Last season was supposed to be the year when the Dolphins finally caught up to the rest of the NFL in extracting more from their tight ends in the passing game. It never happened.
September addition Nick O’Leary, injured A.J. Derby and rookies Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe combined for just 39 catches for 386 yards – among the lowest contributions in the league at that position.
Now veterans Dwayne Allen (a skilled blocker who caught just three passes for 27 yards for the Patriots last season) and Clive Walford (nine total catches since 2017) have joined that group.
So is there realistic hope that the position will become more productive with a new quarterback and new play-caller (Chad O’Shea)? Two points of encouragement:
1) Gesicki has made several catches for sizable gains during offseason practices – on passes from both Josh Rosen and Ryan Fitzpatrick - including a terrific catch during Tuesday’s minicamp session. (And yes, we know, nothing from May/June practices should be overstated.) 2) A bunch of NFL tight ends took major steps in year two after modest production during their first seasons. (More on that later.)
That said, nobody knows if Gesicki will amount to a longterm starter, let alone anything more than that. He and Brian Flores had a chat Wednesday morning.
“I talked to him about this,” Flores said. “One drop is one too many; one penalty is one too many; one missed assignment is one too many. That’s kind of the standard, the approach we’re taking. I’m hard on Mike because I see a lot of potential in him, and I think he’s working towards that. He’s very talented. He’s working very, very hard. He’s catching the ball decently.”
Some points to consider:
▪ Gesicki’s rookie numbers (22 catches in 31 targets, 202 yards, no touchdowns) were well short of two tight ends drafted after him: Philadelphia’s Dallas Goedert (33-334, four touchdowns) and Baltimore’s Mark Andrews (34-552, three touchdowns).
Gesicki played only 45 percent of Miami’s offensive downs because of six reasons primarily: 1) Blocking shortcomings. He allowed two sacks and PFF rated him 67th among 70 tight ends in blocking; 2) The Dolphins considered O’Leary a more polished and advanced all-around player, even though O’Leary allowed five sacks (most among NFL tight ends); 3) They considered since-released Derby (when healthy) better at running certain routes.
4) Smythe is a better blocker; 5) Adam Gase was surprised when opponents double-teamed Gesicki at times before he had proven anything as an NFL player. 6) When he wasn’t doubled, Gesicki wasn’t consistent enough generating separation from defensive players.
All that said, the Dolphins did see some growth. And because Allen’s strength is blocking, his addition shouldn’t dramatically affect Gesicki’s role.
“There are some things that Mike does that are special, that other guys can’t do,” Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “[But there is] a lot of room for improvement.”
Shane Day, the Dolphins tight ends coach before being replaced by George Godsey, said before departing that one challenge for Gesicki is becoming better at shaking defenders when single-covered.
“He’s had some opportunities [last season] where he’s had man coverage and when he has man coverage, he has been open on occasion,” said Day, who’s now with the 49ers. “He has to consistently be able to do it over and over.
“As he develops more route technique and more subtlety and nuance in those techniques, he will be able to shake those defenders. You would see him do it in practice and you see it in games from time to time.”
Godsey makes this clear when talking about all his tight ends: “When the tight end is just three guys down the line, they have to get open. That’s part of our deal: get open and catch the ball.”
▪ But the former staff mistakenly used Gesicki too much as a blocker. Per Dolphins blogger Chris Kouffman, Gesicki pass blocked on 19 percent of his snaps last season.
As Kouffman noted, when Godsey was in New England in 2011 and 2012, deceased former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez pass blocked only 4 percent of the time.
This was the most telling thing Godsey said this offseason: “I think the big thing is identifying their strengths and trying to use those as much [as you can], and identifying their weaknesses and trying to stay away from that as much. If there’s a tight end that maybe isn’t as good of a blocker, not that we’re not going to call on him to block, but maybe we’ll try to utilize him a little bit more in the passing game.”
So it seems likely that Gesicki won’t be asked to block as much as he did last year, and that’s a good thing.
“I think it’s a big year for him, year one to year two,” Godsey said of Gesicki. “We’re trying to see and use what he does well. As a taller, longer guy, he covers ground quickly. He might be a long strider but those strides are pretty quick. We’ll ask for him to do what he does best more frequently than the other stuff.”
▪ Here’s the reason why the Dolphins still have hopes for Gesicki:
His receiving skills are clearly NFL caliber.
“He has really good hands and really good ability to jump and go get the ball,” Day said. “It’s just learning to beat defenders off the line of scrimmage and be able to adjust to balls in the air. He does have the ability to go up and get it. He’s got to get everything to come together and when it does you’re going to see a big jump. It’s never gradual. Everything comes together and it’s just like ‘bam’.”
▪ If you look at the top seven tight ends in receiving yards last season, all of them took huge jumps in year two.
Travis Kelce, who led NFL tight ends in receiving yards, went from no catches as a rookie to 67 for 862 yards in year two. Zach Ertz went from 36-469 in year one to 58-702 in year two.
Jared Cook, fourth among tight ends in receptions last season, went from 9-74 to 29-351, Eric Ebron from 25-248 to 47-537. Rob Gronkowski jumped from 42-556 to 90-1327, and Jimmy Graham from 37-356 to 99-1310.
“Guys that are the premier guys, when you look at their first year, there is not nearly the production you have seen in later years, like with Ertz and Kelce,” Day said.
▪ Gesicki has added 13 pounds, to 253, and said this week he has improved as a blocker. “I just feel more comfortable out there playing,” he said. “Game’s starting to slow down a little bit, more prepared, feel like I’m in better shape.”
▪ As for Allen, his run blocking last season ranked 27th among 70 qualifying tight ends, per PFF.
Allen’s pass blocking would have ranked only 50th, but the Dolphins believe he’s better than that.
He missed much of the offseason program with an undisclosed injury.
The Allen signing suggests there was no conviction internally that Smythe was ready to become an elite blocker.
PFF gave Allen a far better grade as a run blocker than Smythe last season but gave Smythe a far better grade as a pass blocker. O’Leary’s blocking grades were comparable to Allen’s, per PFF.
Smythe – who played 176 offensive snaps compared with 400 for Gesicki and 373 for O’Leary – “had a lot more opportunities [late last season] and took advantage of those,” Day said. “Pass protection, run blocking, caught some nice catches, run some nice routes.”
What does Smythe do best? “I would say blocking – he’s obviously a good blocker - but he’s a really good receiver,” Day said. “He has really good hands, has a knack for getting open. Might not have the top end speed you’re looking for at other positions, but he has a really good feel for routes.”
But if the Dolphins had a conviction that Smythe was ready for a huge role, it’s doubtful they would have signed Allen.
▪ Smythe should be most impacted by Allen’s signing. Per Kouffman, Allen lined up 57 percent of the time next to an offensive tackle with the Patriots. Last season with Miami, Smythe played 91 percent of his snaps next to the tackle and O’Leary 72 percent.
▪ If the Dolphins keep four tight ends among Gesicki, Allen, Smythe, O’Leary and Walford, then O’Leary and Walford could be fighting for one job.
Walford made a few catches during practices open to reporters but played in just one game last season (for the Jets). He has 70 catches for 768 yards and six touchdowns in four NFL seasons, with all of those receptions coming with Oakland.
▪ Day assures there are bright days ahead for Gesicki and Smythe. “They are made of the right stuff,” Day said. “They definitely want to be great players.”
We should know by December whether tight end has been solved or remains a problem that needs to be fixed in the 2020 draft.
Here’s my Thursday six-pack of Heat notes.