Why Dolphins rookie receiver Ezukanma played so few snaps and his plan now

David Santiago/dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Dolphins rookie wide receiver Erik Ezukanma looked like a revelation in August, with 10 catches for 156 yards in preseason and several impressive receptions during training camp.

Then he was never seen again until the regular season finale in January.

That was partly a byproduct of the Dolphins’ depth and talent at receiver — he primarily backed up All-Pro Tyreek Hill — but also because coaches, at least early in the season, weren’t certain if they could fully trust his decision-making in a complicated offense.

“We have very long play calls,” receivers coach Wes Welker explained late in the season. “If they are not on point with the quarterback, there’s too much of a pass rush to be off point even a little bit. There was a time it was hard [for Ezukanma] to even line up. Now he’s lining up right. Erik will get there.”

Welker trusted him enough to play him 10 offensive snaps in the Jets finale — his only appearance of the season. He caught the only pass thrown to him, for 3 yards.

“He did some really nice things in the run game,” Welker said of that Jets game. “I was happy with Erik, and he’s progressing very well. He’s got a long offseason ahead of him.”

Ezukanma — who plays the Z and F receiver positions — vows to do everything necessary to earn the trust of Dolphins coaches.

“I will make sure I know what I need to know to get things done,” he said.

Was there was a point when he wished he was more on top of things with his playbook and play calls?

“You can’t really sit in the past and regret anything with situations like that,” he said.

But he insists he had a good command of the playbook.

“I was a rookie coming in. And in college you’re told to learn one position and know routes for that one position that you’re running,” he said. “That’s kind of what I was expecting.”

Instead, he was asked to learn two positions in an offense far more complicated than the scheme he played in at Texas Tech.

“It’s the NFL, a whole different world,” he said. “Just like coming out of high school, I had to redshirt my first college year. It was one of those deals in a way. I feel like I’m a lot more mature then I was then obviously.”

Welker said the learning curve from Texas Tech’s spread offense — one that Welker also played in — to the Dolphins’ offense is significant. Ezukanma agrees.

“The biggest curve for me was the listening part,” Ezukanma said. “In college, you’re trying to go as fast as possible and all you’re doing is learning imagery and learning a signal and lining up and knowing the route based off a signal.

“Most of the formations were spread, so I was always on the right side. In the NFL, there are a bunch of different packages, personnels, play calls, where you have to sit in the huddle and listen to each call and know what you’re doing with each call the second he says that. That’s the learning curve I’ve had to learn and I feel like I’ve grasped it pretty well.”

What will be his biggest priority this offseason?

“The biggest growth [area] is maintaining poise, listening to my coaches and doing everything they want me to do, [executing] the play called in the huddle and studying and watching film,” he said. “I feel like I’ve grown a lot throughout the months. I believe I’m ready to go.”

How much has Welker yelled at him, compared with positive reinforcement?

“It’s been all of the above,” he said. “I take coaching very well. With coaching, he hasn’t really been tough on me, but when I mess up there are times he will get on me for discipline reasons.”

As the good-natured Ezukanma said that, receiver Jaylen Waddle walked by and told Ezukanma to be “authentic” about his answer.

Ezukanma smiled.

“It goes hand in hand: aggressive coaching with good coaching with uplifting me and making sure what I know I’m doing good and what I’m doing wrong.”

After telling reporters earlier in the season that coaches needed to be sure they could trust Ezukanma to do everything correctly, Welker struck a softer tone in his most recent comments about him.

“He’s going to be a great player for us,” Welker said. “He’s getting a good grasp of the offense. There’s a ton of details that go into [the Dolphins’ offense]. It takes a lot of reps and a lot of time. The guys that are playing tend to get a lot of those reps.”

Ezukanma said he hasn’t been dispirited about not playing, even while watching practice squad players play ahead of him, albeit at positions he hasn’t spent much time at.

“They drafted me for a reason,” Ezukanma said. “They’ve had a plan for me as soon as they drafted me. Whatever that plan was, I stuck with it. I feel very good about things.”

Ezukanma plans to study tape of other NFL receivers.

“I don’t like just watching route runners,” he said. “I am going to watch Deebo [Samuel] and his run ability after the catch; Keenan Allen’s route-running ability. And Justin Jefferson, I’ll definitely tap into what he did this year.”

Welker isn’t about to give up on him.

“He has the strength, the size, the hands, the speed we really like in our receivers,” he said. “I look forward to really working with him” this year.

Here’s part 1 of my Dolphins 2022 rookie player series, with a look at linebacker Channing Tindall.