Dolphins' Long-Haul Rebuild Should Make Miami an AFC Force for Years to Come

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 27, 2021

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) stands in a huddle during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Brett Carlsen)
Brett Carlsen/Associated Press

There hasn't been a team in the NFL that has done more moving and shaking in the first round of the draft over the past few years than the Miami Dolphins.

Back in 2019, general manager Chris Grier conducted a fire sale of sorts, trading veteran assets like safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil in an effort to accumulate draft capital. The following year, that haul helped to bring in a trio of potential impact players in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, offensive tackle Austin Jackson and cornerback Noah Igbinoghene.  

In 2021, Grier appears to be doing a bit of both, first dealing the third overall pick in this year's draft to the San Francisco 49ers, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. He then moved back up to sixth overall in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The pair of transactions brought in significant draft-day compensation and kept the Dolphins in contention to select one of the best non-quarterbacks in this class. The moves were a continuation of a steady rebuild that has already seen the Dolphins go from 5-11 in 2019 to 10-6 last season.

And if Grier makes good use of all the draft picks he has accumulated and the team's young quarterback continues to progress, the Dolphins could be on the verge of not just contending for a playoff spot in 2021 but of also becoming a force in the AFC for years to come.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

After narrowly missing the postseason in 2020 despite a 10-win campaign, the Dolphins weren't nearly as active in free agency as they were a year ago. Their biggest acquisition on the open market was former Houston Texans wide receiver Will Fuller V, who came in on a one-year deal. But thanks in part to all of Grier's machinations in 2019, the 2021 draft is set to be a different story. 

Courtesy of the trade that sent Tunsil to the Texans, the Dolphins were sitting on two first-rounders: Houston's pick at No. 3 and their own at No. 18. With Tagovailoa just one year removed from being the fifth overall pick, it was unlikely that the Dolphins would spend the third selection on another signal-caller.

That led to a couple of theories. The first was that the Dolphins were one of the best-positioned teams to take a run at disgruntled Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. The other was that a trade down with a team looking to add a young quarterback was a real possibility.

On Friday, the latter came to pass. As Schefter reported, the 49ers sent a package that included three first-rounders (including the 12th overall pick in 2021) to the Dolphins for the right to move up nine spots and ostensibly draft a replacement for Jimmy Garoppolo under center.

Adam Schefter @AdamSchefter

Filed to ESPN: Dolphins trading No. 3 overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers for the No. 12 pick, a 2021 third-round pick (SF’s comp pick for Robert Saleh hiring) and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, per sources. Blockbuster deal with massive ramifications for years to come.

Keiana Martin of the team's official website later reported the 2021 third-rounder was in fact a 2022 third-round compensatory selection. 

Still, it's a massive haul. 

And when you consider that pick was part of the Tunsil trade that landed the Dolphins first-rounders in 2020 and '21 and the 36th overall pick this year, it effectively means that Miami netted two players (cornerback Johnson Bademosi and tackle Julien Davenport) and five picks, including four in the first round, in exchange for the offensive tackle, a Day 3 pick in 2020, another in 2021 and wideout Kenny Stills.

That is staggering.

Grier wasn't done either. Just minutes after the league was rocked by news of the deal between Miami and San Francisco, the Philadelphia Eagles relayed that the Dolphins had made another trade to move back into the top 10.

Philadelphia Eagles @Eagles

Trade: #Eagles have traded picks No. 6 and No. 156 overall to the Dolphins in exchange for No. 12 overall, No. 123 overall, and a 2022 first-round pick. https://t.co/Nzy949CsX4

Confused yet?

Essentially, the Dolphins moved back three spots on April 29 and gave up a fourth-round pick in exchange for a third-round compensatory pick in 2022, a fifth-round pick in 2021 and San Francisco's first-round pick in 2023.

In technical terms, that's called a good deal—one that should allow Grier to continue markedly bettering the team's roster in both the short- and long-term.

As evidenced by Miami's drastic improvement last year, there aren't as many holes on the Dolphins roster as there once were. But there are still areas to improve. And last year's free-agent spending spree didn't quite go according to plan. One year after handing substantial contracts to edge-rusher Shaq Lawson and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, both players are no longer on the team.

However, filling the team's needs through the draft is both more cost-effective and potentially offers a more long-term solution. And whether it's at edge-rusher, along the interior of the offensive line or at running back, off-ball linebacker or in the receiving corps, the Dolphins have the ammo to improve in a number of areas before the dust settles.

Given what Grier gave up to get up to the sixth overall pick, it's a pretty safe bet that the Dolphins have a player in mind. As things stand, at least three of the five picks ahead of Miami will all but certainly be quarterbacks.

Everyone (and I do mean everyone) believes that Clemson's Trevor Lawrence is headed to Jacksonville. The 49ers didn't mortgage the future to pick an offensive tackle. And the tea leaves are pointing hard toward the New York Jets drafting BYU's Zach Wilson at No. 2.

If Oregon tackle Penei Sewell is selected by either the Atlanta Falcons or Cincinnati Bengals (assuming those teams stand pat), it means that either LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase or Florida tight end Kyle Pitts (if not both) will be on the board. So will every edge-rusher and O-lineman (except Sewell).

John Raoux/Associated Press

Josh Edwards of CBS Sports has Miami taking Pitts with that sixth selection and Michigan edge-rusher Kwity Paye going at No. 18. Combined with 2020 breakout Emmanuel Ogbah, Paye would add some much-needed punch to Miami's pass rush.

It's possible that one of this year's top two running backs (Alabama's Najee Harris and Clemson's Travis Etienne) will be available when the Dolphins pick early on Day 2. Later in that second round, the offensive line could be the focus, with a prospect like North Dakota State tackle Dillon Radunz, Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis or Alabama center Landon Dickerson.

That would fill four needs with young players who have better-than-average chances to start in 2021. And they'd be on affordable rookie deals. 

The wild card in all this is Tagovailoa. The Dolphins will go as far as the young southpaw takes them, and Tagovailoa admittedly had his ups and downs in 2020. But uneven first seasons are hardly unheard of from rookie quarterbacks (especially one working his way back from a dislocated hip), and there's been nothing to indicate that the Dolphins are any less confident in Tagovailoa than they were when they drafted him.

Tagovailoa posted a 6-3 record as starter last season, completing 64.1 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns against five picks. He might not have been Patrick Mahomes, but he wasn't Ryan Finley either.

Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

And Miami is quietly building a very good team around him.

This isn't to say that the Dolphins are destined for a deep playoff run in 2021 and years of success afterward. Last season, the Buffalo Bills won the AFC East by three games and swept the Dolphins. The AFC North fielded three teams with better records than Miami. And the Kansas City Chiefs (who beat the Dolphins in a wild Week 14 affair) are the kings of the conference until someone knocks them from their perch.

To challenge (or surpass) those teams, Grier needs to hit on all of those 2021 draft picks—or at least most of them.

But Grier and head coach Brian Flores have done a remarkable job over the past couple of seasons. Less than two years ago, the Dolphins were being talked about as arguably the worst team in the history of the NFL.

Now, those same Dolphins are heading into the 2021 draft with the ammo to improve considerably, with the look of a legitimate playoff contender. And the resources to stay one for a while.