3rd & Long: Dolphins Shake Up Tight End Position
Miami’s selection of Hunter Long in the third round of the NFL Draft turned some heads amongst Dolphins fans. JMR looks at what it means for the Tight End position in 2021 and beyond:
With fans of the Miami Dolphins still processing the impressive, yet somewhat surprising second round, cornerback Byron Jones made his way to the podium on stage in Cleveland at the 2021 NFL draft.
SURELY this would be a running back or a center? Large sections of the Dolphins fanbase were still feeling sore after the Broncos traded above them to select Javonte Williams. Other sections, myself included, were sure the pick would be Quinn Meinerz, a center with tonnes of personality who was surprisingly still available. Then there was Jabril Cox and Baron Browning, who would help out the linebacker group and again were still sat waiting to hear their names called. Byron Jones thanked the Dolphins organisation for the chance to represent the team, and announced the pick…
Hunter Long, Tight End, Boston College.
Tight End… Tight. End.
Fans across the world were taken aback. Terms like “Head Scratcher” scattered across Twitter from the NFL Draft community. Miami have tight ends; a playmaker in Mike Gesicki with other productive, complimentary pieces. This is one position that Miami were confident in, the group was complete… until pick #81 when Hunter Long entered the mix.
Confusion became intrigue. The more you watch highlights of Long, the more you realise he has a mountain of upside. Dolphins fans started to recognise that Grier had made the pick for a talented, no nonsense presence that could be very productive in the NFL.
So here I am, trying to answer the one major question still remaining surrounding this pick… Where does he fit? Here I look at the various tight ends on Miami’s roster and try and see where Hunter Long makes his impact.
Hunter Long - Rookie
So who is Hunter Long and why are we talking about him? The tight end out of Boston College was drafted at #81 in the third round of 2021 NFL draft. The Dolphins spent a third round pick to get Long while there were some good options at clear positions of need. Tight end wasn’t only not a need, but it was one of Miami’s positions of strength in 202. Their core TE group combined for 1,061 yards and 11 TDs last season, and position coach George Godsey impressed enough to be promoted to co-offensive co-ordinator for the 2021 season. So with that in mind the selection of Hunter Long came as a surprise, but upon further reflection, maybe that shouldn’t be the case.
Coach Brian Flores is also a BC guy and likes the no nonsense, hard graft style that Hunter Long will bring. Redshirted his freshman year but played regularly in his other three years – and heavily – he totalled 1,297 yards with 9 TDs, showing his potential in a pass game. With Miami often running two tight end systems, Hunter Long becomes a real and valid weapon for Tua Tagovailoa whilst also being competent in the passing game.
He is well placed as a third round pick, although some analysts suggest he will need to improve his hands and ball security – plus improve his efficiency to maximise his athletic profile – if his high college production is to translate into the pro game.
That aside though, Hunter Long being taken in the third round makes a tonne of sense, so why such a shock for Miami? Next we will look at the existing TEs on the Miami roster before predicting where the talented Long could fit in.
Gesicki is a roster lock for the Dolphins heading into the 2021 campaign. Coming into his fourth year as a Dolphin he has developed into a legitimate offensive weapon who lines up from TE positions as well as in the slot. Over his time in Miami he has 1,475 yards to his name, 11 TDs and some spectacular, spectacular plays in his highlight reel. Hunter Long is not here to challenge Gesicki, but to compliment him. For now…
With Gesicki’s rookie deal running into his final year, if he is to stay a Miami Dolphin long-term he will need to sign an extension – and this is where issues could arise. Gesicki will want paying, and no doubt Miami will be happy to pay him, it’s just whether the two parties can agree on how much. Compared to other TE’s in the league, George Kittle ($15m p/y) and Travis Kelce ($14.3m p/y) currently set the market. With one of these a superbowl winner and the other with a superbowl appearance to their names, it makes sense to see them stay top of the money tree.
However the next highest TE earners are Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, both at divisional rivals the New England Patriots and both bringing in $12.5m p/y each. It is reasonable to think that Gesicki could want paying higher than both of these players – given his production, role in the team and lack of options elsewhere. If Miami don’t want to pay that, then someone else will; hell, the Patriots are paying Jonnu Smith more than Miami are paying Will Fuller!
With the new TV money about to hit and the cap number due to rise significantly, Gesicki will become an expensive person to keep around. With another improving year, there are scenarios where Miami will pay him what he wants, but there are also scenarios where he feels he can earn more elsewhere and we see him leave.
Hunter Long could well be being lined up to compliment Gesicki in the short term, and replace him should he seek a highly paid new home.
Shaheen was a new signing last year, after a trade with the Chicago Bears. He will be entering his fifth year; his second in Miami after three in Chicago. Shaheen proved quite productive for Miami this year, brought in for short yardage pick ups, doing his bit to move the chains on short plays to gain first downs.
His career totals are modest, with just 399 yards and 7 TD’s in his first four years. However when you consider that 150 yards and 3 of his touchdowns came last year for Miami, perhaps he has found a team and scheme which can maximise his production.
Shaheen recently signed a two year extension which, along with his reliability for short yardage gains and ability to truck through linemen, means it would be a surprise to see him leave the team in the immediate future to create room for Long.
Drafted the same year as TE1 Mike Gesicki, the two players have formed a quite incredible bond over their time together. Smythe has been doing the dirty work, whilst Gesicki stole the headlines with his highlight plays. In fact it took until this last season for Smythe to register his first touchdown for the Dolphins, one which was wildly celebrated by his team mates, not least by Gesicki who charged down the touchline to share his joy. Smythe finished the last season 208 yards and 2 TD’s. However his total stats over three years are not that much greater than last year alone, with a total of 323 yards and 2 TD’s.
Drafted in the same year as Gesicki, he is also due a contract extension at the end of the 2021 campaign. He would be significantly cheaper to extend than his close friend, but with less production in reserve, so it makes sense that some areas of the fanbase are speculating that Hunter Long could pick up where Durham Smythe leaves off.
This is where we discuss names listed as tight ends, but that feels somewhat false. Cethin Carter will not be expecting or expected to take many if any snaps from the tight end position and has mainly been signed to play special teams. This deal is not too different to the one signed by Clayton Fejedelem, who is listed as a safety but viewed similar to Carter. Carter is starting his 5th year in the NFL after spending 4 years at the Bengals as a UDFA, before signing a 3 year deal with the Dolphins this offseason. In his 4 years in Cincinnati he totalled a mere 7 career receptions for 66 yards and 1 TD. Yet in the three years he stayed healthy, he never saw less than 63% of special teams snaps. He has been brought in to contribute but that shouldn’t affect the situation surrounding Hunter Long.
Myarick feels like a camp body and nothing more at this stage. He joined Miami as an UDFA in 2019 and spent the entire year on the practice squad. In his second year post-draft he was waived and then picked up again to dress for four and appear in three games. Within this two-year stint he has yet to record a single statistic. As the room gets crowded, we can expect Myarick to be cut/waived again, with his number on speed dial in event of an injury crisis.
So lets rule out the final two names straight away. Myarick seems unlikely to make it through camp, and Carter, while listed as a tight end, is a special teams specific player. It’s the four remaining names where the questions are.
Gesicki will remain Miami’s TE1 for the upcoming season. He has a unique athleticism, superior catch radius and provides an offensive weapon that would be near impossible for a rookie TE to replace. This is also the reason that Miami would look to extend him, although that will come down to the price tag required to do so. That said, I am sure Miami will remain confident in finding an agreement with such a major offensive playmaker.
The two short-yardage men are probably more at risk at this stage. Shaheen edged it in terms of 2020 TD’s, whilst Smythe had the edge in 2020 yardage. Smythe also gained more first downs, however Shaheen was able to convert a higher percentage of his receptions into those first downs. So depending on the statistics you look at, you could make a case on either one being the better option, but in reality they are neck and neck. Should Miami look to run with three TEs, you have to assume that Gesicki and Long will fill two of those spots and the final one will come down to one of Shaheen and Smythe.
This makes sense too, with Shaheen and Smythe both specialising as blocking TEs with short-yardage play potential, and Gesicki being more of a big play target. Long could come in and bridge the gap; be that 6-8 yard target to push the offense forward and use his powerful running for extra yards after catch.
My prediction is that Miami will probably try and find a way to run with 4 TE’s on the roster this year. Last year they carried Chandler Cox at full back for a lot of the season, and he barely dressed for game day. With him now out of the picture, Shaheen and Smythe could line up at full back as well as their primary duties. With two of the four players in a contract year, keeping all four TE’s on the roster seems like a logical way of maintaining security at the position.
In the medium to long term I expect Miami to try and re-sign both Smythe and Gesicki – if their cap numbers make that possible – and building a three-TE set that is capable and complimentary of each other. Keeping the close bond between Gesicki and Smythe could provide an environment for Long to join and thrive, and with Smythe stepping up significantly last year I could see a further jump this year. In today’s 4 TE room, I envision him passing Shaheen as the more clear TE3.
In summary, the pick of Hunter Long was a surprise, and even underwhelming on the night for a lot of the fan base. But upon reflection it seems like a very smart move. Miami are getting a very good football player who can do things at his position that doesn’t come naturally to the men already in the room. He has high intellect and ability, and an attitude that Coach Flores will be excited by.
I expect the Dolphins to roll with 4 TE’s this year – giving Long chance to grow, Smyth further opportunity to develop, Gesicki chance to ball out, all whilst keeping Shaheen in there as a safety net. But at the end of this year, don’t be surprised if there is a more clear TE1, 2 and 3 forming with Adam Shaheen my prediction to be the face that doesn’t fit in the long term.
With the 81st pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Miami Dolphins selected evolution of an already thriving position room. They selected their best player available and they selected not to accept good, instead aiming for great.
What started as a surprising pick, could well turn into the smartest move of their 2021 draft process.