Pass Catching Potential: Breaking Down Expectations for Each Dolphins Receiver in 2016
An initial look at the Miami Dolphins’ roster would not excite many unbiased viewers. Top-tier talent like Ndamukong Suh and Reshad Jones are sprinkled throughout a team filled with an otherwise unproven group.
There is one positional group in Miami that does provide a high level of intrigue entering the 2016 season.
The Dolphins have managed to cultivate one of the league’s most diverse receiving corps. While they have a speedster, a jump-ball threat, a slot weapon and an athletic tight end, the interest is not in the personnel itself, but in the wide range of potential outcomes for the group.
In 2013, Adam Gase’s Broncos had their top four offensive options all go over 700 yards receiving (Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker). In 2014, the numbers did not produce as much depth, but Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders each produced over 1,400 receiving yards.
While Gase’s unit was less productive in Chicago, the level of balance was still evident in distribution of targets. While Alshon Jeffery had 807 yards, the next closest receiver posted just 464. Four other receivers with 300+ yards joined him.
Gase’s 2014 Broncos posted five receivers with 200+ yards. With less talent, Gase’s strategy of ball distribution led to nine Bears receivers with 200+ yards.
The Dolphins will fall somewhere in between these two teams. However, quarterback is not the interesting area to investigate. Obviously Ryan Tannehill cannot be expected to match Manning’s 2013/2014 production. However, he is expected to exceed Jay Cutler’s 2015 season in most categories.
The Dolphins’ receiving corps is far more talented than the Bears’ group was in 2015. Chicago has a mentally absent Martellus Bennet (who checked out after disagreements with the staff), a hobbling Alshon Jeffery, and a reserve group including Marquess Wilson and Marc Mariani.
The Denver Broncos’ unit was obviously far more talented, and the Dolphins’ group probably comes out closer to them than they do to the Bears’ receivers.
This is where the group gets interesting.
What can reasonably be expected of the Dolphins’ various receiving options? With an understanding of Adam Gase’s tendency to favor a diversified attack, I felt it could be an interesting exercise to go down the Dolphins’ depth chart and examine what we should really be expecting from each of the team’s pass catching options.
Landry is the only straightforward player to analyze. He is among the NFL’s best slot receivers and has developed an outstanding rapport with Ryan Tannehill. While he isn’t a big play threat, he won’t have to play that role in Gase’s offense.
With disappointing results at tight end, Jarvis Landry is becoming the security net for Tannehill. On third down, Adam Gase will likely look to ensure that Landry has a good shot at a first down and will make him one of Tannehill’s first reads.
This is how smart coaches work – instead of trying to break your quarterback of a bad habit, look for ways to turn it into a positive. Why keep the receiver Tannehill is most comfortable with short of the sticks on 3rd & 6? Adam Gase will understand that sending Jarvis Landry out into the intermediate zone usually attacked by a tight end will yield the best results for his offense.
Jarvis Landry caught 110 passes in 2015 for 1,157 yards. I expect his number of receptions to go down (because they won’t be throwing him four screen passes a game) and his yards to increase. With Gase implementing a more diversified attack, I expect Landry to be targeted less frequently, but with more deliberate play design to help him gain more yardage.
Whether or not he is the number one receiver on the depth chart, Landry will be Tannehill’s favorite target again in 2016.
When you’re scouting breakout candidates, don’t get caught up in the hype. Looking at a player like DeVante Parker and predicting a breakout season makes some sense, but why would one assume that an injury prone player would suddenly not be injury prone?
However, let’s take a look at Kenny Stills’ situation. First, he is someone who has showed that he can be highly productive for a season, posting 931 yards (with a 14.8 yards per reception average) in his second year with the Saints. He is also a player who was overlooked by a previous coaching staff and is now getting plenty of looks under a new regime.
Finally, the most important factor for a breakout player: He’s entering a contract year.
Kenny Stills is the most likely candidate to have an explosion of production for the Dolphins this season. He does not have a serious issue with drops and simply needs to be implemented well in an offense like he was in Sean Payton’s. Adam Gase can be counted on to do that.
During a red zone drill I watched early in camp, Stills caught three of the five touchdowns thrown by Tannehill. Stills also had a strong performance in the preseason.
