The New England Patriots were armed with three sixth-round picks during the April 2016 draft and used those picks on three guys who were not necessarily household names but were notable in their own way.
The Patriots drafted linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill with selection No. 208, linebacker Elandon Roberts with selection No. 212 and interior offensive lineman Alex Karras with selection No. 221.
The most impressive things about these picks at the time was that both linebackers ran in the 4.4s at their Pro Days and Karras comes from an NFL family — including great uncle Alex Karras, who this year was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And here we are four seasons later and all three of those Patriots sixth-rounders in the last few days agreed to free agent contracts with the Miami Dolphins.
So the Dolphins now have more Patriots’ 2016 sixth-round selections on their roster than they have players from their own 2016 draft.
And, I get it. Brian Flores, who came to Miami after 14 years in New England, is putting a value on reuniting with Patriots players — even when he has to sign them in free agency.
But this is about more than that. It’s about much more than free agency and familiarity ...
This about the draft. And about the Dolphins needing to get much better at it very soon to be able to compete in the future.
It’s impressive what the Dolphins have done during the first week of free agency, spending approximately $235.8 million in new contracts, including $150 million in guaranteed money, to improve the team.
FLASH SALE! Unlimited digital access for $3.99 per month
Don't miss this great deal. Offer ends on March 31st!SAVE NOW
But it’s not sustainable.
The Dolphins won’t be doing this every year.
The salary cap, although flexible and ever expanding, won’t allow it.
And I doubt club owner Stephen Ross, although quite capable of funding it, would let this repeat without seeing some grand results.
So the Dolphins, now loaded with free agents, cannot be the team driven to success solely by free agency. Whatever success Miami enjoys in years to come also must come from the draft.
And to do that, this club has to start getting the draft right.
That’s right ... start.
It hasn’t been happening to any exceptional degree of late. And that’s not me saying so. That’s the Dolphins admitting as much.
Here’s the evidence of that confession: The team just agreed to $235 million in free agency contracts, including $150 million in total guarantees.
Free agency, you see, is where NFL teams fill the gaps and buy the roster upgrades they failed to address in their drafts.
So the Dolphins just added Roberts from the Patriots to play middle or inside linebacker (maybe a little fullback as well) and suddenly Raekwon McMillan, a 2017 second-round pick, will be at risk of losing playing time.
The Dolphins just added Ereck Flowers to play left guard and suddenly Michael Deiter, a 2019 third-round pick, is at risk of losing his starting spot. One assumes Flowers will be at left guard, by the way, because that’s where he had success last year while Deiter struggled as Miami’s left guard.
Deiter might be a starter possibility at right guard but he’s going to have to earn it in a competition -- unlike last season when he was basically handed the left guard spot in training camp.
Moving on ...
The Dolphins added front seven help with Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah and Kyle Van Noy in part because they were not enough of a threat to opposing quarterbacks last year. The team was last in the NFL in sacks after moving on from Robert Quinn and Cameron Wake.
Because 2017 first-round pick Charles Harris, with 3.5 sacks in 41 games, has not played to expectations.
Again, not me saying this. The Dolphins’ spending says this.
The Dolphins signed 224-pound running back Jordan Howard, Chicago’s fifth-round pick in 2016, for $10 million. Why?
Because 230-pound running back Kalen Ballage, Miami’s fourth-round pick in 2018, was handed the starting running back spot in training camp last season and averaged a disappointing 1.8 yards per carry.
The Dolphins broke the bank on the cornerback market paying Dallas Cowboys free agent Byron Jones $54.5 million in guaranteed money. He will ostensibly be paired with Xavien Howard on the other side to form the NFL’s most expensive cornerback tandem.
But wouldn’t it have been nice if 2017 third-round pick Cordrea Tankersley would have been even a slight factor the past two seasons so as to make that expense unnecessary?
Look, this isn’t about second-guessing every Dolphins draft pick the past four years. General manager Chris Grier did good work in picking Laremy Tunsil when others wouldn’t. He found Howard in the second round of the 2016 draft and added Minkah Fitzpatrick in the first round of 2018.
All three of those players have been to one Pro Bowl.
But there are about 13-15 other picks the past four years Grier’s run the draft that produced so little as to require a big free agency fix.
And why does this matter?
Because the Dolphins, having done the bulk of their free agency work already, will soon turn their attention back to the April draft. The team has 14 picks in that draft, including three first-round picks and two second-round picks.
The Dolphins also have two first-round picks and two second-round picks among their nine picks already stored up for 2021.
That’s the treasure that must purchase a Dolphins renaissance. This year’s haul of free agents, meant to fill needs and plug holes, will be long forgotten in three or four years.
But the picks from the next two drafts, who will come of age in the mid-2020s, are different. They will be the reason the Dolphins rise or fall in the decade to come.