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Mailbag: Are the Dolphins Being Overlooked for 2021?

Answering your questions on Tua Tagovailoa’s sophomore season, Carson Wentz and Sam Darnold’s second chances, the growing trend of holdouts, Deshaun Watson and more.

Week 1 is upon us so let’s get to it ...

From James Dagg (@Stlfinsfan): Why are the Dolphins getting zero respect this season?

James, I think it’s relatively simple: There’s more doubt around Tua Tagovailoa than we’re used to seeing with the quarterback of a contender. Part of that is the pedestrian production from his rookie year (1,814 yards, 11 TDs, 5 INTs in 10 games). Part of it is that he looked relatively average physically along the way, which gave people little to latch onto. Part of it is that the Dolphins themselves yanked him from the lineup after going to him in October.

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Now, does that mean he won’t make it? It certainly doesn’t. There were a ton of questions on Lamar Jackson going into his second year, and he won MVP that fall. Ditto for Josh Allen, who dealt with doubts going into Year 2, improved, then, with those doubts persisting, blew up in Year 3.

The difference here is you could see the potential with Jackson and Allen, and both were seen as raw, and in need of development, coming into the league. With Tagovailoa, the selection in the first round, conversely, was about production over potential, and generally you’d think guys like that would adapt to the pro game quicker than the Jacksons and Allens of the game. And that didn’t happen.

Tagovailoa doesn’t have the athletic escape hatches that Jackson and Allen do—where a quarterback’s physical superpower can correct a play gone wrong on the fly—and that means he not only should’ve looked more evolved last year but also he’ll need to be more evolved as a player overall to make it.

Now the good news is that in preseason Tagovailoa showed some of the instinctive, quick-twitch style that was his trademark at Alabama. He also has a souped-up receiver group, buoyed by the addition of game-breakers Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle, and a defense that probably won’t need its quarterback to outscore everyone for Miami to win games.

Therein, to me, lies a lot of what’s key. Do the new receivers deliver? Is Jaelen Phillips going to give the pass rush the shot in the arm it needs? And, most importantly, is an offensive line that has four top-80 picks drafted by Brian Flores and Chris Grier, and is now on its fourth position coach in as many years, going to be good enough?

I think Tagovailoa can improve. I don’t think he’s going to morph into the type of quarterback who can carry a team, at least not overnight. So a lot of how far the Dolphins can go will be based on how good Miami is around him, even if Tagovailoa himself is the reason there are so many questioning the Dolphins’ place as a contender in the AFC.

From Dashawn (@Dashawnstatic_): So what happens if Carson Wentz and Sam Darnold have great years? With Tannehill paving the way, I feel like GMs going forward are going to be pressured more into getting these young QBs to succeed where they ARE. Or will it mean young QBs get more time before the questions come?

Well, for one thing, Dashawn, it’ll probably lead to more teams trying ex-first-round QBs as reclamation projects. The truth is, to this point, not many have made it. Ryan Tannehill is one. Kerry Collins is another—after flaming out in Carolina, he took the Giants to a Super Bowl. Drew Brees is sort of one; he was the 32nd pick (actually a second-rounder in 2001), and washed out of San Diego because of injury and Philip Rivers’s presence in the bullpen. He did O.K. with the Saints, I’d say. And to a degree, Alex Smith is in that category as well.

Before that, you have to go back to guys like Jeff George and Vinny Testaverde. And the best examples are from further back than that in Steve Young and Jim Plunkett.

So if there are more recent examples then, like anything else, you’ll probably see it become more of a trend. The beauty of the Titans hitting on Tannehill is that they gave up next to nothing to acquire him—getting a sixth-rounder with him for fourth- and seventh-rounders, while Miami picked up $5 million of his 2019 pay. The Colts and Panthers paid more for Sam Darnold and Carson Wentz, to be sure, but nothing that would preclude them from looking at quarterbacks again next spring.

And in each of these cases, that really is the key. When you take a quarterback early in the first round, you’re basically tying your job security to the guy. Titans GM Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel weren’t doing that with Tannehill in 2019, and Colts GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich, and Panthers GM Scott Fitterer and coach Matt Rhule, didn’t do that in dealing for Wentz and Darnold, respectively, this year.

