Hunter Long's Fit With the Miami Dolphins

How can the former award-winning Eagle contribute to the Miami Dolphins' new offense?
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Last Friday night, the Miami Dolphins selected Boston College tight end, Hunter Long, in the third round with the 81st overall selection. Obviously, Dolphins head coach Brian Flores played football at BC in the 2000s, but he also coached Long at the Senior Bowl this January. During that week, Long won the award for the best tight end in practices for the National team (voted on by the defensive players on his squad)

Before the draft, I broke down which teams needed Hunter Long and where he would fit in well. I did not include Miami because I thought their tight end room was decently full; additionally, in the interest of full disclosure, I forgot Flores coached Long at the Senior Bowl. However, upon further investigation, which I will dive into later in this article, it is clear that Hunter Long should be able to contribute to the Dolphins’ offense in the short-term, along with as a long-term piece in their plans to surround Tua Tagovailoa with offensive weapons.

Changes on Offense

The Miami Dolphins finished 10-6 last year but barely missed the playoffs. Down the stretch, the Dolphins' offense struggled, as the coaching staff switched back and forth between veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie Tua Tagovailoa. The system actually seemed to work for a few weeks, but Miami couldn’t clinch a spot in the postseason against the rival Buffalo Bills in Week 17.

During the offseason, Fitzpatrick left Miami for the Washington Football Team, and Miami seemingly went all-in on Tua. There were rumors that the Dolphins could trade for Deshaun Watson or perhaps replace Tua with another rookie in the draft. In the end, they stuck with him and sought to surround him with weapons on offense. In free agency, the Dolphins brought in Will Fuller from the Texans; they also drafted Tagovailoa’s former teammate at Alabama, wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, in the first round, and Notre Dame offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg in the second.

In addition to bringing in new personnel, the Dolphins also made some changes to their coaching staff. They let offensive coordinator Chan Gailey go and promoted two offensive assistants to co-offensive coordinators. One of Miami’s new co-offensive coordinators, George Godsey, also serves as their tight ends coach. Godsey coached Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the early 2010s. He was also part of the staff that drafted TJ Hockenson in the first round with the Detroit Lions in 2019. Based on Godsey’s history, the tight end might be a more featured position in the Dolphins’ offense going forward.

What the Dolphins’ Tight End Room Looks Like

As previously mentioned, I did not anticipate Hunter Long being a target for the Dolphins due to my belief that they were set at the tight end position. However, in the long-term, this might not actually be the case. Mike Gesicki serves as the Dolphins' primary tight end. Gesicki is a phenomenal athlete and the Dolphins use him as a super-sized wide receiver, like how the Chiefs use Travis Kelce or the Raiders use Darren Waller

Behind Gesicki is Durham Smythe, who is primarily used as an in-line blocking tight end. Finally, there is Adam Shaheen, a massive player who the Dolphins traded for from the Bears, and backs up both Gesicki and Smythe. There is also Chris Myarick, a former UDFA who spent 2020 on the practice squad, and Cethan Carter, who is more of a fullback-type that Miami brought to primarily contribute on special teams. You can see what the Dolphins’ depth chart at tight end looks like below, along with the players’ statistics from the 2020 season and their snap shares.

Dolphins Tight End Depth Chart:

  1. Mike Gesicki: 85 targets, 53 catches, 703 yards (13.3 YPC), 6 TDs; 58% of snaps on offense.
  2. Durham Smythe: 29 targets, 26 catches, 208 yards (8 YPC), 2 TDs; 42% of snaps on offense (51% on special teams).
  3. Adam Shaheen: 22 targets, 12 catches, 150 yards (12.5 YPC), 3 TDs; 34% of snaps on offense.
  4. Cethan Carter (FB): 10 career targets, 7 catches, 53 yards, 1 TD.
  5. Chris Myarick: UDFA practice squad player on futures contract.

