MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Atlanta Falcons safety Duron Harmon had seen the rookie for two days. He’d watched him run, cut, contort and move in and out of routes — not like the first-year wide receiver Jaylen Waddle is for the Miami Dolphins but like a guy who knows exactly what he’s doing.
Harmon had also seen him before, like most everyone else did, on television when Waddle was at the University of Alabama.
“He looked like the college football Tyreek Hill,” Harmon said, comparing Waddle to the explosive Kansas City Chiefs playmaker. “You know, just how he was able to run through defenses, and then, when he got the ball, you know, make one cut and then he’s running up the sidelines.
“Just a rare talent, rare ability.”
Harmon knew he might see it when the Falcons and Dolphins practiced together this week.
No, Waddle wasn’t the best wide receiver on the field during joint practices — or even the best former Alabama pass-catcher on the field — because of the presence of the Falcons’ Calvin Ridley, a favorite of Waddle’s to watch. But early in his NFL career as the Dolphins’ 2021 first-round draft pick, before he has played in a pro game that counts, Waddle made an impression that could signify a real role this fall.
He had a catch Wednesday in which his body seemed to pogo-stick off the ground, sending his frame into an unconventional position, almost sideways, to make an extension grab. He has also developed a chemistry early on with Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — not a surprise considering they were Alabama teammates.
In a situational period to end Thursday’s practice, Tagovailoa looked toward Waddle twice while trying to lead Miami to a winning touchdown. The Dolphins didn’t finish the drive, but Waddle was a clear, consistent Tagovailoa target. It was the second straight day the QB looked Waddle’s way often, a potential sign of what that tandem could look like this fall.
“We try to do everything right, come as close to perfection as we can,” Waddle said. “So him going through his reads, me going through my routes. If it’s the right play, I’m sure he’ll make the right play, the right read and get the ball out.”
Waddle might eventually make it easier. He is still trying to figure everything out, to create a routine that works for him and a schedule that makes sense to ensure he’s set up to succeed.
This is typical of rookies, whether they were drafted or not. But Waddle isn’t intimidated. When he was asked whether anything has been too big for him to handle yet, he shook it off. He said he doesn’t look at things like pressure because, well, he just loves to play.
What helps is his belief that at 5-foot-10 he can play in the slot or as an outside receiver, along with his potential as a returner, where the 22-year-old stood out for two of his three seasons at Alabama.
The speed and explosiveness don’t hurt either. It is evident when you watch him, but until an opponent experiences Waddle, it can still surprise.
“Shoot, his ability to get separation,” Dolphins cornerback Justin Coleman said. “He understands out of the break that sometimes he can use his little extra whatever just to get open.”
Coleman would know. He has covered receivers for New England, Seattle and Detroit. He has faced Julian Edelman, Tyler Lockett, Doug Baldwin, Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones in practice daily and matched up with some of the best slot receivers in the NFL weekly.
Harmon has seen countless receivers through his nine years as a safety in New England and Detroit. And, after two days of practices, Harmon knew that what he saw from Waddle in college would translate to the pros.
“Not only the speed but the quickness. His stop-start ability; there’s very few people that are that fast and that quick as well,” Harmon said. “Obviously you see all the ability there. It’s just about him getting more and more knowledgeable in the system, getting more and more comfortable.
“Just from practicing against him, as long as he stays with it, he can be as good as he wants to be.”