One of the only units on the Dolphins that has remained entirely intact from last season is the tight ends, and along with the offensive line this is another group that tends to not receive a lot of attention.
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Thanks to the arrival of wide receiver Brandon Marshall and the versatility of all four tight ends, their profile could be drastically raised.
Veteran Anthony Fasano is the established leader of the group, with Joey Haynos, Kory Sperry and John Nalbone feeding off of his energy and learning from his practice regimen. Each of them brings a little something different to the offense but they’re all asked to do a lot of different jobs. That’s how it’s always been in any system run by offensive coordinator Dan Henning, which is why Head Coach Tony Sparano considers tight end to be the second toughest position on the field behind quarterback.
“They have to do everything and they can’t be okay at it, they’ve got to be good at it,” Sparano said. “They have to be good protecting, they have to be good out of the backfield, they have to be good in the pass game and they have to be good in the run game. So they where a lot of hats, and I think from that standpoint there this group, we’re lucky they have some of that flexibility and they’re all very smart players.”
Nalbone and Sperry are both second-year players and Haynos is beginning his third season, so the fifth-year Fasano has embraced his role of being a mentor to the other three, while also focusing on taking his game to the next level. When he arrived in Miami before the 2008 season in a trade from Dallas, David Martin was the established veteran tight end and the two played off of each other very well. Fasano had the best season of his career, catching 34 passes for 454 yards and seven touchdowns.
Last season, Fasano got off to a slower start, but part of that had to do with his being asked to stay in more often in pass protection and as a run blocker. As the season progressed, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Notre Dame graduate picked up a little steam and he finished with 31 catches for 339 yards and two touchdowns. Haynos added 19 receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns in eight starts and Sperry caught three passes for 31 yards and a touchdown in his only start against Tampa Bay. Fasano believes Marshall’s presence could result in everyone’s numbers going up.
“On paper and theoretically I think it’s going to help open the middle of the field but we’ll see,” said Fasano, who played in more of a reserve role his first two years in Dallas. “I think every week our role’s going to change, but our role in this offense is trying to change and that’s a good thing because that means we’re protecting the quarterback and we’re allowed to work the middle of the field and have some mismatches. So us getting involved more in the passing game is a good thing for our offense.”
Sparano also expressed a notion that the opportunities for the tight ends will be better with Marshall in the lineup, but their role as multi-faceted pass blockers, run blockers and receivers will stay pretty much the same. Being as the tight ends do most of their work in the middle of the field that area is expected to open up more when opposing defenses shade their coverage in Marshall’s direction.
Depending on how the four tight ends develop throughout in training camp in terms of being able to define themselves more individually, Sparano can see certain situations based on those combinations where Fasano or any of the others could be utilized differently. Starting quarterback Chad Henne will be asked to spread the ball around when possible so that the defensive backs can’t focus solely on Marshall and his side of the field, and that’s where the tight ends can help.
“In our offense, the tight ends are expected to run block like a lineman, pass block like a tackle and run routes and catch like our receivers,” veteran quarterback Chad Pennington said. “So they’ve got the most difficult, well-rounded position. They’re asked to do everything, and a lot of pressure’s put on them. Anthony, he does and excellent job and we ask him to block Pro Bowl defensive ends in pass protection, we’re asking him in the run game to do a lot of different things, so a bulls eye’s on their back or sure.”
With Fasano leading the way, this group of tight ends seems eager to welcome the attention.
“We’re really close,” said Sperry, who said he no longer has to worry about the rookie jitters. “As soon as one’s in there we all watch to see what happens. When he comes out we have corrections and if he did good we’re always positive. It’s real nice and almost feels like a family in the tight end room.”