DAVIE, Fla. — The Miami Dolphins are undergoing a fire sale — most recently with the trade of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick — and rebuild that rivals any other in recent league history. The long-term goal is to build a winner.
The Dolphins are selling hope for a promising future, a plan that centers on drafting a franchise quarterback (“Tank for Tua” pleas, in reference to Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, are loud), collecting a bounty of draft picks and Dolphins general manager Chris Grier preparing to be aggressive via free agency, draft and trade.
But players and coaches still have to live through the realities of the 2019 season. ESPN talked with several Dolphins players about how they are handling the physical — and mental — teardown. The biggest takeaway is that each player has been affected in different ways.
The franchise player
Chris Berman and Tom Jackson recap the weekend’s games with extended highlights and analysis. Watch on ESPN+
Cornerback Xavien Howard is unquestionably the Dolphins’ best remaining player, the current on-field face of the franchise. He is coming off a Pro Bowl 2018 season when he was the NFL’s co-interception leader with seven despite playing only 12 games.
Howard tweeted out a GIF of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s” Will Smith standing alone in an empty living room in response to the Fitzpatrick trade. He says his teammates got a kick out of the tweet, and he thought it was a funny summary of how he was feeling after another talent was shipped away from Miami.
Howard understands the Dolphins are planning for the future — and that he is a key part of it. But he has been programmed to take things only one game and one season at a time.
“We got the picks and the future looks good, but I’m worried about now. These 16 games. I’m in my prime. I do want to win now,” Howard said. “Players out here risking their bodies every day. I want to be in a position where we can succeed.”
Howard signed a five-year, $75.25 million extension in May that made him the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback. He said he didn’t realize the rebuild was going to be this drastic when he signed his deal, most notably the trades of Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills and Fitzpatrick came as a shock.
“But I’m here, I’m under contract, can only control what I can control,” Howard said.
Grier said Howard told him as recently as Monday that he has bought in 100% on the plan and wants to be with the Dolphins. But Howard, 26, does want to win during the prime of his career.
“I want light at the end of the tunnel. I want something to look forward, for our work to get rewarded, s— like that. I do worry about that,” Howard said. “I don’t feel like my prime is being wasted, but I feel like a season is important. My main focus right now is staying healthy. I’m trying to win and be better with the people we have in the locker room. It is what it is at the end of the day. They ended up paying me. I’m here. Just gotta deal with it.”
The veteran captain
Dolphins center Daniel Kilgore has taken a vocal leadership role during this rebuild, offering encouragement despite Miami being outscored 102-10 in its first two games.
“Yeah, we’re 0-2 and we got blown out. We got our asses kicked, honestly,” Kilgore said. “But we got to stay positive. Stay with us. This thing is only going to get better. This coaching staff and these younger guys, they work their asses off. They work too hard not to have success in the future. I love this coaching staff and how they prepare us.”
Kilgore has bought into the process. At 31, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to be a key player on the other side of the rebuild, but he sees every game as a move toward improvement.
“You can preach all you want, but it’s self-driven,” Kilgore said. “If you are going to sit down and give up, that’s on you. I’ve never known anyone not to want to come in and work every day.”
The player who wanted out — and got out
It’s possible no Dolphins player was affected by changes over the past year more than Fitzpatrick.
Following his solid 2018 rookie season, he looked to be one of the Dolphins’ top players around whom to build. But significant differences with the coaching staff about what position Fitzpatrick should play led to a trade request that was granted Tuesday when Miami shipped him to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Sometimes, we weren’t put in the best position; but even still, we know it’s up to the players to make the play,” Fitzpatrick said after Miami’s 59-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 8.
Fitzpatrick, a first-round pick, had expressed frustration over being asked to play linebacker and strong safety — two areas where he didn’t feel comfortable or didn’t believe fit with his skill set, sources told ESPN.
Fitzpatrick requested a trade following that Week 1 loss. A week later, he was replaced by a 2020 first-round pick.
The young newcomer
It wasn’t a secret the Dolphins were a rebuilding team that would suffer some losses in 2019. But that wasn’t a bad thing for all of them.
Vince Biegel has been a back-of-the-roster linebacker for most of his NFL career. And when he was traded from a championship contender in the New Orleans Saints to rebuilding Miami for Kiko Alonso one week before the season, Biegel was ecstatic.
“I knew it was going to be a great opportunity because this is a young team,” Biegel said. “I came from New Orleans, where they’re one of the oldest veteran teams in the NFL. So for me to come over here, there are opportunities for obviously more playing time, there are opportunities for me to develop as a leader here.”
Biegel, 26, was rewarded with more playing time in the Dolphins’ 43-0 loss Sunday to the New England Patriots, and he got his first career sack. His wife couldn’t contain her excitement at home.
“For me, it’s to be able to continue to show myself, develop myself and show this team and organization what I’m about. I’m extremely thankful to be here,” Biegel said. “I’m excited to hopefully stick around here for a long time.”
Former Colts punter Pat McAfee reacts to Miami’s 43-0 loss to New England and suggests they are trying to tank to get Tua Tagovailoa in the draft.
The veteran quarterback
For Ryan Fitzpatrick, the opportunity to start at quarterback for his eighth NFL team was more than enough reason to join the Dolphins. He wasn’t overly worried about their talent level or long-term plan. It was about the opportunity to be one of the guys and play the game he loves. Losing is a part of the game, but blowout losses do feel different than the close ones.
“Sometimes, they are harder to put behind you,” Fitzpatrick said. “You’re always kind of down for a little bit. To have two in a row, maybe it lingers a little bit longer; but by Wednesday, you’ve got to put all your focus and energy into the next team and the next game. You just have to compartmentalize everything that you’re doing.”
Fitzpatrick, however, encourages the team not to compartmentalize major transactions such as the recent trades.
“There’s the elephant in the room. There are certain things, whether it’s the Minkah trade or Laremy or Kenny [trade], or dropping the ball or throwing an interception that some people treat them as taboo, but it’s really — you just have to be open about it and put everything out there,” Fitzpatrick said. “A lot of this stuff, it’s got to be talked about and put out there, and then you move on.”
Brian Flores says he believes his team is resilient and that strength will carry it through the struggle. The Brooklyn, New York, native relies on the adversity he faced growing up when times get rough.
“Growing up in a tough neighborhood, I’m very prepared for difficult moments. I learned resilience at a very early age,” Flores said. “When you deal with tough times, you want to lean on the people who you trust and care about you and have your back. You always know that if you put your head down and work hard, things normally turn around and get better.”
Flores is all-in on the process and is prepared for a rough 2019 season. He hasn’t once complained about the talent (or lack thereof) around him.
“My thought process is always, ‘I’m going to coach the guys we have.’ Period,” Flores said. “There’s pain every season for every team. When you go through an NFL season — which, this is my 16th — every team deals with adversity.
“We have to be able to endure that and stand up to it and not make excuses and not point fingers and not feel sorry for ourselves — and get back up, go back to work and fight another day, try to improve, get better and help this team win.”