Rather, they took a shot at veterans at a cut rate. At a reasonable baseline, it buys them time to take the plunge on the right college quarterback. Ideally, the guy can be more than that—like Tannehill has been for the Titans in getting Vrabel and Robinson out of a potentially sticky situation with a quarterback (Marcus Mariota) they inherited. But invariably, it gives a team flexibility not to reach for a young quarterback when the right one might not be there.

So yeah, in a way, I think Darnold and Wentz succeeding would give GMs and coaches license to mitigate their risk at the game’s most important position.

From Paul Andrew Esden Jr (@BoyGreen25): Can you give us anything more on this Reuben Foster exploration by the Jets? Obviously Robert Saleh has a relationship with him and they have a critical need at LB, do you anticipate this happening?

Paul, I think Robert Saleh did a nice job of explaining it—and how it was more of a check-in with Reuben Foster to see what sort of shape he’s in, so he can place him correctly on his emergency list. And that was necessary because, for all the talent that made him a first-round pick, Foster has played just 16 games in the pros, and hasn’t appeared in one since November 2018.

Part of that is on him (he was released by the Niners in 2018 after a domestic violence arrest), part of it is not (he tore his ACL and LCL before the ’19 season, and spent the next two years on injured reserve dealing with the aftermath), but the bottom line is that there’s a lot to sort through for any team considering him, and that includes the Jaguars, who worked him out this week.

Bottom line, you’re dealing with the off-field issues that led to his slide in the 2017 draft and followed him into the pros. And you’re not even sure whether he’s the same athlete he was back then, a good-enough athlete to remain a first-rounder despite all the baggage. So I wouldn’t say fans’ expectations should be super high, even if their team took a flier on Foster.

For what it’s worth, I also think the staff wants to get a good long look at young linebackers Hasmah Nasirildeen and Jamien Sherwood, who are long, athletic types that fit what Saleh looks for at a position he’s got a mountain of coaching expertise in.

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From Adam Rowsey (@adamrowsey): How will the NFL deal with the growing problem of "hold ins"? And what would the league do if Houston decided to play Watson?

Adam, it’s an interesting question because it’s created, as I see it, awkward situations this summer in Miami (Xavien Howard), New England (Stephon Gilmore) and Pittsburgh (T.J. Watt), and I can’t see this trend stopping anytime soon.

Why? All you gotta do is take a look at the rules in the new CBA. The fines are now $50,000 per missed day of camp—and those, by rule, cannot be waived after the fact (eliminating what used to be routine in these situations, where a player would return on the condition that the team didn’t collect the fine money). And if a player doesn’t report on time, he cannot accrue the season toward free agency or post-career benefits, something that weighs heavily on third-year non-first-round picks.

Getting these new rules in the 2020 CBA was another way to control the workforce for owners, similar to the way the franchise tag regulates a star’s willingness to play his first contract out. It puts a natural ceiling on negotiations, which was frankly a big win for the league in the CBA fight.

But what it has looked like in practice is different than on paper. If the idea was that the new holdout rules would dull players’ desire to have existing contracts reworked, well, then the Howard and Gilmore situations show that isn’t happening across the board. And if another hope for the owners was that these rules might make young players more patient about getting the kind of second contract that’s every player’s goal, then Watt sure isn’t a good example of it happening.

Back in the day, holdouts were uncomfortable for everyone. The team is missing a key player. That key player is missing work. And a time that’s usually about hope and promise for the fan base, the news cycle centering on a singular contract dispute can swallow all that whole. But you know what else usually happened? There was typically a resolution that left everyone on board. And the fact that the player was out of the building made it so that everyone else didn’t have to live it every day.

So in the end, I’d never blame Gilmore or Howard or Watt for doing what they need to do to get what they’re worth—because the minute they’re not worth what they’re making, the team will almost invariably come either looking for money back, or for the player’s job. And I don’t think it’s off-base to think that, if an old-fashioned holdout was still feasible, these situations might’ve been solved faster.

