Now that we've taken care of the wide receivers...and pretty much determined that it needs to be purged barring some changes of attitude...let's take a look at how the tight end position is doing for the team.
There are three kinds of tight ends in the NFL. The first one is the traditional big blocker type that is used sparingly as a weapon in the passing game and is there mainly to help the offensive line protect the quarterback. Then there's the tight end who isn't a true tight end, as he's used almost exclusively as a mismatch maker in the offense and struggles in blocking situations.
Then there's the rare blend that only seems to appear once in a blue moon. The kind that can do both jobs extremely well and as such, can be a royal pain in the behind for opposing teams no matter what his assignment is. Do the Dolphins have anyone even close to reaching this point? Let's take a look.
Big Play Clay...the Claymaker...it's ironic how just a few years ago, fans were calling for Clay to be axed because his production was sub-par at best. Now he's considered one of the better tight ends in the game, go figure, and I was told the "patience brigade" was a mistake.
Well, never mind that. It was in 2013 that Clay had his breakout season, and the Dolphins seemed to finally make a decision on exactly what Clay was which helped things along immensely. When he was drafted in the 6th round of the 2011 NFL Draft, the team tried to experiment with Clay and make him a dual TE/FB kind of player, and Clay struggled immensely.
Then in 2013, in quarterback Ryan Tannehill's second year in the NFL, Clay finally found his niche as a tight end after Dustin Keller went down for the season in the preseason after Texans safety DJ Swearinger took out his knees. I still feel bad for how Keller's career was pretty much put to an end, but Keller's absence rigged it so that Clay could finally showcase his talent.
In 2013, Clay caught 69 passes for 759 yards and 6 touchdowns, becoming one of Tannehill's favorite targets and becoming a seam threat that the team desperately needed, and in 2014 - despite battling a knee injury all year long - Clay went for 605 yards and 4 touchdowns on 58 receptions.
There are some things to think about here though, Clay is good, but the thing that keeps him from being elite is something that he can't even help. He's not that big for a tight end. Compared to the elites like a Rob Gronkowski (6'6") and a Jimmy Graham (6'7"), Clay stands in at only 6'3", which limits his ability to make mismatches against opposing defenses and as a result, limits his ability as a weapon for Tannehill.
Clay also doesn't have the blocking ability of a Gronkowski; he's not bad, but he isn't going to blow anyone away with his blocking prowess, so that becomes an issue when it comes to bringing him back on a long-term deal.
With that said, I absolutely believe that the Dolphins should bring back Clay, but it needs to be at the right price. The amount of money Clay can reasonably demand is lowered in my opinion because of the concerns I previously brought up. Clay isn't a physical freak of nature like a Graham or a Gronk, and he's not a superstar blocker to try and make up for it. Add to that the fact that he's coming off a year where his production was down due to injury, which never works in favor of the player.
If I'm the Miami Dolphins, I'm looking to lock up Clay to a long-term deal, like five years at least. My reasoning for this is because Clay has only just recently entered the prime of his career, he'll be turning 26 on Feb. 13 and as such he's still very young. At the end of a 5-year deal, Clay would be 31 by the time it was over, which means he stands a very good chance of still being quite productive for another deal later on. For a player of Clay's caliber, I would be willing to pay a maximum of $6,000,000 per year, but I would be wary of going higher than that. If Clay were taller, then I would say find a way to keep him at all costs, but his physical shortcomings keep him from getting a Graham-type deal.
Sims came as a huge surprise to almost everyone, drafted in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Sims was originally meant to be a supplemental piece for a mediocre offensive line as his blocking abilities were being held in high regard, but he did have a certain amount of ability as an offensive weapon while he was at Michigan State.
Sims's rookie season was totally uninspiring. He did manage to make an impressive one-handed catch on a lob pass from Ryan Tannehill in the endzone, but other than that he struggled to make any sort of impact, and fans were on their way to calling him yet another bust drafted by the infamous Jeff Ireland.
Then in Sims's second-year, now with Bill Lazor's offense, Sims improved by leaps and bounds. While everyone - including me - was watching to see what Michael Egnew would do now that he was in an offense that would use him in a way he was meant for, Sims was quietly showing that he was actually the second-best tight end on the team, to spite everyone's excitement (which would turn out to be unjustified) for Egnew. He showed a new propensity for being a weapon, an improved blocking capability, and proved his ability over the course of the season.
As Clay's backup, Sims caught 24 passes for 284 yards and 2 touchdowns, and late in the season he became a favored target for Tannehill as he was the biggest target available to him at the time. Similar to Clay though, Sims isn't particularly big, standing only one inch taller than Clay at 6'4", and as such, he also doesn't necessarily qualify as that "big target" that Tannehill so desperately needs.
