The Miami Dolphins lost tight end Dustin Keller to a sickening knee injury during Saturday night’s game in Houston, in which the Purdue product suffered three torn ligaments and a dislocated knee cap.
Losing Keller is a setback for the Dolphins’ offense and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was targeting the tight end often during the first three exhibitions. Keller would have provided the young quarterback with a weapon who could stretch the seam and a reliable target in the red zone.
Now, all of that is what could have been.
Miami will have to make do without Keller while they hope one of the three tight ends general manager Jeff Ireland selected the past three Aprils — Dion Sims (fourth round, 2013), Michael Egnew (third round, 2012) and Charles Clay (sixth round, 2011) — elevates his game to fill the void.
If the Dolphins don’t believe the answer is currently on the roster, Ireland could ink a free agent or work out a trade in the near future. A third alternative would be staying put and waiting for other teams to start making cuts. After all, over 1,000 free agents are scheduled to hit the open market by the end of the month.
Whoever the Dolphins decide to roll with as the starting tight end, that player’s production will be essential to the success of Mike Sherman’s offense this season. Ryan Tannehill needs a reliable pass-catching tight end. He loved throwing outside the numbers as a rookie and did so quite well, but becoming more comfortable throwing over the middle will be important to his development as a complete passer.
The goal for the 2013 Miami Dolphins is a playoff berth. Anything less would be considered a disappointment.
So, focusing on the tight end position, how much production do the Dolphins need from a pass catcher in 2013 to make the playoffs?
I took a look at 36 playoff teams — each playoff qualifier from the past three seasons — in order to see how many yards each were able to get from their top receiving tight end.
In 2010, the average playoff team managed 512 receiving yards from their most productive player at the position.
In 2011, that figure skyrocketed to 762 yards, in large part due to 1,310 yards from the Saints’ Jimmy Graham and 1,327 yards from Rob Gronkowski of New England.
The average dropped to 612 last season, as no playoff tight end crossed the 1,000-yard milestone.
Put all three seasons together, and the average production NFL playoff teams have gotten from their top receiving tight end rounds up to 629 receiving yards.
Do the Dolphins have a tight end on their roster capable of reaching that mark?
Charles Clay probably has the most realistic chance to, as he’s caught for a combined 445 yards during his first two seasons. But he’s been more of a fullback than a tight end so far this preseason.
Rookie Dion Sims, meanwhile, put together an impressive training camp and his receiving skills are better than most projected during the draft. But he doesn’t have the top-end speed to consistently stretch the seam.
I’m not saying Sims can’t be productive as a pass catcher, but his ceiling is probably closer to 400 yards than 600.
Michael Egnew has always had the speed and athleticism to be a highly productive receiver, but suspect hands and questionable mental toughness have held him back thus far.
So, maybe setting the bar at 629 yards is a bit ambitious. Maybe focusing on the bare minimum production is a more realistic.
What has been the bare minimum top tight end production for playoff teams over the past three seasons?
The lowest total was in 2011, when Daniel Fells of the Denver Broncos had only 256 receiving yards as Tim Tebow’s go-to tight end. But who the trigger man was explains everything.
The Dolphins have a quarterback who can throw, as opposed to what the Broncos had in 2011 — a read-option runner, who couldn’t drop back and consistently complete passes without some sort of gimmick. The Broncos and Fells were an exception to playoff-caliber production.
The next lowest total came in 2010, when the Green Bay Packers’ Jermichael Finley caught for 301 yards. Finley only played in five games that season due to injury, though, thus giving us another exception.
John Carlson only caught for 318 yards for Seattle Seahawks in 2010, but that was a 7-9 team that only got into the playoffs as champion of one of the worst divisions in NFL history. Carlson and his 318 yards is not the right place to set the bar.
Next in line: Fred Davis’ 325 receiving yards came in only seven games last season for the Redskins. Davis would have topped 700 yards at that pace in a full 16-game season.
Finally, at 396 receiving yards in 2012, we have the Seahawks’ Zach Miller — our bare minimum playoff-caliber receiving tight end. Miller played in all 16 games last season, catching passes from rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.
Let’s round Miller’s 396 yards to 400 and set the bar there. Can any of the Dolphins tight ends produce a 400-yard receiving season in 2013?
Charles Clay is the most likely candidate, but we still have to find out if he’ll to be moved exclusively to tight end and whether or not he can beat out rookie Dion Sims for the starting job.
I projected Sims’ ceiling as a possible 400-yard receiver at some point in his career, but asking him to do as a rookie would be a tall order. And let’s see if Michael Egnew can catch a ball in a regular-season game after catching zero as a rookie, before we begin projecting his receiving total.
The bottom line: The Dolphins lack experience at tight end and there’s no guarantee any of their current players at the position can produce 400 yards this season.
Is it absolutely mandatory that they find a tight end that will? Of course not. Every season, every team is different. There’s no rule that says the Dolphins can’t get into the playoffs without a minimum total of receiving yards from their tight ends.
But on a team with playoff aspirations, the Dolphins should be looking for playoff-caliber production from the tight end position.