"Games aren't won in March and April."
The Miami Dolphins built up considerable goodwill among the fan base with a busy offseason full of talented additions – both via veteran free agents and rookies in last week's draft. After acknowledging the execution of acquiring players that fit his criteria to be a Dolphin, Head Coach Brian Flores reminded the South Florida media we remain in the early stages of forward-thinking rebuild.
"A lot of hard work has to be done first to become a good team," Flores said. "It's not easy, so I would say as far as expectations, let's manage them and there's a lot of work we have to do, and obviously we're going to push the team to do that but the work has to be done by the players and coaches, the personnel staff. It's going to be a collective team effort."
While the Dolphins still have a lot of work to do to get to where they want to be, let's take a look at how they've progressed from the end of the 2018 season to today.
Going into the last offseason, the first step Miami took – after arming Chris Grier with total control of personnel decisions – was to find its next head coach. The overarching prerequisite of the search was leadership. Though Flores' candidacy was corroborated through his versatile coaching and evaluation background, it was his ability to capture and command a room of men that made him the right choice.
"I think the most important thing is finding a leader that can motivate men," Managing General Partner Stephen Ross said at the time.
On February 4, 2019, less than 24 hours after Flores called plays for New England in a suffocating Super Bowl win over the high-flying Rams offense, he was announced as the new head coach in Miami. At his introductory news conference, Flores detailed his perspective of the interview process.
"I wasn't in a rush to become a head coach," Flores said. "It has got to be the right fit. It has got to be the right place. You have to have the right feel. I think our vision and our core beliefs and our core philosophy of how to build a team, they were aligned. That was one of the things for me, going through the process of interviewing. I told every team this – if our beliefs aren't aligned, then don't hire me, because if they're not aligned, then it's not going to work. If they're not aligned, it doesn't work."
Nearly 15 months later, with countless news conferences in between, Flores takes every opportunity to reinforce exactly what that aligned vision represents.
"What you're going to see out there is a team that's smart, a team that's disciplined, a team that is fundamentally sound and a team that's violent, tough and aggressive," Flores said. "That's kind of who I am and I want our team to reflect that."
The 2019 offseason served as a table-setter, a chance to establish the foundation by which the program would be built under the new regime. Clearing the decks, freeing up future salary cap allocations and stocking a war chest of draft picks, Flores and Grier used the 13th pick of the draft on Christian Wilkins to emphasize that message.
"[Christian has] an energy, he's got life to him," Flores said of the first draft pick under his watch over the Miami Dolphins. "At the same time, he has a poise and workman-like demeanor. He works his butt off. Football is important to him."
Flores' appreciation for prioritizing football and work ethic is matched only by his affinity for a player with versatility.
"There are times when a guy can only play right tackle and that's it," Flores said. "If you try to move him somewhere else, he can't get into a left-handed stance. That happens. That guy is pigeonholed and we've become pigeonholed as an offense [or] as a defense when we're talking about [defensive] tackles, nose tackles, [defensive] ends. There's only 46 guys that dress. So if we're not versatile, injuries occur in this league and guys get tired, you have to be able to shift guys around and that's where versatility comes into play."
While Flores' message rings true for the way a player prepares in the weight room, film room and everywhere besides the football field, it's the on-field prowess that carries the most weight. Last year, nobody embodied the message of selflessness and versatility more than safety Eric Rowe.
Rowe signed a one-year contract in Flores' first offseason with the team, but took only 12 games to earn an extension. A significant selling point on Rowe's new contract was a midseason switch from cornerback to safety and an impressive 53.5 completion percentage on passes targeted in his coverage area, according to Pro Football Focus.
With expectations and a criteria for what it takes to be a Miami Dolphin established in Year 1, Flores, Grier and the Dolphins decision-makers took a more aggressive approach in offseason number two.
While Miami executed 228 total transactions in 2019 – 62.3 percent more than the league average of 142 – the 2020 offseason provided another flurry of moves. Still, all the activity fell under the umbrella of Grier's preferred method of roster building.
"I'd rather have three really good players than one maybe great player who may or may not impact what you're doing," Grier said at a New Year's Eve news conference following the 2018 season. "I'd rather have three good players at positions that are going to help the team win."
While the Dolphins acquired 11 free agents ahead of last week's NFL Draft, that quantitative approach came to fruition.
The Dolphins did sign cornerback Byron Jones to a big deal, but the rest of the free agent crop were brought in on deals that came outside of the top 10 of each player's respective position-group.
Those 11 players, along with the 11 rookies drafted over the weekend, satisfy many important roles the Dolphins wanted to fill.
Miami wanted to get better at defending the run, particularly on the edge. Enter Shaq Lawson – who finished 2019 second among all defensive ends in tackles for loss – and Emmanuel Ogbah, who both appease Defensive Line Coach Marion Hobby's preferred traits on the edge.
A lot of those traits apply to fifth-round draft choice Jason Strowbridge. Flores, at the conclusion on the 2020 NFL Draft, spoke about another key trait that attracted coach to the North Carolina Tar Heel.
"Strowbridge is an outside, inside player," Flores said. "He played multiple positions, [is] versatile, tough."
