Two weeks ago, I talked about the very important training camp battle between Randy Starks, Jared Odrick, Olivier Vernon, and Dion Jordan for the defensive tackle and defensive end positions. This week I want to look at a possible battle in the wide receiver corps. The Miami Dolphins spent plenty of money this offseason to upgrade their roster, primarily on offense. The biggest signing was speed threat extraordinaire Mike Wallace, whom the Dolphins brought in to stretch the field and give young quarterback Ryan Tannehill a dangerous weapon. The team also re-signed Brian Hartline, who had a breakout season in 2012 and developed great rapport with Tannehill. Those two receivers figure to be the starters in 2013. An understated acquisition by the Dolphins though was the signing of Brandon Gibson. Miami traded away former undrafted gem Davone Bess to the Cleveland Browns with the plan that Gibson would become the primary slot weapon for the Dolphins. It appears that the trio of Wallace, Hartline, and Gibson will become the wide receiver weapons for Mr. Tannehill.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the season. A couple of afterthought receivers on the Dolphins decided to make things a little interesting. OTAs and minicamps are terrible for evaluating contact positions. It's difficult to see how well running backs or linebackers will play when they lack pads and cannot tackle. However, positions like cornerback and wide receiver can give coaches a fair barometer because they aren't as contact dependent. Coaches can get a read on how a receiver is developing by watching how he runs routes, makes tough catches, understands zone concepts, and so on. THAT type of stuff can be evaluated with or without pads. So when receivers stand out during these sessions, there is some merit behind that.
It takes time for a quarterback and receivers to get in sync when they aren't familiar with each other. Sometimes, it only takes a few practice sessions and other times it may take an entire season. So it's not uncommon, or even that troubling, to hear that new receivers are struggling in a new offense. Word of Gibson struggling in pre-camp activities isn't really news. But it did allow for other receivers to stick their foot in the door and create a camp battle. Two players - Armon Binns and Rishard Matthews - have done that. Guys who were considered fringe guys are possibly playing their way into major roles within the offense.
Matthews was the Dolphins' last pick in the 2012 draft. Despite the team's lack of outside playmakers last season, Matthews was thought to be a long shot to make the roster. Matthews showed his worth by making plays in the preseason and make the 53 man roster. He saw little playing time, but injuries and ineffective free agent signings allowed him to see playing time and finished the season with 11 catches and 151 yards. That's hardly the stuff of legends, but receiver is a tough position to learn at the pro level and sometimes players just need time to develop. Matthews has good timed speed (4.46 at his pro day on field turf not track surface) and good size for the position, but needed to develop more so he could player faster. As last season progress, you could see the game slowing down for him a little. In OTAs and minicamp, Matthews has shown the playmaking ability once again and the game appears to have come to him. He has been making tough catches and scoring touchdowns and that should earn him more reps in training camp.
Armon Binns, a former undrafted free agent, was a waiver wire pickup last season and earned playing time almost immediately, revealing how desperate the Dolphins were at receiver. Binns has been the star of minicamps, leading some fans to believe that Binns is the 2013 version of Legadu Naanee (a player who gets hyped up in camp, then disappears in the games). Unlike Naanee, Binns isn't fighting for a starting job. But that hasn't stopped him from continually making plays. Reports from OTAs and minicamp claim that Binns is making plays every day and Tannehill is looking for him now. Binns, at 6'3" has the size to be a big time red zone threat and target across the middle.
Gibson has the advantage of experience. He has been in the league longer and has more actual games under his belt. Binns and Matthews have the advantage of better chemistry with Tannehill. Tannehill has played with them and is more comfortable throwing to them. Gibson has the advantage of being a free agent acquisition with a bigger contract than the other two contenders. While the money situation with Starks works against the incumbent, it works in Gibson's favor here as the Dolphins will not likely disregard a player they just signed.
I see this battle as an intriguing one heading into the preseason. Gibson clearly has the upper hand based on the reasons I mentioned. However, the two young players can take away his playing time if they continue to develop and show up and if Gibson continues to struggle picking up the offense. We should expect Gibson to take most of the slot reps early on, but I also expect Matthews and Binns to start taking away some of those reps as camp progresses.