The 2020 NFL season is going to be one of firsts. The draft was conducted virtually, the offseason program featured zero on-field work and training camp is occurring without fans there to take in all the new faces representing their beloved teams.
Some teams will play without fans when the season kicks off next month; Miami not among them. The Dolphins announced today that a maximum capacity of 13,000 fans will be permitted into Hard Rock Stadium for their first home game, with several measures in place to keep those in attendance safe.
"We talked to a lot of experts," Dolphins Vice Chairman, President and CEO Tom Garfinkel said in a press event at Hard Rock Stadium. "We said 'what would a socially distanced stadium look like?' Would it be possible to put together a scenario where our fans could be socially distanced and socially present at the same time? We ended up with a 13,000 capacity stadium plan that the Governor of Florida and Mayor of Miami-Dade County approved to have fans here on September 20 for our opener against the Bills."
Limited capacity home games will be new, just as the Hard Rock Stadium experience was for many of the Dolphins additions for the 2020 season.
At least, up until yesterday.
The Dolphins held a walk-through at the world-class venue Sunday, giving the players an experience to gain familiarity in the absence of preseason games.
"A lot of guys, they've never seen our locker room," Brian Flores said. "They don't know where the training room is or where the equipment room is or where the showers are, how we walk out to the tunnel. I think it's good to get out there. It's our home stadium, so where is the game clock? Where is the 40-second clock? I think those things – as a coaching staff, to check the headsets and do a dry run from that standpoint, I thought it was good."
Wind be damned, quarterbacks shine
Ryan Fitzpatrick has familiarity with most venues across the league. Saturday, Fitzpatrick returned to practice after an excused absence from Friday's team activities. It didn't take long for the now 16-year veteran to return to the form fans have grown accustomed to with the jovial quarterback.
Flores was asked on Monday about that youthful spirit and how often the bearded one does something that makes coach forget that Fitzpatrick is 37-years-old.
"Probably every day. I'm 39 and it's hard to think that I could go out there and get in the huddle and run around with these guys as much as he does," Flores said with a laugh. "It's a testament to the way he works in the offseason and his work ethic and his talent and ability. He's a good player. He's a competitive guy. He's smart. He just has a good feel for the quarterback position. He's got good leadership, so probably every day."
Fitzpatrick opened his Monday media availability with a joke.
"I played a lot of games in college with less fans than that," Fitzpatrick said with a laugh, regarding the Dolphins announcement about fans in attendance. "So I might be a good one to ask about that."
As for the on-field work, Fitzpatrick discussed some of the attention to detail in working with different groupings of receivers throughout camp and his career.
"I always make sure whoever I'm getting the rep with, that we're on the same page, that we're speaking the same language," Fitzpatrick said. "We've got a great group of guys here right now that are working really hard and I just try to take advantage of every rep that I get; not just in the team periods, but some of those one-on-one throws as well, just making sure we have good communication."
Fitzpatrick's experience provides benefits beyond his on-field production. A sounding board for the young quarterbacks, Fitzpatrick detailed what he's seen so far from Miami's rookie – the fifth pick in April's Draft – Tua Tagovailoa.
"He's doing a great job," Fitzpatrick said. "I just like to see progress and sometimes it's not necessarily a completion, but it's the thought process and making sure the ball is going to the right spot at the right time. There's a lot of different parts of the evaluation process and for me, I just like to see first of all, confidence; and if you make a mistake, get out there, put it behind you and go play the next play. I like that a lot about him and then secondly, just the progression of is he going to the right place? Is he going on time? We're making a lot of progress in that area, too. I think that's the offense in general, and everybody getting a better grasp of it as we're moving forward."
The South Florida media took advantage of Fitzpatrick's well thought-out replies for some scouting reports on the rest of the roster, like a pair of receivers who, in stature, tower over most.
Two trees out wide
DeVante Parker finished fifth in receiving yards and fourth in touchdowns in the 2019 NFL season. By all early indications, Parker is picking up right where he left off this training camp. Monday, his quarterback praised the sixth-year receiver's leadership.
"Preston (Williams) has a great guy to watch, first of all, in DeVante Parker and the way that he works and goes about his business," Fitzpatrick said.
Williams led the Dolphins in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns at the time of his injury (through Week 9) a year ago. Despite the production, Fitzpatrick pointed to a silver lining of Williams taking in the final eight games of the season from the sideline.
"Preston is very unique, just in terms of his physical qualities – the height, the weight, the speed, how nimble he is, all that stuff, his ability to track the ball," Fitzpatrick said. "Having to sit out, you always kind of look for the silver lining or maybe the positives in a situation that isn't so positive; so him getting hurt last year, he was also just able to take a step back and watch a little bit and learn the game a little bit more and I know he worked his butt off all offseason and that was really apparent as we came back, just in seeing him and all the work that he put in, and he's done a great job."
Williams talked about his rehabilitation and familiarity with the work required to come back from an ACL injury.
