the direction that HE sees as best, not anyone else. He is NOT following the Parcells mold, but following his own heart... following the mold of how a winning team drafts. Whatever side of the debate you are on, you have to say that this draft looks and feels like a different draft... a better draft, and that is a reason for hope.
The Dolphins FINALLY Drafted a First Round Quarterback
Twenty nine years is a long time. That is over one-third of the average lifespan of an American. A lot can happen in twenty nine years. Twenty nine years ago, cell phones did not exist and computers were large and slow. Instead of iPods, there were Walkmans... that played cassettes. There are members of this site who are not yet twenty nine years of age. Twenty nine years ago was the last time the Miami Dolphins selected a quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft. That quarterback ended up becoming one of the greatest players of all time. Since his retirement, the Dolphins have taken various routes to finding the next franchise quarterback. None of those routes included drafting one in the first round. Everyone knows about the history of the quarterback position over the last 13 years, so I won't rehash all of that. But finally, after nearly three decades, the Miami Dolphins finally took the plunge and used their first draft pick on a quarterback. I know there are plenty of fans who weren't happy with the choice. They have voiced their concerns and I understand their hesitance. I'm not going to try and persuade them that Ryan Tannehill was a great pick; that will play itself out on the field. But even the most pessimistic of Dolphins fans will have to admit that this choice has to give them at least a glimmer of hope. The main reason is that it signals a step in the right direction. The team finally put the most important position as the top priority. No more putting off the position until later rounds. No more band aid free agents. No more trading for stopgaps. If nothing else, at least we know the team isn't afraid to go out on that limb and take a chance on a quarterback in the first round.
The Dolphins Got Great Value
"If our board was right, then we killed it!" Thus quoth Jeff Ireland in an interview with the Finsiders crew on miamidolphins.com. He was discussing the value the Dolphins got in this draft. Granted, it's very difficult to determine value because no one knows what all the other team's draft boards look like. But by Ireland's estimation, he was able to acquire players that were rated highly on his board at later points in the draft. There are three prospects, in my opinion, that stand out in this draft as tremendous value: Jonathan Martin, Lamar Miller, and Rishard Matthews. Martin was considered by most draft analysts a first round prospect. Most thought that Martin could go as high as 10 to Buffalo, but would most likely fall to a tackle needy team in the lower part of the first. However, the overall value for linemen in this draft fell as only four linemen were taken in the first round, and only one in the top 20 picks. After some tackle needy teams in St. Louis and Buffalo passed over Martin to select other players, the Dolphins were able to select a top 10 caliber player in the second round. They selected a top 10 caliber tackle that will now man the right side to protect Ryan Tannehill, but can also play the left side in the event Jake Long is injured again. So the Dolphins drafted a top 10 caliber offensive tackle that will start at right tackle, fill in at left tackle, and they got him in the second round. That is great value.
If Jonathan Martin in the second round was a steal, the Lamar Miller in the fourth is a theft of Ocean's Eleven magnitude. At the end of last season, Miller was making a push to become a first round back. Offseason shoulder surgery caused his stock to fall, but was still considered a second round prospect after that. Miller survived until the fourth round where Miami traded up to snag him. He doesn't fill an immediate need at the running back position. But what Miller brings to the table was too much to pass up at that point in the draft. He has good size at 5'11" and 212 pounds. He has sub 4.4 speed and an elite burst. The pick also makes sense when you factor in Reggie Bush's injury history and contract to consider. Miller would be able to take over for Bush if an injury occurred. Coach Philbin will also have options now for using a two-back set and splitting Bush and/or Miller out wide. Miller also has experience in the kick return game and could easily supplant Clyde Gates as the primary kick returner. And since Miller is young, he would appear to be part of the long term future for this franchise.
Rishard Matthews was probably not on the radar of many fans going into this draft. He doesn't fit the mold of a prototypical #1 receiver (6'0", 217 lbs.), but he does fit the mold of a West Coast Offense receiver. His draft stock plummeted after a poor forty time at the combine. However, he re-aggravated a knee injury before the combine and that led to his poor time. At his pro day, when he was healed, he ran a 4.47 which would more accurately reflect what you would see on film. He's explosive in and out of breaks and has good hands. His biggest value this season should be in the punt return game, as he should take over for Bess as the primary returner. He was predicted to be a fifth round guy, so to get him in the seventh is good value.
Those are some examples of some value picks the Dolphins were able to select. Getting good players in later rounds is always a positive thing and hopefully is a sign of how future drafts will turn out.
The Silver Lining
Spring is the time of year for new growth in nature. Dormant seeds lying in the earth burst forth from the ground yielding their vibrant colors and the scent of new life. Just as spring is the season for renewal, the 2012 draft has begun a new season of hope for Dolphins fans. This draft was filled with promise and excitement that I have not seen in years from this team. This draft has given Miami fans hope for the future. Hope that the new first round quarterback will finally end the long drought at the position. Hope that the players we drafted can become playmakers. Hope that the team is finally headed in the right direction. Hope that this draft was the first step to a championship run that fans desperately crave. Hope that the dark cloud that seems to hover over this franchise and this fan base has finally broken and the sun is shining through. Yes, it's true that no one knows how these players will turn out in the future. No, this team is not complete and still has holes to fill. But right now, they give us hope, and that is all that we can ask for. The season of hope, like a crisp spring morning, is upon the Miami Dolphins now. And the future is looking brighter than it has in a long time.