On this play, it’s easy to see why expectations could be high for Stills.
Heading into the season, most people probably would have thought that DeVante Parker would be targeted on plays like this. However, Kenny Stills is clearly the number one option. He makes a great play in a situation in which he was the quarterback’s first (and best) option.
I do expect Kenny Stills to break the 1000-yard barrier for the first time in his career in 2016. He has every reason to motivate himself to succeed, and has been put in a great situation to do so.
Most expected DeVante Parker to be the breakout player in Miami’s offense this season, but, as tides have shifted, it seems much more likely that Kenny Stills steals the show in the upcoming campaign.
Adam Gase has not minced words about DeVante Parker recently.
The team’s staff is clearly not pleased with the way that Parker has been taking care of his body, placing the blame for his injuries squarely on his own preparation and self-maintenance.
The Dolphins have also revealed that not only has Parker suffered injuries to both hamstrings this preseason, but also that he could miss the team’s Week 1 game against the Seahawks.
DeVante Parker’s foot was a major concern last season and cost him much of the season. However, he rebounded towards the end of 2015, showing the promise that made him worth the 14th overall pick in the draft.
Many picked Parker to be one of 2016’s breakout candidates. It would make sense – a large, vertically gifted receiver who could complement the underneath presence of Jarvis Landry. However, as the old cliché goes, the best ability is availability.
Early in camp, Parker was propelling the offense with outstanding plays downfield. Then, his injury forced the offense to work without him for some time. When he came back, he was clearly not 100%. Gase’s unhappiness with Parker was clear in the redistribution of offensive targets.
Kenny Stills now appears ready to step into the breakout receiver role that Parker is slowly creeping out of.
Against the Cowboys, DeVante Parker took a step back. He dropped two passes that he should have been able to catch as a big-bodied receiver.
The first was early in a second quarter drive.
The next was in the end zone, losing a would-be touchdown.
Meanwhile, Kenny Stills made excellent plays, showing an ability to step into a role that Parker’s health could once again hold him back from.
Offseason work is important in the NFL. Adam Gase is sending a very clear message to DeVante Parker that even if he is fully healthy for the regular season games, he can’t simply step into a large role in the offense without placing importance on availability in training camp.
My expectations for Parker are fairly pedestrian. He should produce big plays during games in which he is healthy but, with his status for Week 1 in doubt, who knows if he will start enough games to reach the 1,000-yard plateau most expected him to in his second season.
At the end of the day, many who observed the team during the preseason can attest to the fact that DeVante Parker’s role is clearly changing, and he will have to work through issues with his physical condition (and earn the trust of the coaching staff) before he can live up to his incredibly high potential.
Jordan Cameron’s situation remains a mystery. It seems unreasonable to expect Cameron to play at the level he did during his career-best 2013 season in Cleveland. However, I believe there is a chance that he can improve compared to his 2015 season.
During the preseason, Cameron did not look the part of a starting NFL tight end. His natural athletic ability cannot be displayed because he seems to be struggling with the fundamentals of catching and route running.
Adam Gase does have a strong history of being able to develop tight ends, fostering the emergences of Julius Thomas and Zach Miller. While I do believe Cameron is past the point of being able to be retaught, Gase’s decisions as to how to implement him could at least make him a threat over the middle of the field.
If defenses can ignore the middle and concentrate outside or on rushing the passer, that will be a huge issue. Jordan Cameron needs to simply remain a viable enough option that defenses must account for him. That was not the case in 2015, and we saw the results. If Tannehill can look Cameron’s way somewhat often early in the season, it could set up other players outside for opportunities to make plays.
The Dolphins have been purposefully coy with what they reveal regarding usage of Jakeem Grant. He is such a unique weapon that it doesn’t seem likely he will be used as a standard wide receiver. Adam Gase will most likely find creative ways to implement Grant, utilizing his speed and quickness.
Grant obviously will have a special teams impact. However, the team also could end up using him as a target on screen passes or trick plays. Statistically, it’s impossible to place expectations for Jakeem Grant in any scale. My general belief is that if he is able to help the team’s field position on returns, then that is impact enough for a 6th round pick. While this might be true, I don’t believe simple special teams impact would satisfy Adam Gase.
