Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle have torched defenses this year, showing the NFL a new way to win: with unguardable speed and quickness
Positions and their importance in football are always evolving. We have seen the elevation of the lead running back, only to be replaced by the platoon system in recent years. Similarly, we have seen the evolution of the wide receiver from a nice-to-have luxury into a must-have tool to win in today’s league. As the league has changed, so has what defines a wide receiver. Perhaps no wide-receiving duo in today’s NFL exemplifies the evolution of the game and the position quite like Miami’s Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. This tandem has dominated NFL secondaries all season, the dream of the modern NFL offense realized.
A Game of Spacing
Many observers of the NFL game will say that the game has transformed from one that was built on a foundation of grit and toughness to one that caters exclusively to offenses. While the changes in rules that have benefited offense cannot be discounted, I would argue that the NFL is now a game of speed and space. Virtually every position on the field on both offense and defense is getting faster with improved recovery speed to avoid getting exposed in open spaces. We have seen more quarterbacks with scrambling capability, the virtual demise of the inside-only running back, and the disappearance of the lumbering middle linebacker.
What we have seen instead are versatile running backs that can catch the ball out of the backfield, quarterbacks capable of running option run plays, and perhaps most importantly wide receivers that can catch the ball on a short screen and turn it into a big gain. Speed has never been more important in this league, and the Miami Dolphins have no shortage of that with Jaylen Waddle (4.37 40-yard dash) and Tyreek Hill (4.29 40-yard dash).
The Dolphins have not one but two of the fastest receivers in the game. This gives their offense a threat at every level of the field to score points in bunches. Through jet sweeps and bubble screens, Waddle and Hill can make defenders miss and turn a 5-yard gain into a 50-yard one. Because of their quickness, they can easily break out of their routes faster than other receivers meaning that intermediate routes do not take as long to develop giving quarterback Tua Tagovailoa more than enough time to deliver an accurate ball resulting in big chunks of yardage. And of course, when it is time to take a shot downfield, both Waddle and Hill have the straight-line speed to be able to get past most cornerbacks with ease. It is no mystery why the Dolphins are the third-highest-scoring team in the league this year: it is virtually impossible to cover both of these receivers.
A Matchup Nightmare
Thinking from a defensive point of view, game planning to stop Waddle and Hill is a problem without a perfect solution. Playing them man-to-man is catastrophic because they have the speed and route-running capability to beat any cornerback over the top. Playing zone coverage is also a problem since both receivers can find holes in the zone and get to their spot faster than defenders can recover. There is the extreme tactic of double-covering both players which lead to one-on-one matchups for the Dolphins' other skill players like running back Raheem Mostert and tight end Mike Gesicki. The happy medium has seemed to be to operate in a two-high safety look for reassurance when the man coverage eventually is broken, but even this has had limited results.
In the past three weeks, the Dolphins' offense has averaged 35 points per game. In those games, the Hill and Waddle combo accumulated 632 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. As Tagovailoa has recovered from a scary concussion and developed more chemistry with his receivers, the offense has been lethal thanks to his above-average accuracy and ball placement.
The insertion of this two-headed monster at the wide receiver position has Miami on track to potentially win its first division title since 2008. But beyond the success of this season, the Dolphins are perhaps showing something much larger in the grand scheme of things: a new way to win. Their defense is below average, ranking 22nd in total defense yardage. They have a quarterback that is not considered to be in the upper echelon in terms of arm talent and ability. But they have by far the most productive wide-receiving duo in terms of yards (Hill 1st, Waddle 4th), receptions (Hill 1st, Waddle 12th), receiving touchdowns (Hill 17th, Waddle 5th), and yards per reception (Hill 21st, Waddle 5th). And it is working, as Miami enters its bye week with a 6-3 record. This is the type of formula that sets a new precedent.
Changing the Formula
There is no doubt that the wide receiver position has become more important than ever. In what was perhaps the game of the year between Minnesota and Buffalo last week, it is impossible to imagine Minnesota competing let alone winning that game without the exploits of Justin Jefferson. Wide receivers are now incorporated into the game plans of teams in the way that lead running backs were for years.
But with Waddle and Hill, Miami is showing the rest of the league that focusing on a dual threat of speedsters on the outside is a path to success in this league that protects wide receivers and skill position players more than ever. The ripple effect of this will be a further prioritization of speed, where 40-yard dash times will factor into the evaluation of receivers in the NFL Draft more than ever. This will also have an impact on the way that cornerbacks and safeties are evaluated. Because if they do not have that top-end speed to compete with these receivers then they will simply be ill-equipped to compete in this league.
What the Dolphins are looking to accomplish is to eliminate the possession wide receiver, a declaration that speed kills defenses, and as long as you can create space for fast wide receivers to operate then you have a chance to move the ball. This speed philosophy has been evident in the way that they have targeted running backs like Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson to be incorporated into their offensive attack. The NFL is considered a passing league, but I would contend that it is a speed league. And there isn’t a team with more speed than the Miami Dolphins, which is bad news for defensive coordinators across the NFL.