"It's not my first rodeo with the ACL, the knee injury," Williams said. "I just knew I needed to work as hard as I could to get back in time for camp. I just came here every day, stayed here the whole summer, all offseason, worked my ass off. Now I'm getting my reps at practice, so I'm just happy to be out there with the guys."
In a new offensive system that generates more freedom for the receivers, Williams knows he has room to grow his game and take it to another level.
"A lot of the balls I could've caught, I've got to catch those and make those plays," Williams said. "Overall, just be a better player. The game slowed down a little bit to me, so I think I'll have a better year this year. I'm adapting pretty well (to the new offense), learning more positions. It's more simple, I can say that. I feel like I fit in this offense pretty well. I think this offense is real unique and I like it."
The main event matchup
It's déjà vu all over again from last Monday's practice.
Byron Jones earned plenty of accolades so far in his five-year career. Coming to Miami, courtesy of who lines up across from him each day in practice, Jones is getting every opportunity to showcase his skills to a new teammates and coaches.
And he's rising to the challenge.
Jones and Parker could've been in this segment each of the six practices – it's must-see action when they duel. Jones forces his share of incompletions, Parker gets his catches and -- on occasion -- both happen.
Parker showed off his exceptional hand-eye coordination a few times on Monday's practice. He ended the day by digging out a low throw for a chunk of yardage in the team's two-minute period. The practice started with a 20-something-yard gain working in traffic between a trio of defenders, but it was the middle of practice when he made his most notable catch.
Jones locked Parker up in tight coverage heading for the pylon in the back corner of the end zone. Jones deflected the pass, but Parker's concentration served him well once more. As the ball fell to the sun-soaked turf, Parker located and secured the catch as he twisted into a 180-degree turn, fell out of bounds, but finished with a toe tap.
Jones deflected a few other passes going against both Parker and Williams – the three have been clear standouts throughout camp.
The first big play on Monday came from the defense. Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux blew through the line and met running back Matt Breida shortly after securing the hand off. The tackle for a loss was just one of several explosive plays from Godchaux in the practice.
The offense struck back with the rookie southpaw dialing up another rookie who has quarterback experience in the college ranks. Tua Tagovailoa ripped a deep shot up the right sideline to Malcolm Perry – who stacked the defensive back creating a window (albeit it a small one) for Tagovailoa to shoot towards. The ball descended on target and on time for a 70-yard touchdown.
Fitzpatrick took the Dolphins offense down the field quickly in the two-minute period, including a strike deep down the middle to Durham Smythe. Smythe took his release straight down Broadway and Fitzpatrick ripped a throw on-target and with impeccable timing as Smythe was able to run for big yards after the catch. The play was good for at least 40 yards.
That same series ended with an interception by Miami's most-tenured defender, Bobby McCain. McCain, who has been all over the field through six practices, closed on a pass into traffic on fourth down. The pass was batted into the air with McCain securing the interception on a diving effort.
Make it six-out-six for Jordan Howard. He busted another big run working behind Austin Jackson and Ereck Flowers – and aided by a terrific block from Preston Williams – for a likely touchdown from 15-yards out in the red zone period.
Attendance, injuries and roster updates
At the start of practice the Dolphins had close to 100 percent attendance (Kavon Frazier still out), including cornerback Xavien Howard working out in gym shorts and a t-shirt. Jerome Baker was also back on the field after missing Saturday's practice.
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, running back Patrick Laird and cornerback Noah Igbinoghene each did not finish Monday's practice.
The Dolphins today announced they have waived/injured defensive end Curtis Weaver.
Gary Jennings Jr. capped practice with a touchdown reception on third-and-long from Tagovailoa. Jennings caught three passes during the team periods, the same number of touchdowns thrown by the rookie quarterback. Tagovailoa made a number of downfield throws while working from a compromised platform. His passes were on point regardless of the setup, as he showcased some of his pocket mobility and throw-on-the-run skills.
Tyshun Render made one of the plays of camp when he pursued going the opposite direction. He paid it off by ushering the ball carrier out of bounds on pure effort, something Render was known for at Middle Tennessee State.
"Big Rend is a guy that you can throw on Tuesday practice tape in the dog days of the season and witness him on the backside of a play run the opposite direction from him and he would turn and bust his butt to make a 'save the day' play," one MTSU coach said. "He consistently had effort that we would use as an example of how to play defensive football."
Render also applied constant pressure on the Miami quarterbacks throughout the team period of practice.
Nik Needham broke up a couple more passes on Monday, adding to his camp total. He's been strong so far. The same is true for Tae Hayes. Hayes got his hands on another ball with a chance at an interception and forced a Tagovailoa throwaway on a third down in the red zone.
Zach Sieler flashes daily. He was in the backfield on a couple of occasions for would be tackles-for-loss. Shaq Lawson made a habit of doing just that in Buffalo – 13 TFLs in 2019 – and continued that theme on Monday with a number of plays in the backfield.
Next time out
We are back it tomorrow for the seventh edition of Miami Dolphins training camp 2020.