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Confidence in Miami Dolphins Defense

Jason Hrina

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Image Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

In Miami’s defense, individually, the Dolphins’ defense has a very good group of players.

Reshad Jones is a Pro Bowl-caliber safety, Xavien Howard is an elite cornerback and Minkah Fitzpatrick is on his way to becoming one.

Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor are phenomenal defensive tackles that cost a fraction of what they’re really worth, and both Jerome Baker and Raekwon McMillan give Miami a solid, young tandem in the middle of the field.

So with all of this “talent”, how did Miami end up with the 29th-ranked defense last season?

Individually, Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh were two of the top players at their position across the entire NFL; and yet, how well did those defenses do during their tenure?

  • 2015: 25th
  • 2016: 29th
  • 2017: 16th

We have no idea what kind of results Patrick Graham‘s defense is going to produce, but he has an opportunity to mold a group of talented individuals into a threatening team.

These starters all show promise, but do they provide us with a sense of confidence heading into 2019? See who’s letting us relax and who has us on edge down below:

Defensive Line
Confidence Level: 5
Confident Players: 2

Anchored by two late-round picks that came into their rookie training camp with minimal expectations, Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor have stolen the show. Drafted in the 5th and 6th rounds respectively, both defensive tackles have transcended their “draft value” and evolved into reliable starters on the defensive line.

The foot injury to Taylor in Week 8 dampened an otherwise dominant season from the Oklahoma State product, to the point where we started to believe that Taylor may actually be the better defensive tackle between the two.

This is a glorious problem to have for any team, as both players will combine to cost $1.38m against the salary cap next season. These are the exceptional values you receive when you draft stellar talent deep in the draft, and Chris Grier deserves praise for identifying just that.

Where Grier deserves some skepticism is with the performance of his team’s defensive line since taking over as Director of College Scouting in 2007.

Since then, Miami has averaged the 19.5th-ranked rushing defense.

During that time, the team has had:

  • The top-10 rushing defense 3 times (25%)
  • The bottom-10 rushing defense 6 times (43%).
    • In fact, they’ve been bottom-3 as many times as they’ve been top-10.

Recent draft hauls help quell thoughts of incompetent defensive lines, but given the number of resources (money and draft picks) used to solve a defensive line that’s currently in shambles, it’s safe to say our confidence level is average at best.

Christian Wilkins should make it a triple threat on the defensive line, but he is an unknown commodity at this point. Charles Harris was selected #22 overall, and he has provided virtually no assistance to this defense during his two-year tenure.

Even if Wilkins is double the player Harris was, it’s still not enough to eliminate every concern at the position.

Akeem Spence returns and should be a quality backup rather than a starter turned boxer. The only player preventing this defensive tackle room from being the best in the league is the exclusion of William Hayes.

What the Dolphins don’t have are players that can rush the quarterback.

After losing Cameron Wake to the Tennessee Titans and trading Robert Quinn to the Dallas Cowboys, the Dolphins are left with Harris and a bunch of practice squad players.

It doesn’t matter how good Xavien Howard and Minkah Fitzpatrick are, if the opposing quarterback has all day to throw, a receiver is going to get open.

Think back to the Buffalo Bills game last year in Miami when Josh Allen was able to find Zay Jones for multiple touchdowns after each play lasted an elongated amount of time. Allen was also two inches away from hitting Charles Clay in the endzone on a desperate hail Mary attempt….on another play that was extended extensively.

Since 2007, Grier has had a hand in drafting 5 defensive linemen in the first 2 rounds. Combined, out of a possible 292 games they could have all played, they were active for 191 of those games (65.41%) and started just 51 (17.47%) of them:

Clean slate? We’ll give these players one. Confidence they’ll evolve into productive players? Neutral.

Linebackers
Confidence Level: 4
Confident Players: 1.5

You’re just as likely to find half of a human playing football as you are to find Kiko Alonso playing Jeopardy.

Since tearing his ACL in 2014, the former Oregon linebacker has been pretty durable. Up until his ankle injury towards the end of last season, Alonso played every defensive snap. In 2018, Alonso was responsible for another 1004 snaps (92.19%).

