Perhaps the Dolphins will decide the best way to replace Dustin Keller is not with a tight end but with a wide receiver.
In their first practice since Keller sustained a season-ending knee injury, the Dolphins worked heavily in three-wide receiver sets.
That shouldn’t come as a major surprise; the formation has already been a staple through three exhibition games. In the 55 snaps the first-team offense has been on the field, the Dolphins have gone three-wide 35 times.
And if Tuesday’s practice was any indication, that ratio will only go up.
When Keller was healthy, both he and Charles Clay (or Dion Sims or Michael Egnew) would share the field for long stretches of team drills.
Sometimes the second tight end would be on the line; sometimes he would flex into the backfield as a fullback.
But Tuesday, the Dolphins opened and closed practice exclusively with their “Zebra” package, as offensive coordinator Mike Sherman called it.
Put simply, it’s when Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson are all in the game at the same time.
Now, it could have simply been a coincidence that on the day the Dolphins officially placed Keller on injured reserve, they stressed a more wide-open formation. Given Joe Philbin’s meticulous nature, the script might have been written in April.
And for certain, an argument can be made that the Zebra package puts the most and best playmakers on the field.
But either way, the Dolphins got an extended look at what life might look like in the post-Keller world on Tuesday — and the early results weren’t great.
The offense struggled through a 2 1/2-hour session, throwing five interceptions and fumbling six times.
“I’d prefer not to change what we do, necessarily,” Sherman said. “It depends on who steps up. If our Zebra package is stronger, and we put Gibson on the field, it certainly has its strengths. But Tiger [two tight ends, two receivers] gives you some strengths in the run and the pass game as well.
“I’m hopeful that we’re still able to use both packages with equal productivity,” Sherman added.
On Tuesday, Clay, Egnew and Sims got roughly the same amount of reps with the first team.
Kyle Miller was plenty busy, too. But as of right now, “you’d have to give the nod to Clay” as the starter, Sherman said.
And at least for the time being, the Dolphins are determined to see what they have at the position, as opposed to bringing a guy off the street or, more unlikely, swinging a trade.
They filled the roster spot created by Keller’s IR designation with a linebacker — Nathan Williams, a rookie out of Ohio State.
That was just fine with Sims and Miller, who said the Dolphins have enough talent currently on the roster to get the job done.
“We’re not going to replace Dustin,” said Miller, back at practice after missing last week because of an ankle injury. “None of us play exactly like him, but we all have the abilities to fill in for his spot.”
Sherman again praised Egnew’s improvement during training camp. On Tuesday, the former third-round pick was with the first team for roughly a dozen 11-on-11 snaps. Sherman was also complimentary of Clay’s development as a pass-catcher and blocker.
Still, as Miller said, no one player can replace Keller, and the Dolphins are “investigating a lot of possibilities” to upgrade the position, according to Philbin.
One possibility, as the Dolphins showed Tuesday, is straight-forward enough: Simply have one fewer tight end on the field.