Jakeem Grant had quite the week in Philadelphia.
On Tuesday, he met his childhood idol.
And on Thursday, he probably secured his place on the Dolphins’ opening day roster.
Two days after chatting up the Eagles’ own dimunitive kick returner — Darren Sproles — the 5-foot-7 Grant met two important benchmarks:
1. He made a big play on offense.
And 2. He held onto his toughest punt of the preseason.
Early in the second quarter Thursday night, Grant was back deep to receive a punt from Cameron Johnston.
Johnston booted it high enough that linbeacker Kamu Grugier-Hill could run downfield and get in position to make a play before Grant could catch it.
Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, who has spent considerable effort on improving Grant’s hands after a drop-filled rookie season, was on the sideline, thinking (if not shouting) “call fair catch, Jakeem.”
Grant was having none of it though. And he paid the price. Grugier-Hill, to steal ESPN’s old parlance, jacked Grant him up.
But he also hit Grant too early, drawing a flag. And yet, Grant caught the ball.
“My first instinct was, ‘I'm going to trust my teammates. They're going to block everybody,’” Grant said. “My first thing, when I went out there was, ‘No, I'm not calling fair catch this time. Whatever happens, happens.’”
Boldness gets rewarded when it works. But it also leaves Grant, Miami’s second-year receiver, open to criticism when it doesn’t.
He probably learned that years ago, when he was watching Sproles help blaze the trail for players Grant’s size. When you’re only 5-foot-6, 181 pounds, you’ve got to be fearless. Sproles has been his entire career, scoring 61 all-purpose touchdowns with the Chargers, Saints and, most recently, Eagles.
Grant saw a lot of himself in Sproles growing up, and sought out the veteran running back during the teams’ joint practices last week.
“Had Great talk with the G.O.A.T @DarrenSproles,” Grant wrote on Twitter alongside a picture of the two players. “It's amazing feeling to finally meet someone that you idolize as a kid. #HeartOverHeight”
Heart is a must. But so are hands.
Grant spent untold hours this offseason, both in Texas and Florida, catching punts, either from teammate Matt Darr or a machine. He knew his only chance to make the team was to show great improvement, and the work has paid off.
He hasn’t mishandled a ball in the kicking game yet in a preseason game.
And just as importantly, he’s proven to be a weapon in the passing game.
He has four catches for 89 catches on nine targets this preseason, including a 69-yard touchdown in Philadelphia that showed he can play bigger than his size.
Grant, lined up wide to the left, ran a simple slant route, and Brandon Doughty delivered the ball to him between corner Rasul Douglas and safety Terrence Brooks nine yards downfield. Douglas was never really in position to make a tackle, but Brooks had a direct shot on Grant. It had no effect.
Grant bounced off Douglas, and sprinted to the end zone.
“I knew for a fact that the only person that was going to be able to stop me was a safety and I knew for a fact that little guys like me, they try to go for a kill shot and try to knock me out,” Grant said. “Little did he know that I'm stronger than the average little guy. I just broke free and I used my speed to score.”
Added Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi: “Anytime Jakeem's in the open field, he's gone. As soon as he broke the tackle, we knew it was six. We knew it was about trying to beat him to the end zone to celebrate with him.”
Those two plays, along with Grant’s reliable body of work all preseason, should be enough for him to feel confident in his employment — even if he wouldn’t say so late Thursday night.
“I haven't done enough,” Grant added. “There's never enough. I feel like I still have stuff to improve on. That's just one more step that I'll take to show the coaches that they can rely on me.”