Davone Bess has been a reliable receiver for the Dolphins. But does he really fit what the Dolphins need?
Everyone likes a story like the one Davone Bess can tell. He was a teenager who ended up on the wrong side of the law, only to see redemption by earning his way onto a college football team. He saw his dreams of making the NFL take a major hit when he did not get drafted. But always determined, he took advantage of an opportunity afforded him by the Miami Dolphins, and worked his way from undrafted rookie free agent trying to make a roster to full time starter in the NFL. It's a great story; ready-made for a Disney movie.
But sometimes, a narrative like this takes an unexpected plot twist, and it's possible that the time has come for Bess' story to make that twist. Davone Bess is a good wide receiver. He isn't flashy, but he's consistent. He's the type of player that just about every team would want... with the exception of the Miami Dolphins. I know this will not sit well with some fans. Bess is a home-grown talent so to speak and it almost seems unthinkable to think of parting ways with him. However, I am of the opinion that Bess is not irreplaceable and may be a better fit with another team. Therefore, I am going to make a bold statement:
The Miami Dolphins should trade Davone Bess.
As I said, this will not sit well with some fans and I understand that. But before you tell me how bad of an idea this is, allow me to make my case. I think that if you analyze the situation, you can see how this team might improve without Bess, and be better in the future.
Most of you know I'm a stats guy. I believe that while statistical analysis does not paint a complete picture, but can give a very good reflection of the productivity of a player. Bess, statistically, has been a fairly productive player in the NFL. This season Bess has 56 receptions on 96 targets, 728 yards, and 1 touchdown. Over his career (76 games), he has 316 receptions on 492 targets, 3397 yards, and 12 touchdowns. That averages out to 4.2 receptions, 6.5 targets, 44.7 yards, and 0.2 touchdowns a game (that's 1 touchdown every 5 games). That's nothing to laugh at, but at the same time, it's not exactly taking the league by storm. Based on his current stats, an average season for Bess is 67 receptions, 98 targets, 715 yards, and 2 touchdowns. If Bess has a 10 year career, he will finish with 672 receptions, 1040 targets, 7152 yards, and 25 touchdowns. Bess has earned most of those numbers as a tertiary receiver, earning 32 starts in those 76 games. The majority of those starts have come in the current season (12 so far, and likely all 16 games), with no more than 8 in any other season (2010). Bess will more than likely finish the 2012 season close to career bests in receptions, targets, and yardage. He is on pace to get 76 catches (career best 79 in 2010), 128 targets (career best 125 in 2010) and 976 yards (career best 820 in 2010).
Looking at his stats, one can deduce that Bess is a possession receiver and not much of a scoring threat. His stats suggest that he catches most of the passes when targeted (about 65%), therefore making him a reliable set of hands. If you watch the games, you can confirm that assessment, plus add a few things. First of all, he is a major third down target. On the season, Bess has 23 receptions, 244 yards, and 1 touchdown on third down. That means 41% of his receptions, 34% of his yards, and 100% of his touchdowns have come on third down. Being a third down specialist also ties in with his role as the safety valve for the quarterback. That comes primarily from the fact that Bess excels on shorter, underneath routes. After almost 5 seasons, I think it's safe to say that Bess is entrenched in this role with the Miami Dolphins. Bess has also shown to be a smart receiver who can read defenses and find soft spots in zone coverage. He struggles against man coverage, unless he is in the slot.
The Dolphins' issues at the wide receiver position this season started when the team traded Brandon Marshall to the Chicago Bears. Despite what fans think of the trade, the obvious fact is it left the team without a true number one target. Of course that was before Brian Hartline decided to have a breakout season. Hartline missed all of training camp, and many thought he would be an afterthought this season. But after 12 games, Hartline has emerged as a legitimate starting NFL receiver and Miami's number one target. His breakout season mirrors what Brandon Marshall did in his first season with Miami*. After week 13 in 2010, Marshall had 58 catches on 100 targets, 693 yards, and 1 touchdown. After week 13 in 2012, Brian Hartline has 60 receptions on 102 targets, 891 yards, and 1 touchdown (would have had 3 more if Tannehill had been a little more accurate against the Pats.) Hartline is proving to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
*quick note - I am not trying to compare the two receivers; I am well aware that Hartline is NOT the same type of receiver as Marshall. I also know that Marshall had only played in 10 games by week 13, compared to Hartline's 12 games. However, if you extrapolate Marshall's numbers to 12 games, based off of his stats per game, he would have had 70 catches on 120 targets, 831 yards, and still only one touchdown. Marshall finished with 86 receptions on 147 targets, 1014 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Hartline projects to finish with 80 receptions on 136 targets, 1188 yards, and 2 touchdowns. My point: the Dolphins traded 2 second round picks and paid Marshall around $10M a year to get basically the same production that Hartline is giving the team right now.
Hartline is proving that he is a starting caliber receiver, but Miami still needs some help on the outside. Miami's needs at the wide receivers are as follows: a receiver that can work the deep and intermediate middle of the field, a speed receiver that can stretch a defense, a red zone threat, or any combination of the three. Ideally, Miami could get one guy to accomplish all three (Justin Hunter or Keenan Allen). But if they can't, they will have to go after multiple guys to fill those vital needs. If they go after multiple players, then you get into the issue of playing time for everyone and more importantly targets. Not only that, but the guy who gets pushed down the depth chart as a result will have to be good at special teams.
