If it looks like a competition and sounds like a competition, maybe, just maybe, it is one — even if it runs counter to everything we have assumed since April.
Case in point: the Dolphins’ tight end position through the first two days of training camp.
Dustin Keller, as expected, has worked with the first-team offense.
But so have Charles Clay and Michael Egnew. And none has been as surprising as rookie Dion Sims.
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“Absolutely it’s an open competition,” coach Joe Philbin said Monday. “We’re looking a lot of different combinations at this point in time, and it’s wide open.”
Regarding Sims, who caught a handful of passes Monday, Philbin added: “Looked like he had a very good day.”
Of course, the usual disclaimers apply. Training camp has just begun, and the Dolphins can’t even put on pads until Tuesday. Plus, coaches often use such remarks to motivate more than illuminate.
Anyone but Keller starting Week 1 would be a shock. His base salary of $3.3 million for 2013 is twice what the other three players are due to make combined.
And he’s clearly the most accomplished of the group, with 241 career catches and 17 touchdowns.
So why the rotation, when the first-team personnel at other positions — offensive line and defensive back, to name two — has been consistent since the spring?
One plausible theory is the Dolphins are using camp to get extended looks at who would best fit alongside Keller and not in place of him.
And if they motivate him along the way, even better.
“There’s definitely competition,” Keller said. “We have some really good tight ends out there.”
Keller and Clay have a similar set of skills — versatile H-backs who can just as easily line up in the backfield as they can split out wide.
Sims is a more traditional “Y” tight end, an in-line blocker who often acts as a third offensive tackle. But as he has shown this week, he can also get open.
Sims, the Dolphins’ second of two fourth-round picks in 2013, said he models his game after Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Martellus Bennett — a collection of big, dynamic tight ends who can beat you in different ways.
“Just being versatile, being a complete tight end, using my size and my strength and my catching ability,” said Sims, who’s 6-4 and 265 pounds. “Posting guys up, going up for the ball, and being dominating to the defensive line, too.”
Said Keller of Sims: “Especially for a rookie, he’s been a real pro.”
What might be the coaching staff’s biggest challenge: finding a place on the field — or even the roster — for Egnew. His struggles as a rookie are well documented. The third-round pick was inactive for all but two games in 2012 and didn’t catch a pass.
Teams often let ineffective players drafted that high slide by on scholarship for their rookie season. But in Year 2, Egnew will probably need to produce to stick around.
Even one of Egnew’s teammates privately questioned his toughness last season. In response, he did mixed martial arts training three times a week during the offseason, with noticeable results.
“Doing that, you learn how to compete,” Egnew said. “I expect to play this year. I’ve gotten stronger. I’m absolutely ready.”
He added: “I need to let them see I am not just a [receiving] tight end or a flat tight end but can do everything. I definitely have improved.”
Specifically, Egnew said his blocking is better. He made a terrific catch in traffic during Monday morning’s practice.
The good news for every tight end battling for a job — a list that includes Kyle Miller, who was excellent during the spring’s organized team activities — is the Dolphins are not philosophically opposed to keeping four or more on their roster.
At one point last season, they had five.