The Road Back To Perfection: Wrapping Up Loose Ends With Tight Ends

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The Miami Dolphins are a team in transition. An organization building towards something beyond AFC East titles, conference championships or even a Super Bowl win. Believe it or not, Adam Gase and company are methodically piecing together a franchise intent, not just on chasing history, but on conquering it. In other words, the Dolphins are out to recapture their glory days, to birth a new dynasty, and most unimaginable of all, to achieve the impossible yet again……..PERFECTION!

Needless to say, the road back to perfection is a long and arduous journey. Nevertheless, like any sojourn, no matter how great or small, it requires a first step, and in the case of the Dolphins, that meant hiring Head Coach Adam Gase, an offensive genius who, in his first year, defied both the experts and the odds to lead Miami back to the playoffs. Even so, following a lopsided loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round, the team remains far from satisfied.

Following that bitter defeat, the Dolphins were well aware of the many glaring issues they had to contend with. Fortunately, thanks to good planning and an outstanding group of scouts, they were able to address many of those problem areas in this year’s draft. Yet, one are of concern that remains unresolved, at least in the minds of some fans, is the tight end position.

While the Dolphins acquired some veteran help through free agency, many were disappointed when Miami bypassed the University of Miami’s David Njoku, who remained on the board when their first pick came around. Instead, the team put the search for their tight end of the future on the back burner in order to address what they perceived to be more pressing needs. The Dolphins shored up their defense by taking five of their seven picks from that side of the ball.

 

 

Regardless, as we shall see, the the team feels confidant they have a plan in place to resolve their issues at tight end.

Hands of Stone

Yet, before we can delve too deeply into how the team plans on moving forward with their tight ends, let us first take a look back at the issues that demanded a change of direction in the first place.

To put it simply, the Dolphins didn’t get much production from the tight end position in 2016 (73 receptions for just 551 yards and 6 touchdowns) due to a variety of reasons.

  • Injury prone Jordan Cameron cemented himself as a free agency bust by going down early in the year with yet another concussion. It was an injury that would lead to his eventual retirement.
  • Even when Cameron was on the field, his play was sub par, particularly in the red zone, where he developed a severe case of “hands of stone”.

Good Play - For Preseason, Shows Scheme Direction.gif

Here he can be seen dropping the ball on identical passes in back-to-back weeks during the preseason.

Cameron Drop 2 (Tried Same Play Last Week).gif

  • While Dion Sims was a rugged blocker, he remained far from a top notch option due to his lack of big play ability, averaging just over two targets per game. Hardly worth the 3-year, $18 million deal he signed with the Chicago Bears that included $10,000,000 in guaranteed money.

Image result for Dion Sims dolphins GIF

  • As Gase has repeatedly pointed out, the only Dolphin to get an early working grasp of his complex offensive scheme was Ryan Tannehill.  As a result, while Gase’s arsenal has traditionally employed tight ends in a variety of roles designed to confuse defenses, the Dolphins were forced to rely on simpler options in year one of this new offense after a rash of blown assignments contributed to the team’s 1-4 start.

Dolphins 2016 Tight End Production

Tgts Rec Yds Avg TDs Catch %
Dion Sims 35 26 256 9.8 4 74.3
MarQueis Gray 17 14 174 12.4 0 82.4
Dominique Jones 10 7 61 8.7 1 70.0
Jordan Cameron 11 8 60 7.5 1 72.7

Tight end production was so poor that, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), the Dolphins may have done better by going to their backups, MarQueis Gray and Dominique Jones, more often.

Player Snaps Overall Grade Position Rank
Dominique Jones 119 68.8 NA
MarQueis Gray 271 66.9 NA
Jordan Cameron 98 63.4 NA
Dion Sims 767 59.3 38

Thus, it’s little wonder that, in the end, only Gray remains with the Dolphins heading into 2017.

In With The Old

So, how did the Dolphins chose to address their tight end dilemma? Well, not in the way anyone expected. For starters, as previously stated, they decided against matching the offer Dion Sims received from Chicago. Instead, the team opted for a surprising trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars that brought Julian Thomas, Gase’s former tight end in Denver, to Miami.

Image result for Julius Thomas GIF

It was a move that stunned many because Thomas, whose performance on the field had declined steeply since his days under Gase, was set to earn $7.1 million in 2017, $8.6 million in 2018 and $9 million in 2019, as part of his five-year $46 million deal with the Jaguars.

