The Following is a guest post article from ESPN’s TrueHoop Network writer Michael Pina
On its face, wide receiver is perceived to be one of football’s simplest positions. When the ball is snapped, he runs forward in a pre-planned pattern with the hope of eventually getting open and catching the ball. Like every other position in football, wide receivers make themselves useful in other areas, such as downfield blocking. But most of the time his primary objective is running a route and catching a ball. It’s relatively elementary, but also not true.
About 20 years ago this was mostly true. But in the league today, with so many variables dictating an individual receiver’s responsibilities from play to play, in a hyper complex offense that’s constantly changing and moving at warp speed, simply being an athletic specimen who runs fast and jumps high doesn’t cut it anymore.
Today’s receiver needs to recognize coverage, then react in a split second. He needs to fight for separation 15 yards down the field against NFL cornerbacks (arguably the most preternaturally gifted athletes in all of professional sports). He needs to be fast in a straight line and quick on cuts, have hands simultaneously made of steel and clay, and the upper body strength to beat his man off the line of scrimmage.
When the Miami Dolphins signed Mike Wallace to a generous five-year, $60 million contract, they were presumably bringing in a player who’d assume their role as a number one wide receiver. Despite spending his entire career in Pittsburgh as somewhat of a one-dimensional down field threat, Wallace was expected to accept new responsibilities and become Ryan Tannehill’s best friend. For head coach Joe Philbin, who was the offensive coordinator for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Wallace would be Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson rolled into one.
None of this has happened yet. Instead, in his fifth season with the team, another receiver, Brian Hartline (who just signed a five-year contract that’ll pay him about half of what Wallace is due) has become Miami’s number one receiver.
Heading into last night’s Monday Night Football match-up against the New Orleans Saints, Hartline was averaging 79.3 yards per game. That’s better than the production seen through four weeks from Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Vincent Jackson, Dez Bryant, Wes Welker, and Larry Fitzgerald.
On 29 targets (nine more than Wallace), Hartline had 18 catches (four of them going for at least 20 yards). According to Football Outsiders, Hartline’s 62% catch rate ranks higher than Detroit’s Johnson, Fitzgerald, and Victor Cruz. Using the site’s DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) statistic, which measures a player’s total value, as opposed to his worth on a per play basis, Hartline currently ranks 12th among all wide receivers.
No article on Hartline can be written without mentioning his Week 4 performance against the Arizona Cardinals last season. It was the type of game capable of swinging an entire fantasy league, if only any owners were fortuitous enough to have him on their team, let alone lift him from their bench.
Hartline gained 253 yards and scored one touchdown (remarkably his only of the season) on 12 catches that day, but somehow the Dolphins managed to lose by three points. In this season’s opener against the Cleveland Browns, he had nine catches for 114 yards and another touchdown.
While that first outing would be an outlier for any receiver in NFL history, as his career develops, Hartline is seeing more and more balls in his direction, putting together the type of numbers that reflect the infallible skill-set that allows Miami to play him in just about any package, in all situations, anywhere on the field.
And just about every aspect of his game continues to improve, especially between the field’s two 20 yard lines, where the more green grass Hartline has to run his crisp routes the better.
He was the ninth most targeted receiver in the AFC last season (128, which was nine more than Wallace during his final season with the Steelers). Building trust with a rookie franchise quarterback is huge for any receiver; Hartline made it look easy. As this season continues on, the 27-year-old should only get better. He probably won’t ever gain 250 yards in a single game ever again, but Brian Hartline has all the tools to be Tannehill’s number one weapon for years to come. And comparable to other receivers in the game, he might not be the most athletic, but Hartline’s overall skill must be recognized.
Michael Pina is a writer for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network. Follow him on Twitter @michaelvpina.