There's one thing that needs to be addressed before any objective analysis of Wallace's on-field performance can take place: the contract. Back in March, Miami signed the then-best available free agent wide receiver to a massive five-year, $60 million deal with $27 million guaranteed. The $12 million APY puts Wallace near the top of the second tier of wide receiver earners; ahead of premier talents such as Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson, all of whom possess more complete skillsets and have a longer track record of high-level play than Wallace.
The money alone does not warrant any type of comparison to these peers. Some will, of course, always believe that if you're getting paid like Andre Johnson, you should play like Andre Johnson. But unfortunately, the contract that a team is willing to give a player will not change that player's natural talent level. Whether or not Wallace is overpaid is an entirely separate discussion.
What's pertinent now and what will be examined here is the obvious disconnect between Wallace and starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, particularly in the downfield passing game that Wallace was expected to be a major component of. Tannehill's deep passing effectiveness (passes throw 20 or more yards in the air) drops significantly when targeting his new, speedy receiver. Wallace has caught just five of the 22 such passes thrown his way, with one touchdown and four interceptions among the outcomes of those plays.
As such, Tannehill's passer rating when throwing deep to Wallace is a dismal 28.9. In comparison, his rating when throwing downfield to other players is 91.9, an alarming differential. Tannehill has shown to be a capable downfield passer, but that only further begs the question, what exactly is going on between him and Wallace? Is Tannehill consistently off-target with his throws? Is Wallace struggling to separate or win downfield? Or is there an intertwining element of the Dolphins passing philosophy that is at work here? This is what I resolved to figure out.
The first thing I set out to do was to analyze Wallace's deep targets to try to distinguish a pattern.
A priority was to try to consider as many factors that go into a deep pass as I possibly could. I wanted to look at the pocket, to see how much time and comfort Tannehill had to make the downfield throw, and also the coverage, to see how the defense played Wallace on a particular play and if he was able to separate from his marker. Finally, I wanted to chart where the throw was placed and how much of an adjustment Wallace had to make to catch the ball.
Here are the still-frames for each, broken into groups:
These three throws, each from Week 1 in Cleveland, are each drastically off target. Two of them were dropped interceptions, the first of which due to an underthrow and the second because Wallace stumbled coming out of his break and didn't have a chance at the ball. Tannehill had moderate to no pressure in each of these examples.
On the first play, Tannehill enjoyed a clean pocket but the pass was again underthrown, forcing Wallace to adjust to make the reception when a touchdown would have resulted from a more adequate throw. The second of this trio was a hurried, last-moments-of-the-half deep shot that was broken up by a safety. On the third play, a slight underthrow caused Wallace to slow down enough for the defender to catch up, but he dropped a very catchable pass.
In Week 5 against Baltimore, the Dolphins focused on attacking deep with Wallace. On the final three plays shown, Tannehill had little to no pressure and Wallace had advantageous position in the coverage, but the ball was again thrown short. As has been the case with prior examples, a better throw could have resulted in a big gain or a touchdown.
In the first sequence, Tannehill faces intense pressure but delivers his best throw up to this point, hitting Wallace in stride for a 46-yard gain. Also notable is that it's one of the few instances where the receiver is behind his defender at the time of release, showing an understanding that Wallace's speed will result in separation later in the route.
The final two plays are against New England, a bad game for both players. The first play was a pass forced into coverage and intercepted off a deflection, and the last was a late fourth down heave that technically counted as a target to Wallace. The latter is an anomalous play and for analytical purposes, is not worth keeping in our sample.
The most notable play here is the third example shown, where Tannehill misses a wide open Wallace by throwing the ball short and out of bounds. This is, again, a likely touchdown if the ball is thrown further ahead of the receiver. An obvious pattern has developed.
Pictured here are two plays from the game against the Chargers and two from last week, the game against Panthers. In each (with the exception of the corner route in the second image), Tannehill has a clean launch point and a receiver that has at least a yard on his defender, and the speed to turn that separation into an easy touchdown. But in each instance, an underthrow by Tannehill allows the defense to catch up to Wallace. The pass on the first play is broken up, while adjustments by Wallace in the third and fourth result in long gains on contested catches.
Wallace is not, and never has been, a jump ball receiver. He's a vertical deep threat who, as he has shown in these examples, specializes in getting downfield separation. On the Dolphins, he's being asked to win in 50-50 downfield situations because of the quarterback's consistent inability to get the ball out ahead of him.
Here are the final three deep targets in the Carolina game. The first is a bone-headed throw that is not intercepted only because there were too many defenders ready for the ball, the second is a brutal overthrow in a non-pressure situation, and the third is the final desperation throw at the end of the game. There's debate on which the blame falls on for that last play, but it isn't relevant to this discussion. It's just one of 24 reviewed plays, and the circumstances surrounding it (just as they had earlier) warrant removing it from our data set, rather than considering it evidence.
Here is a breakdown in table form of the legitimate targets, excluding those that were desperation throws:
The stat line from these 21 charted attempts: 5-21, 193 yards, one touchdown and one interception. That results in an adjusted target rating of 61.4, still very poor. Furthermore, 12-of-18 passes were underthrown, 2-of-18 were overthrown and just two could be considered reasonably on-target. Three other passes weren't counted in those totals due to defensive holding, pass interference, or Wallace stumbling in his route.
After this analysis, it became obvious that the primary cause of Wallace's disappointing statistical season is a quarterback that's unable to consistently deliver an on-target deep pass to him. It's been mentioned by coaches, Tannehill himself and been discussed ad nauseum in the blogosphere. At this point, it's undeniable.
But what else can we read from these plays? Is there perhaps a more nuanced explanation for why a quarterback that's historically a decent downfield passer isn't when throwing to one of the best deep threats in the league? Through the course of my charting, I may have found the answer.
One thing I kept track of was the distance that the ball traveled through the air from release to arrival on each throw. The average distance of a Tannehill deep pass to Wallace was 45.6 yards. The average distance of the two passes that counted as on-target, in-stride throws (vs. NO, vs. BUF) was 45.0 yards. Overthrown passes traveled 49.0 yards through the air. Tannehill's arm strength does not appear to be the issue, in my opinion. He frequently threw the ball well over 50 yards, and maxed out at 65 on two occasions.
Underthrown passes, however, were the most common problem on Wallace's deep targets. On targeted go-routes, the average air distance of his throws was 46.2. Tannehill is delivering the ball to the needed depth, but as I believe this data points to, a lack of anticipation on his part is resulting in a late-arriving pass. The result of a having the adequate distance on the ball but throwing late is an underthrow.
The previous images show where Wallace is in relation to his coverage when the ball is released. Consistently, Tannehill waits to throw the ball until after Wallace has gained a step on his receiver, as opposed to throwing when he's slightly behind or even with the defender where his speed is likely to result in separation later in the route. Reading the coverage and knowing the matchup should allow Tannehill to throw the ball well before Wallace is deep into his route and trust that an earlier throw at the same distance will meet the receiver in stride.
Instead, the late delivery forces Wallace to adjust to throws and fight for the ball in coverage, a skill that he still does not have, despite his pay grade. Blaming him for not having this ability or expecting him to develop it is unreasonable.
My conclusion is that the disconnect between Wallace and Tannehill is the result of a lack of trust on the quarterback's part to anticipate when his receiver will be open. Wallace consistently gets separation downfield, but the delayed decision to throw by Tannehill results in inaccurate passes near the top of his throwing range. The elements for a lethal deep passing attack are all there; it'll just require Miami's quarterback to trust his eyes and his new receiver for it to be realized.