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Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle Are Breaking Wide Receiver Production As We Know It

The two Dolphins wide receivers are on record-setting paces—and are taking Shanahan-style offenses to new heights

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Tyreek Hill is on pace to have the best season a wide receiver has ever had.

Through eight weeks with the Miami Dolphins, Hill has 961 receiving yards. This Sunday against the Chicago Bears, he will almost certainly pass the 1,000-yard mark. If you’re any good at math, you know what it means when a receiver has 1,000 yards at the halfway point of the season: He’s on pace for 2,000 receiving yards. It’s never been done. Calvin Johnson came the closest, with 1,964 receiving yards in 2012. Hill gets the advantage of a 17th game, added to the regular season last year—but nobody will care much if that big old “2” shows up in the record books. And while Hill’s extra game may seem like cheating, it’s worth remarking that he is averaging just 2 fewer receiving yards per game than Johnson did during his historic season.

Perhaps most remarkably, Hill is doing this in his first year in a new offense with a new quarterback—a quarterback who is not Patrick Mahomes. Much was made of Hill’s downgrade at quarterback this offseason, and his assertions that Tua Tagovailoa was more accurate than Mahomes got buried under videos of underthrows in training camp. But those days are long forgotten—even now, when Tua underthrows Hill in live game action, nobody cares. Not when Hill ends the day with 12 catches for 188 yards on 14 targets.

While offseason conversation focused on how the quarterback change would affect Hill’s production, even the most optimistic projections of Hill’s volume undershot the mark. He has been targeted on 35.2 percent of his routes this season; meanwhile, he broke 30 only once with the Chiefs, in his rookie year, and never broke 28 percent for the remainder of his time there. His 2022 target rate is the highest figure among receivers this season (minimum 100 routes run).

Wanna take it to another level? It’s the highest figure among receivers with at least 100 routes in any season since 2006, which is as far back as TruMedia’s target data goes.

Wanna go up yet another level? That 35.2 percent target rate on routes run? If we control for just plays on which starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is throwing the football, that number goes up to 37.2 percent. On three out of every eight routes he runs, Hill sees the football.

Hill is getting astronomical volume in the Dolphins offense. Since he’s always on the field, always running routes, and always getting targets, Hill has also broken the yards-per-route-run scale: He averages 3.68 yards per route run, easily the best number of this season. Only one other player (DeAndre Hopkins) is above 3 yards in that metric, and he’s played just two games. We have never seen a passing game so centered on one receiver, and it’s allowing Hill to break wide receiver production as we know it.

You might think that Hill’s historic volume would leave no meat on the bone for any other Miami receivers, but watch this:

There are truisms about football: Defense wins championships. Offenses gotta establish the run. Teams need to win the turnover battle. Then there are realities of football: You need a star quarterback to compete. Man coverage is better than zone coverage if you have the dudes to play man. Go for two when down 14. And then there’s just math. Math would tell you: If you have a receiver getting so many targets that he is leading the league in yards per route run, then his fellow receiver—who is also running routes all the time, and obviously not getting targeted—will not also be near the top of the league in yards per route run.

Somehow, the Dolphins offense isn’t just sustaining one of the highest-volume and most productive receiving seasons we’ve ever seen—it’s doing so while generating another ridiculously productive and explosive wide receiver in Jaylen Waddle. And it has done so even though its starting quarterback has missed two games. If we control for only those games that Tagovailoa has started and finished, Hill and Waddle are first and second in yards per route run.

This is outlandish. It’s stark raving. It’s one of those astronomical events that you’re supposed to get excited about because it happens only once every 348 years, but in this case it’s the coolest thing in the solar system and demands your attention every week. We have never seen this before.

How does it work? Well, there are a few things to highlight.

