Brian Hartline: A Case of Changes in Usage and Production

Brian Hartline could be the first domino to fall during a busy offseason in Miami.

In another step in the Dolphins freeing themselves from the ill-advised contracts given out at the end of the Jeff Ireland era, Brian Hartline has been released by the Miami Dolphins. Miami has spent most of the offseason trying to figure out what to do with Mike Wallace, but Hartline became the first domino to fall in a receiving trio -- along with Brandon Gibson -- that did not perform up to its monetary commitment.

Hartline used to be a solid receiving option, but he couldn't maintain that this season. What happened?

Usage vs. Production

In the case of Hartline, like Wallace, the amount of money given to the player was under false assumptions from the start.

Following the 2012 season, the Dolphins gave Hartline a five-year, $30.77 million contract following a breakout season. However, by looking at our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the breakout was less about an improvement in Hartline and more about his involvement in the offense. From 2011 to 2012, Hartline saw a 71 percent increase in Reception NEP, while seeing a 98 percent increase in targets. With the increase in targets outpacing the increase in Reception NEP, Hartline rated lower on a per target basis from 2011 to 2012.

YearRecRec NEPTargetsTarget NEPRec NEP/TargetCatch RateRec SuccessesRec Success Rate

Over the past five years, Hartline has been relatively consistent on a per-target basis, but those target numbers have varied wildly. Josh Norris of Rotoworld likes to say schemes change more than players, and that appears to be the case in the perceived peaks and decline of Hartline.

YearRecRec NEPTargetsTarget NEPRec NEP/TargetCatch RateRec SuccessesRec Success Rate

Despite posting his lowest Reception NEP since 2010, 2014 saw Hartline have his second highest Reception NEP per Target of the past five years, along with his highest catch rate. If we prorate Hartline’s per target numbers in 2014 to his 2013 targets, he’d come away with 95.14 Reception NEP which would be just behind DeAndre Hopkins as a top-20 receiving performance this past season. Of course it’s likely that type of per target production would not hold with a considerable increase in targets, but it does show the drop in overall numbers could be placed on the lack of involvement more than a drop in ability.

Miami was slightly less pass heavy overall in 2014 compared to 2013. In 2013, the Dolphins had the third highest pass-to-run ratio in the league at 1.88. Under new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, Miami dropped to ninth with a pass-to-run ratio of 1.62. However, that decline was only a difference of 11 total pass plays from year-to-year. The bigger difference was how much time Hartline saw on the field. In 2013, Hartline was on the field for 908 of Miami’s offensive snaps, 88.4 percent. In 2014, Hartline was on the field for just 813 snaps, 74.3 percent of the offensive snaps.

The emergence of second-round pick Jarvis Landry is a reason for Hartline’s decline in targets and playing time. Landry saw 112 targets, though only totaled 0.58 Reception NEP per target. While it might not be the same per play efficiency, it’s not surprising to see Miami hand that role over to a 22-year-old receiver who will cost a total of just $2.8 million against the cap over the next three seasons.

Entering his age-29 season, Hartline can still be an effective possession receiver. His 0.71 Reception NEP per target ranked 48th of 163 players with at least 40 targets in 2014. That’s not stellar, but it was well above the 0.58 average from those receivers. Even in today’s pass happy environment, a useful possession receiver isn’t worth an average of $6 million per season, especially at the past season’s usage rate. Hartline could still make contributions to a team, but it will have to come at a heavily discounted rate to what he was scheduled to make. If he ends up with a team that can find the correct way to use him, his per play ability can still be of value.

Fleeing From Ireland

For Miami, this could just be the first step in shedding some bloated contracts this offseason. The Dolphins will be in a tricky scenario, though, as ridding themselves of all bad contracts will not give them enough salary relief to build enough depth for a full roster in 2015. Players such as Philip Wheeler, Cortland Finnegan, Dannell Ellerbe, and Brandon Gibson will all be overpaid relative to their likely performance in 2015, but cutting that many players isn’t of the best interest for the Dolphins. After the release of Hartline, Miami has an estimated $4.5 million in cap room for their top 51 contracts (which includes compensation for future draft picks), per

Additionally, terminating the contract of Wallace would create some more cap space, and it’s likely at least one or two of those previously mentioned players is also released or restructured. Miami has been on the brink of playoff contention in the past two seasons, but in order to improve the roster, the front office will have to get creative with the salary cap to bring some other useful players in to help.