But that’s where the consistency ends.

Alonso is going to be on the field and he’s going to consistently give you 8 tackles a game. He is consistently around the ball, but it’s usually after the ball is caught by the opposing running back or tight end.

He diagnoses plays fairly well, but he doesn’t get to his opponent until they are already 3-yards up the field.

To be fair, this actually speaks volumes about the ineptitude of the Dolphins defensive line. If they were able to contain the run better, rush the quarterback with any kind of consistency, or had a 0-technique or 2-technique defensive tackle that was able to maintain the middle of the field, Miami’s linebackers would probably perform better than they have.

This unit makes up for a lot of defensive line failures.

But Kiko is not half the player we’re confident in. Raekwon McMillan’s ACL injury really dampened what could have been a more-promising career up to this point.

McMillan should have been able to get his “rookie mistakes” out of the way in 2017, and 2018 should have instilled more confidence in our defensive play caller.

Overall, he did an admirable job. There were instances where he was burned terribly in coverage, but he also had stretches during the season where he was one of the better defensive players on the field.

I’m simultaneously skeptical of what McMillan can become, but I also believe last season was both a recovery period and a learning curve.

Statistically, McMillan is not a better player than Kiko Alonso, which makes it debatable that he’s a player we’re confident in.

In this case, we’re not rounding up – and we’re being a bit generous with McMillan’s 0.5 – but maybe Kiko deserves a 0.5 himself, and together, they can make one, complete linebacker.

The youngest starter in this unit, Jerome Baker is expected to take the next step and become a better outside rusher and coverage linebacker. Ironic thing is, if you pay attention to the grapevine, it’s possible Baker is an odd-man out in Patrick Graham’s defense.

Personally, I think it’s asinine to leave your best player off the field for extended periods of time (think of what happened last year with Matt Burke and Minkah Fitzpatrick). Good coaches find ways to utilize good players.

Baker is the one of the only linebackers we’ve had confidence in since Zach Thomas or that one season Joey Porter went off (2008).

This unit’s productivity has a lot to do with the defensive line. If Miami can win their battles in the trenches, the team’s linebackers should prosper. Otherwise, “Tank for Tua” is in full-swing.

Secondary
Confidence Level: 7
Confident Players: 3

This position group easily has the capability of becoming a top-10 unit, and it’s not ludicrous to say it could even be a top-5 unit in 2019.

It’s also possible that this position group bottoms-out and ends up living in the bottom third of the league.

On paper, this unit should naturally improve from the 16th-ranked passing defense in 2018:

  • Eric Rowe is better than the missing #2 boundary cornerback we rolled out last season – even if it would be more-ideal if Rowe were a depth player.
  • The Dolphins are expected to solidify positions for both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bobby McCain.
    • Allowing McCain to thrive in his natural slot cornerback position.
    • Giving Fitzpatrick the opportunity to become an elite talent at one, specific position rather than a valuable Swiss Army knife.
  • A complete season of chemistry under their belt.
    • T.J. McDonald has now worked with Reshad Jones for a full season.
    • Fitzpatrick isn’t trying to learn the ‘lay of the land’ while studying 3 different positions.
    • Defensive Captain Bobby McCain got the “I hope I can live up to my contract extension” butterflies out of his system.

Thing is, we used some of these similar reasons to excuse 2017.

After missing the first 8 games of the 2017 season due to a suspension, McDonald jumped into a starting role in Week 9 – fresh off of a contract extension he earned due to his training camp performance.

We expected vintage 2014 McDonald, and instead we received a player who wasn’t even as productive as Isa Abdul-Quddus.

And it’s not to say that the fans weren’t rooting for McDonald to succeed. We gave him an ample amount of excuses: he had to learn Matt Burke’s playbook, he was shaking off some rust, he had to figure out a way to coexist with Reshad Jones – both of whom are better-suited as strong safeties.

