<
>

Dolphins rookie Jaylen Waddle establishing himself as a No. 1 receiver

play
Tua Tagovailoa throws a dart to Jaylen Waddle in the end zone (0:16)

Tua Tagovailoa completes a 9-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Waddle vs. the Panthers. (0:16)

MIAMI -- Jaylen Waddle was the last Miami Dolphins player to enter the news conference room Sunday after the team's 33-10 romp against the Carolina Panthers. He was fresh off a nine-catch, 137-yard performance -- and he was dressed like it.

Waddle wore a black-and-white checkered hoodie with a red shirt underneath, white designer jeans with red splatter on them and a spotless pair of Nike Air Force 1 shoes. He even kept his black Ray-Ban sunglasses perched atop his nose; when you play like that, you can wear whatever you want.

The Dolphins rookie has cemented himself as the team's No. 1 wide receiver during its current four-game winning streak, compiling 346 yards and a touchdown on 29 catches. He has 77 catches for 759 yards and four touchdowns, and is one of seven players in the NFL with more than 100 targets. He is on pace for 109 receptions, which would surpass the only other rookie in league history with 100 or more catches -- Anquan Boldin -- who had 101 in 2003 with the Arizona Cardinals.

"Preparation, practice," Dolphins coach Brian Flores said of Waddle's emergence. "I think we worked at it and worked at it and worked at it, and we've been able to string some good weeks together from a practice standpoint, and you're seeing that show up in the game."

Miami traded up to draft him at No. 6 overall in this year's draft, in an effort to rekindle some of the chemistry that made Waddle and Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa a potent tandem at Alabama. While the early results were promising -- Waddle was the team's leading receiver entering Week 12 -- Sunday's victory felt like an official arrival, of sorts.

And it surprisingly came against the NFL's best pass defense.

The Panthers had allowed 174.2 passing yards per game entering Week 12, playing more man coverage than all but three teams in the NFL. Tagovailoa picked them apart underneath, completing 23 of 24 passes of 10 or fewer air yards for 141 of his 230 total passing yards Sunday.

The second-year passer said it was Carolina's coverage tendencies that made his efficient day possible.

"They played a lot of man, and when they did play zone, we tried to take advantage of in-cuts, crossers, things like that, so it's really what we expected, and what they showed us out there," he said.

The chemistry between Tagovailoa and Waddle has been striking.

Since Tagovailoa's return from injured reserve in Week 6, Waddle is the NFL's third-most targeted receiver and leads the league in receptions with 50. His 528 receiving yards in that span trail only Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp's 618.

"Jaylen has just been in the right place at the right time," Tagovailoa said. "There's times where he gets covered and he is still open, so you take a look at one of the third downs that we had. I think it was 26. Donte Jackson covering him. It was really good coverage. [Jaylen] still got open."

Tagovailoa is hesitant to attribute their effectiveness to their time together at Alabama -- that was two years ago, after all. But their experience in college laid a foundation to make them successful at this level.

Waddle said Tagovailoa has grown as a player, which has inspired him to try to do the same each week. Initially known as a field-stretching vertical threat coming out of college, Waddle has worked to sharpen his entire route tree during this recent stretch.

"I work extremely hard not to just be known as a speed guy or a vertical threat. I'm just going to continue to try to go out there every week and show I can actually run routes and do things that people don't expect me to do."

The rookie has also broken out a new touchdown celebration during this win streak, in which he pins his arms to his sides, palms outstretched, and waddles like a penguin.

He said he used to be laughed at for it, particularly by Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who now does it with him.

Maybe those who thought Miami made a mistake by drafting Waddle instead of fellow receivers Ja'Marr Chase (Cincinnati Bengals) or DeVonta Smith (Philadelphia Eagles) can take a page from Wilkins' book and hop on board, as well.