MIAMI — The Miami Dolphins, irrelevant for so long, are continuing to remind people they’re still in the NFL.
The Dolphins last year got the building block at quarterback they had long sought in Ryan Tannehill. And Tuesday, on the first day of free agency, they reeled in a desired big-play receiver in Mike Wallace.
But before everybody starts talking about not when the Dolphins next will host another Super Bowl but when they’ll be in one, the work is far from done. Just listen to Hall of Fame wide receiver turned NFL analyst James Lofton.
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“I like the move,’’ Lofton said in a phone interview with FOX Sports Florida about the Dolphins getting Wallace. “But there are still more components. They still will need to do something about left tackle if Jake Long leaves and at running back if they don’t have Reggie Bush (who is not expected to return). But having two great guys on the outside in Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline (who re-signed with Miami last week), they’ve got the window dressing.’’
Having the speedy Wallace around figures to be nice for a team that only has made one playoff appearance since the start of the 2002 season. But it would be much less nice if Tannehill is running for his life behind a porous offensive line or if the Dolphins can’t mount a good enough running attack to keep foes off balance.
After playing in Pittsburgh for four seasons, Wallace agreed to what has been reported to be a five-year deal with the Dolphins for about $65 million. That would include $30 in guaranteed money, a big chunk of change in the NFL.
“He has a unique skill set which we believe will be a welcomed addition to our offense,” Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said via statement. “We are looking forward to his contributions to the team.”
The Dolphins were desperate for a wide receiver who can make big plays. True, Hartline caught 74 balls last season for 1,083 yards for a 14.6 average, but he’s more of a possession receiver and a No. 2 guy. Davone Bess, who caught 61 passes for 778 yards for a 12.8 average, also isn’t a big play-guy, but he’s steady and will be a fine No. 3 receiver.
There has be somewhat of a caution flag that Wallace is coming off the worst season of his career. After averaging an NFL-high 19.4 yards per catch as a rookie in 2009 and having a 1,257-yard season in 2010 and a 1,193-yard one in 2011, Wallace last year slumped to 64 catches for 836 yards and a career-low 13.1 average.
Yes, that’s an average nearly two yards lower than Hartline’s.
But there were mitigating circumstances. Unhappy with his contract, Wallace sat out training camp and then fell behind while learning a new offense after Todd Haley had replaced Bruce Arians as offensive coordinator. Wallace also had some nagging injuries.
“You can’t have any concerns if you’ve just spent $65 million,’’ Lofton, a Dial Global Sports radio analyst for NFL games, said when asked if the Dolphins should have any reservations about Wallace’s off-year. “At least he will have the whole offseason and training camp to learn another system, and we’ll see how it does.’’
The system of Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman features Tannehill, once his quarterback at Texas A&M. Despite not having the best weapons around, he had a solid rookie season, completely 282 of 484 passes (58.3 percent) for 3,294 yards with 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
“Tannehill has got to be the happiest guy now in South Florida,’’ Lofton said of Miami getting him Wallace.
Still, it does put some extra pressure on Tannehill, who led the Dolphins to a 7-9 mark last season, a one-game improvement from 2011. He’ll be expected to take another big step this season now that he has Wallace, a Pro Bowl selection in 2011.
If Tannehill continues to improve, he really might show he can be that franchise quarterback the Dolphins have been looking for since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season. If he doesn’t, well, Miami did last week at least re-sign backup quarterback Matt Moore.
For now, though, the most pressing questions are what will happen with a pair of other Miami free agents and who might replace them. Long, the NFL’s No. 1 draft pick in 2008, might command a salary too high for the Dolphins’ liking and might not be back. And the Miami Herald has reported Bush is unlikely to return and the team will turn to young running backs Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller.
Whether those backs would work out in place of Bush, Lofton said it’s hard to know and wonders if another move might be needed there. He has a much more definitive opinion about left tackle.
If Long doesn’t return, Lofton believes the Dolphins must bring in a veteran left tackle to help protect Tannehill. He believes it would be too much to ask at this stage to move tackle Jonathan Martin, who showed promise as a rookie last season, over from the right side.
But free agency has just started, and the Dolphins still have ample bucks to spend. For now, though, they’ve become more relevant than they were before it started.