Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Training Camp Positional Preview: Wide Receivers

Next up in the series of positional previews are the wide receivers.

What to expect: The Dolphins receiving corps is somewhat of an enigma. It has great talent, experienced veterans, and promising young players. But somehow those elements can never seem to click. Instead, Miami's receivers are, above all else, maddeningly inconsistent. One receiver can rarely sustain great performance for more than a quarter or two, never mind over the course of several games. It's even rarer for a couple receivers to be hot at the same time, forcing critical mismatches against the opposing secondary. The unit also lacks a true leader. Chris Chambers should be that player, and he was in 2005, but he fell off considerably last year. Drops have been a particular plague for this group. However, big changes could be in store this season, and it's not primarily due to any change in the WR personnel. It's due to the guy who is slated to line up under center - Trent Green. Miami has not had a quarterback as accurate as Green in a long while. Trent Green has completed over 61% of his passes during each of the last five seasons. If he can stay healthy, that increased accuracy should at least help the WRs to find the consistency that they desperately need in order to be successful.

Here's a closer look at the individual receivers currently on the roster and what can be expected of them this coming season:

Chris Chambers
Always a player with eye-popping physical abilities, Chambers has struggled throughout his career to consistently perform at a high level. In 2005, he finally posted a season worthy of a Pro Bowl selection, and it seemed like Chambers had at last broken onto the scene as a veritable number one receiver. Then last season came and went, and Chambers' level of production fell off quite a bit. Perhaps his inconsistency can be attributed to the similar inconsistencies of his starting quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Truthfully, it would be hard for any player to continually adjust year in and year out to completely different QBs and coaches. But some of the blame must fall with Chambers. Far too often, he just fades away for whole chunks of games. That can't happen for a number one receiver. I'm not expecting him to take over every game (although it would be nice if he could do it more often), but even if he's not catching passes he still needs to find ways to spread the secondary out and draw double-teams his way in order to open up the field for his teammates. He also must correct his problem with drops. Last season, he was targeted 154 times, catching a grotesquely meager 38.3% of those passes and dropping the ball 8 times. Chambers already possesses those fringe luxury abilities like making circus catches and out-leaping most defenders - skills that most great receivers utilize. Now, he must find a way to lock down the mundane tasks like holding onto the ball and running crisper routes. Then again, he's 28 years old and entering his seventh season. It might be time to concede that at this point in his career, he is what he is. That being said, I'm not going to give up just yet on the prospect of Chambers finally becoming a complete player.

Marty Booker
Early in the offseason there were trade rumors swirling around Booker. There's still a chance that he may be traded or released before the season begins, but as the roster stands now, he's the most consistent option the Dolphins have at WR. Of course, if Miami can get good value in return for Booker I would not be against trading him away. Booker is a solid possession receiver who strangely has been a potent deep threat for Miami over the past few seasons, despite a lack of top speed. Booker is a very good No. 2 receiver, who unfortunately is playing on a team that doesn't boast a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. Chambers isn't consistently drawing as many double-teams as he should, and so Booker faces tighter coverage than many No. 2 receivers. He still manages to get open and he provides a confident target for the QB. Last season he was targeted 90 times, catching the ball a very solid 61.1% of the time.

Derek Hagan
Hagan had an unremarkable rookie season, although as the year progressed I was impressed by his ability to get open down field. Like all of the Dolphins receivers, though, he had problems with dropped passes. He was targeted 37 times, and he caught 56.8% of those passes, but he also dropped 5 of them. That's one more drop than Marty Booker had and Booker was targeted almost 3 times more often. Hagan didn't have a big problem with drops in college, so his rookie campaign might just have been a part of the rookie learning curve. Some people are claiming that Hagan's sophomore season will be his "breakout" season. While I think he will certainly improve upon last year's numbers, I think it's quite premature to predict that he will break out this year, especially since he'll be third on the depth chart behind Booker and facing pressure for playing time from Ted Ginn behind him. It's more likely that his second season will see some more learning mistakes as he continues to progress.

