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The Dolphins’ 2021 Draft was crucial. Waddle and Phillips make it an immediate success

·4 min read
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) celebrates after the Dolphins defeat the New York Giants at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Sunday, December 05, 2021. ( Al Diaz Photo / Miami Herald )

Jaylen Waddle rose off the turf in Miami Gardens and hobbled his way slowly into the locker room after taking an awkward fall in the third quarter of the Miami Dolphins’ 20-9 win against the New York Giants. It was a scary moment for the star rookie and for the 65,898 at Hard Rock Stadium who have fallen deeply in love with the wide receiver in the last month of this season.

“Waddle! Waddle!” they chanted as he gingerly worked his way into the locker room and eventually he goaded them on. He rose his right arm up and down, signaling them to erupt into cheers while he walked back into the tunnel. A few minutes later, he jogged back out, helmet in hand and cramping behind him, and the crowd cheered again.

“It means a lot, just it being a home game and everybody coming out, just cheering,” Waddle said with a smile. “It means a lot.”

Even though they stretched their winning streak to five games, the Dolphins (6-7) didn’t do much to inspire Sunday, managing just 297 yards of total offense and letting the Giants, playing without their starting quarterback, hang around until kicker Jason Sanders put the game away with 1:11 left.

The rookies — and, in particular, Miami’s two first-round picks from the 2021 NFL Draft — were the one consistent exception.

Waddle, who was the No. 6 overall pick in the Draft, finished with nine catches for 90 yards and broke the Dolphins’ rookie receptions record. Linebacker Jaelan Phillips, the No. 18 overall pick, recorded two more sacks and broke Miami’s rookie sacks record. On both sides of the ball, one of the least experienced players on the field was also arguably the most reliable.

Waddle, who now has 86 catches for 849 yards this year and is on pace to break the NFL’s rookie receptions record, started early, like he does most weeks. He has become by far quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s favorite target and quickly caught three passes for 25 yards on the Dolphins’ first possession.

Other than Tagovailoa and running back Myles Gaskin, no one is more consistently involved in the offense than Waddle, who has been targeted more than 100 times, and Miami has embraced him as a future—maybe as soon as next month—Pro Bowler. He even became the subject of a song by local rapper SoLo D earlier in the week, commemorating his “Waddle waddle” touchdown celebration from last Sunday.

“My mom sent it to me. She enjoyed it,” the wideout said. “I enjoyed it, too.”

Phillips waited until the third quarter to get involved and helped set up Miami to pull away in the fourth quarter.

New York (4-8) had first-and-10 at its own 27-yard line with 2:03 left in the third and Phillips ran straight past a pulling guard to drop Giants quarterback Mike Glennon for a 13-yard loss. New York took a timeout to regroup and then Phillips immediately sacked Glennon again for a 7-yard loss. The Giants wound up punting from deep in their own territory, and the Dolphins took over at their own 39 and marched for a touchdown to go up 17-6.

Phillips, who starred for one year with the Miami Hurricanes before going to the NFL, now has 8 1/2 sacks this season with five in the last two weeks and at least a half sack in each of the five victories during this winning streak.

His 8 1/2 sacks are second most among rookies behind only Dallas Cowboys star Micah Parsons.

“Every time I look in the stands, I just see people throwing up U’s. It’s amazing,” Phillips said. “I definitely feel like it’s kind of like a home team thing. There’s really no feeling like going out there and feeling the support from your fans.”

Safety Jevon Holland has also been excellent so far this year, meaning the Dolphins seem to have nailed their top three picks from the 2021 Draft.

While tackle Liam Eichenberg continues to struggle and tight end Hunter Long struggles to get on the field at all, those three are lifting up Miami’s important rookie class.

“We need those guys to play for us and play well,” coach Brian Flores said. “Those guys work hard, support the team. They’re all sponges. I’ve said this the entire year.”

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