All of which may have some validity to them, but his 2018 performance reminded us why the Los Angeles Rams let a once-promising young player walk. Statistically, it seems like Miami made the right decision, but if you watched McDonald in coverage, he was more of a liability than he was a playmaker.

McCain was expected to settle in at his slot cornerback position last season when he received a $27m contract extension. He was thrust to the outside when Miami realized they actually needed to field someone opposite Xavien Howard.

It’s hard to say it’s entirely McCain’s fault for his subpar season, but when you’re making $6.75m a year (and you’re the 5th-most expensive player on the roster in 2019), you’re expected to provide a solution, not become a detriment.

Although there are only a few players we’re confident in, we aren’t really too concerned about this group either.

If McCain and McDonald are as bad as they were last year, you figure Miami’s passing defense should stay right around 16th again. However, if they perform closer to the expectations their contracts dictate for them, this secondary can carry this Dolphins team to more victories than the “2020 QB club” would like.

Is Reshad Jones “declining”? Yes.
Is Reshad Jones overpaid? Yes.
Did his attitude last season tick us off? Eh, kinda.

But, Jones is still a quality player to have in your backfield. Don’t let the lack of trade offers fool you, no one wants an aging $17.2m safety. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be productive for Miami this year.

The hard-hitting safety will burn us a few times when he takes the wrong coverage angle, but he’ll probably make up for it with an impressive interception or two.

Jones hauled in 3 interceptions last season, but it was also the first year of his career in which he didn’t record even half a sack.

Let’s not allow our emotions cloud the kind of player Jones is for this team. Could the situation be better? Absolutely. But would you rather Walt Aikens back there? What about McDonald? At least until 2020, you have Reshad Jones – and I’m confident he will produce for the Miami Dolphins in 2019.

Between the offense and defense, Miami has 9 players we are confident in. That’s nearly enough to field half a starting football team!

Stay strong, Dolphins fans. 2020 is the year this team is complete and competes. Allegedly.

Growing up a passionate Dolphins fan in Jets territory, Jason learned from an early age that life as a Dolphins fan wasn’t going to be easy. Previously the Sports Editor for his university newspaper, Jason has experience writing columns, creating game recaps and conducting interviews with Hall of Fame athletes (Harry Carson and Yogi Berra are two of his proudest interviews). When he’s not dissecting the latest sports news, you can find him perplexed over the Dolphins offensive line woes or involuntarily introducing music to his neighbors.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Rich McQuillen

    May 8, 2019 at 12:27 pm

    On the new hybrid defense… Flores on the Patriots, seemed to find a way to sneak in extra dbs (with a 3-2 and 3-3 defense). That will be interesting seeing 3 safeties on the field, or 4 corners. Not sure who those extra corners will be. Base 3-4 and 4-3 were 10% of plays combined.

    TJ lost 15 pounds and should be improved.

    • Jason Hrina

      Jason Hrina

      May 8, 2019 at 2:59 pm

      I would love to see Howard, Fitzpatrick, McCain and Rowe on the field at all times (with Jones and McDonald acting as the safeties and with Fitzpatrick as a type of hybrid – maybe shading towards Rowe’s side). This team is going to need to rely on their secondary often, especially with the lack of pass rush coming from the DL.

      TJ is such a wildcard on defense – if he is able to step up in coverage the team should be very stout in the secondary. Also have to think McCain isn’t anywhere near as bad as he was in 2018 – not a given, but he can’t get much worse.

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Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins Sign Tight End Michael Roberts

Jason Hrina

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Image Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins are beginning to bulk up the depth of their roster as they head into free agency.

According to Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network, the Dolphins have signed tight end Michael Roberts. The exact terms of the contract are currently unknown.

Originally a 4th-round pick by the Detroit Lions, Roberts has served mostly as a backup tight end; accumulating 146 yards on 13 receptions in 23 active games between 2017-2018.

Roberts was placed on injured-reserve towards the end of the 2018 season with a shoulder injury, and was traded to the New England Patriots for a conditional 2020 7th-round pick prior to the 2019 season. Due to medical reasons, the trade was voided a couple of days later.

