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On Porpoise 1-97 - I Feel A Draft
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On Porpoise 1-97 - I Feel A Draft

Did you feel that breeze a couple of weeks ago? That breeze blowing from the south? It's a warm breeze, full of promise and hope for the coming year. And it comes every year, about this time...

But it doesn't carry the scent of spring - no, it smells more like newly mown grass and pigskin; heat balm and medical tape; and, of course, sweat.

And wafting on this breeze are the sounds of plastic and cloth, smacking hard against one another, combined with grunting and shouting, and the occasional laughter and applause. On top of these sounds, a voice of authority with a Texas accent periodically intrudes, exhorting and commanding the attention of everyone.

Yes, this breeze swept over us all a few weeks ago, with a subtle force that filled us then, but has left us now empty and hungry for more.

Yes, I felt a draft....

Unfortunately, one of the cruelest aspects of draft time in the NFL is that everyone gets a brief taste of the possibilities for their team for the coming year and then we all have to wait to see how it will turn out.

In my humble opinion, right now is the worst time in the NFL season. It's a time of waiting and hoping. Waiting, of course, to see what will happen this coming season. Hoping that this draft is as good - or perhaps even better - than the last one.

So let's do something with all this time, shall we? Let's talk about the draft.

Before we talk about the draft, however, I would like to point out that I think it's totally pointless to assign draft grades at this time to this year's draft. If we want to assign draft grades, then last year's draft is the draft to grade.

So I will...

For last year's draft, I would have to give the Dolphins an "A". The only reason I don't give them an A+ is that the jury is still out on Darryl Gardener. He was effective last year and wound up starting, but was not really a force at the defensive tackle position.

If we knew then what we know now, Zach Thomas would have been the Dolphins' first pick, followed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Stanley Pritchett, Jerris McPhail, Shawn Wooden, Darryl Gardener, Shane Burton and Jeff Buckey.

Now, if Gardener improves this season and starts to produce more, I may well change my grade to an "A+", but unless he really starts to be a force in the middle of the defensive line, that first round pick might have been better spent on someone else.

Still, the 1996 draft has to rank as one of the best in Dolphins' history, with the Dolphins getting at least 5 (and maybe 6) starters from last year's draft - Gardener, Burton, Thomas, Wooden, Pritchett and Abdul-Jabbar are all solid contributors and at least 4 of these guys (and maybe all 6) will start this year.

And, of course, there is potential third down sensation Jerris McPhail. That boy will certainly cause a lot of defenses problems this year, hopefully as a return man and third down back.

Anthony Harris, the current starter at weakside linebacker, was actually a rookie free agent last year, along with Larry Izzo.

Of course, in a sense, these guys *were* part of the draft, because JJ will target players that he wants to sign as free agents during his preparation for the draft. But technically, neither Izzo nor Harris were drafted.

Moving along to this year's draft, one of the things that struck me was that there were some definite similarities between this year's draft and last year's. Now, that is hardly surprising, considering that JJ's draft philosophy hasn't exactly changed, but it was stunning to me how much similarity there was.

In the first round, JJ took a gamble in both '96 and '97. He took a player in each year who has enormous physical skills, but who didn't produce as much in college as other players at their positions. Both Yatil Green and Darryl Gardener are amazing athletes, but neither really set the world on fire in their senior year.

With his second pick, JJ went for defensive backs. Hopefully, Sam Madison will work out better than Dorian Brew did last year, and if the initial mini-camp is any indication, he probably will.

And in the third round, JJ picked up players who were originally considered to be possible first rounds picks, but had fallen to the third round. This year, it is Jason Taylor, who was originally slated to be a probably first round pick, but who fell to the third round. Last year, of course, it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

In later rounds, JJ traded down to acquire more picks. He went for the same kinds of players in 1997 that he went for in 96 - smart overachievers who give 100% on every play. He is, of course, less concerned with raw size and power than he is with attitude, at least in the later rounds.

Hopefully, the results from the class of '97 will also resemble the results of the class of '96, although I imagine it would be difficult to get another Zach Thomas out of the group. You don't find players like Zach Thomas very often.

However, there could very well be another Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shane Burton, Stanley Pritchett or Darryl Gardener in this group. In fact, if the Dolphins get 2 or 3 starters out of the class of '97, then it will have been a successful draft.