Games Rec Yds Avg Long TDs 20+ 1st Downs
2013 14 65 788 12.1 74T 12 12 41
2014 13 43 489 11.4 35T 12 7 30
2015 12 46 455 9.9 34 5 5 25
2016 9 30 281 9.4 24 4 3 15

However, just when many fans and analysts alike had become convinced that the Dolphins’ front office had returned to their old overspending ways, President of Football Operations, Mike Tannenbaum, pulled off a minor miracle and somehow convinced Thomas to restructure his contract into a very team friendly two-year, $12.2 million deal. Even more important still, all of Thomas’ guaranteed money will come in 2017. As such, if the veteran tight end doesn’t pan out, the team can easily walk away from him after one year without suffering a cap hit.

In reality, Tannenbaum’s coup should have come as no surprise. At least not for those with a sense of history. After all, Jordan Cameron had originally signed with Miami for a 2-year deal worth $15 million, including $12.5 million in guarantees. Yet, after a less than impressive debut season with the team, he agreed to restructure his deal and take a pay cut at the behest of, you guessed it, Julius Thomas, who advised Cameron that working with Gase would be worth the reduction in pay.

Now, despite a couple of sub par seasons of his own with Jacksonville, Dolphins fans are hoping that Thomas can return to the same level of success he enjoyed in Denver, which was highlighted by an astonishing 24 touchdowns in 24 starts. Unfortunately, there is little chance of that due to three overriding factors.

  1. Tannehill is going to have a lot of other mouths to feed, even more than Peyton Manning had in Denver, and as a result, Thomas won’t see the ball nearly as often as he did in the Mile High City.
  2. Because of Jay Ajayi’s prowess as a ground and pound back, the Dolphins will throw far less than the Broncos did during Thomas’ time in Denver, making Thomas a smaller part of the offense than he was the last time he played for Gase.
  3. Due to injuries, Thomas has played fewer and fewer games every year since 2013. This resulted in his 2016 numbers amounting to a mere third of what he tallied in 2013. Unfortunately for all involved, that kind of trend is rarely reversible.

Regardless, Thomas doesn’t need to approach his 2013 stats to be a huge success in Miami. You see, their is one key component that only he possesses among the Dolphins’ current crop of tight ends. He knows the ins and outs of Gase’s offense, and as such, can serve as teacher and mentor for his fellow TEs, and this will make it easier for the Dolphins to expand what they can do with that unit.

LB held underneath, window for TD to TE.gif

Furthermore, while Thomas may not be as healthy as he once was, he remains a dangerous target, and as such, will help the Dolphins accomplish what they need most. To keep linebackers from focusing too much of their attention on stopping Ajayi. That said, with so many quality receivers on the Dolphins’ roster, if the 29-year old can remain injury free, Adam Gase believes he may, indeed, see a spike in his numbers from recent years.

“If teams want to play base against us, that means there is a good chance that a linebacker is going to be on Julius.,” said Gase earlier this offseason, according to Joe Schad of the Palm Beach Post. “And if they want to do that, then he’ll be getting a lot of throws.”

Conversely, if defenses decide to use sub packages in order to cover Thomas with a defensive back, that will ease thing up for Ajayi and the running game, which brings us to our next point.

Who Says You Can’t Go Home?

If Dolphins fans were surprised by the arrival of Thomas, they were outright stunned by the return of 33-year old former Dolphin, Anthony Fasano. This was particularly true because the 12-year veteran, who had never been much of a threat in the passing game, has been in obvious decline as an offensive weapon. In other words, as the numbers below attest, he is far from the receiver he was during his first stint in Miami (2008-2012), where he caught 177 passes for 2,104 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Games Rec Yds Avg Long TDs 20+ 1st Downs
2014 15 25 226 9.0 22 4 2 15
2015 16 26 289 11.1 33 2 3 16
2016 16 8 83 10.4 17 2 0 6

Nevertheless, the Dolphins didn’t hesitate in giving Fasano a 1-year deal worth $2,750,000, and they were right to do so, because, in his own way, he may yet prove as valuable as Thomas.

Pro Football Focus Overall Grades

Player Snaps Overall Grade Position Rank
Anthony Fasano 533 76.5 15
Julius Thomas 452 66.6 28

To begin with, Fasano has proven far healthier than Thomas, missing just 12 games in 12 years. Thomas, in turn, has missed 39 games in just 6 seasons. More important still, Fasano is a far better blocker. In fact, despite his age, he remains the best blocking tight end in the NFL according to PFF, which ranked him as the #1 run blocker and #4 pass blocker among TEs in 2017. That means he will provide much needed assistance to the two most important players on the Dolphins offense, Ryan Tannehill and Ajayi.

According to Schad, this is a benefit Gase sees all too clearly.

“I’m not sure if I’ve evaluated a guy that’s as good of a run-pass protector as he is over the last few years,” insisted the Dolphins coach.

