Michael Egnew: Tight end. Fullback. Slot receiver. Ostrich?
That’s the comparison that offensive coordinator Mike Sherman made regarding Egnew’s body type while discussing how the second-year Missouri product has become the catalyst in an evolving Dolphins’ offense.
In the three games since the bye week, Miami’s coaching staff has more than doubled Egnew’s time on the field, and it’s no coincidence that the running game has thrived in that time period.
“I’m real proud of Michael Egnew,” Sherman said leading up to the Dolphins’ 22-20 win against the Bengals. “A couple weeks ago we didn’t have a fullback and we were kind of one-dimensional.”
The Dolphins waived Tyler Clutts, the only true fullback on the roster, on Oct. 1. In the ensuing game, they gained just 22 rushing yards in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Then came the bye week.
“The coaches asked me if I know every position on the offense, and I do,” Egnew said. “They said, ‘What if we put you at fullback? Could you play some fullback?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I could do that if you wanted me to.’ ”
Before the week off, Egnew averaged 10 offensive plays per game. Since the bye, that number has jumped to 21, including a season-high 30 snaps in Thursday’s win against Cincinnati.
Listed as a tight end, Egnew has seen more and more time lining up as a fullback in the I-formation in recent weeks.
Sherman joked Monday that Egnew’s long legs resemble those of an ostrich. More seriously, he explained how a long-legged body type can present a challenge at fullback.
“The further your hips are from the ground, the tougher it is to play fullback in my mind,” Sherman said.
Although Egnew doesn’t stand quite as tall as his listed height of 6-5, most coaches prefer fullbacks at or under 6-0 because their low center of gravity gives them a natural advantage when run blocking.
While Egnew said he always reminds himself to stay low when blocking, he doesn’t seem to think that his height has held him back while playing fullback. The team’s recent rushing success certainly seems to show that Egnew’s performance is making a difference, even if he doesn’t look the part.
Since returning from the bye, the Dolphins have set season highs in rushing yardage in three consecutive games — 120 yards against Buffalo, 156 at New England and 157 Thursday — while also systematically increasing the use of traditional power formations that utilize Egnew as either a second tight end or a fullback.
Thursday, with slot receiver Brandon Gibson sidelined for the season, the Dolphins went a step further, using Will Yeatman as a sixth offensive lineman 12 times.
But if Egnew were only used as a blocker, the rush offense wouldn’t be nearly as effective.
The Dolphins demonstrated Thursday that while their running game has improved, it’s still not quite good enough to pick up first downs when the defense knows a run is coming. In Thursday’s three third-and-1 rush attempts, a 13-yard carry by Charles Clay was the only conversion, with running back Daniel Thomas getting stuffed twice.
But the versatility of Egnew and Clay — who also plays tight end, fullback and slot receiver — gives the Dolphins a schematic advantage.
NFL defenses are allowed to substitute after the offense makes its changes, attempting to mirror personnel. If a third or fourth wide receiver enters the game, the defense anticipates a pass and will often send a fifth or sixth defensive back onto the field. If just one or two receivers are on the field, the defense will typically use base personnel with seven combined linebackers and linemen.
But because Egnew and Clay can line up in a variety of positions, the defense has a difficult time knowing what to expect.
“Sherman is an awesome offensive mind,” Egnew said of his coordinator. “When he learns that we have players that can play different positions, it just helps develop the entire offense. Instead of being a one-minded offense, now that we have some guys that can play fullback in me and Clay, we add another dynamic to the running game.”
The pair allows the Dolphins to line up either of them at fullback to create a formation advantageous for running. But if the defense stays in base personnel, Clay and Egnew could both line up as slot receivers. What looked like a power formation to the defense is now a four-wide shotgun set, and slower linebackers who may be uncomfortable in coverage are forced to play in wide open spaces.
No one will confuse Egnew with Jimmy Graham, but his pass-catching skills are just good enough to leverage an advantage when needed. Of Egnew’s three catches this season, two came from lining up as a slot receiver.
Given the team’s lack of depth at receiver and 5.03 yards per carry rushing since the bye week, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Egnew featured about as much as he was Thursday, playing somewhere between one-third and one-half of the Dolphins’ offensive snaps. But given his versatility, what position should Egnew be labeled as?
Tight end? Fullback?
“I just consider myself one of those guys who can play any position,” Egnew said. “If I’m playing the ostrich, I guess that’s all right, too.”