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With Dustin Keller done, time is now for backup tight ends

With Dustin Keller out, the Dolphins will need their young backup tight ends to rise to the occasion.

DAVIE, Fla. — The Miami Dolphins began life without Dustin Keller in earnest on Tuesday.


The team practiced for the first time since the tight end suffered a season-ending knee injury Saturday night during Miami's preseason loss at Houston.


"Certainly, he presented challenges for defenses and also some opportunities for us," Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. "I'd say we have some talented guys behind him that will have to step up. I'd prefer not to change what we do, necessarily, but it depends on who steps up.


"If our receiver package is stronger, and we put (Brandon) Gibson on the field — which certainly has its strengths — and then Tiger (two-tight end package) gives us some strengths in the run and pass game as well, I'm hopeful we'll still be able to use both packages with equal productivity."


The challenge for someone to step up was heard often following the morning-into-afternoon workout.


Keller had been expected to play a significant role in the passing game after signing a one-year free-agent deal. His loss means opportunity for second-year tight ends Michael Egnew and Kyle Miller, rookie Dion Sims and H-back Charles Clay.


But you can be sure general manager Jeff Ireland is keeping a close eye on roster moves around the league involving tight ends. Even coach Joe Philbin said the Dolphins were "investigating a lot of possibilities."


"It's tough," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said of Keller's injury. "We brought him in for a reason, and he was doing very well for us. It's definitely tough to lose a player and person like Dustin."


Tannehill, in his second year, has spent the past several months building rapport with Keller and new receivers Mike Wallace and Gibson.


Now he'll need to strengthen his bonds with the other tight ends.


"Every guy's different, just like every receiver or every running back, you kind of have to get to know each guy," Tannehill said. "We have good guys in the room. I'm looking for some guys to really step up and take advantage of the opportunity."


Just what did Tannehill see in the backup tight ends?


On Egnew: "We've seen him take a big jump this camp from where he was last year. He's really done a great job for us. Now that he's going to get more reps, I expect him to continue to get better."


On Clay: "He's been doing a good job for us. He's got speed to get down field."


On Sims: "A big body. He's done very well for a rookie, and he's going to get thrown in the fire. We can't look at him as a rookie anymore. He has to step up and play."


Sims, a fourth-round pick from Michigan State, insisted his focus and approach had not changed with Keller's injury.


"It's pretty much the same," he said. "We just have to step up, have a positive attitude and move forward.


"I feel like we won't miss a beat. We'll come out and get the job done. We'll push each other everyday. We're going to be fine."


Egnew and Clay escaped to the locker room without speaking to reporters Tuesday.


Miller, claimed off waivers from Indianapolis in November, returned to practice Tuesday after being sidelined last week with an undisclosed injury. He said Keller's injury should not affect Miami's offense.


"I don't think it really changes it, to be honest," said Miller, son of former NFL quarterback Mark Miller. "We've got guys who can do everything Dustin can do. I'm not saying that he's not a big loss, but it's more just shuffling around guys into the right spots rather than trying to replace him.


"We can all run routes, catch the ball and block. It's just maybe a little different technique, might look a little different, but we'll get the job done."


Charlie McCarthy can be reached at mac1763@bellsouth.net or on Twitter @mccarthy_chas.