Quite literally, Legedu Naanee’s name means “Good is coming.”
It just hasn’t arrived yet, at least in the NFL.
But after two teams, two foot surgeries and five nondescript seasons, good — and perhaps even more — might just be around the bend in Miami.
Naanee, the journeyman receiver who signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins in the spring, has rocketed to the top of a team’s depth chart after a string of solid practices. Naanee, who caught a team-high five passes in last weekend’s scrimmage, is projected to start Friday’s exhibition opener against Tampa Bay.
And for the first time in a long time, he’s completely healthy, comfortable and confident.
“I feel like I’ve caught the ball well, been able to beat press coverage,” Naanee said after Tuesday’s practice, where he made a series of tough grabs in traffic. “I feel pretty good. Every season is a fresh start.”
Six months ago, the thought that Naanee, 28, or Chad Johnson would be in the Dolphins’ starting lineup would have been farfetched. Having both of them running with the first team all camp would have been absurd.
But they, along with Davone Bess, have clearly been the best receivers on a team without a true No. 1, particularly with Brian Hartline continuing to miss time with an injured calf.
And if his production in practice translates to excellence in games, he could be the best $700,000 the Dolphins have spent in some time. Out of work last spring with serious concerns about his health, Naanee signed a league-minimum deal with Miami in April. Most saw him as a player brought in to provide depth and some competition. They were wrong.
“He’s been a great leader for the room,” said Mike Sherman, the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator. “He does everything you ask him to do. He’s an unbelievable special teams player as well, so he’s a total team player from that regard.”
Now, he just needs to stay out off the athletic trainer’s room. Drafted by San Diego in the fifth round out of Boise State, Naanee was a budding receiver and contributor on special teams until the chronic problems began.
He needed surgery after the 2009 season, and played just one more with the Chargers before parting ways.
Ron Rivera, who was San Diego’s defensive coordinator before taking the top job in Carolina, was familiar with Naanee’s abilities and offered him a shot with the Panthers.
Naanee went on to set career highs in catches (44) and receiving yards (467), but his 6-2, 215-pound body continued to fail him. He broke his foot again late in the 2011 season — he was fighting for extra yards near the end zone — and needed a second surgery.
When Naanee hit the 2012 free agent market, he had few suitors, but the Dolphins took him on as a low-risk gamble. After a sluggish minicamp, it’s beginning to pay off. He’s playing at a high level, in part because of a new orthotic device that has given him renewed confidence in his health.
“I am absolutely not sugar-coating this,” said his agent, David Canter. “I told every single person when he signed here he’d be the No. 1 receiver if healthy.”
Added Dolphins corner Sean Smith: “He’s a big, physical dude. He knows how to use his body. When you have somebody like that on offense, a guy who can catch the ball away from his body, that’s huge for us.”
In short, Naanee has made a name for himself in the past two weeks — even if few can actually pronounce it. (The phonetic is LEG-ah-doo NAH-nay.)
The name is Nigerian, given by his father Agbora, who left the West African nation some 30 years ago. Agbora Naanee relocated to Portland, Ore., where he owns a string of businesses. That’s also where Legedu grew up, starting for four years at quarterback in high school.
Naanee’s immediate family lives in the United States, he still has relatives in Nigeria, and has gone back twice to visit.
“It’s a big part of who I am, the work ethic that he’s instilled in me,” Naanee said. “It’s that culture. A lot of guys that are Nigerian guys have a lot of the same qualities, and probably got me where I’m at.”