The inside-outside designation applies to a lot of Miami's remade roster. Between 2017 and 2018, Kyle Van Noy played a near 50-50 split of his defensive reps inside and outside, according to Pro Football Focus. Raekwon McMillan played just two snaps on the ball in 2018 but increased that number to 93 in his first year in Flores' defense.
Position versatility is especially important in the secondary. Byron Jones spent two of his five seasons in Dallas as a safety. Bobby McCain moved into a more prominent single-high role in 2019 after playing the slot the majority of his career. Rookie Brandon Jones played nearly a 50-50 split, according to PFF, between deep safety and in the slot last year at Texas.
Miami jumped head first into the philosophy of building the defense front to back this offseason. With the two Joneses, McCain and Rowe, Flores has a handful of players with hybrid safety/cornerback experience. More common features exists across the position group. Press-man cover skills suit the strengths of Xavien Howard and rookie first-round pick Noah Igbinoghene.
The Dolphins inundated the defensive back room with talented players this offseason. The 2019 defense was on the field for 1,057 snaps. The number of defensive back deployments were as follows, according to Sharp Football Stats:
|Defensive Backs on the Field||Snaps in that Defensive Package|
|8 DBs||9 snaps|
|7 DBs||21 snaps|
|6 DBs||304 snaps|
|5 DBs||370 snaps|
|4 DBs||341 snaps|
|3 DBs||61 snaps|
|2 DBs||11 snaps|
|1 DBs||1 snap|
Four defensive backs are, essentially, always on the field. More than two-thirds of the time the defense has at least five defensive backs and at least six on nearly 33 percent of the defensive snaps. In a passing league, there are never enough cover-corners.
Blocking, beating blocks, and tackling – the core basics of the game never changed. Grier and Flores utilized that approach on the offensive side of the ball, working to fortify the offensive line with two free agents and three draft picks up front. Four of the five players tip the scales at 325 pounds or more, bringing toughness and physicality. The fifth acquisition up front, veteran center Ted Karras, excels in another core tenant of a Flores team – communication.
"Ted [Karras is] a smart player," said Bill Belichick during a 2019 press conference. "He's strong, he can anchor the middle of the pocket and his communication with his teammates on the offensive line – which is critical for the center position to handle blocking schemes and protections and so forth – has been good."
Finally, the quarterback position. The Dolphins signed Ryan Fitzpatrick last March and he exemplifies the traits that Flores looks for in a quarterback.
"Guys who are mobile, that's a strength," Flores said. "Guys who have great accuracy, that's definitely a strength. Those are kind of qualities that are standard things you're looking for – guys who are accurate, guys with leadership, command of the offense. I think that's definitely a quality you want in your quarterback. Mobility is great but every player's a little bit different."
Fitzpatrick escaped pressure with regularity in 2019. He galvanized the offense and the team when the results weren't up to expectations early last season. He showed off that 'it' factor, something Flores opined at this year's Combine.
"I think that's something everyone talks about," Flores said of the 'it' factor during his media availability in Indianapolis. "Does he have that factor? Do guys rally around him? I think that's something you see watching the film; but you get to know the player, the people around him, his coaches, his high school coaches or anybody who's had an effect on (him). You want to get to know him and have those conversations. It's a feel."
Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa completed 69.3 percent of his passes in college, has widely been praised for his spirit and impact on his teammates, and showed his own 'it' factor when he delivered a 41-yard game-winning touchdowns in overtime of the 2018 National Championship Game.
Along with Fitzpatrick, Tagovailoa joins a quarterback room which also returns Josh Rosen and Jake Rudock. Like every other position on the roster, the quarterback room will ask the four of them to compete and challenge each other every day. Flores has shown his appreciation for the way last year's trio rallied together.
"Josh [Rosen] is expected to come in, learn the offense and develop the way he has developed over the later part of the season," Flores said. "He'll get an opportunity to compete and get better every day.
All four of the quarterbacks bring that level of leadership, hard work and a team-first mentality that Flores prefers, whether starter or practice squad guy.
"[Rosen], Fitzpatrick, Jake Rudock – the three of those guys – they're really working to become leaders on this team, to lead the offense," Flores said last offseason.
The rookie of the room, Tagovailoa, was the first of 11 draft picks Miami made this past weekend, five of which came in the first two rounds. The Dolphins led the way with those five picks in the top 56 selections, a feat made possible by the front office's approach to continuously take advantage of market opportunities.
Return compensation at a rate better than market value has been the name of the game. For instance, in the Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills trade, Miami received two first-round picks and a second-round pick from Houston. For comparison's sake, the Texans paid a lesser price to secure their quarterback in Deshaun Watson during the 2017 NFL Draft.
That post-training camp trade grabbed the headlines, but it's the consistent approach that has the Dolphins 2021 draft cupboard restocked with another 10 picks. On the final day of the 2020 NFL Draft, Miami parlayed the fifth-to-last pick (251 overall) into a 2021 sixth-round pick. Even if the Seahawks – who the Dolphins acquired the pick from – win the Super Bowl and pick last in each round, that pick stands to improve by at least 35 spots next April.
Together, Miami's leadership developed a plan. Together, they established a vision and message that has been consistent since Ross took to the podium on the last day of 2018. Football doesn't count victories in the spring, but the Dolphins are equipping Brian Flores with a tough roster full of players eager to compete.