Already blessed with the NFL’s most destructive tight end in Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriots further strengthened themselves at the position by trading for Martellus Bennett, giving them two tight ends who combined last season for 125 receptions and 1,615 yards.
If the Dolphins get even half of that yardage production from their top two tight ends this season, it will be reason for a parade.
Tight ends were often an afterthought in the Dolphins’ passing game last season, with Jordan Cameron (35-386-3 touchdowns) and Dion Sims (18-127-1) combining for 53 catches and 513 yards. They weren’t prominently featured early in training camp or in Friday’s win against the Giants.
But they made a bunch of catches in practice this week, and Dolphins coaches are clear that they want to incorporate them more in the passing game.
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“We need some big plays out of that room,” offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said. “That’s where your matchups are on third down. They’ve got to win and we’ve got to have some good stuff for them. We’re not there yet.”
Cameron said he accepted a $1.5 million pay cut, to $6 million, to stay with Miami partly because “one of my good friends, [Jaguars and former Broncos tight end] Julius Thomas, who played for [Adam Gase], said, ‘You've got to play for this guy.’ He does a good job of putting [tight ends] in spots to succeed.”
But Cameron said this week he isn’t sure how much more he will be targeted this season and “I’m tired of… these questions about my role; I really don’t care. I want to win. I haven’t won. I haven’t had a winning season in the NFL. I’m tired of that.”
The utilization of Cameron last season was puzzling considering he caught 80 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns for Cleveland in 2013, then averaged 17.7 yards on 24 catches in 10 games for the Browns in 2014.
But two things happened: The previous offensive staff asked Cameron to block more than he ever has. And his chemistry with Ryan Tannehill wasn’t very good.
Cameron caught only 50 percent of the 70 passes thrown to him. Among 51 qualifying tight ends, only Jacksonville’s Marcedes Lewis caught a lower percentage (43 percent).
Most good tight ends catch more than 60 percent of their targets, some more than 70 percent, including league leader Brent Celek (77 percent). Gronkowski was at 60 percent and Sims was at 72 percent, though Sims was thrown only 25 passes. In Cameron’s defense, some of his targets were deep throws.
Cameron’s low completion percentage, in the eyes of coaches, was partly a byproduct of erratic throws but also the result of Cameron’s inability to come down with enough contested balls despite his 6-5 frame.
“Contested passes — that’s something Jordan specifically is really working on,” tight ends coach Shane Day said.
So can the Dolphins ever expect the type of production from Cameron that he gave the Browns?
“I don’t want to predict anything,” Gase said Tuesday. “I feel like what’s going on with him right now is that there’s a little bit of a learning curve for him. We went through some struggles there in the spring and a little bit at the beginning of camp. The thing about the tight end position is that there’s a lot of responsibility you have. It’s just a lot on his plate. I went through the same growing pains with Julius Thomas. It wasn’t like that thing happened overnight.”
With Sims, Gase made clear in March that “potential has been used a lot with Dion. I told him this is probably the year we get this thing rolling.”
Day said Sims is “learning to use more of his size along with his speed, use more of his length to his advantage.”
What’s unclear is whether a legitimate No. 3 tight end emerges among MarQueis Gray, Dominique Jones, undrafted longshot Gabe Hughes and seventh-round rookie Thomas Duarte.
Duarte caught a touchdown against the Giants and must “utilize his strengths, which are his quickness and speed,” Day said.
And from a blocking perspective, “we’re kind of starting from ground zero because at UCLA he really wasn’t asked to play in-line tight end,” Day said.
So how did Duarte do with in-line blocking against the Giants?
“There’s a little bit of a learning curve there for him,” Gase said. “I know the effort is there… I see improvement.”
Gase has been pushing his tight ends hard, and Cameron said: “He holds us to a high standard. We’ve got to make the plays when they’re there for us.”