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Dolphins expecting big jump from 2015 draft class

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Wild Card Round - Miami Dolphins v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Every year, the NFL Draft leads to immediate reactions, grades, and discussion of which players will be rookie of the year candidates. In reality, however, it is usually three years before the players from any given draft class come fully into their own, learning the NFL game, their team’s offensive or defensive system, and continuing to grown into their own as a professional. For the 2015 NFL Draft class, this year is that third year.

And the Miami Dolphins are expecting big things from them this year.

Miami made seven selections in the 2015 Draft, adding wide receiver DeVante Parker in the first round, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips in the second round, guard Jamil Douglas in the fourth round, and cornerback Bobby McCain, running back Jay Ajayi, safety Cedric Thompson, and cornerback Tony Lippett all in the fifth round. Douglas and Thompson have both left the team, with Douglas joining the New England Patriots in the middle of the 2016 season after being cut by Miami and Thompson, after spending 2015 on the Dolphins’ practice squad, was not re-signed by the team at the end of the year and spent the 2016 preseason with the Patriots and the regular season on the Minnesota Vikings practice squads before being released this offseason and not having been signed by anyone as of yet.

That leaves Miami with Parker, Phillips, McCain, Ajayi, and Lippett from the class - all of whom Miami envisions with key roles this year.

Parker, in his first two seasons, has 82 receptions for 1,238 yards, with seven touchdowns. He has played in 30 games, but only has 12 starts in large part due to injuries. This year, Miami will be looking for Parker to become the true number one receiver they thought they would be adding when they selected him with the 14th overall selection back in 2015. Can he come into this year healthy and ready to take some of the pressure off Jarvis Landry?

“The great thing is we’re seeing what we were hoping to see, and that’s A) a healthy DeVante Parker – he is running probably better than I’ve seen him run since I’ve been here – and a hungry DeVante Parker,” offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said of the receiver during the team’s offseason training program. “I think he has been around a lot more than last year. He is practicing hard. He’s queued in on this thing – zeroed in I guess is our word this year – zeroed in. So, we are seeing what we wanted to see out of him.”

Christensen went on to explain exactly how they envision Parker fitting into the offense this year, “We need him to be a big play, No. 1 receiver. That’s what he has the potential to be. That’s what he has to be, and to play at a high level week after week after week after week in a consistent manner. It’s not easy to do, but he has the skills to do it, which not many guys do have. Now he’s applying himself. He has always worked, but he struggled with that hamstring. He has gotten himself healthy. I really think that maybe lifestyle – for lack of a better term – but just his routine is better. Sometimes those young guys, as they come into this thing, it takes them a while to fall into the routine of what it takes to put your body in position, in shape, sleep – all the above – eating, practicing, all those things to be able to make it through a 16-game season, especially for a receiver, where you just are running so much. There’s so much running involved in the thing. I think probably all those things have gotten better for him. I think they’ll all combine to him having a great year this year. I really think he’ll have a great, big year – a gigantic year for us. That would be huge.”

“It helps with everything,” Christensen continued. “It helps with the quarterback position. It helps with your running game. It helps everything. If you can get some chunks of yardage and you get a big-play guy who can jump over, it helps with some jumps balls, 50-50 balls and all of a sudden you come down with a few of those. Those are important chunks. It’s hard to go 4 yards and a cloud of dust.”

The Dolphins are expecting 2015 second-round pick, Phillips, to take control of the starting defensive tackle position next to the Pro Bowl veteran Ndamukong Suh. Phillips started 11 games last year, 15 total in his two seasons, with a career stat total of 42 tackles, 2.5 sacks, seven passes defensed, and one interception while playing in 31 games. Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke discussed Phillips last week, telling the media, “Jordan, like everyone’s been saying, he has been inconsistent. He’s had some flashes. He’s a very talented player. We just need to be more consistent from that spot. Again, whether it’s schematically putting them in the right calls and putting them in the right things or coaching those guys up on better technique or motivation to get Jordan Phillips better or whoever it is. (We have to) get these young guys up to speed. I don’t think there’s a measuring stick today of if we got better. I mean we feel good about the pieces we’ve added to that room, but that’s always an ongoing process.”

The Dolphins have focused a lot of their efforts on adding depth and talent to the cornerback group, to include 2015’s selection of both McCain and Lippett. In his first two seasons, McCain, largely considered the team’s nickel cornerback covering the slot receiver, but having played on the outside as well, has played in all 32 games, starting 12 times, with 66 tackles, one sack, ten passes defensed, and one interception. Lippett, who played wide receiver at Michigan State but transitioned to a full-time cornerback for the Dolphins, has appeared in 25 games, starting 13 times (all in 2016), with 78 tackles, 11 passes defensed, and four interceptions.

Miami added Xavien Howard in the second round of the 2016 Draft, traded for Byron Maxwell last offseason, and added Cordrea Tankersley in the second round of this year’s Draft, but none of those moves offset the reliance the team may have on McCain and Lippett this year. The two 2015 selections likely will battle for the top nickel slot, while providing depth on the field and boundary outside positions. Miami’s coaches have said they cannot have enough cornerbacks, especially after last year’s injury plague hit the position, and now they may have exactly what they want - more talented cornerbacks than they can get onto the field. If McCain and Lippett continue to develop, the Dolphins could be set at cornerback for several years.

The star of the draft class thus far for Miami is Ajayi, who burst onto the scene last year, forcing the coaching staff to adjust from a running back platoon to trusting Ajayi to be a workhorse back. In 15 games last year, with 12 starts, he rushed for 1,272 yards on 260 attempts, scoring eight touchdowns. He added 27 receptions for 151 yards last year, a stat-line the team is hoping to see increase in 2017. “Jay is working hard to be a three-down back,” Christensen said. “His receiving skills are 200 percent better than a year ago today.“

He continued, speaking about Ajayi’s outlook for the 2017 season, “Jay, I think, falls in the same category of it’s by far his best year he’s ever had; now he’s got a ton of confidence. He knows how he’s going to have to train his body, right? He went through that – what it feels like to wake on Monday morning – and I think he’s in 50 percent better shape today then he was a year ago. I mean I just think that there’s something about just understanding, and then also I think there’s something about tasting success. I always used to tease him about those 200-yard games and then all of a sudden everyone’s trying to tattoo you. They’re a blessing and a curse. But when you do taste that thing a little bit, and feel some success and taste some success, it kind of makes you even hungrier for more, and to play at that level. So I think you’ll see him make a big jump. I think he’ll be a better football player. Sometimes it doesn’t translate into numbers. You can be better and it doesn’t necessarily … This game’s funny. It doesn’t always translate into numbers, but you still can be a better football player. And I think there’s no question in my mind that Jay Ajayi will be a better football player than he was last year.”

The Dolphins are looking to be a better team than the 10-6 club they were last year, a team that made the playoffs for the first time since 2008. If they are going to meet those expectations, the 2015 Draft may prove to be the key to it happening. Parker and Ajayi both should have huge roles in the offense, while Phillips clogs up the middle of the defensive line and McCain and Lippett take larger positions in the secondary. Miami has young talent that is coming up to make the team better, now it is just a matter of the players reaching their potential as they enter their third year in the league.