There are, based on my use of calculus and complex math theorems, approximately 27 unsigned tight ends on the precipice of NFL unrestricted free agency when it opens next month.
The Miami Dolphins had three free agent tight ends in the group until Marqueis Gray re-signed with the team just before the end of the season, and so now the Dolphins have two on this list of folks who are paid to block and, of course, catch touchdown passes in the red zone.
Jordan Cameron is unsigned.
Dion Sims is unsigned.
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For our purposes today, we’re forgetting about Cameron. Indeed, for our purposes of covering the 2017 Dolphins, it would be smart to forget about Cameron. He’s moving on after two seasons that didn’t deliver anything but a lot of frustration and missed games due to injuries -- mostly after a concussion in 2016.
Cameron may or may not retire. The Dolphins are moving on regardless.
Good luck to a good guy.
As for Sims, the Dolphins want him back. They want to re-sign him. And my guess is that because he has an outstanding and smart agent in Jason Chayut, who understands Sims has carved a niche for himself with the Dolphins, and the team is trying to retain as many of their own as possible, there will be a deal eventually.
(That’s my opinion based on a snapshot several weeks from the start of free agency March 9 and the start of league-wise and legal “tampering” between agents and all teams March 7. So I reserve the right to report differently if the facts change).
Anyway, that’s not the point.
The point is even if the Dolphins re-sign Sims, --adding him to Gray and Thomas Duarte and Dominique Jones (who is a restricted free agent) -- the team will nonetheless be tight end shopping this offseason.
Let’s start out with the offense. Coach Adam Gase’s offense is something of a godsend to a pass-catching tight end.
In 2013, for example, the first year Gase became an NFL offensive coordinator, 25-year-old Julius Thomas caught 65 passes for 788 yards (12.1 yards per catch) and 12 touchdowns for the Denver Broncos.
The next year, NFL defenses tried to stop the bleeding a little bit and paid more attention to Thomas. And it worked. He caught 43 passes for 489 yards (11.4 per catch). But he added 12 more touchdowns for the Broncos in Gase’s offense.
In 2015, the combination of Martellus Bennett and Zach Miller combined for 87 catches, 878 yards and eight touchdown catches with the Chicago Bears under Gase’s offense.
All four Dolphins tight ends last season combined for 55 catches, 551 yards and six TDs.
That is a disappointment. That needs addressing.
Now, Sims led the group with 26 catches for 256 yards and four TDs. That’s solid.
But let’s be clear, Dion Sims is an in-line, traditional tight end. He is a solid blocker and a solid pass-catcher when he’s releasing off the line of scrimmage.
But nobody is mistaking him for Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce.
He struggles out in space. He is not proficient flexing outside.
And that hurt the Dolphins last season because they wanted to create mismatches with linebackers out there and could not. So with Cameron injured most of the year and Sims not really suited for the role, the Dolphins simply went away from using the tight ends out wide much of the time.
They certainly didn’t use it as much as they wanted to. And that, believe it or not, hurt the passing game and it hurt the running game.
That linebacker who would have to line up out wide to cover that flanked tight end? Now he was in the tackle box. And so with an extra defender in the tackle box, that made it harder to run.
Now you know why a pass-catching tight end who can flank out wide is important to the pass and run game. He helps the numbers for the running game merely by being away from the line of scrimmage. He can be a tremendous threat and mismatch problem if he’s a good route-runner and receiver.
Tight ends like that are very valuable.
So the Dolphins will need one even if Sims is re-signed because he’s not one of those.
That means the Dolphins will have to find one in free agency or the draft.
Yeah, good luck with that.
Free agency does not exactly offer a reservoir of proven and available dynamic tight end talent. Oh, yes, Vernon Davis, Jared Cook and Martellus Bennett are scheduled to hit free agency.
But Davis is 33 years old. Cook is 30 and has never really been the star his abilities suggest he should be -- at least not until he and Aaron Rodgers got synched up in the 2016 playoffs. And Bennett will never play for the Dolphins as long as the current administration is running the organization.
It will not happen.
It’s not even a remote possibility and you’ll simply have to accept what I’m saying. (Or don’t). Doesn’t matter. Bennett isn’t an option.
So where does that leave the Dolphins?
Jack Doyle did some damage for the Indianapolis Colts in 2016 but he’s mostly an in-line tight end also. He is more versatile than Sims in that he can flank out, but that’s not his strongest suit.
Oakland’s Mychal Rivera was used primarily in the slot by the Raiders and there was some modest production from the University of Tennessee product. But the Raiders drafted Clive Walford and the past two years Rivera was mostly buried behind him on the depth chart. This is not a big-money get, folks. Rivera has 18 catches and one TD last season and he’s a 4.7 guy in the 40. But he gets open and his first two seasons when he played, he had four touchdowns each so he can be productive.
Seattle’s Luke Willson is similarly buried behind a University of Miami star -- Jimmy Graham. But he’s a much faster player, running 4.5, and he’s smart (he went to Rice) and he’s played in big games and been productive. Again, this is not a break-the-bank signing.
But if the Dolphins show significant and early interest, there’s no reason they can’t add him and bring some speed and ability to flex outside to the tight end position.
Willson would be my No. 1 target.
I know you also have heard rumors about the Dolphins loving University of Miami tight end David Njoku. And these are my thoughts about that:
The Dolphins have set some priorities for the coming April draft. And picking a tight end in the first round is not currently one of those unless every defensive playmaker somehow gets picked with the first 21 selections.
There’s also this: Dolphins coaches are getting started on their grind of tape of college players in the coming days. While the personnel staff may have opinions at this stage, nothing is solidified until the coaches take a look, the combine happens, interviews happen, visits happen, the scouts and coaches meet and then they’ll draft.
Free agency will be taking place nearly two months before the draft process is fully played out. So it would be crazy for the Dolphins to leave the tight end position in obvious need of talent in order to draft a player who came out early and didn’t exactly produce great numbers (38 catches last season) in college.
Granted, Njoku is a physical freak. I’d love him on the team. Maybe if he falls late into the second round -- which isn’t happening, barring a major surprise.
Re-sign Sims. And then Luke Willson, please.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero