Dolphins still fishing for No. 1 receiver

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

A casual Miami Dolphins fan would be satisfied with the idea that all their receivers will be back this year.

The Dolphins won 11 games and the AFC East title. Chad Pennington enjoyed maybe the best season of his career. He threw for more yards than any Dolphins quarterback since Dan Marino in 1997.

"We finished in the top 10 on offense," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said at the NFL scouting combine. "We don't have any stars. Everybody knows that. ... I kind of like where we are with our offense."

Then why does every NFL analyst this side of Mozambique insist the Dolphins' biggest offseason need is at receiver?

Because it is.

A closer look at the Dolphins shows that, despite passing for 3,761 yards last year, they didn't get as much out of their receivers as you might think.

"They need somebody to frighten you," Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson said.

The Dolphins have some nice targets. Speedster Ted Ginn Jr. led them in receptions (56) last year, although he's a true No. 2 receiver. They have a pair of effective slot receivers in Greg Camarillo, who is recovering from season-ending knee surgery, and Davone Bess.

But production was pedestrian at best. Miami receivers caught only five touchdown passes last year and managed just 11 receptions of 25 yards or more. The top three -- Ginn, Camarillo and Bess -- averaged 11.9 yards per catch.

"I think the position as a whole has some really good players there, but they need to come out of their shell a little bit and show what they can do," Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said last week.

Miami's tight ends annihilated its receivers statistically. Anthony Fasano averaged 13.4 yards per catch and scored seven touchdowns. David Martin averaged 14.5 yards and scored three touchdowns. Third tight end Joey Haynos also had a touchdown, giving the tight ends 11 scores.

What the Dolphins were lacking was a physical, every-down receiver who can make plays downfield.

"They're looking for a guy that come in and line up on the outside and go down and catch some takeoffs, catch some corner routers, catch some deep square-ins," said former Dolphins tight end and local sportscaster Joe Rose. "They need another guy on the outside.

"We got two guys [Camarillo and Bess] who do a nice job underneath of moving the chains, making the tough catches, going across the middle. You want one more guy who can make plays down the field."

The problem, however, is tricky to solve.

The Dolphins haven't made any free-agent moves to shore up the position. They also hold the 25th selection in the draft. Even the bluest-chip rookie receivers rarely make a significant impact right away. The best the Dolphins can do is the third- or fourth-best prospect at that position.

Dolphins football operations boss Bill Parcells and Sparano have been checking out the likes of North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks, Florida's Percy Harvin and Kenny Britt from Rutgers.

"What they really need is not just another guy, but a No. 1, and those guys don't grow on trees," Williamson said. "If you take a first-round pick on one of them, which is somewhat un-Parcells-like, chances are he won't be a No. 1 for you this year or even maybe the next year.

"If they were to take a Hakeem Nicks, who complements Ginn well, how much are you going to get out of him immediately? It's a difficult need to fill."

Ireland said there's depth at receiver in this year's draft class. None were selected in the first round last year, but three or four could be off the board before everybody has a chance to pick.

The Dolphins last year selected franchise left tackle Jake Long with the No. 1 overall draft choice, but they also owned No. 32 and could have taken any receiver in the whole class.

Neither Eddie Royal, DeSean Jackson, Donnie Avery nor Devin Thomas were the right fit. The Dolphins chose defensive end Philip Merling instead and went the entire draft without taking a single receiver.

They instead banked on Ernest Wilford. The Dolphins made him one of their first free-agent signings. They gave him a four-year, $13 million contract with almost half the money guaranteed. Miami deactivated Wilford nine times. He caught three passes all season.

But the Dolphins proved there's value among the unwashed masses. They signed Bess, Colt Brennan's favorite target at Hawaii, as a rookie free agent. Bess caught 54 passes for 554 yards.

Camarillo also went undrafted and was plucked off the waiver wire by the previous Dolphins regime. Their fourth gameday receiver, Brandon London, followed the same route -- an undrafted castoff.

Those types of players can take an offense only so far.

The Dolphins are missing a go-to threat.

Some believe Ginn can be that guy, but others insist he can't be a No. 1 receiver. Ireland last week issued a public challenge to Ginn.

"Teddy is going into his third year, and I think it's time for him to really show what he was drafted here to do," Ireland said.

Ginn led the Dolphins with 56 receptions for 790 yards and two touchdowns. He added two more touchdowns on reverse plays, running five times for 73 yards, and was the top kick returner.

"Teddy Ginn's not a bust yet," Williamson said. "He showed some signs of coming on, but he's a No. 2. He can't
be the one that people roll coverages to. He's still a straight-line athlete, where he's better on longer routes as opposed to breaking down and running outs and digs. Comebacks aren't exactly his specialty. He's questionable over the middle as well.

"So he's really a perimeter deep threat, which is fine, and the arrow's still slightly going up on him. I think he'll be OK in time. He really hasn't been in the league all that long. But he's a No. 2."

The fact that the Dolphins won 11 games minus a true No. 1 receiver is testament to their coaching and Pennington's guile. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning found production in unusual places. Most fans immediately think of the Wildcat package, but the Dolphins rarely passed out of the formation.

Pennington indicated he doesn't much care whether the Dolphins upgrade the receiving corps. He expects to win no matter who's on the field with him.

"You have to have that mentality as a quarterback, or you're going to paralyze yourself and not be as successful as you want to be," Pennington said. "To me, that is a huge component to being a quarterback, taking the talent you have around you and getting the best out of those other 10 guys.

"That's my responsibility as a quarterback, and that's part of being a leader and part of the guy who's the signal caller, to push your teammates and get the best out of them and really get them to overachieve regardless of what their abilities are. That's a true quarterback."

Pennington frequently called private meetings and held extra workout sessions to wring out every bit of potential from his receivers.

Some scouts, Williamson included, wonder if the quarterback situation will affect how Miami addresses receiver in the draft. Pennington is a highly accurate touch passer, but second-year backup Chad Henne is expected to take over in 2010. Henne can go deep, and that will unfasten the offense.

"You don't have to defend the whole field against them," Williamson said of a Pennington-led offense. "Deep outs, deep streaks and those types of things aren't a real good fit for his throwing the ball.

"The passing game has issues in many regards. It's going to be a difficult thing to overcome, and I think they know it. I think they've gotten the most they can possibly get out of Pennington, and they know Henne can burn the defense more in the long term. He's not ready today, but they know they need a strong-armed guy to get the ball down the field."

Ireland, however, said the Dolphins will not draft receivers based on how they project their quarterback. Ireland called the ability to separate against man-to-man coverage "a critical factor" in evaluating prospects.

"If he can get open, it really doesn't matter who's throwing to him," Ireland said.