Dolphins' Rebuild Is Over and It's Time to Contend in the AFC

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 5, 2021

Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle holds a team jersey after being chosen by the Miami Dolphins with the sixth pick in the NFL football draft Thursday April 29, 2021, in Cleveland. (Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)
Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

With two first-round picks in 2023 and a pair of third-round selections in next year's NFL draft, the Miami Dolphins may not be done loading up for what could be a long stretch as a Super Bowl contender.

Still, with a ridiculous nine first- or second-round picks from the 2020 and 2021 drafts now populating their roster, the heart of the Dolphins' rebuild is complete. 

Now, it's time to compete. 

The Dolphins have a top-five pick at quarterback (Tua Tagovailoa), three 20-something-year-old, first-round selections at wide receiver (DeVante Parker, Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle), and two young first-round picks up front on defense (Jaelan Phillips and Christian Wilkins).

They have four young Day 1 or Day 2 picks along the offensive line (Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt, Liam Eichenberg and Michael Deiter, at least one of whom isn't even guaranteed a starting spot with veteran addition Matt Skura and 2020 fourth-rounder Solomon Kindley on board). Miami also has two young Day 2 selections at tight end (Mike Gesicki and Hunter Long) and a secondary led by extremely well-paid veteran cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Byron Jones.

Matt Shiffler/Associated Press

Howard, Jones, safeties Bobby McCain and Eric Rowe, edge defender Emmanuel Ogbah, Fuller, Parker, Skura and incoming defensive veterans Benardrick McKinney and Justin Coleman give them plenty of experience and veteran leadership. Meanwhile, their depth chart has been bolstered by later-round surprises like linebackers Jerome Baker and Andrew Van Ginkel, running back Myles Gaskin and wild-card offensive weapons Lynn Bowden Jr. and Preston Williams. 

There isn't a weak spot on the roster—at least one that doesn't contain an immense amount of promise. 

This is a team that actually blew away expectations by winning five of their last nine games with practically none of that aforementioned talent on the roster in 2019 and then built on that with a 10-win 2020 campaign. That makes them 15-10 since the start of November 2019, despite the COVID-19 pandemic significantly limiting head coach Brian Flores' first full offseason in 2020. 

Still, Flores' defense ranked 11th in the NFL last season in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders, and only five teams surrendered fewer points than a Dolphins squad that ranked 11th in points differential. 

They ranked third behind only the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts with a turnover margin of plus-nine. 

Now, think how much better they can be when they're significantly more acclimated and experienced in 2021. 

Remember that for much of his rookie season, Tagovailoa was less than a year removed from a career-threatening hip injury. We've become low on patience for entry-level NFL quarterbacks, but if anybody deserves a break for a slow maiden campaign, it should be Tua. 

John Munson/Associated Press

Now, a year later, in addition to Parker and Gesicki, he'll have Fuller—last year's NFL leader in yards per target as a member of the Houston Texans—and another young blazer in Waddle, who was in the Heisman conversation at Alabama before suffering an ankle injury in October. 

Tagovailoa should also get the promising Williams back from an injury-plagued 2020 campaign and will have Long at his disposal as a rookie third-round tight end who looks ready to serve as a safety valve immediately.

And then there's that young line.

Hunt improved mightily late in his rookie season as a second-round tackle and should be even more effective after an anticipated move inside next year. Eichenberg, who was a three-year starter at left tackle at Notre Dame and gave up zero sacks his last two college seasons (per Pro Football Focus), should compete immediately for one of the two offensive tackle spots. And it's far too early to give up on either Jackson or Kindley despite their struggles with consistency as rookies in 2020. 

At least there's more competition there now, and at least Skura brings plenty of starting experience from a strong Baltimore Ravens organization. 

The two biggest concerns for the Dolphins right now? 

1. It's possible Tagovailoa won't become a franchise-caliber NFL quarterback, regardless of the support he has. The majority of first-round quarterbacks become busts and fellow 2020 top-10 signal-callers Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are off to strong starts. Tua lacked playmaking ability almost entirely in 2020, and there's no guarantee that'll change in 2021. 

2. There are no sure-things along that offensive line, which might not offer Tua much continuity now that Hunt is likely to move inside and both Ereck Flowers and Ted Karras are gone. They have a lot of young talent there, but if Eichenberg experiences growing pains and Jackson or Kindley can't take the next step, they could be in trouble. Same goes for if Skura can't put it back together after he had trouble in his return from a major knee injury in 2020, or if Hunt's transition to guard doesn't go as planned.

Doug Murray/Associated Press

That's why they're still not widely viewed as a Super Bowl contender despite an awesome defense and so much promise on offense, but they're really not far off if everything falls into place. 

And if it doesn't? The Dolphins might not be able to wait much longer for Tua or whichever offensive line cogs don't come through this season. They might currently own a combined three first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 thanks to the San Francisco 49ers, but they'll eventually have less draft capital than they've had during this remarkable run.

If Tagovailoa doesn't improve significantly soon, they'll have to use a lot of that capital on a new quarterback before it's too late. Or, if Tua takes off despite more line issues, they might have to rebuild that unit again on the fly. 

For now, though, the pieces are in place as a result of a deep, thorough and smart roster refurbishment.

In the AFC East, the formerly dominant New England Patriots became mortal again in 2020, and the New York Jets appear to be on the right track but won just two games in 2020. The Buffalo Bills are a prime contender, but they'll have a target on their back as quarterback Josh Allen tries to prove his breakout 2020 campaign wasn't an aberration. 

The Dolphins don't yet face pressure like that, and it would be silly to count them out in an expanded AFC playoff field. 

Pretty soon, they'll be out of excuses. 


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.