MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Miami Dolphins running back Jeff Wilson Jr. mostly practices wide receiver drills during his offseasons, partly because running back drills are second nature to him, but also because he understands the importance of being a pass catcher in today's NFL.
"I remember one point in time, it was a running back league," Wilson said. "Even growing up, around when Adrian Peterson was in the league, you would have three or four every year come out, a running back, in the first round. But the game has changed. Quarterbacks have changed. Speed has changed."
Wide receiver value has soared in the past decade with rule changes that favor offense, unprecedented levels of talent and speed, and teams using receivers in different areas of the run game and pass protection.
"With the amount of talent at the quarterback position in this league, where guys can place the ball down the field in really tight windows, there is no coverage or defensive philosophy or matchup that can replicate having an elite player at that position," Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said.
Few teams understand that better than the Dolphins, whose offseason acquisition of Tyreek Hill has been a massive part of their success.
Miami has the NFL's No. 2 passing offense and sixth-best scoring offense thanks largely to the nearly unstoppable connection between Hill and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Entering Sunday's game against San Francisco, Hill leads the league in yards receiving (1,233) and trails only Buffalo's Stefon Diggs with 87 receptions.
Hill reached 1,104 yards receiving in Week 9, the most by an NFL player in a team's first nine games in the Super Bowl era. He could be the first NFL player to surpass 2,000 receiving yards in a single season and break Calvin Johnson's single-season record (1,964) set over 16 games in 2012.
"Every play he's in the game, you'd be hard-pressed to think that in a majority of those, the defensive coordinator would be calling the exact same call if he didn't exist," McDaniel said. "Or they wouldn't be emphasizing it."
Part of those impressive numbers is just Hill being really, really fast. Another part is McDaniel's scheme that allows Hill and other Miami receivers to get wide open.
But Wes Welker, a former pro receiver and currently Miami's receivers coach, said elite receiver play is a product of today's NFL.
"At the end of the day, the game is going to come down to a third-and-4," Welker said. "It's going to come down to a third-and-5. … It's going to come down to you having to throw the ball, and you have to be able to have guys that are going to get open."
And receiver contracts are skyrocketing because of it.
After Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp led the NFL in every major receiving category in 2021, the Rams made sure to lock in their Super Bowl MVP with an extension worth $75 million guaranteed.
The Dolphins made Hill the NFL’s highest paid receiver when they brought him to Miami, and now he's in MVP and Offensive Player of the Year conversations. Hill's $120 million, four-year contract extension made him the highest-paid player at his position in NFL history.
Wilson said Hill's speed and second-year receiver Jaylen Waddle has opened up Miami's short passing game, where Wilson and running back Raheem Mostert have been able to contribute.
"With the receivers we got, you got to keep everybody deep," Wilson said. "Sometimes when doing that, you tend to forget about all the short. And that's where we step in. … All we have to do is break the second level, and we're rolling."
Wilson has had more than 20 yards receiving in two of his three games with the Dolphins since being acquired at the November trade deadline. He ran for 119 yards on 17 carries against Cleveland in Week 10.
In preparing to face the Dolphins on Sunday, San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans noted Miami's success in the quick passing game.
"I think that's where this offense really lights it up," Ryans said, "because each throw, it doesn't have to be a 50-yard bomb down the field, it can be a screen behind the line of scrimmage, and these guys have the speed and the playmaking ability to make guys miss and go to the house."
Ryans also complemented not only Hill's speed, but his strength.
"No one else in the league has that ability that Tyreek has," Ryans said, "his ability to separate and not only is it just his speed, but he is very strong. When he gets the ball in his hands, he is a very strong runner and he can bounce off of tackles and make guys miss."