DAVIE, Fla. – As the Miami Dolphins break the huddle in practice, quarterback Ryan Tannehill sometimes has a quick word with eager-beaver receiver Mike Wallace to warn him the ball will be thrown elsewhere on the play just called.
"Throw it to Mike," he said.
Like any good pass-catcher, Wallace wants the ball on every play. But Tannehill and the Dolphins enjoy an abundance of potential pass targets this year, which is a big change from last season.
With the addition of newcomers Wallace, Brandon Gibson and Dustin Keller, the receiving corps is considered the most improved part of the roster. The group has gone from a weakness to the strongest aspect of an offense desperate for more firepower.
"I like what I see," Tannehill said. "We have a lot of talent on the field, a lot of guys who can get open, catch the ball and do something with it when they get the ball in their hands. I'm excited that we have playmakers on the field. Now it's just a matter of putting the puzzle together and me doing a good job giving them the ball."
Last season the Dolphins finished 27th in the NFL in points and yards, and while Tannehill started every game as a rookie, Miami ranked 30th with only 13 touchdown passes. No wideout scored more than once.
In response, the Dolphins signed Wallace, the most highly regarded free agent receiver. They parted with slot receiver Davone Bess and tight end Anthony Fasano, and signed free agents Gibson and Keller. They re-signed Brian Hartline, who enjoyed a breakout year in 2012 with 74 catches for 1,083 yards.
Longtime Dolphins observers say the new pass-catching group might be the team's best since 1994, when Dan Marino had his final 30-touchdown season.
"This group of receivers is really talented," said O.J. McDuffie, who was part of the '94 group. "Our top three guys are going to be tough. And you can put Dustin Keller in there as a wide receiver, because he gives guys fits. If you put a safety on him, he can handle that. We've got a lot of good things happening on offense with those guys out wide that can give teams a lot of problems."
Wallace, Keller and Gibson combined for 58 touchdown catches over the past five years, and none is older than 28. While Wallace and Keller are expected to stretch the field, Gibson will be a possession receiver playing the slot for the first time in his career.
"Brandon has been a good addition for us," Tannehill said. "He brings athleticism to the slot. He's a guy who can win for us in the seam, understands crossing patterns and understands man-zone reads, when to sit and when to settle down into a zone. He's a good asset."
The newcomers have strongly influenced the makeup of the playbook. The Dolphins studied 2012 video of their new receivers and tried to incorporate what they do best into the offense.
"We looked very closely," coach Joe Philbin said. "We charted their catches and where they caught the ball — how deep it was, and whether it was outside the numbers or inside. We looked not just at teams we acquired players from, but a bunch of different teams doing things extremely well. We like to steal from the best if we can."
More passing by Miami is likely this season, and the ball was flying in practice Wednesday when the Dolphins lined up five wide with an empty backfield for a seven-on-seven drill.
Running back Lamar Miller, whose pass-catching skills might help him win a starting job, was among those split out, along with Keller and backup tight end Charles Clay.
"Our tight ends are like hybrid tight ends, so any time we have two of those guy in the game, it's like we're going five wide," Wallace said. "And Lamar is talking about taking our spot at wide receiver, so he's feeling good about his routes and what he brings to the table when he splits out. So it's very dangerous, and it's fun. Ryan can see the field a lot better when all of us are spread out for him. He can just take his pick."
That's assuming Tannehill finds time to throw. The offensive line has been hampered by injuries during training camp, and the latest casualty is backup guard Nate Garner, who missed practice Wednesday with a potentially serious shoulder injury.
While the line struggles to find cohesion, the new receivers are still meshing with Tannehill. Through two exhibition games he has yet to complete a pass to Wallace, but he did connect with Keller on a 22-yard touchdown pass Friday at Jacksonville.
Fits and starts during training camp are to be expected with Miami's promising passing game, Keller said.
"The sky's the limit. You have a lot of great guys who can make plays out there," he said. "But you've got to put the work in. You could have the best receivers in the NFL, but if they don't jell, it's the worst group of receivers in the NFL."
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