Waddle doesn’t see the same volume as Hill. His target percentage on routes run is 23.8 percent, which is 23rd in the league. When we filter for Tua games, that number jumps to 28.8 percent, which would be good for eighth among wide receivers. Waddle produces on that volume with wild efficiency. His 17.3 yards per reception this season is a top-five number, and is a testament to an above-average depth of target (10.5 air yards per target) and an above-average yards after catch per reception (6.7). Waddle is one of only 17 receivers with an above-average mark in both metrics this year.

Waddle is finding this production in the same place that Shanahan-style offenses have always found this production: the middle of the field. Offenses that sprout off the Shanahan-McVay tree, like the one Mike McDaniel is running, use crossing routes over the middle to hit quality athletes in stride so that they can generate YAC—but unlike wide receiver screens and slants, these routes develop farther down the field, so they become more valuable. Typically, these middle-of-the-field routes develop at an intermediate depth (think 10-20 yards downfield) to attack the void left by linebackers biting on play-action. Last year, the leading receivers in the intermediate middle were Justin Jefferson, Kyle Pitts, A.J. Brown, Davante Adams, and Brandon Aiyuk, all of whom play in some iteration of the Shanahan offense.

This year, the leading receivers to the intermediate middle? Jaylen Waddle (16 catches on 21 targets) and Tyreek Hill (14 catches on 20 targets). McDaniel brought that Shanahan sauce to the Dolphins and immediately began hammering it.

And that’s what we expected. Even though the volume is surprising, the focus on that area of the field isn’t. A Shanahan offshoot was always going to do this. What is eye-popping is what happens to the numbers when you look at the entire middle of the field—not just intermediate, but deep as well.

It sounds so obvious when you write it out, but here it is: The Dolphins’ two star receivers are faster than any receiver duo we’ve ever seen in a Shanahan-inspired offense. And accordingly, once the two got married—Waddle’s and Hill’s speed and the system that attacks the middle of the field—the sweet spot of the Shanahan system stretched. It grew. Like bamboo that’s long taken root, it’s shooting up fast.

Defenses are not ready for this. I mean, defenses are nowhere near ready for this. Tua has completed twice as many passes in the deep middle than any other quarterback this season, despite missing two games. He’s fifth in expected points added per dropback, fifth in completion percentage, and second in passer rating—all of this even though he still cannot throw the ball with enough downfield juice to hit these speed demons in stride.

This stretching of the Shanahan system is responsible for the remarkable production we’re currently seeing in Miami. Hill and Waddle are having the highly efficient, YAC-oriented seasons we’re long accustomed to seeing receivers have in this offense—only, while Jefferson and Samuel and Kupp get their targets close to the line of scrimmage, Hill and Waddle get theirs all the way downfield. In Tua games, Hill and Waddle have combined to account for more than 75 percent of the air yards generated by the Dolphins offense, the highest number of any receiving duo in the league.

The idea that this is sustainable is blasphemous. But I believe it with my whole heart. I don’t care that Tagovailoa’s high-risk play style will eventually result in more interceptions—he needs to throw these tight-window zingers to make the offense work, so the risk is worth the reward. I don’t care that Waddle and Hill are both smaller, quick-twitch athletes who take tons of hits over the middle of the field—I will surrender both of my hamstrings to the cause if need be. I don’t care that this highly concentrated, record-setting production is begging to regress to the mean. I want to see cool things when I watch the NFL, and this is the coolest thing happening in the NFL. The Dolphins should never throw the ball to Mike Gesicki or Trent Sherfield or River Cracraft ever again.

Tyreek Hill is on pace for 2,000 receiving yards. It’s never been done. But Jaylen Waddle is on pace for 1,500 receiving yards. That’s been done only 50 times before—and it’s never been done by teammates in the same season. The Dolphins offense is on the precipice of producing the greatest receiving season ever seen, while also producing the greatest tandem of receiving seasons ever seen. I don’t really know how to comprehend it. I don’t know whether it’s sustainable. I don’t know what to do with my hands. All I know is that it’s happening, right here, right now.