Dolphins rookie WR Erik Ezukanma emerges as ‘dark horse’ with strong start in training camp

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When Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel thinks about the transition wide receivers have to make from college to the NFL, he considers the nuances. He will see a wideout who is supposed to line up off the line of scrimmage overemphasize and set up 4 yards away and be reminded of how long the acclimation period can be in the pros.

That’s made the emergence of Erik Ezukanma, a fourth-round pick, in the first week of training camp all the more satisfying.

“I’ve been very encouraged with how he’s handled himself and corrected things,” McDaniel said. “The mistakes are changing, they’re not the same ones and that’s what you want. So I’m happy about that.”

The Dolphins had just four selections in the 2022 NFL Draft after sending most of their picks to the Kansas City Chiefs to bring All-Pro receiver Tyreek Hill to Miami. So with Hill, the signing of Cedrick Wilson Jr. and the return of second-year player Jaylen Waddle on the roster, it was a bit of a surprise to see the team select Ezukanma, an All-Big 12 selection, with its second pick at No. 125 overall.

Through seven training camp practices, though, Ezukanma might be the most productive Dolphins receiver not named Hill or Waddle.

Ezukanma has delivered multiple catches in 1-on-1 and team drills in just about every practice. With Hill sitting out Wednesday’s session as part of the team’s load management program, it gave the rookie another opportunity to assert himself as a fixture in the team’s new-look offense. In a 1-on-1 drill, Ezukanma used his big frame to come away with what would have been a 40-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Later in 11-on-11s, he caught several passes in the intermediate-to-deep range of the field.

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Erik Ezukanma (87) catches the ball during Dolphins training camp at Baptist Health Training Complex in Miami Gardens on Monday, August 1, 2022.
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Erik Ezukanma (87) catches the ball during Dolphins training camp at Baptist Health Training Complex in Miami Gardens on Monday, August 1, 2022.

At 6-2 and 206 pounds, Ezukanma has a bigger frame than top receivers Hill and Waddle and it has shown when he has gone over the middle of the field or completed contested catches along the sideline. During the draft process, the team was drawn to Ezukanma’s route running and his ability to accumulate yards after the catch, an emphasis of the offense.

“He’s big, physical,” Wilson said. “Definitely going to be useful once we all get going.”

Ezukanma said every night, he takes the script the offense plans to run in practice the next day and draws every play before he goes to sleep. He then rereads it in the morning before practice. The self-visualization continues even if he’s not on the field and watching other receivers execute plays.

He said the biggest change in the NFL has been going from a “signal-oriented” offense in college, where the plays are usually given through hand signs or images, to an offense that huddles every play and gets a verbal play-call from the quarterback. He had a versatile role at Texas Tech, though, and that has benefited him in McDaniel’s scheme.

“Being in [former interim coach and offensive coordinator Sonnie] Cumbie’s offense,” Ezukanma said, “with Cumbie moving me around to the slot, outside and in the backfield, I feel like with this offense, it helps me emphasize that part of my game as well. I feel like with that, it helped me a lot.”

Ezukanma said his goal for the season is to get better each day and make the 53-man roster and his draft status should land him a spot on the team without any concern. In a log-jammed receiver room that has its top-three wideouts defined, Ezukanma is making a strong case for an early role. After Wednesday’s practice, Tagovailoa referred to him and undrafted rookie Braylon Sanders as “dark horses for our team.”

“We knew he was going to kind of be a project,” wide receivers coach Wes Welker said. “Really raw, really green at this point. But you really start to see him come on. He’s starting to pick up the offense and what it’s like to be a pro and all those different things. He’s done everything we’ve asked and then some. We’re very happy with Erik and the progress he’s making early in camp here. We just have to keep on developing that and keep on getting him better. He’s putting in the work and [we’re] very pleased where he’s at.”