There are no two ways to look at it: Mike Wallace disappointed the Miami Dolphins last season, who invested significant free agent dollars in his services, and let down fantasy investors along with them.
Overall, his numbers were underwhelming – 73/930/5 for 12.7 YPR and 58.1 YPG averages respectively. The 73 catches were actually the highest of his five year career, but the yards per reception number and the five scores were both career lows – not the explosion that the Dolphins were expecting. He finished as the 25th overall fantasy Wide Receiver, the same spot he occupied in 2012 after posting consecutive top 10 campaigns at his position. The production was uneven, too. There were a lot of low floor weeks from Wallace, games where he and Quarterback Ryan Tannehill couldn’t seem to get on the same page, leaving the 27-year-old speedster with nine outings where he was held under 50 yards receiving.
Of course, some of that falls on the Quarterback and on the system as well.
The QB first: All told, Tannehill performed admirably in his second season behind a dismal offensive line and without much of a run game to speak of. He finished with nearly 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns despite taking a league high 58 sacks. With Wallace though, things didn’t seem to click. Overall, Tannehill completed just 32% of his targets thrown over 20 yards, a very pedestrian number by league standards, but with Wallace specifically the number was atrocious. 36 of Wallace’s 137 targets were on deep passes last season, the third highest total in the league but just eight of the balls were deemed catchable. Throw in a pair of ‘deep drops’ from Wallace, and what you have is six connections on 36 targets for a total deep catch rate of 16.7%. That number ranks very low on the WR/QB totem pole and compares poorly to Tannehill’s overall deep accuracy number, a sign that the two were simply not on the same page. Wallace’s number in 2012 with Ben Roethlisberger was higher though not decidedly so, but with 41.7% and 48.3% rates in 2011 and 2010 respectively, we should note that it isn’t as if the receiver can’t catch the deep ball.
On to the system, and the overall offense in 2013: in a word, it was poor. We’ve noted the disappointing play from the line, but the scheme itself produced underwhelming results. Despite the 10th most pass attempts in the league last year, the offense ranked 20th in passing yards and 28th in net yards per attempt (a number inflated by a league leading 399 yards lost to sacks).
One thing that Sherman’s scheme decidedly lacked: a focus on exploiting matchups, making adjustments and making creative use of playmakers. In fairness to the ousted coordinator, part of the strict reliance on progressions is likely the result of having a young Quarterback to work with who arrived in the NFL with limited experience at the College level but nevertheless, the results on the field were underwhelming despite growth from Tannehill.
All of that is history now. Gone is Sherman and his rigid scheme, and in comes Bill Lazor to run the offense under Joe Philbin. So, what should we expect? We covered Lazor’s philosophy in our AFC Coaching Changes review, but specific to Wallace there are a few items worth noting.
Per Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald, Wallace was raving about the offense on his first day at voluntary offseason workouts in April:
“My style: Big-play offense,” Wallace said, referring to first-year coordinator Bill Lazor’s new system. “I see Ryan’s excited about it. He’s called me about eight, nine times.
Of course, calling it a ‘big-play offense’ isn’t all that revealing. Wallace elaborated a bit some time later, noting (this time via the Miami Sun Sentinel) that his chemistry with Tannehill was improving and that he looked forward to being used in multiple looks as part of Bill Lazor’s offense:
“[Defenses] can’t key on me. Last year they knew where I was every single play. I was there every game, in the same spot, [w]hen you move around it is harder for the defense to know where you’re at. Harder for them to adjust.”
Wallace spent much of 2013 planted on the right side of Ryan Tannehill at the snap, allowing defenses to easily identify and defend him, and force Tannehill elsewhere by giving him certain looks at the line (in an offense predicated on taking what the defense gave them). This year, he has been told to expect a variety of looks. The Sun Sentinel article later elaborated:
Philbin was quick to point out there are positives and negatives that come with moving a receiver around, but he admitted that approach creates favorable matchups for the offense.
“If you motion them, start him inside, they have to decide. [The defense] might have a particular player move with him in a man to man defense,” said Philbin, whose offense ranked 26th in the NFL while averaging 19.8 points per game last season. “If he’s in the slot we may like his release against the nickel cornerback better than we like his release against an outside corner.”
The reality is that some of the inability to connect on deep passes certainly lies with the QB, as stressed above, and while the team hopes he’ll continue his progression and improve this area of his game specifically in 2014 there are no guarantees of that being the case. Another truth: its tough to be accurate throwing deep when you don’t have time to do so. Tannehill averaged just 2.44 seconds to attempt a pass behind his line last season – some of that is scheme, but a big part of the bottom 10 number is reflective of awful line play.
The Dolphins are aware of their struggles in the area (and in the locker room) and as such they’ve retooled the unit heading into 2014. Mike Pouncey seems destined to start the season on the PUP – and failing that, he’s unlikely to be seen for the first month of the season at least – which is a big blow to an already underwhelming unit but the other areas of the line have been addressed. They’ve added Daryn College in an attempt to lessen the blow though, and the earlier additions of Shelley Smith and Brandon Albert, along with the first round selection of Ju’Wuan James shows that the team didn’t miss the obvious this offseason and that they should – on paper – produce better results this year. If Tannehill is upright, he should have more time to find Wallace on deep passes and otherwise. Albert was the 9th best pass blocking tackle in the league last season, according to Pro Football Focus (while Smith graded well overall but poorly against the pass rush, in fairness).
All told, the blocking can’t get any worse and the offense in general should be more adventurous this season. As Tannehill enters his third year as a pro after demonstrating a number of positive qualities last season things are looking up in Miami overall. Those facts bode well for Tannehill’s own fantasy production, and for the output of Wallace who could thrive in Lazor’s scheme if it comes together as advertised. Our Neil Parker has Wallace ranked as high as #12 in his early wide receiver rankings, and my own rank will be nudging up a bit on next edit. Consider him a solid low-end WR2 for next year with upside. At a current ADP of 86.0 (WR33) there is room to turn a profit – heck, we’re calling 2013 a down year and he still finished eight pegs above that ranking.