"Who is going to step up and be ‘the man'?" That is the figurative question Jeff Ireland posed to the Miami Dolphins receiving corps when he sent Brandon Marshall to Chicago for two third round draft selections. The departure of Marshall left the team without an ‘alpha' receiver to command double teams, make big plays, et cetera. That hurt the offense to a degree, but it also gave an opportunity for some younger players to step up and make a name for themselves.
After the trade, the Dolphins didn't make a huge effort to acquire another big time receiver. They didn't go after any major free agents, only signing journeyman Legadu Naanee and aging Chad Johnson. They waited until the sixth round of the draft to address the position taking B.J. Cunningham in the sixth and Rishard Matthews in the seventh. To go along with veterans Davone Bess and Brian Hartline, they already had a group with potential, but not much else in Roberto Wallace, Marlon Moore, Clyde Gates and Julius Pruitt. After the dust settled, the Dolphins head into training camp with an aging playmaker in Johnson, two quality complementary receivers in Hartline and Bess, and a bunch of hope.
Despite the questions, this team has some potential at the position and could easily surprise fans. The first question that must be answered is "Who is actually going to make the team?" There are 12 players fighting for what will most likely be six roster spots. So who's got the upper hand?
(quick aside: To the fans worried about this group of receivers - we won the division in 2008 with a receiving crew consisting of Ted Ginn, Greg Camarillo, Davone Bess, and Ernest Wilford... yeah. That group sucks. You can try and talk yourself into the idea that Ginn or Camarillo were/are somehow better than what they are. But the truth is, they are nothing more than roster filler for any team. Ginn is only on a team because of his return skills. Camarillo isn't even on a team at this point, nor is Wilford. Ginn and Camarillo STARTED!!! The only receiver worth a crap in that group is Bess and he's still on the team. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to argue that our current group is somehow WORSE than the 2008 crew. If we can win the division with THAT group in 2008, then I think we'll be fine with what we have now).
Group One: The Locks
This group should not have to worry about losing a spot. They are going to make the team and get plenty of playing time. There are three players in this group: Chad Johnson, Brian Hartline, and Davone Bess. Unless a few more players step up BIG time and take a spot away, this group is in. This group has experience and production on their resume, which puts them at the top of the list. While these three players hope to continue and increase their production and roles on the team, their status is very solid. This is the uninteresting group.
Group Two: The Inside Advantage/Next Step Guys
With three spots taken, that leaves nine players fighting for three spots. This is where things get interesting. Of those nine, four guys have an inside advantage over the rest for a number of reasons.
Wallace earned a spot on the team as an undrafted rookie in 2010, stealing a spot from third round selection Patrick Turner. He worked his way onto the active gameday roster and played sparingly in 2010. In 2011, he figured to get more playing time, but his season was derailed with an injury. 2012 is the time for Wallace to make good on those flashes of potential he has shown over the last two seasons. Wallace has the physical tools to be an alpha receiver. He's 6'4", 225 lbs. and runs in the high 4.4 - low 4.5 range. He has experience at this level and has excelled on special teams. Based on reports from OTAs and mini-camps, Wallace has developed a good rapport with the quarterbacks, who I sure enjoy throwing to such a massive target. The fourth roster spot is his to lose in my opinion. He needs to take the next step.
Gates is only in his second year, but is already in danger of not making the roster. Gates is the fastest timed receiver in the unit, but that speed never really translated unto the field last season. Coming from a D2 school into a strike shortened offseason only hampered his progress. It will take more than his return ability to make the team. He will have to have a great camp where he shows development at the receiver position. His speed makes him valuable, so that gives him an inside shot. But unless he can use that speed productively, that advantage doesn't become that great. The coaches have been working with him a good bit this offseason, so it appears they want him to make it. He too needs to take the next step.
Moore has done something the previous two receivers haven't: found the end zone. The highlight of Moore brief career is the 54 yard scamper against Oakland for a touchdown in 2010. Aside from that play, Moore, like the other two, has seen limited playing time and shown little production. Moore has shown flashes however and has good size and speed for the West Coast Offense. He's behind Gates and Wallace at this point, mainly because his name hasn't mean mentioned much during the pre-camp stuff. His experience gives him an advantage however and he has a shot at making the team.
Naanee is playing for his third NFL team in his sixth season. Like Wallace, Naanee has the physical tools to be a good wide receiver. He has good size and speed for the position. He is the second fastest timed receiver in the group with a 4.41 at the 2007 combine. Despite his size and speed, Naanee hasn't been very productive in his career, only amassing 107 receptions, 1213 yards and 4 touchdowns. Naanee has an opportunity to take the next step this season and become an effective receiver. He will have to prove himself however as he is on a one year contract. Reports from pre-camp say that he has been effective and has impressed the coaches with his route running. He needs to have a stand out camp to earn a spot in my opinion. Unless he can supplant one of the three in the starter group, it may be more beneficial and cost effective to give the fourth or fifth roster spot to a younger player with as much or more potential(like the next guy).
