During the 2014 offseason, there have been rumors about the new Dolphins regime potentially being unsatisfied with some of the wide receivers on the roster. Usually, when you hear a team is looking to replace a player, the motivation is disappointing production relative to their contract. Therefore, most would start with some of the receivers that Jeff Ireland, in his final offseason as general manager, rewarded with sizable free agent contracts.
The obvious first guess would be Mike Wallace, the Dolphins wide receiver whose contract pays him on average $12 million per year. Indeed, Wallace was the subject of trade rumors according to one national reporter whose accuracy on matters related to the Dolphins has been rather hit or miss...but that report hasn't been backed up by any other reporters, and they were quickly shot down by local beat reporters at the Miami Herald, who were told the Dolphins had absolutely no intention of trading Wallace, despite some coaches being frustrated by his issues such as drops.
Even beyond those reports, there are several reasons why Wallace is here to stay for the 2014 season. Wallace's contract structure is such that while he is a viable trade or cut option after completing the second year of his deal, he's only completed 1 year of his deal so far. Because Wallace's $15 million salary for this year is fully guaranteed, the Dolphins have no leverage to pressure him to accept a deal that pays him less money. Meanwhile, teams interested in trading for Wallace would likely prefer to wait until next year, when his average salary drops to $9.85 million, with only $3 million of that guaranteed. Last but certainly not least, Wallace is the only Dolphins receiver who commands enough respect from opposing defenses to draw regular safety help and can get open deep at will when covered one-on-one, so the Dolphins' aren't well positioned to move on from him yet. I actually expected the Dolphins to draft a "burner"-type wide receiver this year who could be groomed this season to potentially take over for Wallace next year, but that didn't happen. Instead, the Dolphins drafted 2 receivers who are projected to be better at running shorter and intermediate routes and lack the speed to be consistent deep threats.
So naturally, the guesses as to potential wide receivers that could be replaced soon would then be possession-type receivers like Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson. After all, both receivers are coming off season-ending injuries, and neither receiver can stretch the field like Wallace can. However, both are being paid considerably less than Wallace, with Hartline due just $4.8 million this year, and Gibson due just $2.7 million this year. While the Palm Beach Post's Andrew Abramson has been led to believe the Dolphins view Jarvis Landry as a potential Hartline replacement down the line, Hartline's roster spot is expected to be safe this year because his salary this year is guaranteed. Also, Hartline is expected to be fully cleared not just by training camp in August, but perhaps as early as minicamp in June, making his injury not much of a concern.
Meanwhile, in addition to reporting that the Dolphins are looking to keep Wallace this year, the Miami Herald also reports that the Dolphins plan on keeping Gibson because they feel he represents good value. Gibson (before getting injured) was on pace for a 69 catch, 750 yard, 7 TD season as a WR3, which is pretty good for a guy getting paid 1/2 as much as Hartline and 1/4 as much as Wallace on average. The latest word on Gibson is that his recovery is "weeks ahead of schedule," though there's the caveat that at this point after an injury, pretty much every player is rumored to be ahead of schedule (since the source of those rumors is frequently their agents).
So if not one of the top 3 receivers who is earning a significant salary, then who could it be that's on the proverbial hot seat?
I keep hearing Rishard Matthews is not a Joe Philbin favorite.— Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) May 10, 2014
In his column, Salguero of the Miami Herald explains:
But there has been a sense in Miami that the No. 4 wide receiver spot needed addressing. The team not only wanted competition for Rishard Matthews but wanted to upgrade because Matthews has had a troubling habit of "losing focus" and "not learning as quickly as coaches want."
During the draft, I understood why we drafted Jarvis Landry. I'll be writing in depth breakdowns on our rookie class, but suffice to say that in my view, he presented good value where he was taken, he brings physicality and toughness to our WR corps, and this absolutely was a good draft to be targeting a wide receiver in rounds 2 and 3, similar to how Green Bay has built their highly regarded WR corps mostly relying on draft picks in those rounds.
However, the selection of Matt Hazel in round 6 was a bit more confusing. Hazel is highly regarded in the scouting community as a potential small school "acorn," but it was hard to imagine a roster spot for him at the time.
The revelation that the Dolphins are not as impressed by Rishard Matthews as most fans (including me) does help explain the decision to draft Hazel, who like Matthews projects as a potentially solid WR3/4 down the line.
As for why the Dolphins specifically don't like Matthews - usually, when coaches complain about a wide receiver's focus, they're referring to drops, but Matthews is arguably one of the most sure-handed receivers on the roster, with only 1 drop the past 2 seasons on 53 "catchable" targets and several impressive catches on his resume.
Former offensive coordinator Mike Sherman last year said Matthews wasn't earning snaps earlier in his rookie season due to slow "playspeed," which is coach-speak for a receiver who hasn't mastered playbook comprehension and his routes to the point where he can move freely without having to think carefully about what he's supposed to be doing. However, Matthews as a sophomore in my opinion stepped up admirably after Gibson's injury, and finished the season with 41 catches, 448 yards, and 2 TDs despite competing for targets with Wallace, Hartline, Gibson, and tight end Charles Clay.
Just speculating as someone who has watched Matthews play in person and on the coaches All-22 film, which allows fans to see all 22 players on the field, Matthews does struggle to get open at times, but he rarely looks "lost" or unfocused on film. He fights for the ball when it's thrown to him and he's held on despite jarring hits (hence the extremely low drop rate). He's a former 7th round pick, so he's not exactly a guy who I would expect to produce much more than 450 yards in half a season's worth of time spent in the WR3 role. Therefore, my guess is that the coaches' unhappiness has to do with his effort and focus in practice, in which case Matthews faces steep competition from Hazel, a polished small school prospect who knows he'll have to compete hard on every snap to earn a roster spot.
Long story short, the top 3 Dolphins wide receivers should be the same this year as last year's group, and Landry's skill and draft status virtually guarantees him the WR4 role this year. However, the WR5 spot is a wide open competition, and last year, the Dolphins only kept 5 true wide receivers (with Marcus Thigpen acting as a WR6, in addition to RB/KR/PR). It's very possible that only 1 of Matthews, Hazel, and Armon Binns make the roster.