When asked whether or not the Dolphins’ receiving corps is the class of the AFC East, wide receiver Brian Hartline wasn’t short on confidence. “Absolutely, I think we are,” Hartline told NFL Network. “Add Dustin Keller in there….the whole passing game is an advantage of ours.”
A group of receivers and tight ends can only go as far as the man under center takes them. But on paper, it’s hard to argue with Hartline.
The Dolphins have put themselves in position to be much improved at receiver and tight end in 2013. Resigning Brian Hartline, a 1,000 yard receiver in 2012, was the first step. Inking Mike Wallace to a $60 million deal was step two, but likely the first priority. And signing Dustin Keller to stretch the seam and Brandon Gibson to provide a bigger target in the slot completed the renovation effort.
A bland receiving corps from a year ago is suddenly stacked with playmakers for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. But will they be as good on the field as they look on paper? It’s time for our final installment of our “State of the Franchise” series.
Flanker receiver: Mike Wallace
Split end receiver: Brian Hartline
Tight end: Dustin Keller
Slot receiver: Brandon Gibson
Don’t expect to see any open competitions for a starting job at receiver or tight end this season. The Dolphins spent over $100 million this offseason to sign the names above, completely renovating their pass catchers for young quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
If Wallace, Hartline, Keller, and Gibson all remain in good health, they’ll man the stated positions and they’ll do so all season. You’ll have to look further down the depth chart to find some intriguing training camp battles.
The competition for number two tight end should be fierce. Although a clear cut winner may not be crowned. In short-yardage situations, Dion Sims appears to be the frontrunner to accompany Dustin Keller in two-tight end sets. Sims is a good athlete but the Dolphins hope he emerges as the unit’s best blocker.
In situations geared more toward the pass, hybrid player Charles Clay or possibly even Michael Egnew if he continues to impress, would likely be more ideal pairings to Keller.
After the top three receivers, it’ll be a free-for-all for the Dolphins’ fourth and fifth slots. By all accounts, Armon Binns and Rishard Matthews have been solid during OTAs and will be the favorites to crack the 53-man roster.
But there will be heaps of talent and potential gnawing at their heels. Receivers like Marvin McNutt, Brian Tyms, Chad Bumphis, and Courtney Gardner all have ability and help round out what appears to be a fairly deep receiving corps.
Elites: Mike Wallace WR
Solid starters: Dustin Keller TE, Brian Hartline WR
League average: Brandon Gibson WR
Backup material: Charles Clay TE/FB, Armon Binns WR, Rishard Matthews WR, Dion Sims TE (R), Michael Egnew TE
Camp bodies: Kyle Miller TE, Marvin McNutt WR, Jeff Fuller WR, Brian Tyms WR, Chad Bumphis WR (R), Jasper Collins WR (R), Courtney Gardner WR (R)
Is grading Mike Wallace elite somewhat of a stretch? Looking at numbers alone it could be. Wallace did fail to record 1,000 receiving yards in 2012. But the impact he has on football games goes far beyond stats. Defenses are forced to respect the deep ball with a speed demon like Wallace on the field, opening up opportunities for other receivers, tight ends, and the running game.
One qualification for elite is the ability to make teammates better. Wallace certainly fits that description.
Even during his most productive seasons, I’m not sure Dustin Keller has ever been truly elite. Maybe close, but not quite in my book. Of course, that could be because new-age tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Vernon Davis have changed what elite means at the position. Keller isn’t a freak like them, but he’s still very solid. He’ll provide Tannehill and the offense with the athletic target over the middle they’ve been missing.
One 1,000 yard season doesn’t mean Brian Hartline is elite. It doesn’t mean he’s close to that status either. Hartline has surfaced as a reliable number two receiver. But I don’t see him ever being more than that. Not when he doesn’t have the top end speed to consistently separate or the size and vertical to produce in the red zone.
The Dolphins replaced Davone Bess in the slot with former Ram receiver Brandon Gibson mainly because Gibson is a bigger target. But bigger doesn’t always mean better. And while the Dolphins upgraded the roster at several positions this offseason, I’m not convinced slot receiver was one of them. But Gibson has definitely been put in a position to succeed as defenses will likely focus coverages on Wallace, Hartline, and Keller.
The backups and camp bodies surely aren’t void of potential. But they’re all unproven players that need to flash playmaking ability and consistency to stick around in Miami.
(Scale: Super Bowl caliber, playoff caliber, middle of the road, below league average, poor)
Wide receiver: Playoff caliber
The Dolphins owned a blue-collar, hardworking receiving corps in 2012. But it was extremely limited. Brian Hartline wasn’t a true number one. Davone Bess wasn’t a true number two. Ryan Tannehill was forced to make do with one of the least talented group of receivers in the entire NFL.
That will no longer be an issue for Tannehill entering his second season. If last year’s receiving corps was a Taurus, Tannehill will be driving a Ferrari this time around.
Mike Wallace is one of the fastest players in football. He’s the type of receiver that can take the top off of the defense and his speed will open up the entire offense in ways it was incapable of last season. Wallace also makes Brian Hartline a better receiver.
Hartline will no longer have to face opposing defense’s top cover corner or game plans centered around shutting him down. And although Brandon Gibson will play the slot like Davone Bess did in his five years in Miami, he’s really the team’s third option, not the second like Bess was last year.
Behind the Dolphins’ top three receivers are several talented players that round out what could be a deep unit. Armon Binns and Rishard Matthews among others appear to be solid developmental assets that may be asked to contribute this season.
The only concern I have about the Dolphins’ receiver corps is the lack of a red-zone threat. Wallace, Gibson, and Hartline all hover around six feet even. There isn’t a big body, possession receiver that can go up and snag the football when the field gets smaller. Until we see more touchdown passes and less field goals on Sundays, a Super Bowl caliber receiving corps is out of the question for now.
Tight end: Playoff caliber
A healthy Dustin Keller propels the unit to playoff caliber. But this is the most generous unit grade.
Dion Sims needs to develop as an adequate blocker for the Dolphins’ two-tight end sets. Charles Clay or Michael Egnew need to factor into the passing game.
Dustin Keller is a huge upgrade for Tannehill and the offense. But a reliable blocker and pass catcher that can particularly help out in the red zone need to emerge to solidify the group.
Ryan Tannehill’s weapons: Playoff caliber
A year ago, the Dolphins didn’t have a true number one receiver, they seriously lacked speed on the outside, and they didn’t possess a seam-stretching tight end. Check, check, and check.
Struggles attributed to a mediocre set of receivers and pass-catching tight ends will no longer be an excuse for Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins. The talent and tools to succeed are now there for the young quarterback.
Mike Wallace is the go-to target and speedster the roster lacked last season. Brian Hartline’s role now follows suit with his skill set as a complementary number two. Dustin Keller is the athletic tight end that can rack up receptions down the seam. And Brandon Gibson is a decent sized slot that can help Tannehill pick defenses apart underneath.
If Ryan Tannehill doesn’t take the next step as a quarterback with these weapons, he probably never will.