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Senior NFL Columnist

Dolphins training camp: Deep-threat Wallace ready to prove worth

DAVIE, Fla. -- Mike Wallace's jersey was soaked, sweat rolled off his forehead like a small waterfall, and the thick, cut-it-with-a-knife humidity hung in the air, even though we were under the cover of shade from the hot, afternoon Florida sun.

"You mind if I kneel down?" Wallace asked as we readied to chat.

Wallace, the Miami Dolphins' speedy receiver, looked beat. He had just spent the afternoon running deep routes, crossing routes, slants and many other routes, working hard to overcome that dreaded label he has been given:

Waste of money.

When Wallace signed a five-year, $60-million deal with the Dolphins in the spring of 2013 as free agent, he was expected to become a star receiver, a Pro Bowl player, maybe even a potential All-Pro.

What he became was a bulls-eye for criticism.

Wallace caught 73 passes for 930 yards and five touchdowns, but that wasn't good enough. Not when you get $30 million of guaranteed money to become the go-to guy for an offense that badly needed it.

So the critics pounded and pounded and pounded, and Wallace was the clear winner as the choice as worst free-agent signing of the year in most eyes.

"It comes with the territory," Wallace said of the critics. "People have a job to do. Fans watch the game how they watch it. I can't worry about any of that. I just have to go out and keep grinding."

Grinding is what he is doing more of now. He stays after practice to work on the JUGS machine. He has added five pounds of muscle to get stronger, yet says he hasn't dropped any of his speed.

The route running is better, more precise. The adjustment of being on a new team, playing with new players, is also behind him.

And he's excited by the new offense. Mike Sherman, who was fired as coordinator after the 2013 season, used a system that was predicated on little pre-snap movement, which meant Wallace usually lined up wide right and didn't run a variety of routes.

Now in Bill Lazor's system, Wallace will move around. He will also run more than just go routes, which has become his staple because of his speed.

That speed has earned him a bit of a label of being a one-trick pony.

"I just do what I am asked to do," Wallace said of being called the one-trick pony. "People can say whatever they want. They just need to watch the film. I am always open. You can't be open and not know how to run routes. I know what I can do. This offense gives me the chance to run every single route in the route tree. I get to move around. I like the speed of the offense."

Lazor comes from the Philadelphia Eagles, where he coached under Chip Kelly and his fast-paced offense. But to think this offense is the same as Kelly's would be wrong. It has some principles, but it also has tons of things from other stops for Lazor in his coaching ladder.

"We have great personnel for this offense," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "We want to make teams cover sideline-to-sideline and then use our speed to go vertical."

The idea last season was that Wallace and Tannehill would form a bond that would make them one of the best deep-ball passing combinations in football. It didn't work out that way. They had a tough time hitting the deep balls, missing on several big-play chances during the season. That led to harsh criticism for both.

They didn't help to end it when they missed on one last week against Tampa Bay. But Wallace was also held on the play, even if it wasn't called.

"If he doesn't hold me, it's a great throw by Ryan and it's a touchdown," said Wallace, who missed the first two weeks of camp with hamstring issues.

Wallace did catch two deep passes in the practice I watched. But what I liked was the Dolphins moving him around and letting him do more things. I always go back to a play from the 2012 season when he was with the Steelers to give an idea of what he can do when given more chances on the route tree.

Wallace took a short cross and turned it into a 51-yard touchdown catch-and-run because of his speed. The threat of running those types of routes would help the deep-passing game.

"They're giving me a chance to work on my YAC [yards after catch] here," Wallace said.

With his great speed, teams play off of Wallace a lot. The variety of routes will help to change that.

"Running slants, stuff like that, I always want to do that," Wallace said. "That's going to be there for me because people are always playing in off coverage. Lazor is going to do a good job exposing that."

I asked Wallace about number goals for the season. He said he just wants to be All-Pro because it would mean he's doing everything he could for the team.

I threw out 80 catches and 1,400 yards as numbers that would help get the doubters off his back.

"That would be pretty good," he said.

He then hesitated for a second.

"And it's doable," he added.

Seeing him work and seeing the new offense, I wouldn't bet against him.

Dolphins camp Musings

The interior of the Miami offensive line has issues. Center Mike Pouncey, who was working on the side this week, is out as he recovers from a hip surgery. Samson Satele, who was horrible with the Colts last season, is in as the starter. The guards are Daryn Colledge and, for now, Shelley Smith. The reason Smith is in at right guard is because Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy abused Dallas Thomas in the preseason game. Miami is better at both tackle spots, with Brandon Albert, signed as a free agent from Kansas City, at left tackle and Ja'Wuan James, the rookie first-round pick, on the right side.

The running game could be a season-long problem with the issues inside. Plus, who's the go-to back? They signed Knowshon Moreno, but he's been nursing an injury and just came off the PUP list. Lamar Miller hasn't shown that he's what they expected in terms of being a No. 1 back. Who runs the football?

The linebackers are a big issue for the defense. Miami signed Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler as free agents last season and both played poorly, especially Wheeler. To help improve that group, the Dolphins moved Koa Misi to the middle and put Ellerbe outside on the strong side. Misi has never played the middle, but he's done a solid job in camp. Now if they can only get the two high-priced linebackers to improve their games.

Speaking of needing to improve, what about 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan? He did little as a rookie and hasn't done a lot in this camp. It's time for him to pick up his pass-rush game. He is bigger and stronger, but it hasn't exactly translated into him being a pass-rush star -- yet. It won't help that he's suspended for the first four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. There are whispers of the "bust" word, although that's a bit early.

The Dolphins will have the feistiest little pair of corners in Cortland Finnegan and Brent Grimes, but they are both about 5-9. That's a concern in a league moving toward bigger receivers. Even so, those two will bring a swagger to the secondary. Grimes played at a Pro Bowl level in his first with Miami last season. Finnegan has been there before, but he's coming off two injury-plagued seasons. Can he bounce back?

With Reshad Jones out the first four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, it means Jimmy Wilson, a converted corner, is playing safety. Wilson was horrible last week against the Bucs and there is concern about his ability to play on the back end. The Dolphins open with Tom Brady and the Patriots. Good luck with that.

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