It wasn’t a perfect day for Jaylen Waddle and Miami, who fell to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London on a last-second field goal, but we’ve been waiting five weeks for Waddle to have his breakout game for the Dolphins. With Tua Tagovailoa back on Sunday, we got to see it.
After the Dolphins’ starting quarterback went down with a rib injury in their Week 2 matchup against the Buffalo Bills, Waddle looked like he was off to a great start at establishing chemistry with Miami backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett. In Brissett’s first start of the season, Waddle had 13 targets—as many as he had in his first two games combined—with 12 receptions for 58 yards (we’ll get to the low yardage point in a bit). But over the next two weeks, that apparent chemistry faded, as he only saw 10 more targets and five receptions combined. With his former Alabama teammate set to return Week 6 against a Jaguars team that struggled to defend the pass, it looked like the perfect week for Waddle to truly break out.
As it turns out, it was a good week for the rookie. Tagovailoa connected with Waddle 10 times on 13 targets for a career-high 70 yards and two touchdowns in their matchup with Jacksonville. After the Dolphins were feeding their rookie receiver early and often with four catches for 29 yards and his first touchdown on their first drive, he only saw one more target for the rest of the first half. Waddle got more involved again once the second half started though, getting at least one target on each of the Dolphins’ second-half possessions, including his second touchdown of the day that put Miami ahead early in the fourth quarter.
Despite Waddle’s two touchdowns, his overall performance on Sunday still felt underwhelming and short of the full potential we hoped to see from the former Alabama receiver. So far this season, Miami has often shown their aversion to the vertical passing game, mostly opting for shorter routes on their passing plays. That was a trend that continued in London, as a vast majority of Tagovailoa’s pass attempts were for fewer than 15 yards. His targets to Waddle were no exception, as the receiver’s longest caught pass of the day went for 14 yards.
It’s a change of pace for the tandem of former Crimson Tide offensive standouts. Waddle averaged 18.9 yards per reception in his three-year college career, but through his six games in the NFL, he’s averaging just over 8 yards for each reception. Tagovailoa had almost 11 yards per pass attempt in college, but that number has dropped to under seven yards per attempt in NFL action. The Dolphins just haven’t been able to find the recipe to success that the two enjoyed at Alabama. That’s a problem, considering that they gave up a first-round pick to move back up to get Waddle in this year’s draft.
In college, Waddle was elite at creating yards after a catch. When he had any room around him after a catch—whether on a deep ball or a good route that found him in a hole of zone coverage—he had the speed to pivot and turn upfield, splitting defenders as he made his way to the end zone. But like Urban Meyer said, playing against NFL defenses is harder than playing against college defenses. Waddle hasn’t ever really had that same level of separation once he makes a catch, especially with the abundance of short routes he runs.
That’s not to say it’s because he can’t create separation. We got to see an example of him running a good route with a quick slant off the line of scrimmage for his first touchdown of the day on Sunday.
We also had several opportunities to see Waddle’s good hands, as the rookie hauled in several receptions despite the tight coverage around him.
Still, the Dolphins need to be better about how they’re using their rookie receiver. We’ve seen how drafting your franchise quarterback’s college receiver can pay off at the pro level with the success Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Burrow have had in Cincinnati so far this year. If Miami is unable to find similar success with Waddle and Tagovailoa together in their passing offense, the price they paid for Waddle will warrant further criticism. And if the Dolphins continue their struggle to win games, that first-round pick price will look even worse.