Ted Ginn
To start off, I think a bit too much emphasis is being placed on Ginn's foot injury. By all accounts he will be ready to participate in training camp. If the injury is still lingering around into August then it may be cause for concern, but not now. As far as what he brings to the table as a player, I think that can be summed up in one word - electricity. If the Miami offense has needed an injection of anything lately, it's certainly been some electricity. On most days, Ginn will be far and away the fastest player on the field, which will demand a defense's attention. His strength is going to be stretching the field on vertical pass plays. As he adjusts to being an NFL receiver, Ginn will be able to contribute immediately as a premier return man. His blazing speed renders initial pursuit-angles futile. As far as his weaknesses, he is very hesitant to run crossing routes over the middle of the field, and he has struggled to beat strong press coverage on the line. Also, while he excels on deep vertical routes, he is going to need to improve the rest of his route-running. I'm not so much concerned with his inability to catch over the middle since other guys like Marty Booker and Derek Hagan are more suited to those routes anyway, but I am worried about his ability to break away from a cornerback jamming him on the line. If he can't get good separation at the beginning of his route, his speed will be effectively neutralized. I expect Ginn to immediately make the Dolphins return game a true weapon. As a receiver, he'll have his struggles like every rookie receiver does. I'm not projecting him to be a star right away, but his presence alone will help to open this offense up, freeing up guys like Chris Chambers and Marty Booker from constant double-teams. Given a couple years to refine his receiving skills, Ginn has the potential to be as big of a threat for the offense as he will be in the return-game.

Az-Zahir Hakim
Hakim will be the most experienced WR involved in the battle for the fifth spot on the roster. He has the speed that the coaches covet and he possesses sure hands. Last season, he played in only 6 games for the Chargers, but he was targeted 27 times and caught 63% of those passes. It's unclear as to why Hakim played so sparingly last year, and it could be a sign that he is starting to slow down, as 2007 will be his tenth seasons in the NFL. But Cameron saw him first-hand in San Diego last season, so he should know whether he's starting to decline or not. He's going to face stiff competition from the younger players during training camp, and it will be important for Hakim to prove that he can still hang.

P.K. Sam
Sam will be the primary competitor against Hakim for the fifth WR spot. Sam has spent his career up to this point bouncing around practice squads, but he recently returned to the Dolphins from a successful NFL Europa campaign, during which he caught 32 passes for 529 yards and 3 TDs.

David Sutton
Sutton has become the attention of some hype following a very impressive minicamp. At this point, that's all it is though - hype. Sutton is the definition of a project player. Although he has incredible size standing 6'6", he is critically deficient in experience, having only played football for four years. From 2005-06, while playing for Texas-El Paso he recorded a measly 6 catches for 30 yards and a TD. The potential is there, however. With his size, Sutton could eventually become a legitimate red-zone and particularly goal-line threat. I couldn't think of a better place for this guy than the practice squad for this season.

Kerry Reed
Reed is a possession receiver who lacks the ideal speed to be a downfield threat. He could be a good red-zone target since he has good hands and concentration in traffic. It will be very difficult for Reed to crack the lineup since its so clogged above him.

Michael Malone
Most likely a camp body (Am I obligated to mention that Moses Malone is his father? As cool as that may be, it's not going to help him win a roster spot)

Marvin Allen
Allen will be on the team's practice squad this year as its designated International Practice Squad player. He won't count against any roster or practice squad limits, but he will not be able to be activated to the 53-man roster during the 2007 season.


Here's my predicted depth chart:

1. Chris Chambers
2. Marty Booker
3. Derek Hagan
4. Ted Ginn
5. Az-Zahir Hakim
6. David Sutton (practice squad)
7. Marvin Allen (practice squad)

Training camp battle to watch: Az-Zahir Hakim vs. P.K. Sam for the fifth WR spot.

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