So, how do I think the class of '97 will do? Well, since I don't give draft grades at this point in the season, everything I say below must be considered speculation. Still, I have some thoughts on who will work out and who won't.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a football expert, nor do I play one on TV. I'm just a DolFan who tries to pay attention to what's going on.

Starting at the top, we have Yatil Green. Green has all the tools to make a great receiver, but hasn't really played up to his potential yet. Yes, there have been individual games where Green has really stood out, but he'll need to stay healthy and be consistent.

Personally, I think that Green will contribute this year, but will not be quite ready to earn his multi-million dollar salary. I can't really see him breaking into the starting lineup ahead of Barnett and McDuffie - at least, not in September.

Sam Madison, on the other hand, already seems to be working out better than Dorian Brew did last year. The word from mini-camp was that he managed to completely blanket Charles Jordan in coverage drills. Now, Jordan isn't the Dolphins' best receiver, but he's no slouch, either. With the right cornerback position being wide open for whoever shows his stuff in training camp, Madison has a good shot at starting.

I see Jason Taylor as a guy like Abdul-Jabbar in a number of ways, and not just because he fell to the third round. He also had a good college career, but fell because scouts didn't feel he could contribute as well in the Pros. Taylor will need to bulk up some to get to his full potential, but will probably have the opportunity to play a fair amount in pass-rushing situations this coming season. His speed and intensity will make him a dangerous player.

The next two players were linebackers Derrick Rodgers and Ronnie Ward. The knock on Rodgers, of course, is his age (25) and his inexperience at linebacker. During college, Rodgers played primarily as a pass rusher from the outside linebacker spot.

However, Rodgers is very smart and will likely be more mature than a lot of his contemporaries. He is also athletic enough to play pass coverage, and smart enough to learn how. Initial reports from mini-camp are promising. It will be difficult for him to break into the starting lineup, but he will probably see special teams work and if he keeps working, could possibly crack the starting lineup by the end of the season.

Ronnie Ward has kind of been lost in the shuffle, because of all the attention paid to the players drafted around him. However, Ward had a fine college career and seems to be the kind of player that will fit well into a JJ-type defense. Of course, there will be lots of competition for him at linebacker, but he stands a good chance of at least giving the other linebackers on the team a run for their money.

After Ward, we come to the first offensive lineman picked up by the Dolphins - Brent Smith of Mississippi State. Smith is already over 300 pounds and still growing and is fast and agile for an offensive lineman. He also has a reputation for being very aggressive and competitive. I suspect that he will make the team as a backup this year.

Next is Jerome Daniels, the mountain from New England. At over 350 pounds, Daniels is huge and has amazing potential, with his athleticism and size. However, Daniels is going to have a tough time getting accustomed to the South Florida environment after coming from New England and his 350 pounds are going to be tough to haul around during training camp, no matter how strong he is.

I do see Daniels making the team because of his size, athleticism and attitude, which is supposed to be competitive and nasty. However, he's got an awful lot of work to do and he'll have to be very dedicated to drop the 20 or so pounds that the Dolphins want him to lose this summer.

After Daniels, the Dolphins chose defensive lineman Barron Tanner. Tanner sounds a little like Chuck Klingbeil, in that he is strong and good at stuffing the center of the line. He is very hard to run against - and yet, remember that JJ cut Klingbeil. Of course, a lot can happen between now and September, but Tanner is the first player in the Dolphins' draft that I have real doubts about. He doesn't really sound like the kind of player that JJ likes.

Now, it may turn out that the Dolphins are a little thin on the defensive line (especially at defensive tackle), so Tanner may stay, if only to fill a roster spot, but I just don't see that he is the type of player that has a real chance to contribute on a JJ style defense.

The next player up is Nicholas Lopez and I find him intriguing. He's a defensive end and, at 6'4" and 250 pounds, he's a little small to play on the defensive line in the pros. However, this guy has a lot in common with a draft pick from last year that worked out pretty well for us - Zach Thomas.