So there we have the foundation of the argument. I have tried to establish the roles that Bess fits within the offense. I have given the statistical analysis of his production. I have looked at the remaining needs of the receiving corps. The questions that pop into my mind are:' Is Bess a necessity within this offense and can he be replaced?' Let's look at some facts. His lack of good deep speed limits his route tree and thus his role within the offense. We have seen first-hand the ineffectiveness of using Bess in deep routes. Bess has sure hands, but most receivers do, otherwise they wouldn't last very long in the league. After 5 years in the league, Bess has established that he is a reliable possession receiver that works more effectively in the slot. So to answer those questions: no and yes, respectively.
Part of this conundrum is that Brian Hartline is having a career year. Most, including myself, thought that Bess would be the beneficiary of the majority of the targets since the Marshall trade. But Hartline has shown an effective chemistry with Tannehill and Hartline has become the beneficiary. Bess has been the secondary target, but unlike Hartline, his production has not seen the dramatic increase. If it came down to the question of ‘which player would be a better starter next season', how many people would truly say Bess over Hartline at this point?
Another part of this issue is the level of production the team gets from Bess. This decision wouldn't be in question if Bess was a 75-90 reception, 1000-1200 yard receiver. It wouldn't be in question if Bess scored 6 or more touchdowns every year. But he is neither of those, and one would question, based on his production, if he ever will be that type of player. When you look at his averages - 67 receptions, 715 yards, and 2 touchdowns a year - one has to ask "Can the Dolphins get that production from someone else?" The answer is yes. That level of production is not so great that it cannot be replaced. How the Dolphins would replace it is the real matter. First of all, the receiver that we draft to be the number one guy will eat into that total by a significant amount. The dolphins could choose to go the free agent route as there will be some good slot receivers on the free agent market (Welker, Amendola), but the best bet would be to draft a player. There will be some good slot receivers in the draft that could match that type of production, but also give a dimension of speed that Bess does not. Guys like Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, and Ryan Swope that could become the new slot guy, but also have the speed to stretch the defense. However the Dolphins decide to address the receiver situation next season, I seriously doubt that two new players would fail to at least equal Bess' level of production, and more than likely, they would exceed it.
So the conundrum is whether or not the team should keep Bess. His reliability and level of production will give them a proven, but not a dynamic player. But his production is not at such a high level that Miami couldn't replace him with another player that might be more dynamic. What should Miami do?
FAN REACTION/MY THOUGHTS
Bess is a popular player among Dolphins fans. His background story and his rise from undrafted free agent to starter make him a cult favorite amongst fans. If the Dolphins ever did part ways with Bess, many fans would be disappointed, if not angry. Brian Hartline is an afterthought to many of these fans. He is ‘just a guy'. But Hartline has earned his spot in a starting lineup. You can bet that if Miami doesn't resign him, he will go to the Patriots and torture this team for the next 5-8 years. And those same fans who said that Hartline isn't good enough will gripe and complain about why we let him go. I'm sure fans would feel the same about Bess, but can we really expect Bess to produce more than the 67-728-2 that he has averaged for his career?
Part of what generated this idea for me was a number of mock drafts (or mock offseasons to be precise) I've seen from some fans. Most I have seen have the Dolphins signing a free agent receiver AND drafting a couple of receivers. One mock draft I saw had Miami drafting THREE wide receivers. Whenever I would see them, I would think to myself, "Where are all of them going to fit?" I'm sure some of these fans might be thinking ‘Maddenly' and assuming we can keep 7-8 receivers on the team. Some might be prepared to tear it all down and get 6 new receivers for the team. Many of these drafts have us drafting guys like Austin or Bailey (probably just because they are fast), not thinking that those players are slot receivers and would replace, not complement Bess. But the theme I see in most of these mocks is that they do not factor in special teams and they do not take into account playing. They simply see a need and overreact. But the fact is that if Miami gets a couple of new receivers (and they will), then someone's playing time is getting reduced. Hartline is earning and in my opinion, earned his playing time. The new rookie or free agent starter will get his playing time. If you draft and/or sign another player, the only person left out would be Bess, unless they plan on drafting a speed player just to run go routes (dumb).
So after thinking about it for a while, I contemplated how we could squeeze all these shiny new receivers onto the roster. I came to the conclusion that someone had to be expendable, and for me, that player is Bess. Bess is one of my favorite players and I would love for Bess to say a Dolphin for his entire career. Unless we get a top tier receiver that can fit all three needs our receiver corps lacks, then I feel that Bess and his particular skill set aren't that valuable to the Dolphins and their development in the future. His role can be taken over by someone else with more to offer.
Now do I actually think the Dolphins will trade Bess? No. He does have value as a veteran presence who can mentor young receivers. Philbin says he likes 'football players' and Bess would qualify as that. But if Miami can pick up some receivers that can do what Bess does and more, I think they should investigate what they could get for him in a trade. In any case, how Miami handles the receiver situation will be important to the advancement of the offense. One can only guess if Davone Bess is a part of the long term solution.