Group Three: Guys with a Puncher's Chance
Dolphins fans have heard Pruitt's name over the past two seasons as a potential diamond in the rough. Pruitt hung out on the practice squad in 2010 and made the active roster in 201. While he didn't make any catches last season, he was a very good, arguably the best, special teams player, making a noticeable impact as the gunner (watch any punt coverage from the latter part of last season and you'll see #11 getting down the field before anyone else, affecting the returner.) Pruitt stands at 6'2" and 206 pounds. He is the third fastest timed receiver in the group, only 1/100th of a second slower than Naanee (negligible time). Like Gates, adjustment was needed coming from a D2 school. Pruitt is behind the former group based on his lack of experience as a receiver. However, his special teams prowess helps his chances. Reports from pre-camp stuff are that Pruitt is a guy to keep an eye on as he is making favorable impressions, like his 3 touchdown day to finish off mini-camps. If he continues to improve, Pruitt could earn a spot on the team for special teams purposes and work his way onto the field as a receiver.
Fuller is an undrafted rookie from Texas A&M. Fuller was a favorite target of our future franchise quarterback, Ryan Tannehill. After a very productive junior campaign in 2010, Fuller was expected to continue playing at that level. He was a projected first or second round pick at that point. Fuller's production dropped in 2011 after some injuries and a bad case of the dropsies. His postseason didn't fare much better as his draft stock continued to drop after a lackluster Senior Bowl week. He went undrafted and upon completion of the draft, was reunited with his A&M quarterback and head coach. Fuller has a long climb ahead as an undrafted rookie, but he does have some things in his favor. First of all, the kid has talent. You aren't considered a first or second round pick at any point unless you have talent. If this staff can develop Fuller and get him to capitalize on that talent, then the Dolphins may have picked up a first round talented player without even using a pick. The second thing going for him is his familiarity with Tannehill, Sherman, and the offense. Giving the young signal caller a familiar target will ease his transition into the pros. Sherman will know best of all what Fuller can do and Fuller, like Tannehill, will have a firmer grasp of the offense than other receivers fighting for a spot.
Matthews was the Dolphins final pick in the 2012 draft. The 6'0", 190 lb. receiver is a long shot to make the team, but brings enough to the table that he will have a chance. Matthews ran a disappointing 40 time at the combine (4.6+), giving fans the impression that he is a slow receiver. That time is misleading though, as Matthews ran it injured against the wishes of his agent. Matthews turned in a more accurate 40 time at his pro day of 4.44 (running on field surface, not track surface). Matthews has decent production from college and fits well into a West Coast Offense. Matthews has some experience as a punt returner and that might be his ticket in.
Cunningham was the first receiver drafted by the Dolphins in 2012... in the sixth round. Cunningham was a very productive receiver in college, leaving Michigan State as the all-time leader in receptions and yards and second all-time in touchdowns. He's not extremely explosive and isn't a burner at the receiver position. However he is a savvy route runner and has enough size to play physical. I put Cunningham here last in this group because I think he will struggle to make the team. He has the tools, but I think too many guys ahead of him will finish ahead of him in the end. Reports from mini-camp are that Cunningham (and Matthews) struggled with drops. That doesn't help his chances.
Hogan is the most unknown of the receivers in the Dolphins crew. He started out a lacrosse player in college but decided to pursue football and ended up at Monmouth University. He has very little college production and spent most of his time on a practice squad as a rookie in 2011. He stands at 6'1" 220 lbs., ran a 4.47 forty and 28 reps of 225 in the bench press (as a receiver! He out-benched some offensive linemen from this year's draft!). More of an athlete than a football player, Hogan hopes his athleticism can earn him a spot on the roster, but he is a long shot to even make the practice squad at this point.
When all is said and done, in my opinion the following six guys will have earned a roster spot: Chad Johnson, Davone Bess, Brian Hartline, Roberto Wallace, Julius Pruitt, and Jeff Fuller, in that order. Johnson is the most experienced of the group and I think he'll have something to prove this year. Bess is coming off of a down year, but should bounce back and be as productive as before. Hartline is in danger of losing a starting job unless he has great camp. He needs to use this opportunity to show improvement and produce as a result of that improvement. Wallace should have a good enough camp to retain his spot on the roster. Pruitt should continue improving and get a spot based on special teams. Fuller edges out everyone else on the roster on the basis of his potential. He won't be active that much on game days, but his talent is too good to try and hide on the practice squad. He will stay on as the sixth receiver and by 2013, should play a bigger role in the offense.
Cunningham and Matthews will earn practice squad spots. Naanee will be cut outright unless he can earn a top three spot, which I don't think he will. Gates is the toughest cut to make. His speed is enticing and he will not last long on the waiver wire. But unless he shows significant improvement as a receiver, I don't think the Dolphins can afford to keep him when others are passing him by. If he does improve, he'll take Fuller's roster spot. Marlon Moore and Chris Hogan will not make the final cut.
The final crew will be loaded with both experience and potential. I expect breakout years for Wallace and Hartline. I expect Pruitt and Fuller to develop and become a bigger piece of the offense in the future. I expect Johnson and Bess to have resurgent seasons and be the leading receivers for this team. We can all hope that this group can ease our concerns about the offense and make the Dolphins a contender for years to come.