Chris Perkins: Dolphins need a No. 3 receiver, and free agency has answers (whether it’s at TE or slot WR)

Note: This is the first in a three-part series looking at the top three positions the Miami Dolphins should prioritize in free agency.

Only one NFL team didn’t have a touchdown reception by a tight end last season, and that team was, you guessed it, the Miami Dolphins.

But that’s part of a bigger problem, which is that the Dolphins need a No. 3 receiver behind star wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.

The No. 3 receiver, a top need for Miami this offseason, could be a tight end, slot receiver or a pass-catching running back.

With free agency officially beginning at 4 p.m. next Wednesday as the new league year starts, the answer to the Dolphins’ problem could be roughly a week away.

Miami had Atlanta tight end Jonnu Smith in for a visit Tuesday.

The Dolphins don’t have many No. 3 receiver candidates on the roster, considering wide receivers Braxton Berrios, Cedrick Wilson Jr., River Cracraft and Chase Claypool are eligible to become free agents.

And there’s no assurance the Dolphins are trying to strengthen their No. 3 receiver position.

But coach Mike McDaniel, speaking at the NFL scouting combine last week, said the offense will evolve in 2024.

“There’s never been one year from an offensive perspective that I can remember that we stayed exactly the same, particularly since I got started here in 2022,” he said.

“There will be exciting things that we do different. There’s going to be exciting things that we will evolve from, and there’s exciting things that we will build upon on the success of the first two years.”

Smith, who attended college locally at FIU in Miami, had 50 receptions for 582 yards and three touchdowns last season for the Falcons. Smith (6 foot 3, 248 pounds) cost the Falcons a reasonable $6 million against the salary cap last season. Atlanta saved $6.5 million on the 2024 salary cap by releasing the 28 year old.

Among other tight ends in a top-heavy free-agent class who could fit the Dolphins’ needs are Houston’s Dalton Schultz, Seattle’s Noah Fant, New England’s Hunter Henry and Gerald Everett of the Los Angeles Chargers. But it appears Schultz will re-sign with the Texans.

Because the Dolphins return blocking tight ends Durham Smythe and Julian Hill, the new tight end won’t need to be a strong in-line blocker. Miami also returns tight end Tanner Conner, who is still considered somewhat of a project as a receiving tight end.

If the Dolphins want to select a slot receiver as their No. 3 passing option they could eat at the top of the food chain with Baltimore’s Odell Beckham Jr. or Cincinnati’s Tyler Boyd. Both would likely command somewhere between $8 million-$10 million a year.

Otherwise there’s Chicago’s Darnell Mooney, Washington’s Curtis Samuel, Minnesota’s K.J. Osborn, Carolina’s D.J. Chark or New England’s Kendrick Bourne.

It’s doubtful the Dolphins would sign a free agent running back for receiving purposes, especially because De’Von Achane, last year’s third-round pick, is a capable receiver.

Miami’s need for a reliable No. 3 receiver can be viewed in many ways and on many levels.

One reason for a reliable No. 3 receiver is the Dolphins offense is currently too easy to limit. Miami was 1-6 against playoff teams last season. Hill, Miami’s No. 1 offensive option, totaled 49 receptions for 527 yards and three touchdowns in those seven games. Teams knew if they focused on limiting Hill, they’d limit Miami’s offense, and they were right. The Dolphins averaged 16 points per game in those seven games.

Another reason for a reliable No. 3 receiver is to give quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and McDaniel, the offensive play-caller, more options in short-yardage, red-zone and goal-line situations. Tagovailoa could also use another passing option on regular plays, perhaps a first-and-10 from the 50-yard line.

Anecdotally, if you look around the league you might notice the NFL’s final four — Kansas City, San Francisco, Detroit and Baltimore — each had productive tight ends: the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, the 49ersGeorge Kittle, the Lions’ Sam LaPorta and the Ravens’ Mark Andrews.

Smythe was the Dolphins’ No. 3 receiver last season with 35 receptions for 366 yards and no touchdowns.

Berrios, the slot receiver, totaled 27 receptions for 238 yards and one touchdown.

Achane led all running backs with 27 receptions for 197 yards and three touchdowns.

Hill (119 receptions) and Waddle (72 receptions) combined for 191 receptions.

It seems more likely for the Dolphins to take care of their No. 3 receiver through free agency rather than the draft, where they have six picks, but only two that are likely to be contributors as rookies — the first- and second-round picks.

The Dolphins will have bigger draft concerns in the first and second rounds than a No. 3 receiver.

In free agency, however, a No. 3 receiver should be a top priority, and whether the Dolphins are looking at tight end or slot receiver, they have a number of attractive options.