Feeling optimistic: Dolphins’ breakout victory gives hope for future

Kenyan Drake (32), a third-round pick in 2016, ran for 120 yards on 23 carries, both easily career highs, and caught three passes for 21 yards.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI (AP) — Miami Dolphins left tackle Laremy Tunsil has been dispelling doubts lately, one block at a time.

Tunsil looks less like a bust and more like the first-round pick he was in 2016, which is one reason for the Dolphins’ recent offensive surge.

“He has been playing better,” coach Adam Gase said Monday. “His practice habits have gotten better every week, and you can really see what we have talent-wise.”

The Dolphins’ best game yet bodes well for 2018, even if it’s not enough to save this season. Tunsil was among a handful of young players whose stock soared Sunday in a 35-9 thrashing of Denver.

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Playoff prospects remain bleak for Miami (5-7), but running back Kenyan Drake , cornerback Xavien Howard and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips had breakout performances, increasing the likelihood they’ll be part of the team’s future.

Tunsil helped pave the way for 367 yards — not eye-popping, but an improvement for a unit that ranked as the NFL’s worst for much of the season. Miami’s three highest yardage totals have come in the past five games, and Tunsil is one reason.

“I’ve seen a different look in his eye as far as the light bulb going off and him understanding things as a whole,” Gase said.

Drake, a third-round pick in 2016, ran for 120 yards on 23 carries, both easily career highs, and caught three passes for 21 yards. He was tested with a heavy workload for the first time as a successor to Jay Ajayi, who was traded by Miami at the deadline.

“I think one time in high school I ran the ball like 25 times,” Drake said. “But other than that, I don’t think I’ve ever run the ball that much in my life.”

He’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry this season, compared with Ajayi’s 3.4 for Miami.

“It was good to get Drake going a little bit,” Gase said. “He had the safety one on one unblocked a couple of times, and made him miss and created some explosive plays.”

Howard, a second-round pick last year, had the first two interceptions of his career and returned one 30 yards for a touchdown. He also had five passes defended, and helped hold the Broncos’ two starting wideouts to four catches for 38 yards.

“It’s good to see him be aggressive and play confident,” Gase said.

Phillips, inconsistent since being drafted in the second round in 2015, led a dominant defensive effort with his first sack of the season, two quarterback hurries and two tackles for a loss.

“I’m just learning the game,” Phillips said. “The first two years it was all new to me pretty much. I’m finally starting to get comfortable.”

The comfort level of Phillips and the other young Dolphins will be tested anew next Monday night, when their progress can be gauged against AFC East leader New England. The Patriots beat Miami 35-17 on Nov. 26.

NOTES: C Mike Pouncey (hamstring) and CB Cordrea Tankersley (shoulder and ankle) weren’t seriously hurt, Gase said. G Jermon Bushrod (foot) might return this week, but the availability of RB Damien Williams (shoulder) is less likely.