The team could probably get by with Clay and Sims as the top two tight ends, but if there are other options available - preferably bigger targets - whether that's in free agency or in the draft, the team should definitely explore them. Sims is good, and will likely continue to improve as time goes on, but one thing he won't be doing is getting taller. At 23 years old (he'll be 24 on Feb. 18), I'd say Sims is done growing, so like Clay, his ability to create mismatches is limited. For Sims, this is even more apparent as he isn't as fluid as Clay.
After Clay and Sims, the talent level of the tight end position seems to drop off significantly. When Lynch was drafted in the 5th round last year, most - if not all - of the fan base was confused as to why the team would waste a pick on a low-level tight end with not much to offer as a weapon in the offense.
Looking back on Lynch's career at Georgia, it appeared that - like Sims - Lynch was more effectively used as a blocker rather than a weapon, which seems to be head coach Joe Philbin's preference. Lynch was also elected as an offensive team captain, which, again, is also a preference of Joe Philbin's.
Lynch managed to put together average numbers during his time at Georgia, making 24 receptions for 431 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2012, and then 30 receptions for 459 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2013, where he put together good performances against No. 7 Auburn and No. 6 LSU.
Lynch stands in at 6'5" (according to his draft profile), which makes him the tallest tight end on the Dolphins roster, but a back injury early in training camp kept Lynch out of the majority of the practices, so we have yet to truly see what Lynch is capable of. It doesn't seem likely that he'll turn out to be anything special, but then again, we at one point thought the same of Dion Sims. Who knows? Maybe he'll surprise us.
Another small tight end to add to the list. At 6'3", Robinson is another physically unimpressive tight end, but that could be attributed to the fact that he came out of Arizona State University as a wide receiver, and that's what he was listed as at the NFL Combine.
Robinson has been bounced around the league a lot in a short period of time. Following the 2012 NFL Draft, Robinson was signed by the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent, and he was cut during the team's final roster cuts. The Arizona Cardinals then brought him on to their practice squad, where he remained until 2013 when the Broncos brought him back to their practice squad and he was converted to tight end.
He finally made a 53-man roster when the Cleveland Browns signed him off the Broncos practice squad in September of 2014, but he only lasted about a month before being cut again, and that's when the Dolphins came in and brought him on, promoting him to their active roster on December 16.
His time at Arizona State had mixed results, but he had his best season in 2011 where he put up numbers that were the best in recent history for a wide receiver at that university. He appeared in all 13 games, starting 12 of them, and he made 77 catches for 1,397 yards and 7 touchdowns, thanks in large part to his size as a wide receiver.
Unfortunately for Robinson, he lacks speed, running only a 4.62 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and he lacks what's necessary to get off the line quickly, which is probably what prompted his move to tight end in the first place. Now as a tight end however, his lack of speed is masked, but the very thing that gave him an advantage in college is now insufficient: his size.
I expect Robinson to be nothing more than a camp body, and if he's lucky he may find his way onto the practice squad. He's a hard worker and he will certainly give it more than his all, but his talent level isn't high enough to compete for a spot on the 53-man roster.
Stoneburner finishes off the list of tight ends, and - just like all the others - he's short compared to some of the best in the league. Also at 6'3", Stoneburner makes up for his lack of size with good tight end speed and has some ability as a blocker, which of course, is always a plus in Philbin's book.
Stoneburner drew the attention of certain beat writers with his smoothness in practice. He has good hands for receiving, can adjust to catches and has good footwork when dealing with defenders, and his blocking ability is mostly in the run game, where he annoys defenders and manages to keep them at bay, although he's never likely to simply dominate anyone.
Being an Ohio State Buckeye alumni, he made quick friends with wide receiver Brian Hartline once reaching the Miami Dolphins, but before getting to dress in aqua and orange, he was decked out in green and yellow for the Green Bay Packers, who signed him as an undrafted free agent after the 2013 NFL Draft.
Stoneburner made the most of his limited opportunities at Ohio State, he started in 23 out of 48 games, caught 53 passes for 714 yards and 13 touchdowns in his four-year career as a Buckeye. He was never truly an integral part of the offense, but he more often than not made things happen when he got the ball. He did run into some trouble off the field, having his scholarship revoked when he ran from the police after getting caught urinating in public...gross.
Stoneburner certainly has talent, and several draft experts saw him as a sort of wildcard player, playing in multiple roles as a jack of all trades and a master at none. It makes sense that he found his way onto the Dolphins roster, since Joe Philbin has made it extremely clear during his tenure as the Miami Dolphins head coach that he considers versatility a very valuable asset.
The bottom line about all these tight ends is quite simple. Beyond Clay and Sims, there's some potential to be good players, but there's no one on this list - with the exception of Clay - that I expect to become great players. If you don't have high-potential talent and you're not 6'5" or above, you'll have an extremely difficult time finding a solid spot on an NFL roster as a tight end, and you're likely to be experimented with as an H-back like Clay was the first couple of years of his career. If I'm the Dolphins, I'm looking into finding Tannehill a big target to throw to, and that means bigger than the average of 6'3".
This column was written by Luis Sung. Follow him on Twitter: @FLSportDebater
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