At least four Miami Dolphins rookies are expected to see significant action in Sunday’s opener, and none is named TuaTagovailoa.
Miami's top draft pick and potential franchise quarterback will begin his NFL career on the sideline as Ryan Fitzpatrick's backup for Game 1 at New England. Tagovailoa's first career start could still be weeks or months away, depending on how the season unfolds.
Even so, coach Brian Flores'rookie class will make an immediate impact. Left tackle Austin Jackson and right guard Solomon Kindley won starting jobs in training camp, and cornerback Noah Igbinoghene and tackle Raekwon Davis will be part of the defensive rotation.
Flores allowed himself a slight smile Wednesday when asked how comfortable he was starting rookies in the first game.
“Well, I guess I started as a rookie on opening day once,” he said. “Those guys, if we feel like they are ready, we’ll put them out there.”
Flores was a rookie head coach a year ago — and Miami lost 59-10 to Baltimore. The readiness of this year's heralded rookie class will help determine whether the Dolphins get off to a faster start than in 2019, when they were 0-7 before rallying to finish 5-11.
The Dolphins believe they dramatically upgraded their roster, in part thanks to the addition of three first-round draft picks — Tagovailoa, Jackson and Igbinoghene. Davis and guard-tackle Robert Hunt were second-round picks, and Kindley was the most pleasant surprise of camp as a fourth-round choice.
Blocking has been a chronic problem for the Dolphins during their two-decade drought without a playoff victory. The line required another reboot after last season, when Miami endured an NFL-high 58 sacks and had no player rush for more than 243 yards.
The cancellation of offseason campsbecause of the coronavirus slowed development of all NFL rookies, but the Dolphins still gave their draft picks in the offensive line every chance this summer to crack the starting five.
“You look at the overall play during camp of guys,” offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said. “You look at the maturity aspect of things, you look at the athletic aspect of things. When you take all of that into account, you come up with the best five that you can get on the field.”
Hunt also had a tryout with the first team and will likely see playing time soon, but Flores was uneasy about starting three rookie offensive linemen. Jackson (Southern Cal), Hunt (Alabama) and Kinley (Georgia) all come from major programs, but it's still a big step to the NFL.
“That’s kind of the whammy,” offensive line coach Steve Marshall said. “But hey, they’re talented young guys. We’ll kind of see how it all comes out. They’ve learned a lot in a very, very, very short period of time.”
On defense, Igbinoghene joins veterans Xavien Howard and Byron Jones to make cornerback perhaps Miami's strongest position. The rookie will be used primarily as a nickel defender in the slot, although he's eager for boundary assignments too.
“I’m comfortable playing anywhere," Igbinoghene said. “I’m a baller at heart, so I feel like I can play anything on the field, whether that’s offense, defense, special teams. I feel like I can do anything.”
As for Tagovailoa: He's ready to play if he has to, Flores said. The Dolphins aren't keen to rush the former Alabama star, whose NFL development was slowed when the pandemic wiped out mini-camps and the preseason.
As a result, Tagovailoa still hasn't played in a game since a career-threatening hip injury ended his college career last November.
“He had a good camp," Flores said. “He has been competitive. He has improved.”
But as the season begins, Flores and the Dolphins are hoping their rookie offensive linemen can help keep Fitzpatrick healthy.
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