MIAMI -- There is more optimism about the Miami Dolphins' long-term future now than there has been in more than a decade.
On the surface, the sudden hope appears to be confusing. The Dolphins are coming off a 5-11 campaign and were accused of tanking for most of 2019, with talent deficiencies in several position groups and no franchise quarterback, yet.
But look beyond the basic stats, and the reasons to believe the Dolphins' future is bright become more clear. An active NFL free agency for the Dolphins added significant talent to what should be a remade defense. Moderate offensive additions should help boost the running game. The Dolphins also have the power to own the 2020 NFL draft with 14 total picks, including three first-rounders, and one of those selections will most likely be their franchise quarterback.
Yet if you listen to many of the Dolphins' incoming free agents, the biggest reason to believe in Miami becoming a consistent AFC contender sooner than later is coach Brian Flores.
"My number one reason is Coach Flores. He just made me feel so comfortable with coming down," said linebacker Elandon Roberts, who spent the past four seasons in New England, including three with Flores, before signing a one-year deal with Miami last month. "Just knowing how good of a leader he is on and off the field, how much he cares about you as a player. ... I'm 100% bought in. I can't wait to get down there, and I love that I'm a Miami Dolphin."
"I really believe in what Coach Flores is building and doing here, and I kind of wanted to get in and help him build it," Karras said.
The Dolphins have signed 10 free agents from other teams thus far, and seven came from teams that finished 2019 with a winning record and made the playoffs. That means players who are used to winning saw enough in the promise of Flores' Dolphins to sign with them.
"I am fired up to play for Miami. This is a young team that's going in the right direction," said cornerback Byron Jones, the team's prized free-agent signing. "[Flores is] a young coach and I love that. He's got young energy. I hear he's intense and he likes to create competitive scenarios, competitive situations. That's just something that I like and I wanted to be a part of. ... That's exciting for me, just to be on a team that he's leading."
It has become clear that Flores, who at 39 is entering his second season as a NFL head coach, has made an imprint on his players as well as around the league. As the Dolphins' talent improves, so do the expectations and that is when Flores' prowess as a head coach will be measured. So far, so good, though.
Miami is likely done with big free-agency moves. After entering the league year with a NFL-high $90 million-plus in salary-cap space, the Dolphins spent wisely and didn't sit on their money, just as general manager Chris Grier had promised.
The Dolphins have $22.7 million in cap space now, and they will need about two-thirds of that to pay their draft class. But they are in good position to spend again in 2021 free agency, based on their cap situation and the way deals were structured in this period.
Miami's franchise-changing moves are still to come in the draft, where it has six selections in the top 70 picks and a franchise quarterback likely on his way.
Kyle Van Noy, the Dolphins' newest do-it-all defender, recalled a story about Flores motivating players during a cold New England practice when the two were with the Patriots. Flores delivered a simple message about not just being on the field, but being there for a purpose. His message struck Van Noy and others, and the practice level was elevated.
"He takes something that's so small and is able to put it into football and relate it, and he's really good with his players," Van Noy said. "He's ready to go all the time, and he brings that same energy each and every day. That's what you want as a coach; and as a player, that's who I want to play for."
The biggest reason to believe in the team's future, as many players say, is Flores, and that's a great sign for the Dolphins in 2020.