The general rule of thumb for grading a particular draft class effectively is to see where those players are in three years after that draft. It has been three season since the 2011 draft, so now is a great time to look at it.
This was the first draft that former GM Jeff Ireland ran completely without the assistance of Bill Parcells. That draft took place under the tumultuous setting of the lockout. There was no free agency beforehand to address team needs. Miami had a few glaring needs, mostly at quarterback and running back. Chad Henne was the incumbent quarterback, but it was the final season of his contract and it was clear he was not the answer Miami was looking for at the position. Miami was not going to have Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams anymore, leaving a big void to fill. On draft weekend, the Dolphins started with mostly a regular slate of picks, sans a second rounder used in the Brandon Marshall trade. To the dismay of many fans, no quarterback was drafted. That marred this draft for a number of fans, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a productive or good draft.
A couple of points that I need to make first: Another general rule of thumb regarding drafts is that if a team gets at least two starters from any given draft, then it is a productive draft. I know some will disagree, but that's the way it is. You don't have to just get superstars for a draft to be successful. You also shouldn't expect every player from a draft to be productive either. If you get two starting caliber players in a draft, then you have done well. Second, I will not use the term "bust" because that term gets used too liberally as it is. In my opinion, "bust" should be a term for picks with high expectations on them, such as first round pick. A seventh round pick is not a "bust" because no one expects them to make a huge contribution anyway. Instead, I will use the terms "hit" and "miss" because I believe that more accurately reflects how a player's contributions correlate to his expectations.
First Round, Pick 15: Mike Pouncey (HIT)
This was unquestionably a hit by the Dolphins. Pouncey is a Pro Bowl center with rare athleticism for the position. He is great in both run blocking and pass protection. He is a player the Dolphins are building around on the offensive line and a top ten player at his position. There really isn't much more to say about this pick.
Second Round, Pick 62: Daniel Thomas (MISS)
Ireland traded up from the third round to nab Thomas in the second. Miami had a huge need at running back since Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams were moving on. Thomas was drafted in part due to his size, being 6'1" and 233 pounds. He was going to be the power/short yardage back Sparano's offensive would need. Thomas has yet to become that player. He has moments where the light appears to be on (Pittsburgh in 2013), but many more where you scratch your head at what he is doing. He has been the only back the Dolphins have that is proficient at pass protection, thus he has remained with the team. Surprisingly he's not bad as a receiving back as he can actually make defenders miss in the open field. This pick wouldn't have been so bad if other backs such as Steven Ridley and Demarco Murray hadn't been available (as well as Kendall Hunter whom Miami could have had with its next pick too). Two other players of note: Justin Houston and Randall Cobb were available as well. Thomas averages less than 4.0 YPC and struggles with vision and power at times. Clearly a need for the Dolphins, but Thomas hasn't filled the role well enough to be considered anything but a miss.
Fourth Round, Pick 111: Clyde Gates (MISS)
Gates was the fastest wide receiver at the 2011 combine and Miami drafted him to add some speed to the receiving unit. The Gates pick was lauded by fans and some "experts" as a great pick - a sleeper pick by the Dolphins... swing and a miss. Gates is fast, but not very good at playing receiver. He rarely saw the field as anything but a returner in 2011 and was released before the 2012 season. He was picked up by the Jets where he still remains. He has 25 receptions, 329 yards, and 0 touchdowns in three seasons.
Sixth Round, Pick 174: Charles Clay (HIT)
Clay was drafted to fill the H-back role for the Dolphins, which is basically a fullback-tight end hybrid position. Clay played that role at the University of Tulsa where he was used to block, rush, and as a receiver. Clay showed flashes of great play, but was inconsistent in his first two years. He seemed to finally put it all together in 2013 as he amassed 69 receptions, 759 yards, and 6 TDs receiving and 15 yards and 1 TD on 7 rushing attempts. Clay was very close to setting franchise records for the tight end position and was voted 89th on the NFL Network's Top 100, as voted on by the players. Clay will enter the 2014 season as the starter at TE, though he will still be used primarily in the H-back role.
Seventh Round, Pick 231: Frank Kearse (MISS)
Kearse had an uphill climb as a seventh round pick to begin with and it became even tougher when he was drafted to a team that had a good defensive line with good depth. Kearse was placed on the practice squad, but was poached by the Panthers a couple of weeks later. Kearse stayed with Carolina for 2 seasons, where he earned 4 starts. He was released in 2013 and was picked up by the Titans and played on their practice squad. The Cowboys poached him and he spent the 2013 season with the Cowboys. He was released this offseason and has been signed by the Washington Redskins. Perhaps he can stick with them.
Seventh Round, Pick 235, Jimmy Wilson (HIT)
This is a case of a player going lower than his talents deserved. Talent-wise, Wilson was a day two caliber pick. However, major off-the-field issues caused him to drop to almost last in the draft. In 2007, Wilson was arrested on murder charges. He languished in jail for two years as the first jury failed to reach a verdict. The second jury acquitted him as they found the shooting was in self-defense. Wilson earned his way unto the team and has not looked back. Wilson's primary role is the nickel cornerback, a position he struggled with early in his career, but started to flourish in during the 2013 season. While that's not technically a starting role, the nickel CB plays anywhere from 55-65% of the snaps in a given season. Having some experience at safety, Wilson is also the primary back up at free safety. His ability to play both positions plus being a core special teams player makes him very valuable to the team. Not bad for a seventh round pick with off-the-field "concerns".
There are some fans that would have considered this 2011 draft a complete waste for the Dolphins. Up until this past season, they were mostly correct. However, Clay and Wilson stepping up and becoming bigger impact players have turned a lackluster draft into a pretty darned good one. Usually, having only six picks spells trouble because it reduces a team's chances on hitting on productive players. But to Jeff Ireland's credit, he made hay with those six picks getting hits of half of them. I dare say most GMs would love to bat .500 in any draft. There are still some questions regarding this draft; is Clay a one-hit wonder? Will Pouncey mature into the leader the Dolphins want him to be? Can Wilson become a starter at safety? Even with those questions though, the 2011 draft class for Miami is looking much better than most initially thought.