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Sensational rookies ignite Miami Dolphins’ unexpected 2021 turnaround

The Dolphins' 2021 NFL Draft class has led this season's turnaround and played a major role in Miami's 33-10 win over the Carolina Panthers.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Sunday’s 33-10 thrashing of the Carolina Panthers gave the Miami Dolphins plenty of reason to feel good about their future — both immediate and, more importantly, distant. And if Dolphins general manager Chris Grier ultimately saves his job after a 1-7 start, he’ll have his 2021 NFL Draft class to thank.

Dolphins rookies dominate Panthers

Jaylen Waddle, Jevon Holland, and Jaelan Phillips all played like stars Sunday, and they all look like real-deal NFL starters just two-thirds of the way through their rookie seasons. And even Liam Eichenberg, the Dolphins’ first-year left tackle who’s had serious NFL growing pains, played OK Sunday. If he continues to improve, the Dolphins will have an excellent nucleus to build around in the 2022 offseason.

But why talk about tomorrow when today is suddenly so pleasant? The Dolphins have won four in a row to save their season and are just a game out of the AFC’s 7 seed in the win column. They probably need to run the table to get to the postseason, but with winnable games against the Giants, Jets, Saints, and Titans up next, the thought isn’t as laughable as it was a month ago.

“I think we’re getting contributions from a lot of our rookie class,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said. “A lot of our second-year class, too. Again, they just work and they keep working, and I think all they want to do is get better. All they want to do is try to improve. I think they’re team-first. I think guys are supporting each other, and rookies are supporting the vets. The vets are supporting the rookies, and we just want to — those guys in particular just want to help this team any way they can, and I think that’s showing up in their play.”

It certainly did Sunday.

Jaylen Waddle’s record-setting rookie season

Waddle, the dynamic receiver taken sixth overall back in April, has been a force since Week 1. Nonetheless, Sunday was his best game yet.

He roasted the Panthers’ top-ranked pass defense for a career-high 137 yards on 9 catches. Waddle has 77 receptions through 12 games — second-most by a rookie in NFL history (Odell Beckham Jr. had 91 through 12 in his rookie year). Barring injury, he’s going to obliterate the franchise rookie reception record (84, Jarvis Landry).

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Holland, the 36th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, has been a force since being inserted into the starting lineup in Week 5. On Sunday, Holland recorded his second interception of the year. He’s a natural center fielder and a perfect complement to boundary corners Xavien Howard and Byron Jones.

Then there’s Phillips, the former University of Miami pass rusher who has been on a tear the last four weeks. He’s had 5 sacks during the Dolphins’ winning streak, including 3 sacks Sunday. His 6.5 sacks on the year lead the team and all AFC rookies.

So what’s been their key to early success?

“I think just our OGs, our vets,” Waddle said. “Just going out there and seeking knowledge when we don’t know and just wanting to learn and just be out there and go out there and give great effort.”

Added Holland: “I love when the young guys go crazy, so seeing that out there, seeing them go out there and play and leave their heart on the field, brings nothing but joy to my heart.”

Adam Beasley is the National NFL Analyst and Insider for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Adam’s work here and give him a follow on Twitter @AdamHBeasley.

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