AC In The AM: Draft Class Has Impressive Look

Posted May 14, 2018

Some first impressions of the eight Dolphins’ draft picks after meeting them up close during the just completed rookie camp.

No. 1 pick DB Minkah Fitzpatrick: Now I understand why Alabama’s Nick Saban considered him one of his all-time favorites. This is a well-grounded young man who clearly has his priorities in order. Had to grow up quickly at a young age with his family struggling to meet ends. At 14 years old, he was working until midnight to help his father, a diesel mechanic. His parents lost their house in Hurricane Irene and the biggest smile we saw was when he talked about buying them a house with some of the money from his first pro contract. “And nobody is going to take that away,” he said.

As for football, six hours before just about every game in college you could find him watching tape alone in the football offices. “There is no extraordinary without “extra”, he says, explaining his tireless work ethic. Someone asked him which position in the defensive backfield he considers home. “On the football field,” came his response. Indeed, this as close to a complete player as the Dolphins have drafted in a long time. What we saw in his first interview was that he’s also pretty much a complete person. My takeaway? He is somehow humble and confident at the same time. I simply could not have been more impressed.

No. 2 pick TE Mike Gesicki: It was so nice to see a big, tall, pass catching tight end standing at the podium in the media work room. Been too long for this organization. His shoulders are broad, his smile is warm and his words carried plenty of weight. “I hold myself to a very high standard,” he says. “I haven’t scratched the surface of the tight end I can become.” He rattles off the ways he hopes to help this offense. Making contested catches. Scoring red zone touchdowns. Coming up with his share of big plays.” He mentions Travis Kelce and Jimmy Graham as the type of tight end he wants to become. And he says it as if it’s only a matter of time.

He could have done big things in basketball and is often asked about his dunking prowess. In high school, he was also New Jersey Player of the Year in volleyball. But it was football that he knew would be his long-range ticket. It’s one thing to be recruited by Bucknell for basketball; it’s an entirely different matter being recruited by Penn State for football. Gesicki has heard the criticism about his blocking and doesn’t shy away from talking about it. “You have to be able to do everything and that includes blocking,” he says. Right now it’s about learning the playbook and realizing that the heat of May in no way compares to the sauna of summer. My takeaway? There is a spot for him in the starting lineup. This stage doesn’t seem to intimidate him at all.

No. 3 pick LB Jerome Baker: He is 6-foot-1, 225-pounds and he’s been told his entire football life that he’s too small to play linebacker. But that has never stopped him before and the player we met late last Friday morning, though soft-spoken, wore the confidence of a person who is ready to embrace and excel in his latest challenge, certainly his most imposing challenge. “If the game is on the line,” he says, “I can make the play.” Playing at Ohio State in front of 100,000-plus crowds helped prepare him for this level. His top-tier speed does as well. He walked out of the airport after his flight here from Columbus Ohio, took a deep breath of that stifling heat and realized this is now home. “I’ve got to learn the building, learn the faces, learn the playbook,” he said. My takeaway? He’ll get every chance to prove he’s not too small to start at linebacker as a rookie.

No. 4 pick TE Durham Smythe: And then a second tight end walked into the room and it once again hit home that this team has rebuilt what was once an area of great concern. Smythe is about an inch shorter and a few pounds lighter than Gesicki, but still possesses an imposing presence. Football is actually his second most proficient sport. “I’m a great ping pong player,” he says. But he knew early on, growing up in football crazed Central Texas, his father having played at Baylor, that this is the journey he wanted to take. It was a journey that led him to Notre Dame where he became, as he puts it, “a complete tight end.” He is smart, graduating from Notre Dame in three years, well-spoken and has a subtle confidence about him. “I grew up seeing myself on this level,” he says. My takeaway? The Dolphins could have quite a one-two punch at tight end for years to come.

No. 4B pick RB Kalen Ballage: The first thing you notice is his size. He is a big, muscular running back, certainly bigger (6-1, 225) than any back on the returning roster. The second thing you noticed was how happy he is to be here. I counted four times that he said, “I’m a Miami Dolphin now.” You could tell he embraced every word. Ballage was underused in college, and we’re not sure why. In his record-breaking eight-touchdown performance against Texas Tech in college, he only touched the ball 15 times. It is clear it is the upside of this player that is most intriguing. He can tell you how many players were drafted before him (130) and how many running backs (11) and it’s easy to see he’s using that as a motivating force. He called this opportunity “the perfect fit for me.” Now he just has to prove it. My takeaway? He’s going to get his chance this season to be a factor in this offense.

No. 6 pick CB Cornell Armstrong: A cornerback from Southern Miss? The Dolphins had a pretty good one for years in Patrick Surtain. Armstrong only hopes he can have that kind of impact. “He actually hit me up on Twitter when I got drafted,” Armstrong said of Surtain. “I’m trying to meet up with him.” Armstrong makes up for what he lacks in size (5-11, 181) with exceptional speed and quickness. “I can run,” he says with a grin. Comes from a good lineage. His uncle, Eric Booth, was one of the fastest athletes ever to come from Mississippi. “I can’t win every battle,” Armstrong says. “But I definitely try to.” My takeaway? He certainly has the confidence you look for in a young corner. At least at first, he needs to play a major role on special teams

No. 7 pick: LB Quentin Poling: We had a good time joking with Poling about his small town upbringing, growing up in Gomer, Ohio, population 102. But there is nothing small about his dreams and certainly nothing small about his accomplishments at Ohio University. In fact, you look at his statistics and you wonder why he wasn’t taken earlier than the seventh round. “A little short (6-0), a little light (218 pounds) and a real good year for linebackers” is how Poling explained it. But there is something about this young man, something infectious, something really likeable. I asked him how sure he was he could play on this level. “No doubts,” he responded. Was it meant to be? There’s a picture online of Poling kissing a Dolphin when he was in the Bahamas for a bowl game. Maybe he knew something. My takeaway? I’m going to watch him carefully in training camp because I’ve got a hunch he’s going to be one of this summer’s biggest surprises.

No. 7B pick K Jason Sanders: The journey began when he was a freshman in high school and he didn’t even want to play football. But his older brother was the graduating kicker and, well, as Sanders put “I got forced into it.” Turned out to be a life-changing moment. Sanders was one of two kickers drafted, the Dolphins taking him in the seventh-round after a nation-wide search by Special Teams Coordinator Darren Rizzi, Why him? Because he can kick the ball into tomorrow, once making a kick from 70 yards out in practice. He kicked off 131 times in college at New Mexico. Only 22 were returned. That’s why him. My takeaway? He has the calm, easy-going demeanor you are looking for in a kicker. Whether he has the accuracy, though, is what ultimately will determine his fate.
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