This offseason, the Miami Dolphins spent like no other team, signing free agents and reworking their entire roster. One of the major areas of emphasis was finding offensive weapons for second year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, giving him a more dynamic receiving corps after relying primarily on just Brian Hartline last year. The team added receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson out wide, along with tight end Dustin Keller to give Tannehill a seam threat.
But, could Keller be facing an unexpected challenge for his starting position?
As soon as he was signed, everyone assumed Keller would be the starter. It makes sense. He's a proven NFL veteran, with an 11.9 yards per reception average and 17 touchdowns over five years with the New York Jets. He seems to embody everything the team wants in a tight end.
Yet, through the first few practices at training camp this year, the team has had Keller splitting first team snaps with Charles Clay and rookie Dion Sims. Even the much maligned Michael Egnew has taken a few snaps with the top team.
So, is there an position battle brewing at tight end?
"Absolutely it's an open competition," Head Coach Joe Philbin said after practice on Monday. "We are getting guys looking at a lot of different combinations at this point in time, and it’s wide open."
Let's be honest, here, though. The position is still Keller's. Tight end might have a position battle going on, but Keller has the lead and won't be overtaken.
Maybe the most important part of Philbin's statement is not the "wide open" competition, but the "looking at a lot of different combinations" piece. The team wants to find the tight ends that compliment the offense the best. Keller is clearly the top choice there, able to stretch the seam and has started demonstrating a chemistry with Tannehill just three days into camp.
The Dolphins are looking for their tight end to do things other than receive passes, however. Specifically, the tight ends have also been lining up as the fullback in certain situations. Miami wants to have a flexible offense, with players able to line up in multiple positions. No position will be asked to do that more than tight end, where they could be placed on the offensive line, as a lead blocking fullback, or as a split out wide receiver.
And, that may be where Clay, Sims, and even Egnew, start to close the gap on Keller. Clay started his career as a fullback, adding tight end to his resume last year. Sims is a bid bodied tight end, who has a lot of athleticism. And Egnew, who saw limited snaps during the 2012 season, is out to prove he is more physical this year.
Miami signed Keller to be a major portion of the offense this season. And, in the end, that's what he will be. Any "open competition" could elevate the other three tight ends to the top of the depth chart, but that will likely be to the 1b position, as Keller will still remain the 1a option. But, if stating that the position is open to competition motivates any of the four to rise to a new level, that's better for the team.
And, it seems Keller is ready for that. "There's definitely competition," Keller said after practice. "We have some really good tight ends out there."