Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland held a press conference with the Miami media on Tuesday. In perfect unison, as if the Vienna Boys Choir temporarily brainwashed them, the entire group began asking about what will become a primary focal point for the Dolphins 2013 offseason: wide receivers.
It's a valid discussion to have. The Dolphins finally found a solution at quarterback (at least for the time being), yet they struggled more than most other teams in getting big plays out of their passing game and in moving the ball down the field through the air.
In an appearance on WQAM 560-AM in December (via The Palm Beach Post), NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock described watching the Dolphins offense as, "like watching an offense playing in the red zone for 100 yards," citing the lack of a vertical threat and speed at wide receiver. With 42 pass plays of 20 yards or more, the Dolphins finished 24th in the NFL. Their 14 pass plays of 30 yards or more ranked 27th.
Big plays remain the overall theme, but then it becomes a question of how to get them.
There are numerous ways, and Ireland touched on the elements he is looking for in wide receivers (via The Miami Herald):
Well number one, you are looking for guys that catch it. You laugh, but that’s the number one critical factor of the wide receiver position in my opinion; guys that can catch the ball consistently and have a big range of catching radius. Speed is obviously a big aspect of that and in this business they pay the other guy covering them, so there is going to be some contact opportunities and you want guys that can catch in traffic and catch with contact. I think the fourth aspect, not in any order, would be run after the catch. We’re looking for guys that can make plays.
A lot is made here about the receiver's ability to catch in traffic, run after the catch and work through contact; a passing mention is made of speed; no mention is made of a receiver's ability to stretch the field.
That should tell you something: The Dolphins may not have a vertical threat, but it appears they may feel they don't need one to run their offense.
Wide receivers Davone Bess and Brian Hartline are emblematic of what the Dolphins are looking for at receiver, but are receivers like that going to be enough?
This play is an example of what happens when an offense lacks a deep threat. The situation is 2nd-and-9 in the second quarter, with the Dolphins trailing 13-7 to the Bills.
The Dolphins are in the shotgun, and they hurry to the line without huddling. Notice how all the routes, except one, stop at less than 20 yards downfield.
Circled in yellow is Bess; circled in blue is Bills safety Jairus Byrd, who is in deep coverage in Cover 2.
Bess' pivot route gets him away from the coverage as he breaks toward the sideline, but Byrd is an instinctive safety, and he knows that the Dolphins don't pose much of a threat downfield. For that reason, he allows the deep receiver to run right by him, committing to the underneath patterns.
It pays off, as he is able to stop Bess for a five-yard gain. Had he went deep in coverage, who knows how far Bess could have run after the catch.
There's a lot of value in receivers like Bess and Hartline, especially in the West Coast offense, but an offense can only go so far with receivers like them without a vertical threat to take the pressure off them.
"In terms of fire power, look, we had two guys that were over 60 catches," Ireland said. "We’ve got to find guys that are scoring touchdowns and getting the ball in the end zone."
He's right: Bess and Hartline caught just one touchdown each. More speed will help that, both in terms of explosive plays all over the field and in creating separation in the red zone.
With around $40 million in cap space and nine picks in the draft, including five in the first three rounds, the Dolphins have a major opportunity to improve the position now and for the long term. It's just a matter of making the right decisions on how to do so, which is easier said than done.
I think this is the year that you’ve got to do something. We’re looking for playmakers on offense. That’s what we need to do and the players have to be available for you to, you can’t make that up. They’ve got to be available to you and they’ve got to be available in free agency and in trade situations and certainly the draft. All of those avenues are going to be available to us from a cap stand point and a draft pick stand point.
How the Dolphins choose to address it remains to be seen, but as Ireland points out, they have plenty of options, and they will ultimately find someone they believe can fill the void.
Whether it ends up being a free agent or draft choice, we won't know how well they'll actually fill that void until the season begins.
Mayock did offer one silver lining to the Dolphins' 2012 season of struggles in the passing game:
As a matter of fact, I think the experience of having to play this kind of football is going to help [Ryan Tannehill]. He has to fit it in tight windows. He's got to be physically tough because he's going to take a little bit of a beating right now. And once you start to get some speed out there and some wide receiver separation, it's going to look like he's got huge windows compared to what he's dealt with this year.
If the Dolphins take the right approach to this offseason, improved results could start to manifest on the football field sooner than later.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.