First of all, they're both relative unknowns that the Dolphins picked up in the 5th round. Both were considered too small coming into the draft and that's why they fell to the 5th round. And both were exceptionally productive during their senior year in college. Consider this: Lopez had 72 tackles during his senior year, with 26 for a loss. Of those 26 tackles for a loss, 15 were sacks (that's more than one per game and more than Jason Taylor had) and he also caused 3 fumbles, recovered 3 fumbles and had a safety.

Of course, it's too much to hope that Lopez will work out as well as Zach did, but I think that he has the best chance to be the "Zach Thomas" of 1997. I think he'll be on the roster this coming season.

John Fiala is next up and he'll compete for a backup linebacker spot. Again, the words "undersized", "overachiever" and "playmaker" have been applied to Fiala (as they have to almost all the new Dolphins' linebackers) and he'll have his work cut out for him in competing for a spot on the team.

After Fiala, the Dolphins took Brian Manning, a very smart wide receiver who kind of fell apart during his senior year at Stanford. In fact, he didn't even start after the 4th game of his senior year. However, in the East-West Shrine game, he wowed the scouts, making a number of nice catches and again impressed scouts at the combine.

It appears that the departure of Bill Walsh from Stanford really hurt Manning. If he is to make the Dolphins regular squad (or even the practice squad), he's going to have to give everything he's got - and then some. He has a great deal of competition and even a small slipup will send him packing. However, he appears to have the talent to make the team, if he can keep himself focused.

The last linebacker taken was Mike Crawford, out of Nevada. You've got to love Crawford - here's a guy who jumps off his parent's house into Lake Tahoe for fun - a jump of almost 40 feet. A complete unknown as far as the draft was concerned (ESPN still has nothing in his profile on their web site), he completely dominated the Las Vegas bowl this year, practically winning the game himself.

On draft day, Crawford wasn't even watching the draft on TV. He was playing chess with a friend.

Crawford was one of the few players that was specifically mentioned after the April mini-camp. He was apparently an animal on special teams during the mini-camp, showing all the recklessness and aggressiveness that you'd expect. It's still early, but he sounds like another Larry Izzo.

Tight end Ed Perry was taken after Crawford and while he has some natural ability, it doesn't sound to me like there's a lot there to get excited about. He'll compete with Wainwright for the third tight end slot after Drayton and Reeves, but I'll be kind of surprised to see him make the roster.

The last player taken in the draft by the Dolphins was Hudhaifa Ismaeli, a cornerback from Northwestern. He is probably talented enough to have been taken much higher, but after being suspended for drug use, teams were reluctant to take him. Ismaeli is reported to be a tough, physical corner, who can cover and blitz. However, he has limited experience and is very raw.

There are a lot of new defensive backs on the team right now and not all will be there in September. All things being equal, Ismaeli has a pretty good chance to make the team, if he can stay focused. But he'll have a lot of more experienced competition and I'd have to say that he's a better prospect for the practice squad.

The bottom line of the draft is that I would expect to get 2 or maybe 3 starters from this draft. I think that the guys that have the best chance to start at some point in the season are Yatil Green, Sam Madison, Brent Smith and Jason Taylor. Other guys who will probably play some this year are Derrick Rodgers, Ronnie Ward and Jerome Daniels.

My preliminary vote for the guy who will be the biggest surprise is Nicholas Lopez, followed closely by Mike Crawford.

John Fiala and Hudhaifa Ismaeli are good players with a lot of potential, but they're going to have a tough time beating out the competition. It's hard to know how they will turn out.

I think that Barron Tanner, Brian Manning and Ed Perry are the least likely players to make the team, but they could all surprise. It's more likely, though, that they will end up on the practice squad or cut.

So that finishes up my review of this year's draft. It was a lot longer than I had anticipated, but hey - the Dolphins took more players in the draft than any other team. That is just one of the reasons that JJ is such a good draft master. He knows that the more players he takes, the better chance he'll find a Zach Thomas.

What's next? Well, the Dolphins will hold their second "quarterback school" from June 2nd through the 5th. This is their second mini-camp, but many of the draftees won't be attending, because they will be taking their finals.

Still, with all the competition for starting slot this coming season, expect the rookies who are there to be working very hard. Because these kids know that they won't get a place on the team by accident - they will have to do it....

.... On Porpoise.

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Curt Fennell
DOLFAN in New England


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Curt Fennell
DOLFAN in New England