Omar Kelly: Dolphins intent on turning up volume on tight end contribution

Omar Kelly, Miami Herald on

Published in Football

MIAMI — The question was a simple one.

How can the NFL’s top ranked offense get better? What’s the next step in the evolution of Mike McDaniel’s offense?

“What did we learn from the season?” Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Frank Smith asked, summarizing Miami’s postseason discussions about an offense that set the NFL pace by producing 401.3 and 5.1 yards per carry. “Where are the areas that we need to grow?”

The staff provided a succinct answer.

Miami’s coaches realized they needed a tight end to threaten the seams of defenses and attack linebackers regularly, keeping defenses from playing cloud coverage, and to achieve that Miami needed big, physical targets that would come alive in the red zone and end zone.

Adding a tight end or two who is a pass catching weapon, a run-after-catch threat, would serve as a pressure valve for the offense. So Miami signed Jonnu Smith, who has scored 21 touchdowns in his previous seven seasons, to a two-year deal worth $8.4 million, and then added Jody Fortson Jr., who has scored four touchdowns in the 19 regular season games he’s played in for the Kansas City Chiefs.

“If we can make it so that they don’t, they cannot double the two guys on the outside. Now [defenses] are going to have some issues,” tight end coach Jon Embree said, referring to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. “Now they got to back up. Now the run game [works better].

“Everything ties them together,” Embree explained. “So just having another weapon and having it not be in the receiver room gives our offense even more flexibility, and it makes us even more dangerous.”

Jonnu Smith has a reputation for being a run after catch specialist. He led all tight ends in yards gained after the catch per reception last season because he has a knack for shedding tackles. Fortson, who spent five seasons as Travis Kelce’s understudy, is a high-point catcher, known for jumping at the highest point to bring down receptions.

How those newcomers will mix with Durham Smythe, Julian Hill and Tanner Conner, the holdovers from last year’s tight end room, is yet to be determined.

But it’s clear that the Dolphins are excited about the new dimensions they added.

“Man, the sky is the limit with these guys,” said Jonnu Smith, who caught 50 of the 70 passes thrown his way last season in Atlanta as the Falcons’ second tight end, and turned those receptions into 582 yards and three touchdowns. “This is by far the most explosive, talented, stacked team I’ve ever been a part of. I’m not even going to say offensively, just as far as a team. Now, what does that mean right now in the beginning of June? Nothing – we’ve got to go out there and continue to put the work in.”

Anyone who thinks this coaching staff doesn’t know how to utilize that position because of what they’ve seen the past two seasons is sadly mistaken.

Embree has an extensive list of tight ends like Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, whom he coached for three seasons, and Chris Cooley on his NFL resume. And when he was a college assistant he coached two Mackey Award winners in Marcedes Lewis at UCLA, and Daniel Graham at Colorado, winners of the award given to college football’s top tight end.


Frank Smith coached Jared Cook and Darren Waller in his early years with the Oakland Raiders as a tight ends coach.

And McDaniel and Embree both coached George Kittle in San Francisco, and he’s arguably the best all-purpose tight end in today’s NFL.

The Dolphins had Mike Gesicki in McDaniel’s first season, and that output (32 receptions for 362 yards and five touchdowns) was lackluster, especially for a player Miami used the franchise tag to retain that offseason.

But Gesicki wasn’t a good fit for this offense because of his limitations as a blocker, which made him a one-dimensional tight end. Anytime Gesicki stepped foot on the field he was telegraphing the fact that Miami was likely throwing the football. That hindered Miami’s play action potential, which led to Gesicki’s snap count being limited.

When addressing the position, McDaniel made it clear that Gesicki and Smith are completely different players.

“He’s a fast dynamic football player, but what I love that he provides is [there’s] a tonality at the point of contact,” McDaniel said of Jonnu Smith. “He has become a master of YAC, not only because of speed, but because of a mindset.”

For Embree, that that type of toughness sits atop his list of traits players need to be effective at their position.

A physical tight end sets the tone for the entire offense because he cleans up leakage in pass protection, creates lanes in the run game. And when the run game is working that tight end can easily slip past the linebackers when they are focused on stopping the run.

“Sounds easier than it is,” Embree pointed out.

The same applies to turning up the volume on tight end productivity up for a unit that caught 41 passes and turned them into 414 yards, and failed to score a touchdown in 2023.

But McDaniel’s clear on what he wants to achieve in 2024, which is to force opposing defensive coordinators to make tough decisions.

“If people want to really give up a bunch of space and sit back there, or drop seven with some depth,” McDaniel said. “You can make them pay in a short amount of time.”


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