From A$AP Brad (@severn58): Think Deshaun plays this year, he's sitting out there on the fantasy wire?

A$AP, I can’t tell you where the legal situation is going to be a week, a month or even a year from now. What I do know is that to this point, Deshaun Watson has been steadfast on wanting to be cleared completely—and every indication I’ve gotten is that he’s willing to go through the process in the courts to do it. Now, what I’ve said throughout still stands: I have no idea whether he’s guilty or innocent of what he’s been accused of. But if his goal is to be cleared, that means not settling, and going through courts will take time.

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For that reason, my guess is he doesn’t play this year, and this plays out like Robert Griffin’s final year did in Washington. Griffin’s circumstances were much different. Griffin had been benched, and Washington had already picked up a $16.2 million option for the following year, and the only way they’d get out of paying it was to get Griffin to 2016 healthy. So they made him the inactive third quarterback (behind Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy) every week, got him to the end of the year unscathed, then released him.

Where the idea for Houston is similar is that the team is protecting its assets. For Washington in 2015, it was protecting a large chunk of 2016 cash and cap space. For Houston, you hold on to Watson to protect his trade value: It’s down now, and the only way to get it back to where it was in January and February is to wait the legal process out, and get to where other teams are willing to pay full price.

But the legal process can be unpredictable, and there’s always a chance Watson reverses course and settles, which could change the timeline. But the likelihood, to me, is that he’s on Houston’s 53 all year, and the Texans’ game-day inactive list each week.

From Phillip Stirling (@PhilStirling): Is Gilmore traded by week 8?

Phillip, it’s a good question—and the answer is no. At this point, you’d be dealing an injured player, and the team acquiring Gilmore would be getting less than a full season of him before having to re-sign him. If he plays well, then you’re looking at having to re-up a guy at 31 at or near the top of the corner market. If he doesn’t, then he walks, and you get a rental that wasn’t really worth it in the first place.

What’s that worth? Maybe a third-round pick? Now, if you’re the Patriots, and you just spent $160 million in guaranteed money to fix everything that went wrong in 2020, is that third-round pick worth shipping your best player off the roster and leaving yourself thin and vulnerable at one of the most important positions on the field, one you’ve consistently invested in (Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, Malcolm Butler, Gilmore himself) and built your defense around for a decade? To me, it is not.

I also think that underscores how New England has fouled this one up. It knew last September, when it moved $4 million from 2021 to ’20, that Gilmore likely wasn’t going to play this year at $7 million—otherwise, that “raise” would really just be a cash advance. And now, as a result of all this, Gilmore will get $7 million for half the year. Which undermines all the work you did in the offseason to make the defense an elite unit again.

Sometimes these situations can be simplified to a single question: Do you want to win the negotiation or do you want the player? In this case, if I were the Patriots, I would’ve wanted the player. And I think if you’d attacked this in March, he’d have been more amenable to a one-year bump, where now the only way you get anything done is through a Darius Slay–level extension.

From Tom Marshall (@aredzonauk): Can AJ Green and JJ Watt help Kliff Kingsbury save his job in Arizona?

Tom, honestly, I was skeptical when I heard the early buzz on A.J. Green coming out of training camp, just because it’s really been three years since he’s been that guy. He’s over 30, and he’s been hurt a lot. But just being there, and listening to some of the logic in why Arizona went after Green, and then hearing how he’s been managed, and how he’s worked with Kyler Murray, I think a big bounce back could be in the offing.

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s sustainable over the next three or four years. But just for this year, I could see it happening. And while J.J. Watt isn’t the guy he used to be, I think he’s determined to show everyone that his tank isn’t empty. I also think Watt brings an intangible that Green and Rodney Hudson have, too—and that’s showing a team that’s gotten relatively young in certain spots, and lost franchise cornerstones Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson, how to conduct yourself as a pro. It’s something that was noticeable when I was there, to the point where I brought it up to Kliff Kingsbury at the end of my visit in August.

