Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Breaking down the Dolphins' 2011 draft class

A year after using seven of their eight draft picks on defense, the Dolphins went all offense during the first two days of the 2011 NFL Draft, coming away with four players on that side of the ball in six total selections.

Selected in the first round was Mike Pouncey, who is expected to push for the starting center job as a rookie. The Dolphins traded up from the third round into the second to land Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas, who appears poised to be the feature back in Miami's overhauled backfield.

Speedy small-school receiver Edmond Gates was nabbed in the fourth round, while versatile fullback/tight end Charles Clay was chosen in the second round. Only Gates' roster spot is practically assured, but both will have a chance to earn significant playing time as rookies.

The Dolphins finally went for some defensive depth in the draft's seventh and final round, selecting Alabama A&M nose tackle Frank Kearse and defensive back Jimmy Wilson.

No quarterback competition (yet)

One thing the Dolphins did not do that many expected them to was draft a quarterback to compete with and potentially replace up-and-down starter Chad Henne. That is not to say the team was not willing to do so, but the board apparently did not fall the right way for that to happen.

The Dolphins were reportedly interested in Christan Ponder had the Vikings not taken him 12th. The team also reportedly considered a trade up for Ryan Mallett, who eventually went to the Patriots in the third round.

It was passing on Mallett (with the pick acquired to land Daniel Thomas) that really disappointed me. I'm not blind to the fact that Mallett fell to the third round for some reason, and considering his pure talent that means many teams were very concerned about him for something.

That being said, Mallett has the physical tools of an elite NFL quarterback and a football IQ as good as any prospect in this class. Those are things I can work with, regardless of whatever immaturity issues he's had in the past. The right kind of coaching can make the guy a star.

It's not that I've given up on Henne--I feel the organization is down on him more than I am. But I yearn for the Dolphins to have one of those reliable, elite quarterbacks that some teams have, and Mallett was simply a guy I felt could become that.

I have no problem with the Dolphins not taking a quarterback like Ricky Stanzi or T. J. Yates on the third day--I like both as long-term projects, but it was not vital to draft a quarterback in 2011 that was not going to push Henne for the job this season.

Help for Henne

While the Dolphins did not land a new quarterback in this year's draft, they did just about everything they could to help their current one. Chad Henne appears poised for a make or break season in 2011, with the fates of Tony Sparano, Jeff Ireland, and rest of the staff potentially tied to it, so it's no surprise the Dolphins did everything they could to get Henne some help this season.

With every running back the Dolphins used last season a free agent, and potentially all three unlikely to return, the Thomas grabbed a workhorse back in Daniel Thomas. While I wasn't thrilled with the trade up to grab him, there's no doubt he can carry the load and be a productive NFL starter.

A strong running back, which Henne lacked in 2010, is not simply built on the running back, however. To that end, the Dolphins selected Florida center/guard Mike Pouncey. While not as talented as Pro Bowler brother Maurkice in Pittsburgh, Mike Pouncey was a safe pick for the Dolphins that should pay immediate dividends by becoming a reliable starter from day one.

The Dolphins also added some much needed speed to the team's receiving corps with Edmond Gates from Abilene Christian in the fourth round. A tougher version of Ted Ginn, Jr., Gates is raw but has the speed to be a dynamic playmaker. He's been compared to highly-productive Steelers receiver Mike Wallace and will have the opportunity for significant time on offense as a rookie.

And finally on the offensive side of the ball, the Dolphins took former Tulsa running back/fullback/tight end Charles Clay. A big, strong, athletic player, Clay was a tremendous receiver for the Golden Hurricane while lined up in the backfield, at tight end, or split out wide.

A changing offense

What's interesting to note about this draft is how the Dolphins' offense will potentially change under Brian Daboll, who replaced Dan Henning after a horrendous offensive showing in 2010.

While a continued commitment to the running game remains likely as long as Sparano is in charge, the Dolphins are clearly taking measures to add new elements to their passing game in order to help Henne's development.

The two picks that highlight this the most are Gates and Clay. The addition of Gates looks to add a consistent deep threat to a receiving corps that, while talented, is significantly lacking in the ability to stretch the field. The Dolphins' fastest receiver before the addition of Gates was almost certainly Brian Hartline, but he struggled with drops at times in 2010 and ended the season on injured reserve.

Clay gives Henne a weapon that he really has not had since he arrived in Miami, and that is both a speedy receiving threat at tight end and potentially from the fullback position. As good as Lousaka Polite has been as a lead blocker and short-yardage back, Clay appears to have all those abilities with the added feature of a legitimate receiver.

It will be interesting to see how the offense changes under Daboll with these new pieces in place, and if the marriage of Henne play and Daboll's play-calling can give the Dolphins and their fans

More work to do

The Dolphins' offense is certainly not ready to go in 2011. Primary needs remaining that must be filled in free agency include a "scat back" or receiving threat out of the backfield to complement Thomas (think Darren Sproles or Jerious Norwood) and at least one starting guard, such as Justin Blalock of the Falcons and Davin Joseph of the Buccaneers.

Assuming the Dolphins only land one starting interior lineman via free agency, it seems likely that the team will indeed start the rookie Pouncey at center and let Richie Incognito, Nate Garner, and John Jerry battle it out for the vacant guard spot. In that case, the Sparano and offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo will need to get better play out of the starter than they did in 2010.

If they can fill these holes, the work the Dolphins have done to upgrade the offense around Chad Henne may just work, calling off a potential coaching (and subsequently, quarterback) search in 2012.

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