How the Dolphins Use Their Tight Ends

In the NFL today, the vast majority of teams are throwing the ball more than ever before and using increasingly “smaller” personnel groups. However, a lot of teams want to use their offensive personnel groupings to create specific mismatches. The way most offenses do this is by using what is known as “12 personnel”. The number denotes how many running backs and tight ends are on the field at any given time. 12 personnel means that the offense is using one running back (1) and two tight ends (2). 

The reason why teams want to use 12 personnel is that it allows the offense to run the ball with two tight ends as blockers. But 12 personnel can also be a deadly option for throwing the ball. If the defense expects the offense to run out of 12 personnel, the offense can throw play-action off of it, especially if the tight ends are dynamic receiving threats along with being solid blockers.

In terms of how this relates to the Dolphins and Hunter Long, if their offense uses more personnel groupings with multiple tight ends (12, 13, 22), it is more likely that Hunter Long will be used in the offense. Mike Gesicki is firmly entrenched as the starter, but Hunter Long should be able to crack the lineup in sets with multiple tight ends. During the 2020 season, Miami used 12 personnel at the seventh-highest rate among all NFL teams, using it on 28% of plays. The Dolphins offense was also in the top half for usage of 22 and 13 personnel (4% and 3%, respectively).

However, there is one key variable left to investigate: who is the quarterback? Ryan Fitzpatrick began the season as the starter, and while Tua Tagovailoa took over halfway through the season, the pair rotated in and out of the lineup. Therefore, it is important to find out which offensive personnel groupings were used more with which quarterback. These results surprised me, as the Dolphins offense actually used 12 personnel at a higher rate with Tua (31%) than with Fitzpatrick (23%) in games where either quarterback was the starter. This bodes well for Hunter Long, as the offense should continue to use multiple tight end sets.

Hunter Long’s Role in the Dolphins’ Offense

So we know the Dolphins like to use multiple tight end packages. We also know that Tua Tagovailoa is comfortable working with these personnel groupings. Therefore, the next question we need to ask is what role does Hunter Long fill in the Dolphins’ offense? First, let’s look at how the BC offense used Long in 2020, According to Pro Football Focus, he played on 779 snaps on offense; his alignments were divided up in the following manner:

559 in-line (71.8%)

165 slot (21.1%)

48 wide (6.2%).

This tells us that Long was used as a traditional tight end mostly, but the new offense sent him in motion very frequently and also used him as a slot receiver more than the offense under Addazio. Next, let’s look at how the Dolphins’ tight ends were used:

Mike Gesicki: 621 snaps; 365 slot (58.8%), 133 wide (21.4%), 122 in-line (19.6%).

Durham Smythe: 451 snaps; 358 in-line (79.4%), 36 slot (8%), 18 wide (4%).

Adam Shaheen: 367 snaps; 283 in-line (77.1%), 67 slot (18.3%), 10 wide (2.7%).

As previously mentioned, Mike Gesicki is used more like a giant wide receiver, exploiting mismatches from both the slot and out wide. Durham Smythe serves as the blocking tight end, aligning attached to the offensive line and on the line of scrimmage. Adam Shaheen fills both roles as a backup.

Based on this distribution of snaps and alignments, I think Hunter Long will fill in as the “Y” tight end like Smythe, aligning on the end of the offensive line. However, Long also offers better receiving ability and more athletic upside than Smythe, without significantly sacrificing blocking ability. With Gesicki aligning out wide and in the slot attacking deeper areas of the Field, along with speedsters Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle, Long can operate in the short and intermediate areas of the field, serving as a valuable check-down option for Tua Tagovailoa. Furthermore, Tagovailoa already displayed a willingness to target his tight ends; in his 288 passes, he targeted a tight end 84 times (29.2%), while the Dolphins offense in general targeted tight ends on just under 25% of their passes.

In conclusion, even though I didn’t initially predict the Miami Dolphins as a likely destination for Hunter Long, it is clear that Miami has a plan for how to use him in their offense. Additionally, both Gesicki and Smythe will be free agents at the end of the 2021 season. Therefore, Long might be the Dolphins' long-term answer at the tight end position.