Two Dolphins rookies impressing in battle for No. 4 WR job. And Wilson on what awaits

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·5 min read
David Santiago/dsantiago@miamiherald.com
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When most NFL fans outside South Florida discuss “Miami Dolphins receivers,” the conversation will begin and end with six-time Pro Bowler Tyreek Hill and young prodigy Jaylen Waddle.

But there’s some intrigue — and some talented players — in the rest of the room, even if you continue to call Mike Gesicki by his designated position (tight end) instead of what he ostensibly is (a glorified slot receiver).

There’s No. 3 receiver Cedrick Wilson Jr., who impressed everyone with the Dallas Cowboys last season.

There’s promising rookie Erik Ezukanma, who has looked very good early in camp and caught a 40-yard touchdown Monday. He will assuredly be on the 53-man roster, barring injury.

And there’s a competitive battle among Preston Williams,Trent Sherfield, Mohamad Sanu, Lynn Bowden Jr., River Cracraft, former standout CFL returner DeVonte Dedmon and impressive Mississippi rookie Braylon Sanders for potentially two roster spots.

Wilson — the clear-cut No. 3 receiver — could stand to benefit most from the attention that will assuredly tilt toward Hill and to a slightly lesser extent on Waddle.

Wilson has thought about the enticing prospect of facing single coverage and being defended by a team’s third or fourth best cornerback.

“Definitely with the two speed guys on the outside, it’s going to leave me with a little more open room,” Wilson said. “That’s when I feel like I thrive the most is when someone is covering me one-on-one.”

Wilson proved that last season, in advanced metrics that go beyond his basic stats (45 catches, 602 yards, 6 TDs in 16 games and four starts).

Per ESPN, Wilson — in 2021 — was 17th among receivers in average yards of separation per catch at 3.5.

And his 5.8 average YAC (yards after catch) was 14th best among qualifying receivers and 50th best among more than 200 receivers who caught at least one pass, per Pro Football Focus.

He had a 130.6 passer rating when targeted with the Cowboys in 2021, and he’s well positioned to win a lot of 1-on-1 battles in this Dolphins offense.

“He’s a great receiver, and he’s gonna be a great receiver for a long time,” Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said last season.

Wilson — who signed a three year, $22.5 million contract — lined up in the slot 90.5 percent of the time last season (most among NFL receivers) but said the Dolphins are training him at every receiver position.

“In this offense, you have to learn all of them pretty much,” he said. “We move around a lot. There’s a lot of formations. It’s pretty much the same plays, very good plays, but in different formations.”

He said learning this offense initially “was pretty tricky because... you’ve got to break down all of the formations just to know where to line up.”

Wilson seized on his opportunity created with injuries to the Cowboys receiver room last season, especially Michael Gallup. He’s also a threat throwing the ball; he was a high school quarterback at Memphis and is 5 for 5 for 111 passing yards in his NFL career.

Who ends up getting the fourth-most snaps at receiver this season will be an interesting subplot.

Ezukanma has used his size (6-2, 206 pounds) to help position himself to make several catches so far in camp, including the TD catch from Tagovailoa on Monday.

“He’s big and physical,” Wilson said. “He’s definitely going to be useful.”

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said Ezukanma “dropped way too many passes” at Texas Tech, but that hasn’t been an issue so far.

Though he dropped four passes for the Red Raiders last season, he had nine contested catches, a 149 passer rating his coverage area and a 7.8 YAC average that was 28th best in the country in 2021.

“His hands are really, really good,” Dolphins receivers coach Wes Welker said earlier this offseason. “A guy that size [6-2] who can come out of breaks, it’s a unique skill set.”

Welker went to his alma mater, Texas Tech, to work out Ezukanma before the draft and left Lubbock very impressed.

Sanders, the other rookie, caught a long TD pass last week and had a spectacular one-handed catch Saturday. He will need to continue making plays — and avoid mistakes — and carve a niche on special teams to make a strong case for the 53-man roster.

Sanders, who’s 6-1, averaged 21.1 yards on 69 college receptions but missed time with assorted injuries. “He was a late add for us,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “He has big-play ability and can really run.”

None of the veterans competing for the fifth and sixth spots has taken a major step ahead of the others. Williams had a great catch during Saturday’s practice and Sherfield has looked good. Conversely, Bowden — who spent last season on injured reserve with a hamstring injury — has had a quiet camp.

Sanu, signed on the eve of training camp, has made a few catches and has the advantage of knowing the system from two years in San Francisco. Sherfield and Cracraft also played for the 49ers during coach Mike McDaniel’s time there.

Williams, the Dolphins’ tallest receiver at 6-5, has the size to replace the body type of DeVante Parker, who was traded to New England, but needs a strong camp after a nondescript 2021 season (six receptions for 71 yards in eight games and three starts).

Sherfield shouldn’t be overlooked. Though he played just 24 percent of the 49ers’ offensive snaps last season and finished with only nine catches for 87 yards, Welker raved about him this spring.

“There is so much to like about [Trent],” Welker said. “As a coach, he’s almost a security blanket having a guy like that because you know he will do it exactly the way we talked about. Not only a great player but a culture guy.”

The question is how many receptions any of the fourth through sixth receivers will have, considering the Dolphins’ high-end weaponry. Hill was third in the NFL in receptions last season with 111; Waddle was eighth with 104, and Wilson comes off his best NFL season and will have a significant role.