DAVIE (CBSMiami) – The Miami Dolphins wrapped up the first of three sets of OTA practices on Thursday.
The Dolphins were on the field Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week, giving fans and the media their first glimpse at the new-look squad.
Much of the attention has been on the return of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who missed the entire 2017 season after suffering a torn ACL in his left knee during an early August training camp workout.
Tannehill practiced without limitation, or any knee brace, all week, though the 30-year-old did say he would wear something on his knee during games as a preventative measure.
“It does nothing structurally,” Tannehill said of the brace. “It’s purely to kind of prevent what started that whole train wreck of my injury, just getting hit right on the side of the lead leg. The brace can help prevent that and minimize that damage, and hopefully make it a non-issue moving forward.”
While the hopes and dreams of the Dolphins offense rest on the shoulders (and surgically repaired knee) of Tannehill, Miami’s defense will be relying on several players to step up and produce, such as veteran safety Reshad Jones and defensive end Cameron Wake.
“I feel like we’ve got the right guys in the locker room,” Jones said. “There’s been a lot of changes around here. The culture feels a little bit different. It feels better. I just think we’re headed in the right directions.”
DEFENSIVE LINE REMODELING
Some of those changes include the departures of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and safety Michael Thomas, both of whom had been considered leaders on and off the field.
“I’m going to miss him,” Jones said of Suh. “I think Ndamukong Suh was a great guy, a great friend and a great talent on the field too. He’s a dominant force. A guy like that just leaving is going to definitely affect us a little bit; but I think we’ve got the right guys in our room and on this team that can step up and fill that void.”
To compensate for the loss of Suh on the defensive line, Miami acquired Robert Quinn from Los Angeles and Akeem Spence from Detroit.
The Dolphins will also be relying on veterans Andre Branch, William Hayes, Jordan Phillips and Wake, as well as second year lineman Charles Harris, Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor, who were selected in the 1st, 5th and 6th rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, respectively.
“It’s hard to replace a man like Suh, but we don’t have an option to do it,” Phillips said. “It needs to get done, so we’re going to do what it takes to get [it done]. I can’t speak for everybody else [but] I know what I’m intending to do this year. That’s all I’m focused on.”
Miami ranked 19th in the NFL last season in rushing defense, allowing 110.5 yards per game and an average of 4.1 yards per carry.
SECONDARY YOUTH MOVEMENT
Aside from Jones, the Dolphins secondary will be anchored by several younger players with varying experience at the NFL level.
Third year cornerback Xavien Howard is looking to take a big step forward after finishing the 2017 season on a high note.
“This offseason, I’m going out there and really just competing,” Howard said. “Just going off last year, I ended the season well. I’m just getting better. It’s a new year. I’m getting better each year.”
He compiled 11 tackles, a sack and four interceptions over Miami’s final five games, showing why he was worth a second round pick in 2016.
Howard points to an increase in confidence and being able to get up on the line of scrimmage as reasons for his late-season surge.
“I was pressing more towards the end of the season,” he said. “I was going to get my hands on the guys and stuff like that. Nothing [with] film. I stayed watching film. So really nothing [big], just changing my technique really.”
Howard (24), 2018 1st round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick (21) and Cordrea Tankersley (24) are early favorites to start in the secondary with Jones, the elder statesman at 30 years young.
“He’s been making plays, getting his hands on balls early,” Jones said of Fitzpatrick. “I think it was a good pickup. I think he will definitely help us. I’m glad we got another DB, another guy in the room.”
When looking at the reserves, all but two players (TJ McDonald and Walt Aikens) came into the NFL in 2015 or later. McDonald was a 3rd round pick in 2013 and Aikens was a 4th round pick in 2014.
“I still feel 18. I still feel like I have a lot of ball left ahead of me. I still feel good, I don’t feel 30,” Jones said. “We all have a common goal right now, to just come out here and get one percent better, like our coach preaches.”
Last season, the centerpiece of Miami’s linebacking corps was rookie Raekwon McMillan.
He impressed the coaching staff so much during training camp that by the time the preseason began, he was already penciled in as the Dolphins starting middle linebacker.
That lasted all of one play as McMillan tore his ACL while covering Miami’s first kickoff of the preseason.
Now he’s healed, healthy and motivated to be a leader for defensive coordinator Matt Burke.
“It feels good to be back,” McMillan said. “My knee feels good. I’m out there doing everything at practice and [have] no limitations, so I’m out there flying around.
“I’m the Mike. I’m the middle linebacker, the guy in the middle, the quarterback of the defense,” he added. “I’m trying to become a leader out there. There’s nothing given to me, so I’m going to try to work my way into that leadership spot.”
One spot next to McMillan belongs to veteran Kiko Alonso, who will line up on the weak side.
A competition to start at SAM linebacker between sophomore Chase Allen, rookie Jerome Baker and third year LB Nevile Hewitt should be interesting to watch.
Allen already has a big fan in McMillan, who got a front row seat to Allen’s ascension up the depth chart last season when both were rookies.
“I got to watch Chase Allen grow into the player that he is right now [while injured last season],” McMillan said. “Chase did a great job coming in and filling in. Just talking with him, he was kind of like my boy when we were coming in through camp and learning together. During the season, just watching him out there doing it while I’m still going to all of the meetings and talking, it just helped my mental game.”
As for Baker, he and McMillan were teammates at Ohio State under head coach Urban Meyer.
“Some games I played in him with – Oklahoma, at Oklahoma, at Wisconsin – he really played some ball in those games,” McMillan said of Baker. “It wasn’t a one-man show out there. He was out there playing ball. When we played the team up north – that’s Michigan (laughter) – I think I had like 19 tackles or something like that and he was right behind me with like 18. He was out there balling. From then on, I knew he had a chance. Personally, I thought he was going to be an early second-round pick; but they had circumstances last year at Ohio State that made him drop down a little bit. He’s definitely a good ball player.”
Needless to say, McMillan was more than a little pleased after seeing Miami select Baker in the 3rd round of last month’s draft.
“They drafted my boy ‘Bake,’” he said. “I recruited him to Ohio State, so it just kind of feels good again to have him back with me here so I can teach him a little bit of what I know.”
But after missing his entire rookie season, just how much does McMillan know?
“It all comes with confidence and knowing what I’m doing, being able to tell guys what they’re doing around me, and when they ask, have a definite answer, not like ‘Oh, I don’t know. Let me go ask coach,’” McMillan explained. “When they come to me as the Mike linebacker, I need to know. A leader isn’t just a title that you get because you’re the Mike linebacker. Leader is a title that you get because you put in the work day in and day out during the offseason and leading up until now.”
Other linebackers competing for playing time that should have an eye kept on them are Mike Hull, Stephone Anthony and rookie Quentin Poling.