Young Tight Ends Ready To Step Up

Posted Aug 18, 2013

Dolphins depth offers players with different talents.

The signing of veteran Dustin Keller as a free agent was the Dolphins’ most significant move at tight end in the offseason, but they’ve also used the draft to try to build up some depth at the position.

The time may have come to try to cash in on those moves.

With Keller sustaining an injury Saturday night against Houston that by all appearances was serious, bigger roles could be on the agenda for one or more of the Dolphins’ three recent draft picks at tight end — third-year veteran Charles Clay, second-year player Michael Egnew and rookie Dion Sims.

“Dustin brought a lot to the table for us,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said after the game Saturday night. “He’s a great player and it’s a tough situation. But at the end of the day we have to have somebody step up and play in his shoes. We have a good tight end room with Egnew, Clay, Dion, and those guys are going to have to step up and fill the void. I think we have the guys in the room to (succeed).”

In the aftermath of Keller’s injury Saturday night, Head Coach Joe Philbin was asked how difficult it would be replace the veteran’s downfield pass-catching ability if the injury turned out to be as serious as television replays would portend.

Keller, signed after he spent his first five NFL seasons with the New York Jets, had shown off that ability throughout training camp and certainly during the 27-3 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second preseason game.

“We have other guys that have caught the ball down the middle,” Philbin said. “We’ve got some big targets. Egnew is a big man. Dion Sims is a big man. Clay has caught the ball down the middle before. We’ll adjust.”

Clay clearly is the most experienced of the three, but he’s always been more of a hybrid player since joining the Dolphins as a sixth-round pick in 2010. As proof, he is listed as a fullback/tight end on the Miami roster.

In fact, Clay’s calling card at the University of Tulsa was his amazing versatility — he played tailback, fullback, tight end, split receiver, Wildcat quarterback and even got snaps at linebacker and defensive end.

“I’ve been working real hard, not only at fullback but tight end,” Clay said. “Like I said, we’ll just get back to this week of practice and we’ll see where it goes from there. If I’m the next up, I’m going to go out there and give it everything I’ve got.”

While immediately after the game Saturday night was too early to make any definitive plans at any position, Clay says he’s prepared to start focusing more on the tight end position if that’s what the coaching staff wants.

“It’s been something that I’ve worked on a lot,” Clay said. “It dates back to last season and this offseason. It’s something that I feel comfortable doing, but it’s something I also feel I need work on as well.”

Keller didn’t start against Houston on Saturday night; lining up at tight end instead was Sims, the rookie fourth-round pick from Michigan State.

While he obviously lacks NFL experience, Sims has impressed this summer with a nice combination of blocking and pass-catching potential.

He also showed late Saturday night that confidence won’t be an issue if he’s called upon to play a bigger role, maybe even start.

“Definitely, I’m ready to go,” Sims said. “I’ve been ready to go since I first stepped foot down there at the facility. I’m ready to go.”

Egnew, for his part, has earned praise from Philbin this season for his improvement after what could only be described as a disappointing rookie season.

After being drafted by the Dolphins in the third round, Egnew wound up being inactive for all but two games in 2012, but he’s clearly a better player this summer. Egnew is tied with running back Jonas Gray for second-most catches on the team in the preseason with five, two behind wide receiver Chad Bumphis.

The wild card in the tight end group is Kyle Miller, a second-year player who the Dolphins claimed off waivers from Indianapolis last November. Miller was inactive for all six games he was on the Dolphins roster last season, but flashed intriguing pass-catching ability both this spring and early in camp.

Miller, though, hasn’t practiced since the Hall of Fame Game and he sat out against both Jacksonville and Houston.

Clay, Egnew and Sims all played between 18 and 29 offensive snaps against the Texans, but it wasn’t a night to remember for any of them.

Egnew was the only one of the three to catch a pass, a 14-yard connection with Aaron Corp in the fourth quarter. In the first quarter, Egnew was called for holding and Clay for a false start on consecutive plays; Sims was flagged for holding in the second quarter and also dropped two catchable passes.

The Dolphins are hoping for, maybe even counting on, better days ahead for all of them.

“Early in the game we had three penalties out of the three tight ends, which wasn’t good,” Philbin said. “But I thought they settled in and played better as the game went on. I like the guys we have. Again, we have to see what happens. It’s very early in this whole process. We’ll take a look at what we have, what our options might be.”

Said veteran offensive tackle Tyson Clabo: “Anytime you lose a guy like (Keller) you’re going to miss him. But that’s the nature of the league. These things happen to everybody. Every year somebody loses somebody important. People have to step in. Roles change constantly. Your role as someone who might not be getting as many snaps … somebody gets hurt, and the next thing you know your role changes and you have to be ready for that. So somebody should take advantage of their opportunity. I feel that we have some really good young tight ends that can step in and make an impact.”
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