(Video: New Dolphins defensive end Nate Orchard discusses joining his fourth team since October; photo of Brian Flores by Steve Mitchell for USA Today)
DAVIE – The intrigue around the Dolphins is all about the future. Rightfully so, for a franchise trying to break from a pattern of failure with a fresh assembly line.
So the immediate measuring stick will be about how quarterback Josh Rosen and other key components meld or melt under expectations.
But the element that will have the most to do with wins and losses in 2019 will be the question-riddled defense.
Last year’s Dolphins D was one of the most porous in the league. The offseason has been notable more for the subtractions than the additions.
Will they be able to stop anyone?
An ESPN analyst is betting no, forecasting that the Dolphins in phase 1 of a rebuild won’t win a single game this season.
Ludicrous. There certainly are holes, but the cupboard isn’t that bare. And much of the NFL is not all that formidable.
Not that the issue of outside expectations is on coach Brian Flores’ radar.
A test of coaching
“I’m not really worried about anything that’s going on outside our building,” Flores said Tuesday amid the second week of OTAs. “So my focus is on today, it’s on improving today, it’s on helping these players succeed and get better, and try to make some type of impact on these guys.
“I don’t really listen to the rest of it.”
What Flores is trying to answer is how much does coaching matter?
Can Flores, fresh off directing the Super Bowl-winning defense with New England, and some assistants he brought with him from the Patriots, squeeze some wins out of a roster that figures to be at a talent deficit against most opponents?
It won’t take much to improve on the horror show of a defense that then-defensive coordinator Matt Burke directed in 2018, which gave up the most yards in franchise history (6,257) and 433 points, only four fewer than the team record by the 1-15 debacle of 2007.
That was with Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn, two prominent names who have been discarded. But keep in mind, neither of those veterans had a sterling season.
Maximizing assets has sustained the Patriots dynasty (OK, that Brady guy has had something to do with it too).
So Flores is similarly looking to ascend with players like newly signed defensive end Nate Orchard, a second-round pick of the Browns in 2015 who is best known as a personality on “Hard Knocks.”
Orchard is on his fourth team since October. He has 13 career starts and five sacks. He had 18.5 sacks in his second college season at Utah.
“I can rush the passer,” he said Tuesday. “I just need an opportunity. I think it’s here with the Dolphins. I’m grateful for it.”
Counting on competition to elevate all
Flores is counting on that as a motivating factor throughout a largely unproven roster, saying, “I think there’s competition at every position, and if the guys don’t feel that way then we’re going to try to make them feel that way, one way or another.”
There is talent in the secondary, where Xavien Howard is newly anointed as the league’s highest-paid cornerback and Minkah Fitzpatrick, who excelled in a variety of roles, is entering his second year.
Unknown is the future of long-time safety Reshad Jones, who has elected to skip all of the voluntary offseason workouts so far.
There is no shortage of eager replacements with 18 defensive backs forming the largest area of specialization of any unit among the 91 players under contract – offensive line is next with 15.
The challenge for Flores is to make an appetizing chicken salad out of a couple of prime ingredients and an assortment of table scraps.
The coaching ego always believes it can accomplish that. Flores has able support in defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, a product of Yale who worked with Flores with the Patriots and most recently coached with the Packers.
Josh Boyer, the defensive pass game coordinator and cornerbacks coach, came from New England with Flores.
The OTA sessions this month are open to the media only one day a week. They are all being conducted with players in shorts and helmets. Flores acknowledges that limits what he can learn about players until they put on pads in training camp.
Mixing it up on D
But Tuesday’s 90-minute session was spirited and the emphasis on conditioning was evident. Players ran from one drill to the next and there were frequent instances of groups dropping for a set of pushups.
That is part of what Flores refers to as “no talent needed” – things that can be accomplished through effort alone.
It will take talent and skill, though, for this team to rise above expectations – and for Flores to succeed outside the shadow of Bill Belichick.
But there is evidence of the Patriot Way in the defense in early stages of construction. There is a mix of 4-3 and 3-4 schemes in the front seven. There are players being utilized in a variety of roles.
Holdover defensive lineman Davon Godchaux said the difference in philosophy is distinct. Whereas last year the mantra was attack the offense, this scheme is read and react. And there is a lot of mixing and matching to create confusion, hopefully confined to the opposition.
“They put guys in position here to be successful,” Orchard said. “The blitz is coming from every angle. You don’t know when it’s coming or what’s going on. Coach Graham is doing a great job to disguise that.”
The challenge of this season will to be disguise the shortcomings of this roster and rise above them.
That, to me, will be every bit as compelling as the quarterback situation.
Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns