The Miami Dolphins have abandoned any illusion of a downfield passing attack. Among 37 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts this season, only Jared Goff and Mike White (6.2) have a lower average depth of target than Tua Tagovailoa (6.3).
Miami has built the passing offense around the RPO (20% of plays, per Sports Info Solutions) and the quick game. While there has been a ton of coverage around what that means for the quarterback and the sustainability of the offense — Tagovailoa has been fourth in EPA per dropback while 76.4% of his passes have been within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage since he returned from injury in Week 6, per TruMedia — the receivers that have allowed the offense to function in that way have been glossed over.
Much of this revolves around rookie Jaylen Waddle. When the Dolphins were involved in a pre-draft trade that sent the No. 3 overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers, Miami wanted to stay close enough to the top-5 to get one of the top offensive playmakers. Waddle was the pick and it was believed adding the Alabama speedster next to Will Fuller would open up a downfield element of the passing game that was not available in 2020.
That didn’t exactly go as planned. Waddle has just two receptions on targets of 20 or more air yards. Among 56 receivers with at least 50 targets through Week 12, Waddle ranks 48th in average depth of target (7.1) and 46th in average depth of completion (5.3), per SIS.
Early in the season, that usage wasn’t doing Waddle or the Dolphins any favors, but recently the offense has put the receiver in more advantageous situations and over the past four weeks, Waddle is fifth in yards per route run. Waddle is coming off his biggest game of the season with 137 yards. Overall, he’s seventh in the league in targets (107) and fifth in receptions (77).
Part of the recent improvement has been getting Waddle into space in the short area. With Waddle’s speed, he’s a threat to take any slant to the house but that wasn’t exactly his game at Alabama. He’s getting more involved in that aspect with more production on slants than his final two years in college.
Jaylen Waddle On Slants
|Year||Routes Run||Targets||Receptions||Yards||Air Yards||YAC|
Even some of that production has only come recently as the Dolphins have used Waddle’s speed to create bad angles for the defense, both before and after the snap. In Week 12 against the Carolina Panthers, the Dolphins faced a third-and-11 on their opening drive. Waddle was the No. 2 receiver in a trips set to the left of the formation. With the cornerback playing off on third and long, Waddle set up a longer vertical stem for the slant before to get the corner to backpedal. As Waddle made his break, the corner was well behind the receiver and Waddle created a path to turn up the field for 25 yards.
The spacing and angle creation worked midway through the second quarter on a second-and-8. The Dolphins started with a bunch to the right then motioned tight end Durham Smythe inside, which caused the defensive backs to back off the line. Preston Williams cleared out both corners with a vertical route, which left Waddle open on a shallow crosser. The deep safety took a bad angle in an attempt to cut Waddle off and left the receiver free to run for a 57-yard gain.
Miami has also gotten a little more creative in opening up that spacing. From Weeks 1-8, the Dolphins used pre-snap motion on 40% of their offensive snaps, which ranked 18th in the league per SIS. Over the past four weeks, that’s shot up to 61%, the third-highest rate.
Against the New York Jets in Week 11, the Dolphins motioned Smythe from the outside to the inside receiver in a tight bunch. Smythe joined the run blocking of an RPO that also saw Tagovailoa sprint out to his left after the keep. While the rest of Miami’s routes went that direction to pull the defense, Waddle ran a shallow crosser in the opposite direction while no one picked him up. Waddle was barely pushed out of bounds after 15 yards and it could have been an even bigger play.
Back to the Panthers game, the Dolphins had Waddle isolated to the left and motioned Albert Wilson across the formation into a flat route to Waddle’s side. With the defense dropping a safety deep and against a blitz, the middle of the field was clear for Waddle.
There has been a ton of getting Waddle in space across the middle of the field but one of the biggest areas Miami has used Waddle is on outs. With Waddle often lined up in the slot, the Dolphins have used that extra space to get Waddle to break to the outside. They’ve been able to use formation and the receiver’s speed to create those opportunities.
Against the Ravens, the Dolphins hid Waddle in a stack while Marlon Humphrey played off. Waddle broke out well before Humphrey could do anything in coverage and the Dolphins picked up a first down.
The Dolphins used another motion into a bunch to leave Waddle with tons of space on the outside against an off corner to break, catch the ball, and pick up a first down.
Waddle has been used on outs at the same rate as some of the top route runners and elite short-area cutters in the league. Here are the 13 players with at least 100 receiving yards on outs this season per Sports Info Solutions.
Receiving Leaders On Out Routes, 2021
|Player||Team||Routes Run||Tgts||Rec||Yds||aDOT||Air Yards||YAC||First Downs|
|Terry McLaurin||Football Team||31||14||9||108||12.57||102||6||6|
This isn’t quite what was pictured when Waddle was drafted, but both sides have worked to make the best of the situation given the realities of the offense. With the spacing now created and Waddle’s speed, it’s only a matter of time before more of these plays turn into explosive gains. There is more that can be gained here throughout the remainder of the season and that’s without factoring in what Waddle could eventually do as a downfield receiver, something that might not completely take off until Year 2.
Waddle is a big play waiting to happen and while there might be a bit waiting than expected, that time could be here.