Armando Salguero

Miami Dolphins work at tight end position most intriguing upgrade so far

Anthony Fasano returns to the Dolphins and will be key to helping the running game.
Anthony Fasano returns to the Dolphins and will be key to helping the running game. Miami Herald Staff

Yes, the Dolphins have filled an enormous void at defensive end the past two days by re-signing Andre Branch and trading for Williams Hayes.

Yes, the much needed upgrade at guard has begun because Ted Larsen is visiting Friday and expects to sign a three-year deal (per the Chicago Tribune) for approximately $9 million and that leaves only one guard spot unattended.

Yes, the Dolphins are in the midst of trying to address their terrible (30th in the NFL) run defense from a year ago by adding Lawrence Timmons or Zach Brown at middle linebacker, moving Kiko Alonso to weak side linebacker and signing Alonso to a long-term deal as well.

Yes, safety Nate Allen is also visiting Friday so the Dolphins hope to address the void left by cutting Isa Abdul-Quddus.

And, yeah, the Dolphins are doing right by keeping their own players and getting guys to come for less money and being disciplined with their money. All good.

But you know the moves that have me most interested in what the Dolphins have done so far this offseason?

The tight ends.

I love what the Dolphins are doing at tight end.

I’ve long been a proponent of great tight end play. I wanted the Dolphins to draft Jimmy Graham. I wanted the Dolphins to trade for Jimmy Graham. I wanted the Dolphins to keep Charles Clay. I was hopeful when they added Jordan Cameron.

The tight ends are a thing for me because, well, they’re a thing in the NFL.

The Patriots (yes, them again) have had good, often great, tight end play for years. They are able to do things with their tight ends that diversify their offense and other teams try to copy.

And the reason for this is ... tight ends catch touchdown passes in the red zone.

Tight ends are a matchup nightmare for defenses and it boggles my mind that more teams don’t value the position like they do wide receiver. I would argue a great tight end is more valuable than a great wide receiver and I’ll explain that in a second.

Anyway, the Dolphins this offseason have addressed their tight end position. They traded for Julius Thomas. They signed Anthony Fasano. They lowered their cost at the position. They increased the versatility at that vital spot.

Like it.

Now, the scoffers and mockers are going to read that and say, “The Dolphins added an always-injured Julius Thomas who doesn’t block and was terrible in Jacksonville. And they added a back-end-of-the-career Anthony Fasano for maybe a year.”

(Scoffers are not good people. They don’t love big sloppy dogs or the American flag).

But I understand the criticism. The Dolphins probably understand. You should, too, because there is no guarantee the scenario I’m about to lay on you will work all the time or even a significant portion of the time if Thomas and Fasano are off their game or injured.

But ...

Suppose both players are available...

The Dolphins last year were an 11 base offense. That means the team had one running back, one tight end, and three receivers on the field most of the time.

That’s not what coach Adam Gase has traditionally wanted to do. Yes, he likes being an 11 team and that will continue, but he loves the versatility of being a 12 team as well.

A 12 offense is one running back and two tight ends. That look also obviously has only two wide receivers on the field.

The addition of Thomas and Fasano will now give Gase the flexibility of being either an 11 or 12 team. And it does so with players comfortable doing what they’ll be asked to do.

Last year when the Dolphins asked Dion Sims to flank out wide, he showed a level of discomfort that was apparent. He’s not that guy. He’s not a Graham or Gronk or even any of the mid-tier guys who are comfortable working in space.

Guess who is comfortable doing that?

Julius Thomas.

He’s so comfortable doing it, he caught 12 touchdown passes for the Broncos in 2013. And he did it again in 2014. The offensive coordinator in Denver in ‘13 and ‘14?

Adam Gase.

Now, I get it, when Thomas left Denver and went to Jacksonville, his production dropped. He had five touchdowns in 2015 and four last season. You know why?

Because the Jaguars are a horrible team and the way to be that is by doing loser things like signing Julius Thomas to a huge contract and then taking him out of the lineup in the red zone. That is what the Jaguars did a lot the past two years.

Thomas, a great red zone threat, was only a part-timer in Jacksonville’s red zone offense.

Amazing.

Thomas will be part of Miami’s red zone offense. That’s his deal. That’s what he does. He catches TD passes in the red zone.

But what about blocking?

Blocking is a necessary part of what a tight end does, and Thomas has been criticized for his blocking. But make no mistake, he is still a contributor in the running game.

The reason for that is when the Dolphins flank Thomas out wide, a linebacker -- or a strong safety if Thomas is playing great -- will have to be out there with him. That means one less defender in the tackle box. That means one less man to beat for running back Jay Ajayi.

The Dolphins weren’t able to get that look and threaten the defense convincingly enough with their flanked tight ends last season so Ajayi had to take on that extra defender or the blocking had to somehow account for him.

Thomas solves that issue. And, yes, he does so from Day 1 because he knows the Dolphins offense. He is, by all accounts, a bright guy. He knows Gase’s offense because he played in it for two years.

If he stays healthy, he should be good.

And that is the reason a red zone threat tight end who helps the running game merely by where he lines up is as valuable as a playmaking receiver.

Fasano?

Well, rather than pay Dion Sims $6 million per year, the Dolphins paid Fasano $3 million for one season. And that sounds like a stopgap move because, well, it is.

But it is also an upgrade in my estimation because Fasano replaces a good blocker in Sims. And Fasano is better, according to all the metrics at ProFootballFocus.com and what I’ve been told privately.

Fasano, 33 next month, caught only eight passes for the Tennessee Titans last season. Yeah, um, the Titans were the No. 3 rushing offense in the NFL a season ago, averaging 136.7 yards per game.

And among tight ends, Fasano was graded the No. 1 run blocker by PFF. Dion Sims was rated No. 41.

No. 41!

Six million dollars a year for No. 41.

I recognize some have issues with ProFootballFocus metrics and I understand the skepticism. But when 40 spots separate one player grade from the next, you cannot argue the one is better than the other in the area we’re focused on -- run blocking.

By the way, Fasano was the No. 4-rated pass blocker, per PFF, so there’s that.

“I think [blocking] is an important part of the position -- somewhat of a lost art in the NFL nowadays -- so it’s something I take great pride in. I do believe to be a good football team you need to be a good running team, and good running teams have good blocking tight ends.

“It takes everybody on the field on offense, but I take pride in my run blocking. I’m not too up on who keep those stats but I’ll take them where I can get them.”

So ... let’s recap.

Last year the Dolphins had Jordan Cameron as their pass catcher. He didn’t fit when he was healthy and then missed most of the season after suffering a concussion. He’s being replaced this year by Julius Thomas, who caught 24 freakin’ touchdowns in two seasons the last time he played for Adam Gase.

Upgrade.

Last year the Dolphins pinned hopes on Dion Sims to replace Cameron when the injury happened. But Sims wasn’t then and probably will never be a pass-catcher type. So they used him as a blocker. That’s understandable. Except this year they’re replacing Sims with a better run blocker and it happens with no pretense about what Anthony Fasano will be doing when he’s on the field.

So the Dolphins, sort of predictable last season having to rely mostly on their 11 look, will this year be able to throw that and a viable 12 look at teams as well.

Upgrade.

I’m interested in this because it promises a better run game and, of course, having tight ends catch touchdown passes in the red zone is wonderful.

Follw Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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