Coaches say a team can never have too much talent, that having to make tough choices because of enviable depth is a good problem to have.
The Dolphins can say that about two positions this season – receiver and defensive line – and that has forced some difficult decisions about playing time.
At least two Dolphins aren’t happy about their snap counts, according to close associates. But to their credit, none have complained publicly.
Here’s how the Dolphins have dealt with playing time issues at their two deepest positions:
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▪ Receiver: Challenges have been created by the desire to incorporate rookie Jarvis Landry, who has impressed everyone.
Landry has caught 79.2 percent of the passes thrown to him (42 of 53). That’s the second-highest percentage in the league among players with at least 40 receptions, behind only New Orleans rookie Brandin Cooks, who caught 81.5 percent before being placed on injured reserve this week.
Landry is playing on 59 percent of Miami’s offensive snaps, behind Brian Hartline (83.5) and Mike Wallace (76.1) but well ahead of Brandon Gibson (41) and Rishard Matthews (22.8).
But as far as targets go, Wallace has by far the most (75), ranking 24th in the league, and Landry is second with 53, ranking 53rd.
Hartline’s targets are way down, to 47, ranking 62nd. (He had 127 last season.) Gibson has been targeted 20 times and Matthews just 12.
“If I need a breather, I try not to have one play out and run back in because I know the depth of guys we have and we can trust anyone we have,” Wallace said. “I try to take maybe two plays off at the least. It’s tough on guys.”
Gibson has seen his involvement diminish mostly because of Landry’s emergence. “You come to work every day and take advantage of your opportunities,” Gibson said. “That’s all you can do.”
Said Matthews: “It definitely takes sacrifice” among the receivers. “It’s knowing your role and being positive.”
▪ Defensive line: Among ends, Olivier Vernon has played 79.8 percent of Miami’s defensive snaps, Cameron Wake 74.9 percent and Derrick Shelby (who missed one game because of suspension) 38.8 percent.
Dion Jordan has averaged 24.8 snaps in his four games since returning from suspension, compared with 28.7 snaps per game this season for Shelby, 49.9 for Wake and 52.3 for Vernon.
Creating enough playing time for Jordan remains a challenge, but the Dolphins don’t feel pressure to get him on the field more, despite his lofty draft status (third overall in 2013).
Among tackles, Randy Starks’ snaps have plummeted from 46.4 per game last season to 34.4 this season.
“The good thing is you’ll be rested for the playoffs,” Starks said Thursday. “But it’s bad because it’s harder to get in rhythm and your production goes down.”
Because he’s not playing much on third down, “I’ve turned into a run-stopper, I guess.”
Jared Odrick has played the most among the tackles (79.4 percent of Miami’s defensive snaps), compared with 48.6 percent for Mitchell and 46.5 percent for Starks.
Coach Joe Philbin explained Odrick has received the most snaps among the tackles “because he has good enough size to handle the run snaps on first and second down [and] he’s got enough athleticism and pass-rush ability to contribute on third down. He’s a real three-down player.”
After the Detroit game, Pro Football Focus noted Mitchell “would be an every down player on most other rosters” but “is forced to split time in Miami” because of the team’s “embarrassment of riches along the defensive line.”
Mitchell, who hasn’t missed a tackle all season, says that’s fine with him. “I’m playing the right amount of snaps,” he said, adding that he might not feel as fresh if he played a lot more.
So how do the Dolphins coaches determine snap counts? Philbin said they have a “targeted number” for each player but they are adjusted during the game “if some guy’s hot and the other guy is not so hot.”
Tight end Charles Clay, who now has a hamstring injury on top of persistent issues with his knee, was listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game at Denver. Dion Sims is expected to start in his place unless Clay makes a surprisingly quick recovery.
Cornerback Cortland Finnegan (ankle) is also doubtful for the game.
Running back Lamar Miller, dealing with shoulder and knee issues, is listed as questionable but plans to play. Guard Daryn Colledge (back) is also listed as questionable. Linebacker Jonathan Freeny (hamstring) is out Sunday and expected to miss additional time.
▪ The Broncos will be without the two running backs who lead the team in carries: Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. Tight end Julius Thomas, who has 12 touchdown receptions, is questionable. Receiver Emmanuel Sanders passed a concussion test and is probable.