Davis: Dolphins' Walton, Gesicki show promise in entertaining loss

Dolphins running back Mark Walton runs for yardage before Buffalo's Mincah Hyde brings him down.Rich Barnes for USA Today

Craig Davis

After committing an abomination to the game of football for most of this season, the ragtag Dolphins turned in a surprisingly entertaining effort Sunday at Buffalo.

The 31-21 loss was Miami’s best performance against a team with a winning record.

By staying in the game until the Bills sealed it in the final two minutes with a rare return of an onsides kick for a touchdown by Mincah Hyde, the Dolphins gained a measure of respectability.

And yes, by losing they kept pace with the Bengals, the other winless team, in the race for the first draft pick.

That is the ongoing consolation for long-suffering Dolphins fans that are banking on a path to a brighter future through a handful of high draft picks in the next couple of years.

The general perception of how quickly they can rise from the current depths to contention may be a bit lofty, though.

Who’s worth keeping?

Using those three first-round draft picks in 2020 for the right quarterback — hopefully Tua Tagovailoa — and a couple other immediate contributors will make the Dolphins better next year. But so much is needed to build this stripped-down roster back up.

The main focal point during the interminable march through an otherwise pointless season is for players worth keeping who may contribute when the talent level rises.

Two that stood out Sunday were running back Mark Walton and tight end Mike Gesicki. 

Walton, in his second start, averaged 4.7 yards on 14 carries, totaling 66 yards. Like fellow former Miami Hurricane Frank Gore, who had 55 yards on 11 carries for Buffalo, Walton has the knack for popping through holes and the drive to keeping gaining yardage after contact.

The difference was evident when Kenyan Drake (six carries for 21 yards) had the ball. Drake is fast and shifty, which makes him effective as a receiver. But he doesn’t provide the impetus for a tough ground game.

The contrast with Walton’s ability as a ball carrier makes it understandable why the Dolphins are reportedly trying to trade Drake to enhance their cache of draft picks.

Second-year improvement

geskicki-catch-bills
Mike Gesicki makes one of four catches against the Bills.Mark Konezny for USA Today

Meanwhile, Gesicki, the 2018 second-round pick who disappointed as a rookie, is emerging as a potentially vital component in the offense. Gesicki had his most productive day as a pro with four catches (on four targets) for 41 yards, and he made use of his rangy frame and athleticism that was touted when he arrived from Penn State.

Most impressive was an acrobatic catch on fourth-and-8 that kept alive the Dolphins’ final touchdown drive. Earlier, he adjusted to an underthrown pass, which he grabbed while falling backward for a first down on third-and-long.

Another 28-yard completion to Gesicki was wiped out by a holding call on tackle J’Marcus Webb.

Some encouraging performances

There were other positives to point to in the Dolphins nearly pulling an upset on the road against the Bills, who are now 5-1.

Rookie wide receiver Preston Williams continues to stand out with productivity — Sunday with six catches for 82 yards. And inconsistency — his fumble in the fourth quarter led to a touchdown that extended the Bills’ lead to 10 points. 

DeVante Parker, the long under-achieving 2015 first-round pick, had five catches and showed tenacity in turning one into a touchdown.

Honorable mention to the much-maligned offensive line that provided some positive push for the running game against a tough Bills d-line and allowed only one sack, on a razzle-dazzle play with receiver Albert Wilson looking to pass.

Some designed rollouts and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s ability to escape rushers and get rid of the ball quickly helped him avoid being sacked. The line had Evan Boehm at center in place of injured veteran Daniel Kilgore and Shaq Calhoun in Boehm’s spot at right guard.

On defense, Raekwon McMillan continued to provide solid play at linebacker, with a team-high six tackles including one for loss. Taco Charlton and Vince Biegel had sacks.

The overall performance of the defensive was commendable considering that veteran defensive backs Reshad Jones and Xavien Howard were both out with injuries and rookie defensive tackle Christian Wilkins got ejected for throwing punches on the second play.

Flip sides of Fitzpatrick

The game was actually fun to watch, especially the childlike joy that 36-year-old Fitzpatrick played with in the return to the site of the most distinguished period of his career when he was the Bills quarterback for 55 games (53 starts) from 2009-12.

Fitzpatrick’s 11-yard scramble for a touchdown, punctuated by lowering his shoulder and bowling his way into the end zone, stands out as the highlight play of the season so far for Miami. It brought the Dolphins to within three points with 1:45 remaining before Hyde’s runback snuffed out hope.

It was also Fitzpatrick who threw the interception near the Bills’ goal line that turned the game around. The Dolphins were on the verge of extending a 14-9 lead after pulling off a successful fake field goal.

That’s Fitzpatrick’s career in a nutshell: moments of gritty brilliance offset by gut-wrenching mistakes.

It is also what happens to bad teams: They find a way to lose even while giving an inspired effort against a superior opponent.

The challenge of this season is for coach Brian Flores and staff to develop some players on this roster who can help alter that equation when reinforcements arrive next season via the draft and free agency.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

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