The Green Bay Packers claimed Roberts off of waivers, but he was subsequently released by the Packers two days later for failing a physical. Roberts was not active for any games in 2019.

Signing Roberts doesn’t necessarily mean the Dolphins aren’t going to pursue tight ends in free agency or in the draft. Mike Gesicki is the only “lock” to make the 2020 roster, as Durham Smythe‘s blocking ability might not survive if the Dolphins find themselves in an advantageous situation at the position.

Look at this as a way for Miami to get ahead of evaluations.

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Miami Dolphins

A second Dolphins mock draft from someone who doesn’t watch football

Shawn Digity

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J.K. Dobbins 2020 NFL Draft
Image courtesy of USA Today Sports

(Locked On Dolphins) – Last week, Person A dazzled us with their blind mock draft, and now we’re back with the next entry in the series.

Person B is ready to go with their mock.

Keep in mind that all the blind mock draft contributors have little to no knowledge of the NFL.

I had all the contributors standardize their boards and the process so that everyone was on an even playing field.

They all used The Draft Network’s mock draft simulator with seven rounds, the predictive board, and had to choose the players manually.

Without further ado, here’s Person B’s mock draft.

(1) 5. Tua Tagovailoa – QB, Alabama
(1) 18. J.K. Dobbins – RB, Ohio State
(1) 26. Terrell Lewis – Edge, Alabama
(2) 39. Lloyd Cushenberry III – iOL, LSU
(2) 56. Xavier McKinney – S, Alabama
(3) 70. Rashard Lawrence – iDL, LSU
(5) 135. Chase Claypool – WR, Notre Dame
(5) 144. Justin Herron – OT, Wake Forest
(5) 147. Terrell Burgess – S, Utah
(6) 165. Lamar Jackson – CB, Nebraska
(6) 177. Jacob Breeland – TE, Oregon
(7) 223. David Reese II – LB, Florida

As I did with Person A, I reached out to Person B to get their reasoning behind the selections.

Me: “I noticed that you took Tua [Tagovailoa]. What led you to that decision with the fifth pick?”

Person B: “I knew the Dolphins wanted to get a QB, and Tua has been talked about so much that I just went with him.”

Me: “Which of your other selections did you feel particularly good about?”

Person B: “I need you to send me the link to my draft. I forgot who I picked since it took five attempts.”

[resends mock draft to Person B]

“I like my J.K. Dobbins pick. O-H-. And Rashard Lawrence. Because I figure he’s pretty good since LSU was really good this year.”

Me: “Your picks are really good. I’d put yours ahead of Person A. But it’s almost suspiciously good. Did you put your thumb on the scale somewhere along the line?”

Person B: “Well, by my 5th attempt (1 and 2: I didn’t select manual mode, 3: I didn’t pick 7 rounds from the drop-down menu, 4: I completed, but the site froze, and I lost everything), I figured out that I should probably pick from the top of the list first because if you don’t then those players just go like hotcakes.

So, I just matched up the positions the Dolphins needed to fill with the players highest on the list, and if I recognized a name or team, I would select them over someone I had never heard of.”

Me: “OK, well, we’re all out of time. Do you have any parting messages for Dolphins fans?”

Person B: “Well, I think the Dolphins are on the right track, and I hope that all of the true blue fans who have hung in with them for all these years will get to see another Super Bowl in the near future. GO FINS!”

And that wraps things up with Person B.

What are your thoughts on Person B’s mock draft? Leave a comment or tweet your thoughts at me directly on Twitter (@DIGITYnodoubt).

Tune in next time for Person C’s mock…

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Miami Dolphins

Top 5 Miami Dolphins of 2019

Jason Hrina

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Image Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins weren’t supposed to be a productive team in 2019.

A team meant to lose every game somehow ended up with a 5-11 record; simultaneously sabotaging their draft status and leaving us with a promising future at the same time.

Brian Flores, the former scout, scoured the transaction wire every day in an attempt to uncover potential “acorns” – as one former general manager infamously put it. And with a keen eye for development, his constant shuffling and retooling paid off for him.

