As we work our way through the NFL in our Secret Superstars series, we now head south to take a look at Miami. The Dolphins were one of the more talked about teams last year, and while it often wasn’t for good reasons, the overwhelming negativity masked the fact that this was a competitive team that won eight games in spite of the turmoil around the organization. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked a league-high 58 times, and while you don’t hear many outside of Miami saying so, Tannehill actually had a good season despite often times running for his life.
High priced free agents have been the norm recently with the likes of Mike Wallace, Philip Wheeler, Dannell Ellerbe, Brent Grimes, and Brandon Albert receiving a combined $87 million in guaranteed money during the last two offseasons. While those expensive additions dominate the headlines, the Dolphins still must get contributions from those less financially endowed on their roster.
While many of the highly talented players on the Dolphins’ roster started their career somewhere else, Rishard Matthews was drafted by Miami in the seventh round of the 2012 draft. Playing college ball in Nevada with Colin Kaepernick, Matthews’ superb 113 yards per game in his final season still resulted in 28 receivers being selected before him. Like most seventh round picks, he was a relative non-factor for much of his rookie season, seeing the field on offense in just six games and catching only eleven passes. Despite the lack of playing time, the Dolphins’ front office decided to keep Matthews around another year while adding Brandon Gibson to a not insubstantial contract prior to the 2013 season.
But 2013 was a different year for Matthews. Gibson, brought in to garner significant playing time, suffered a mid-season knee injury that saw Matthews take over the No. 3 receiver role behind Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline. Playing over half of the team’s snaps in every game since Week 9, Matthews tallied 331 receiving yards over the last half of the season, earning a +5.2 grade on the year.
Matthews flashed serious potential in a breakout game against Tampa Bay, though few would notice with the Martin/ Incognito scandal in full swing. While the Dolphins would go on to hand the Buccaneers their first win of the season, it wasn’t for a lack of effort on Matthews’ part. He quietly went on to record his first career 100 yard game, catching 11 of the 14 balls thrown his way. Aside from raw yardage totals, Matthews picked up two touchdowns and seven additional first downs in the process as the Bucs’ secondary looked helpless to stop him.
The rest of the season would be less spectacular for Matthews, but a look into our Signature Stats shows some bright spots. A lone drop on a crossing pattern in Week 17 would blemish Matthews’ otherwise perfect season catching the ball as he earned the fourth-best Drop Percentage among wideouts who saw at least 44 targets on the year. His 37 receptions from the slot were 15th-most, and while that’s not spectacular, it’s impressive when you consider 44 receivers spent more time in the slot than Matthews.
What Happens From Here?
So where does this leave Matthews’ role with the team? Incidentally, he might actually be lower on the depth chart this coming season after the Dolphins spent a late second round pick on Jarvis Landry, a wide receiver from LSU. Gibson’s injury may result in him being cut from the team, but even then that would leave Matthews to compete with Landry for the third receiver position. The team seems committed to having Matthews play inside, as 87% of his snaps last season were in the slot. At a career average of 11.5 yards per catch and a career long catch of 30 yards, Matthews would appear to be a nice complement to the field-stretching speed that Wallace brings to the offense.
At just under $600k per year, Matthews’ salary is very team-friendly. Should the Dolphins retain Gibson, Wallace, and Hartline, Matthews should still have a place cemented on the roster thanks to his production and the low cost of keeping him. Even if he’s forced into a diminished role on the offense, he made a positive contribution to the team, something most seventh-round picks can’t claim. Snaps may be very hard to come by, so it will be up to Matthews to seize every opportunity if he’s to hope for more playing time.
Whether or not Matthews is in the Dolphins’ long-term plans may not be up to him. They currently have three receivers on the roster signed through 2017 and that’s not counting the deal Landry will sign in the upcoming months. With so much money committed to the position, it’s hard to envision Miami looking to shell over more to Matthews when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2016 without first releasing some of the high-priced wideouts ahead of him on the depth chart. It will be interesting to see whether Matthews can take that next step and break into the starting role, but he certainly has his work cut out for him.