Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline is the kind of player who can easily go underappreciated.
The electricity of free agent acquisition Mike Wallace is undeniable, and the emergence of tight end Charles Clay has been a pleasant surprise, with each instrumental in the team’s 3-0 start. Yet it is Hartline, steady as clockwork and twice as reliable, who is Miami’s leading receiver after three games.
Backup quarterback Matt Moore, who’s in his third year working with Hartline, said the best way to describe the Ohio State product is “consistency.”
“He just does it right,” Moore said. “He’s professional about his job.”
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Student of the game
Although Hartline has been a useful pass-catching option his whole career — finishing at least third in team receiving every year he has been in the league — the development of the former fourth-round draft pick has been gradual, no doubt a product of hard work and film study.
And although all NFL players study the game, for many it doesn’t come as naturally as it does for Hartline.
“I’ve always been a student of the game,” he said. “I love the game and its in and outs, and the different aspects of it. I kind of thrive that way, really understanding the offense quickly as a whole.”
Add the athleticism of a college track athlete, and the result was a breakout year in 2012 in the absence of departed receiver Brandon Marshall, now with the Bears. Hartline caught 74 passes and totaled 1,083 receiving yards in his first year as a primary target.
The fifth-year receiver is quickly climbing the ladder of the Dolphins’ all-time best receivers. Hartline’s 253-yard performance last year against Arizona was the highest single-game receiving output in team history. His 12 catches in the same game trail only a 15-catch explosion in 2004 by Chris Chambers.
Through three games, Hartline’s numbers are even better than last year’s career year. Although the volatility of football makes speculation unreliable, the fact remains that Hartline is on pace for a 96-catch, 1,269-yard season.
With those optimistic totals, he would end the season ranked seventh in Dolphins career receiving yards and ninth in receptions.
Considering the ink is still drying on Hartline’s $31 million extension — one that should keep him in South Florida through the 2017 season — all of Miami’s receiving records may be in jeopardy.
But Hartline would be the first to pump the brakes on that runaway train of conjecture and stat obsession.
The players and coaches have repeatedly said that the strength of the Dolphins passing game is its versatility, meaning numbers will come and go from game to game, and even drive to drive. Take, for example, the game-winning march last Sunday against the Falcons, when Rishard Matthews, Michael Egnew and Dion Sims carried the load.
“It definitely makes the defense be aware for everything,” Moore said of the variety of receiving options. “You talk about the guys on the outside, the receivers, they all understand, they all work for each other.
“Once somebody starts getting the ball, I think the others know it will start coming their way.”
After practice Wednesday, Hartline grew tired of answering questions about who in the receiving corps was catching the most passes, and he responded with a heavy dose of sarcasm.
“We’re all divas. We don’t like sharing, and we like talking about ourselves,” Hartline joked. “We all want the ball so really we don’t like each other too much.”
Hartline can’t believe he’s already in his fifth year as a pro, and although he considers himself a leader, he said Wallace and Brandon Gibson, also in their fifth years, hold him accountable as well.
The challenges for opposing defenses, according to Hartline, start with Gibson in the slot. Having a threat inside means defenses can’t consistently double team anyone, letting Ryan Tannehill spread the ball around as the defense dictates.
“We feed off each other,” Hartline said. “We couldn’t do it without the next guy beside us.”
Spoken like a true veteran.
Moore joked that Hartline is “a bit on the old side,” but veteran status does have its perks.
“I like to think that I’m the same guy, but I just feel like I have more of a platform to speak on,” Hartline said. “I like to be a guy that typically doesn’t speak too much and leads by example, so I don’t talk a whole lot, but when I do, I think it carries merit, it carries weight.
“I like where I’m at now and how I can be myself. I’m not catching my tongue all the time like you are when you’re younger.”
His tongue is just about the only thing Hartline’s not catching these days.