Run Block Pass Block
Anthony Fasano 88.1 72.9
MarQueis Gray 53.7 51.1
Dion Sims 48.3 50.1
Julius Thomas 48.4 47.8

Dolphins fans are well aware of the beating Tannehill has suffered since coming into the NFL, and as such, any protection Fasano can provide him will prove invaluable. This is particularly true following the sprained ACL and MCL the young QB suffered in 2017.  Even so, Fasano’s ability as a run blocker may prove even more important because, as I made clear in my series, The Ultimate Dolfans Guide To Dethroning The Patriots, the key to toppling the Patriots in 2017 depends, first and foremost, on Jay Ajayi having the opportunity to pound defenses into submission.

What most fans don’t realize is that, while Ajayi did most of his running up the middle, he did his best work to the outside, where he had 71 carries for 442 yards, 4 TDs and a 6.2 yards-per-carry average. In contrast, he carried the ball 189 times between the tackles for 830 yards, 4 TDs, but just for a 4.4 yards-per-carry average. That means he managed almost 2 more yards per attempt outside the tackles. As such, a top notch tight end capable of helping him get around the edge will only make Ajayi all the more dangerous.

Thus, while most analysts are convinced the Dolphins view their tight ends primarily as weapons in the passing game, and as such, have focused far more on Thomas, Gase is, in fact, just as thrilled to have Fasano on board, because, in essence, the former Dolphin is an additional lineman who, from time to time, can catch the ball as well.

Image result for Anthony Fasano GIF

There is another possible plus to Fasano’s blocking prowess. You see, his skills serve as the perfect set up for tight end screens, a huge facet of Gase’s previous offenses. Thus, if after a few snaps pass rushers get too caught up in getting past Fasano, they may allow him to slip behind them, and given the variety of screens Gase has previous employed, that could pay huge dividends for Miami.

The Surprise Twist

Going into last season Dolphins fans had high hopes for their 7th round draft choice, Thomas Duarte, a lanky tight end with the potential to line up as a wide receiver. Yet, Duarte never lived up to expectations, and, on a personal note, was, to put it kindly, the single worst blocker I have ever set eyes on at the pro level. Instead, it was MarQueis Gray, a journeyman who had played for four teams in four years and never caught more than 8 passes in a season, who turned out to be, not just a surprise, but the Dolphins’ most efficient tight end.

Image result for Marqueis gray GIF

Among Gray’s achievements:

  • He had the highest catch percentage (82.4) among Dolphins tight ends
  • He had the highest yards-per-catch average (12.4) among Dolphins tight ends
  • He had the 2nd highest overall grade from PFF (66.9) among Dolphins tight ends
  • He was rated higher than Dion Sims as both a pass blocker and run blocker by PFF
  • He ran a slightly faster 40 than Dion Sims

While many may have failed to recognize how good Gray was in his limited snaps, the Dolphins did not. That is precisely why they rushed to sign him to a 2-year deal worth $2 million before the end of the season. Equally notable, like Thomas, Gray’s contract pays all his guaranteed money ($200,000) in the first year.

Survival of the Fittest

That last point is keenly important because it highlights a stroke of genius on the part of Executive Vice President of Football Operations, Mike Tannenbaum, and the rest of Miami’s front office. Essentially, the Dolphins are perfectly positioned going forward in that, if they choose to do so, they can move on from any or all of their tight ends after this season without suffering any cap hit whatsoever. That freedom to completely makeover this unit in 2018 will, in turn, create a very competitive environment that should bring out the best from everyone involved. This is particularly likely given that Thomas, Fasano, Gray and Duarte all grasp the obvious. The Dolphins will, no doubt, draft at least one tight end, if not more, in next year’s draft. So, in essence, this is a make or break year for each of them.

This dynamic didn’t just come about by chance. You see, the new Dolphins’ brain trust of Gase, Tannenbaum and General Manager Chris Grier, realizes that the path to championships is not paved by skill and talent alone, but rather, that it requires heart and soul. So, to that end, they set up a scenario perfectly designed to bring out the versatility and alpha male traits Gase wants in his players. It is why they chose Thomas, an experienced veteran with knowledge of Gase’s system over Sims, an overpriced free agent they knew couldn’t rise to the next level. It is why the opted to bring back an old warhorse like Fasano, who knows how to win in the trenches, over a shiny new and unproven draft choice. It is also why the decided to keep Gray, a promising backup yearning to find a home, over yet another Johnny come lately whose work ethic might or might not be there.

What the Dolphins are doing with the tight end position in 2017 is a microcosm of what they are doing with the team as a whole. It is about building a new way forward. A winning way with links to the past. It is about doing it the new Miami way.

In the mean time, the Dolphins have an eclectic group of tight ends with a skill set that allows them to exploit both the pass and run, employ more of Gase’s traditional offense, and show off their talents in a year long contest that will ultimately determine who remains on Miami’s road back towards perfection in 2018 and beyond.

 

GIFs courtesy of  SBNation, The Deep End,  and Larry Brown Sports.

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