Dolphins' duo of Jaylen Waddle, Tyreek Hill heating up at right time

MIAMI -- Asking how much wide receiver Jaylen Waddle means to the Miami Dolphins' offense feels like a simple enough question to answer.

Since entering the league in 2021, only 10 players have recorded more receiving yards than Waddle. It's a list that includes names like Justin Jefferson, Cooper Kupp and teammate Tyreek Hill. Even in a slow-by-his-standards year in 2023, his 691 receiving yards through 11 games puts him on pace for a third straight 1,000-yard season to begin his career.

But when the ball isn't in his hands, there's a distinct way Waddle has helped the Dolphins to an 8-3 record this season -- and no, it's not by drawing attention away from the league's leading receiver Hill.

"Go watch what kind of a player he is in a blocking game," Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. "Go watch what kind of player he is -- very physical."

Waddle set an NFL rookie record with 104 receptions in 2021, and followed it up with 1,356 yards in 2022. He missed Miami's game against the Denver Broncos this season in Week 3 -- a 70-20 blowout -- after dealing with an oblique injury throughout the preseason. And he failed to crack 70 receiving yards from Week 4 to Week 7.

But he snapped out of the slump with 121 yards and a touchdown on seven catches against the New England Patriots in Week 8, and his 83 receiving yards per game since Week 8 rank 10th-most in the NFL

"I think he's done a really good job sort of mitigating the outside noise," Tagovailoa said. "I do understand as a competitor, he wants to be in the mix with (Tyreek) of continuing to make plays for the team. And sometimes he does have big games, but it's sort of minimized because of the production that Tyreek gives our offense.

"But I think highly of Jaylen, and I mean, he's going to continue to do things that we need for him to do to help us win games down the stretch."

Both Waddle (114 yards) and Hill (102) eclipsed 100 receiving yards in the Dolphins' 34-13 win over the New York Jets in Week 12, which isn't an easy feat against a defense that allows the sixth-fewest passing yards per game.

Their production contributed toward a critical statistic for the Dolphins: they're 4-1 when Tagovailoa plays and Hill and Waddle each hit at least 100 receiving yards.

"We try to go out there and perform every week," Waddle said after the game. "Sauce (Gardner) and D.J. (Reed) are two of the top corners in this league ... luckily for us, we have two of the best corners that we face on a weekly basis, with (Jalen) Ramsey and (Xavien Howard), so really get us prepared throughout the week."

While Waddle's efficiency numbers are down slightly from a season ago, his 7.5 targets per game are more than the 6.9 he averaged in 2022. With Hill on pace to break the 2,000-yard receiving mark for the first time in NFL history, it's easy to lose track of Waddle's impact this season.

"I really say this as a testament to him, obviously being the competitor that he is -- he doesn't really come up to me and tell me like, 'Dude, throw me the ball,'" Tagovailoa said. "He just understands when my opportunity is here, I'm going to make sure I make use of all of that. It's not something where we're trying to put Jaylen to the side. Jaylen is in the mix. It's just as we run plays for him, the coverages just don't allow us to throw for the right look for Jaylen.

"But he's continuing to stick it in there, and I think he's done a great job."

Miami leads the NFL in most major offensive categories, but the veneer has worn a bit over the past several weeks.

Since Week 7, the Dolphins rank 22nd in offensive expected points added (-13.99), 17th in offensive points scored per game (20.4), and 16th in first downs per game (19.8). They've won games largely on the strength of their resurgent defense, which leads the NFL in defensive EPA in that same time span.

In that span, Miami played a pair of top-10 defenses in terms of EPA (Jets and Kansas City Chiefs), and another that ranks 15th in that category (Patriots). The defense it plays this week presents a blow-up opportunity for Waddle and the Dolphins' offense.

The Dolphins travel to Washington on Sunday (1:30 p.m., E.T., FOX), to play a Commanders defense that ranks second-worst in the NFL in EPA.

And Waddle is heating up at the right time. Against the Jets, he caught all eight of his targets for a season-high +2.2 receptions over expected. He also had a season-high with +39 yards over expected.

"I think that's the great thing about this football team, is that they all together have that drive, have that daily process towards how can I get better today?" offensive coordinator Frank Smith said. "That's why it's such a joy to work with this team."