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Can Hunter Long stand out in a veteran-heavy tight end group?

Can the second-year pro make a strong impression on the new coaching staff?

NFL: JUL 29 Miami Dolphins Training Camp Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Dolphins have released an initial depth chart with the NFL preseason arriving this weekend as Miami will play Tampa Bay on Saturday night.

General manager Chris Grier and the team’s front office has until August 30 to trim the roster down to 53 players — and a practice squad.

The team is headed in a new direction under first-year coach Mike McDaniel and in fact, Lynn Bowden Jr. and Preston Williams have reportedly been mentioned in trade talks as the roster is destined to take a different shape with a new coach in charge.

Currently, the Dolphins have six tight ends on the roster and there is no doubting that Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe will be in the cards for McDaniel, at least for the 2022 season. The Dolphins hired McDaniel on Feb. 7 and have since signed Gesicki to the franchise tag and inked Smythe to a two-year deal in April.

Bowden Jr. and Williams were signed to fit the vision of the previous coaching staff. Meanwhile, guys like Trent Sherfield, River Cracaft and Mohamed Sanu all joined the Dolphins after working with McDaniel elsewhere.

The vision at tight end isn’t necessarily as clear — outside of Gesicki and Smythe being the top-two options at the position. Behind them is second-year professional Hunter Long, along with Cethan Carter and Adam Shaheen, two veterans who were also picked by the previous staff.

Editor’s Update: Shortly after this article was published, the Dolphins announced they traded Adam Shaheen to the Houston Texans.

Editor’s Update 2: Two days after the trade was announced, the trade was nullified due to Shaheen’s knee failing the Texans’ physical. It was a pre-existing condition that has not caused issues with Shaheen, but now Shaheen is back on the Dolphins’ roster.

With joint practices with the Bucs set to begin, and preseason games just days later, the question at tight end is focused on Hunter Long — can he become a favorite of McDaniel and beat out Shaheen and Carter for the third tight end spot?

“Every coach and scheme is a little different,” Long said while talking with the media on Sunday. “They coach a little different. This scheme, I mean they emphasize playing fast and I think that’s what we’re all trying to pick up on and some schemes, I mean, it’s more front a guy up. This scheme, you’re just supposed to run off the ball and we’re getting there.

“Everyone has tendencies from what they’ve learned in the past, what you learned in college or what you learned from different coaching staffs. This coaching staff likes it one way and we’re definitely on our way to getting there.”

The third tight end position may not seem impactful, but it’s important to keep in mind that the Dolphins relied heavily on the trio of Gesicki, Smythe and Shaheen in 2020. In fact, the group set franchise records in receptions (91) and receiving yards (1,061). Additionally, the 11-touchdown season by the trio matched a franchise tight end record.

“I think I’ve grown a lot,” Long said when talking about his growth since last season. “Obviously rookie year, you have a lot of stuff coming at you, moving to a new place, trying to get your life set up along with trying to perform on the field. I feel a lot more at peace this year off the field, so it’s allowed me to focus a lot more on the field and just process things faster and play faster, so it’s been really good.”

Long wasn’t much of a factor as a rookie, catching one of three balls that came his way in the seven games he played. However, it was brought up on Sunday that Long was on San Francisco’s radar prior to the draft and that the offense requires a well-rounded tight end.

“I mean the scheme just requires an all-around tight end and we’ve got a bunch of those guys and I like to see myself in that category,” Long said on Sunday. “I just try to come in every day and give this offense my all. Where they put me, they put me; and I’m going to try to exceed at that.”

Despite a rocky first year, a new system and a different coach calling the shots could make all the difference as Long looks to establish himself ahead of his sophomore season.

“The more reps you get at anything, you’re going to improve and pick up things whether you know it or not,” Long said, “Just the all-around game, the game at this level compared to the college level is night and day and just the more reps you get, the more you see defenses, the more you see these players; you pick up on things as you go so it gets you better.”