Draft Flashback: 2016 Class Provides Key Pieces For Dolphins

A little less than two weeks before the start of the 2019 NFL Draft, it’s almost natural to think back to this time three years ago as it pertains to the Dolphins.

The similarities truly are intriguing.

Like this year with Brian Flores, the Dolphins had a new head coach heading into the 2016 draft. Just as this year, they had the 13th overall selection. Oh, and though this has nothing to do with the current Dolphins, one of the most highly touted prospect in each draft was a son of former Miami first-round pick John Bosa — Joey in 2016 and Nick in 2019.

Beyond the external similarities, the Dolphins certainly wouldn’t mind if they ended up with a 2019 draft class as productive as the one they put together three years ago.

As the Dolphins prepare for this first draft with Flores, it’s apparent they already have some key pieces in place — and a lot of those pieces came in that 2016 draft.

Laremy Tunsil's selection at No. 13 was widely considered as the steal of the 2016 Draft.

You can start with left tackle Laremy Tunsil and cornerback Xavien Howard, who arguably were the Dolphins’ two best players last season. And then there was running back Kenyan Drake, who led the team in touchdowns and produced what likely was the most memorable play in franchise history. Lastly, there was wide receiver/returner Jakeem Grant, who had two kickoff returns for touchdowns and had become a big-play threat on offense as well before his season was cut short by a foot injury.

Let’s look back at that 2016 draft, how the Dolphins maneuvered to get the players they landed, what General Manager Chris Grier had to say, and how pundits graded their work during that weekend.

The Dolphins ended up with the 13th overall selection after making a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles to move down five spots, from eighth overall, in exchange for cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Kiko Alonso — a key player on the Dolphins defense the past three seasons.

Like this year, mock drafts had a wide range of prospects projected to go to the Dolphins in the first round, though Tunsil wasn’t one of them because he was expected to be among the first few picks. Actually, there was a time in the draft process where his name came up in discussions regarding the first overall pick.

As is so often the case, quarterbacks dominated the top of the draft, with Jared Goff going to the Rams at No. 1 and Carson Wentz going second to the Eagles, who traded up a second time to move up from the Dolphins’ original eighth selection.

Meanwhile, two offensive tackles were among the top 10 picks, but neither was Tunsil — Ronnie Stanley went sixth to Baltimore, Jack Conklin went eighth to Tennessee.

When Tunsil remained on the board at No. 13, the Dolphins didn’t hesitate. Sure, they still had veteran Branden Albert at left tackle, but Tunsil eventually would be able to take over and, more importantly, he was too good to pass up.

“He was No. 2 ranked on our board,” Grier said after the pick. “We did not expect him to be there.”

The pick pretty much was universally endorsed by national pundits and publications, particularly USA Today, which gave it an A+.

“The Dolphins just secured their quarterback’s blind side for the next decade by landing the player we had as the second best in the class,” the accompanying comment read. “The teams with a need at tackle that passed up on Tunsil will regret it. He has no weaknesses in his game. His footwork is impeccable and he knows how to use his hands in pass protection. The knock on him has been his lack of power at the point of attack, but the potential is there to improve against the run.”

This was the analysis on ESPN.com: “Born to protect the quarterback, Tunsil is blessed with an outstanding combination of natural athleticism and length. He also has natural flexibility in his lower half to sink and anchor against power moves, displaying quality awareness in pass protection. Durability is a bit of concern, as Tunsil missed time because of injury in his first two seasons at Ole Miss. While he isn't a road-grading run-blocker, he has enough inline power and agility to cover up defenders and sustain blocks. One of the elite prospects in this class, Tunsil has the makings of a franchise left tackle for the next decade.”

From Draft Day acquisition to starting linebacker.

In the second round, the Dolphins initially were scheduled to have the 10th pick, the 42nd overall selection.

Before they got to that point, however, the Dolphins swung a deal with the Baltimore Ravens to move up four spots, to 38th, giving up a fourth-round selection in the process.

With that 38th selection, the Dolphins made Howard the first defensive back taken in the first round after seven were selected in Round 1. The first defensive back selected that year was Jalen Ramsey, who joined Howard last year as the starting cornerbacks for the AFC team in the Pro Bowl.

“This was a prototype player,” Grier said after the pick. “We spent a lot of time with him. It’s a core position, premium need for us. This guy checks all the boxes in terms of height, weight, speed, competitiveness, toughness. This was a player that was a target player for us and when the opportunity arrived for us to make a play to get him, we jumped at it. We’re ecstatic to have him on our roster.”

In Round 3, the Dolphins used the 73rd pick on Drake, who had been a backup at Alabama but also had shown big-play ability, most notably with a kickoff return for a touchdown to help the Crimson Tide defeat Clemson in the 2015 national championship game.

Drake’s explosiveness would serve as a perfect complement for the bruising style of Jay Ajayi and fill a need for speed after the free agent departure of Lamar Miller.

“He’s got a unique skill set for us,” Grier said after the pick. “Obviously with the group we have, he adds an explosive element that we’ve lost with Lamar leaving. This guy is a good receiver out of the backfield, so you can do a lot of stuff with him. So we love the versatility he adds and I know (Head) Coach (Adam) Gase is really high on him as well.”

The pick used to select Grant in the sixth round initially belonged to the Dolphins before they sent it to the Minnesota Vikings in a draft trade-up and then re-acquired it by sending the Vikings a later sixth-round selection along with a seventh-round pick.

The addition of Grant immediately gave the Dolphins a dynamic kick returner, and he has made great strides as a wide receiver since entering the NFL.

Along with his undeniable speed, Grier said after the conclusion of the draft he liked Grant’s confidence, and that combination helped make up for Grant’s lack of size.

“Spending time with the kid, we had him in for a 30 visit, and we kept hearing the term that this guy is ultra-competitive,” Grier said. “He walks in the room and he thinks he’s the biggest guy on the field. And that’s how he plays, how he runs. He’s an explosive, dynamic player. He has some traits we like. The size isn’t a concern. He’s played in the Big 12 against all these elite players now in the draft. Again, it’s his mind-set (and) his toughness. This guy is an alpha.”

The Dolphins ended up making eight selections in 2016. The other four picks were Leonte Carroo, Jordan Lucas, Brandon Doughty and Thomas Duarte, and while they’re no longer on the roster, all spent at least some time on the active roster. Lucas was traded last year to the Kansas City Chiefs for a seventh-round pick in the 2020 draft.

Jakeem Grant has developed into one of the most explosive players in the NFL.
Jakeem Grant has developed into one of the most explosive players in the NFL.

Three years later, this definitely looks like a highly successful draft. Just like it did right after it was conducted.

NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks gave out an A to six teams following the 2016 draft. The Dolphins were one of them.

“Risk management is always a part of the draft process, but the Dolphins might have snagged the top prospect in the entire class in the middle of Round 1,” Brooks wrote. “Laremy Tunsil is a freakish athlete who not only possesses the balance, body control and lateral quickness of a true franchise tackle, but he also flashes the power and anchor ability that coaches covet in a premier edge blocker. Although he might start his career at right tackle or inside at offensive guard, Tunsil could give the Dolphins an elite blindside protector for the next decade. The Dolphins also upgraded the offense with the additions of Kenyan Drake and Leonte Carroo on Day 2. Drake, in particular, is a dynamic playmaker with potential to create explosive gains as a runner-receiver out of the backfield. Jakeem Grant is an electrifying return man with a spectacular combination of speed and open-field running skills. He could emerge as a difference maker for the Dolphins in the return game.”

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