“You just see it in our young guys,” Kingsbury told me. “Rookie-wise, these guys, we haven’t had one guy late to anything through the offseason, through training camp. They’ve just been dialed in. It's as dialed in as a class that I’ve seen. I think a lot of it has to do with being able to see those veterans and how it’s supposed to be done—J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, Rodney Hudson, all those guys.”

So yeah, if the Cardinals can get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2015, I think that element will be a part of it.

From Moose Block (@moose_block): If the Pats offense is good this year, is it more likely or less likely that Josh McDaniels stays in New England?

Moose, I think if the Patriots’ offense takes off and Mac Jones plays really well, then Josh McDaniels might see his stock rise again. In that case, I don’t think he’s going to wait around Foxboro to see whether he’s going to be Bill Belichick’s successor. Over the last few years, I think the Patriots OC has learned how tough it is to get one of those 32 jobs, and as he’s come close in Cleveland and Philly the last two years, I think he’s become a little more willing to compromise in order to land one. I also think there are some people who’ll advocate for McDaniels to get his shot that you might not expect, and that’ll help him, too.

And here’s the thing—McDaniels is a brilliant football coach. That’s not just me saying it. That’s everyone I’ve talked to who’s worked with him. Which is to say, if Jones blows up and the Patriots are back to being the Patriots again, and McDaniels interviews with a bunch of teams as a result, someone’s going to fall in love with him. The Eagles did, even if they wound up going in another direction at the end.

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From K-Day (@kstalz): How good can Antonio Gibson be? As a WFT fan my head is in the clouds about the size/speed and the seemingly unlimited upside, do I just have my burgundy & gold tinted glasses on?

We’re going to rapid fire with these last few questions. … Really good, K-Day. Remember, Ron Rivera and Scott Turner were with Christian McCaffrey in Carolina. And I’m not saying Antonio Gibson is McCaffrey, but he’s got similar versatility, and I think he’ll be used in the same way McCaffrey was. So I think it’s fair to expect big things.

From Gambling Avengers (@GamblingAvenge1): Does the draft positioning of Chris Olave ride on how DeVonta Smith performs?

Gambling, there are very real Chris Olave–DeVonta Smith comparisons—both easily could’ve come out as juniors, and wound up probably somewhere in the back half of the first round, both came back to school to try to go higher, and each is a tough, polished, smooth football player. The difference between the two is that Olave fits the prototype a little more. He’s around the same height as Smith but thicker. And he may run 4.3 in the spring.

Smith is a great, great player, so I’m not saying Olave’s better. But I do think Olave’s probably a little easier for teams to project to the pros.

From G. Chiasson (@Didder87): Swift or Gus Edwards?

G., I’m going with Gus Edwards here, health permitting. The Ravens coaches have always been curious whether Edwards’ production would remain what it is (really, really good) with a heavier workload. Now, they’ll get to find out. And while I think D’Andre Swift is going to have a big year, I’m worried about how often that offense is playing from behind.

From Matt Urban (@MattUrban5): Surprise player this year?

Matt, would it surprise you to hear I have Jonathan Taylor winning the rushing title?

From Raymond Nuznoff (@raynuzzy): What defines success for Dan Campbell in Year 1 with the Detroit Lions?

A strong November and December, with young players like Penei Sewell and Alim McNeill ascending as the year closes. Raymond, to me, the Lions’ season is going to be about forming an identity as a team, and that showing up later in the year, and player development. And I do like the ability of Dan Campbell’s ex-player-heavy staff in those two departments.

From Juan (@juan_p_v): Do you think the extra week will lead to many more injuries?

Juan, this is something every coach has grappled with. Losing big chunks of the spring made it tougher on everyone. Some coaches pushed their players harder in camp as a result, to make up for time lost. Others, conversely, carefully managed their way through the summer to try to avoid injuries. So how all this plays out will be fascinating. But I will say that whichever way this goes, it’ll be more attributable to a different offseason than it will to the addition of a game to the back end of the schedule.

(And I say that as a guy who really felt like the players should’ve gotten some better concessions, like maybe needing only three years to get to free agency, in return for the added risk that extra games puts on their ability to cash in.)

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