You might think a 5-11 team wouldn’t have too many options for a Top 5 list, but the Dolphins were littered with productive “surprises”. Most have promising futures, while some have already solidified themselves as perennial starters.

Take a look at our top 5 Miami Dolphins of 2019 down below. If you’d like to see who made our list of top 5 most disappointing players of 2019, click here.

5) Davon Godchaux

After two elite seasons, we’ve come to expect nothing less out of Davon Godchaux.

Starting 16 games for the second year in a row, Godchaux has continued to ascend as one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. If the Dolphins weren’t so busy staying out of the lime light, Godchaux would be a household name across the nation.

His 52 solo tackles were tied for the most in the NFL among interior defensive linemen. His 2 sacks, 75 total tackles and 7 QB hits are all improvements over his 2018 campaign, which already had fans clamoring to extend the young, former 5th-round pick.

Though some might point to Miami’s overall defensive rushing numbers as a sign that Godchaux (and Christian Wilkins) weren’t good at their jobs, that’s wildly misleading. Godchaux was stout in the middle of the defensive line; inadvertently tasked with absorbing double teams and giving players like Vince Biegel or Jerome Baker room to blitz.

It’s quite possible that Godchaux is lower than he should be on this list, simply because we take his performance for granted.

4) Mike Gesicki

I’m going to hold my hand up high and admit that I thought Mike Gesicki was going to be an absolute bust for the Miami Dolphins.

More-notorious for not staying on his feet than Brian Hartline, Gesicki overcame a (very) rough rookie season and turned into a reliable seam threat for Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Gesicki finished the year with 51 receptions, 570 receiving yards (an 11.2 yards-per-reception average) and five touchdowns – the first of his career. He proved to be a mismatch against linebackers; and whether he lines up in the slot or on the outside, the Dolphins are going to take advantage each time they see him 1-on-1 against an LB.

Athletic and deceptively quicker than we might realize, Gesicki honed his route running and displayed a much better catch radius than what we saw his rookie year. The image of Brent Grimes wide-eyed after Gesicki went up for a touchdown says more than a thousand words – but if nothing else, it tells us that the Miami Dolphins have a legitimate tight end.

3) Vince Biegel

Vince Biegel came to Miami as a complete afterthought.

The Dolphins traded incumbent linebacker Kiko Alonso to the New Orleans Saints in an effort to alleviate cap space in 2020. In return, they received a little-known, former 4th-round pick who was about to play for his third team in 3 years.

For all the grief we’ve given Chris Grier over his scouting, we have to give him a ton of credit for this one. Saying the Saints got fleeced is an understatement.

In 13 games (4 starts) with the Saints, Alonso recorded 31 tackles, 0 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss (TFL) and 2 QB Hits.

In 15 games (10 starts), Biegel accumulated 57 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 7 TFL, 13 QB Hits and an interception to boot.

Biegel was such a force at linebacker, that Dolphins fans forgot he was going to be a free agent this offseason and just assumed they had him for years to come. Most of us hope the Dolphins find a way to keep Biegel around at a reasonable (yet worthy) price.

The growth he, Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker can make with another year together could all together eliminate the need to use assets on a linebacker in the near-future. Especially when the team will get Andrew Van Ginkel back for a full, healthy season.

2) Jerome Baker

Arguably Chris Grier’s best draft pick, Jerome Baker has evolved into one of the best all-around linebackers in the league. You can consider that an overstatement, but his versatility, durability and play-making ability make him a prime candidate to burst into the national spotlight in 2020.

Baker and Eric Rowe were the only players who logged over 1,000 snaps last season (1,079 for Baker, 1,071 for Rowe).

After a rookie season that showed a ton of promise, Baker’s sophomore season ended with 124 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 5 QB hits, 2 forced fumbles, 4 passes defended and 1 interception. Versatile in coverage, as a spy, diagnosing the run, and when he blitzes, Baker may be the real Swiss-Army knife of this Dolphins’ defense.

The biggest question we now have to ask is: what do the Miami Dolphins do with Jerome Baker? He’s still two years away from free agency, but if his 2020 season is any improvement over what we’ve seen, Baker is going to command A LOT of money when he enters the final year of his rookie deal.