Gase is not the type of coach who will waste a weapon, and if he has something hidden up his sleeve like Jakeem Grant, what better of a time to pull it out than in Week 1 against a team you are major underdogs against in a hostile environment? Come Sunday, I believe we will finally have an idea as to how Jakeem Grant’s talents will be taken advantage of by this team.
Justin Hunter & Leonte Carroo:
Neither player is going to be high on the depth chart for the Dolphins. While Grant is used on gadget plays, Hunter and Carroo will become the team’s primary reserve receivers.
Justin Hunter’s build makes him a logical option to step in for the injured DeVante Parker. Hunter has always been a promising player, but has also struggled to gain a mastery (or even a general understanding) of the offense. Clyde Christensen has already said that Hunter won’t know enough to play a major role in Week 1. However, if DeVante Parker is inactive, I don’t believe that they will have a choice.
The Titans needed Justin Hunter to reach his maximum potential and become a consistent player. The beauty of the Dolphins’ situation is that they don’t. As a backup option, the Dolphins would be happy to see Hunter flash his ability and make plays when called upon to do so. He will have a chance to make plays downfield on jump balls and will be able to utilize his unique speed to stretch the field.
I believe that Hunter is a perfect player to occasionally step in for DeVante Parker, who the coaching staff clearly does not feel that they can rely on.
Had the Dolphins not claimed Justin Hunter, I would have said that Leonte Carroo was in line for some of DeVante Parker’s reps in case of injury. However, it seems now that Carroo will mostly spend the season as a reserve. For now, he’ll stay ahead of Hunter on the depth chart while Hunter gets up to speed, but the team clearly wanted insurance for Parker in a player who is more similar in style of play. Hunter and Parker are somewhat similar, while Carroo is a different type of player.
I will not rule out Carroo for an impact this season, because he was a high draft pick and does offer a unique skill set. However, it would probably take a rash of injuries to see him on the field for a substantial number of reps.
The Running Backs:
It is clear that the Dolphins brought in Arian Foster as an option to catch the ball out of the backfield on third downs. For however long he is healthy, he will make a big impact as a check down option that is dangerous with the ball in his hands.
On one play during the preseason, we saw a situation in which Foster was there to save a sack. However, Tannehill missed the read.
Ryan Tannehill needs to see Foster here to take advantage of his presence. In the fast-paced offense run by Gase, Foster’s abilities will be a huge help in quickly and decisively moving the ball down the field in short bursts.
Jay Ajayi will not be a huge playmaker receiving the ball. His impact will come on handoffs and, despite the fact that he doesn’t have bad hands if he is asked to haul in a pass, it would be a misuse of his abilities.
Kenyan Drake is an interesting player for the passing game. On game days, he could serve as a 3rd running back and a 6th receiver based on experience he had out-wide at Alabama. Drake has impressive speed and is an electric player out of the backfield. He missed a large portion of camp with a hamstring injury, so it might take Drake a while to get onto the field. However, when he does, I believe that Dolphins fans will be very impressed with how quickly he earns more touches in Adam Gase’s offense.
It doesn’t feel so fitting to end a 2,400 word positional breakdown with a section called “The Skinny,” but here goes nothing.
Adam Gase lives and breathes ball distribution. Get the ball out quickly. Get the ball out decisively. Get the ball out to your best option, regardless of who it is. This approach leads to chances for everyone at the position to make plays, regardless of where they fall on the depth chart.
While Jarvis Landry will probably have his usual level of impact, and Kenny Stills seems like he could be rising fast, the rest of the unit is a huge mystery. Not a casual mystery that won’t impact the team, but the type of mystery that will end up playing a huge role in determining where the revamped Miami Dolphins offense falls within the NFL’s hierarchy.
My expectation is that the Dolphins see a huge spike in production from Kenny Stills, and an injury-hampered season from DeVante Parker. This, coupled with creative use of Jakeem Grant and the impact of Justin Hunter and Leonte Carroo as backups, should still be an improvement over the Dolphins’ 2015 group. It will also be a vast improvement for Adam Gase from his 2015 Bears’ receiver corps.
If receivers fail to capitalize on opportunities and once again underachieve, it will be a long year on offense for Miami.
If receivers take the reigns of this offense and truly step up, we could be looking at another highly effective aerial assault designed by Adam Gase.
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