Don’t let Baker turn into another Olivier Vernon, Jarvis Landry or Lamar Miller. Pay the talent you successfully scouted and maintain a sense of culture and camaraderie.

Honorable Mentions:

Christian Wilkins:

Christian Wilkins came to the Miami Dolphins with a ton of charisma and a jovial personality unmatched by any top draft pick that came before him.

From the moment the 315lbs linebacker did a split after Clemson won their national championship in 2018, to the time he had Roger Goodell go up for a chest bump after he was drafted, Wilkins was a beloved figure.

But personality can only take you so far, and when the season started Wilkins needed to back up his charity work and infectious smile with the brutality necessary to win at the line of scrimmage. And boy did he live up to it.

Wilkins may not have finished with the most-gaudy numbers, but they’re still impressive nonetheless. For his rookie season, Wilkins totaled 56 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 passes defended. He’s caught every pass ever thrown to him (1), and it even resulted in a touchdown.

His 888 total snaps (between defense, special teams and the 2 he accumulated on offense) are noteworthy for a rookie defensive tackle.

The other 1st-round defensive linemen drafted in 2019 finished with:

  • Quinnen Williams (3rd-overall): 577 total snaps
  • Clelin Ferrell (4th): 716 snaps
  • Ed Oliver (9th): 572 snaps
  • Wilkins (13th): 888 snaps
  • Brian Burns (16th): 609 snaps
  • Dexter Lawrence (17th): 866 snaps
  • Jeffery Simmons (19th): 368 snaps
  • Montez Sweat (26th): 817 snaps
  • Jerry Tillery (28th): 436 snaps

The 2019 draft class was stacked on the defensive line, and yet, the Dolphins may have managed to draft the best one of the bunch midway through the round.

Nik Needham:

The Miami Dolphins signed Nik Needham as an undrafted free agent with the hope that he would provide depth for a position group that already featured plenty of expensive and starting-caliber players within it.

Instead, the Dolphins add another commodity to that list.

Competing for playing time with players like Xavien Howard, Eric Rowe, Bobby McCain, Minkah Fitzpatrick and a plethora of other roster invitees, Needham had an excellent camp, but found himself just missing the final 53-man roster.

That didn’t stop him from honing his craft and earning a promotion from the practice squad one day before the Dolphins were set to take on the Washington Redskins in Week 6.

Needham went on to start the final 11 games of the season, and ended the year with 2 interceptions, 11 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 1 sack and 54 total tackles.

As a rookie cornerback, you’re expected to be picked on, but Needham was bullied by the refs more than he was by opposing quarterbacks. Questionable calls against Needham towards the end of the year put a slight damper on his otherwise stellar season.

Though in the eyes of some Dolphins fans, that erroneous (non-existent) pass interference penalty that was overturned on the final drive during the New York Jets loss was a blessing in disguise.

1) DeVante Parker

It may have taken slightly longer than we originally hoped, but Ryan Fitzpatrick’s aggressive style highlighted just how elite DeVante Parker can be when you just throw him the damn ball.

Previously marred by the occasional health concern and offensive schemes that didn’t cater to his skillset, Parker was deemed a “bust” by most Dolphins fans. Drafted 14th-overall in the 2014 NFL draft, Parker was expected to transcend the offense. Instead, bubble screens became the focal point for an offense that was littered with deep threat specialists (Parker, Kenny Stills and Jakeem Grant).

Parker’s recent 4-year, $40m extension is a reward not only for the production Parker put up in 2019, but for the potential Parker still has left in him.

In 16 games this past season (the first time he’s been active for 16 games his entire career), Parker caught 72 passes for 1,202 yards and 9 touchdowns. In his four years prior to 2019, Parker caught a combined 163 passes for 2,217 yards and 9 TDs.

As long as he can stay healthy, and the Dolphins don’t revert back to a scared, anemic offense, you can expect annual 1,000 yard seasons from the team’s #1 receiver.

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