Once-Elite Tackle Jake Long Faces Uphill Climb Back to All-Star Form

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Once-Elite Tackle Jake Long Faces Uphill Climb Back to All-Star Form
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Bill Parcells never missed an opportunity to make himself look smart.

Four days before his first draft as Miami Dolphins Executive Vice President of Football Operations, the Hall of Fame-elect coach and executive locked up the best football player in the draft class. Parcells removed all suspense by signing his No. 1 overall pick: Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long.

Long's credentials were impeccable: While starting three full years and most of another at one of the nation's biggest football schools, Long was a two-time consensus All-American, two-time Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year and finalist for both the Outland and Lombardi trophies.

At the NFL Scouting Combine, Long proved he had the tools to be elite at the professional level. Long led all offensive tackles in the bench press with 37 reps. He tied for the highest vertical leap, at 27.5 inches. He also clocked the quickest three-cone drill time, at 7.44 seconds.

Fit all that athleticism, college experience and production onto a 6'7", 313-pound frame with a 90" wingspan and you have the prototypical NFL left tackle prospect.

Long was only the third offensive tackle taken No. 1 overall in NFL history. The other two were Hall of Famer Ron Yary (1968) and Hall of Famer-to-be Orlando Pace (1997), according to The Denver Post.

The bar couldn't be set set any higher; Jake Long would have to be a Hall of Famer-in-training to make up for Parcells and the quarterback-starved Dolphins passing on a prospect like Matt Ryan.

All Long did was walk onto the field and make Parcells look like a genius.

 

The Prodigy

Long was immediately named the starting left tackle, and he protected Chad Pennington's blind side like a top-notch veteran.

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With Long letting Pennington make plays and opening holes for tailbacks Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown, plus some crazy thing called the Wildcat, the Dolphins completed one of the most incredible worst-to-first turnarounds in NFL history. They improved their 1-15 record from 2007 to 11-5, winning the AFC East.

Long allowed just two sacks all season; only three left tackles allowed fewer. Long didn't commit a penalty until December, according to Football Outsiders. Pro Football Focus graded Long as the sixth-best left tackle in the NFL, with a mark of plus-29.7. His pass-blocking grade of plus-12.4 was the sixth-best among left tackles, and his run-blocking mark of plus-16.6 was third-best.

With Long anchoring the Dolphins offensive line, they improved dramatically as a unit. In Football Outsiders' team offensive line statistics, the Dolphins improved from 21st in adjusted line yards and 20th in adjusted sack rate, to 11th and 12th in 2008, respectively.

When Buffalo Bills tackle Jason Peters couldn't play for the AFC in the Pro Bowl, Long was tabbed to replace him.

Per the Associated Press (via ESPN), Long was the first No. 1 overall pick to make the Pro Bowl in his rookie season since 1981, when Saints rookie tailback George Rogers did it. In fact, Long was only the fourth No. 1 overall pick to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie since the 1970 merger (Andrew Luck has since made it five).

 

No Sophomore Jinx

In 2009, Long stepped his game up—way up. Long's PFF pass-protection grade nearly doubled to 24.4; his plus-39.5 overall grade slotted him second amongst all offensive tackles, right or left. He led all tackles in number of snaps taken, at 1,147, but was only flagged for five penalties (one was offset/declined).

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As the Dolphins increased their reliance on the Wildcat, the offensive line really set to mashing.

Miami finished third in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards, meaning their high yards-per-carry average was mostly due to many short, successful runs, with few losses or long breakaways, even against great run defenses. Adjusted sack rate actually got worse from 2008 to 2009, from 12th-ranked 5.7 percent to 18th-ranked 6.5 percent.

Unfortunately, the Dolphins were beginning to lose their way. By drafting Chad Henne and Pat White and increasing their reliance on the Wildcat, their downfield passing failed to improve, and they became predictable.

The offense finished 15th in the NFL as a scoring unit, not nearly good enough to make up for the 25th-ranked defense. The Dolphins finished 7-9, well out of the playoffs and into an identity crisis.

 

Upperclassman

Personally, Long was as good as ever in 2010, almost matching his 2009 PFF grades exactly. He was again their second-best graded offensive tackle, with a mark of plus-34.7. Long's plus-23.3 pass-block grade was the best in the NFL, and his plus-11.5 run-block grade was sixth-best—third-best amongst left tackles.

Long was named to his third straight Pro Bowl in three years and for the first time named first-team All-Pro.

As a unit, Miami's offensive line fell back to the middle of the pack in adjusted line yards and stayed in the middle of the pack in adjusted sack rate. Tailback Ronnie Brown lost his explosiveness, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. With Pennington out of the picture, Henne took over as starter and played poorly.

With Henne's 19 interceptions thrown against just 15 touchdowns, the offense was moving backward. The Wildcat wasn't fooling anyone, and the Pat White experiment was a dismal failure. The Dolphins offense managed just 17.1 points per game, ranked 30th (aka third-worst) in the NFL.

Under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the defense improved dramatically, holding opponents to a 14th-best 20.8 points per game. But getting outscored an average of nearly four points a game leaves slim margins for victory.

The Dolphins again finished 7-9; whatever lightning head coach Tony Sparano had ridden in 2008 couldn't be caught in a bottle.

 

Senioritis?

Long finally took a step back in 2011. After missing all of preseason with a knee injury and playing through a lingering back injury that held him out of two games, a torn biceps finally ended Long's season.

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Long turned in the worst PFF grades of his career, ranking 21st out of all tackles (14th among left tackles) with a plus-12.1 overall grade. Long still pass (plus-9.0) and run (plus-2.2) blocked positively, but only barely so. The offensive line run blocked OK enough; they finished 17th in adjusted line yards.

Long's Pro Bowl streak was kept alive, but more because of his reputation than his play. 

Without an in-form Long anchoring the line, the adjusted sack rate was a scary 9.6 percent! A shoulder injury knocked Chad Henne out of the lineup, and backup Matt Moore clearly outperformed him. 

Parcells admitted to Salguero the idea that "maybe we should have" drafted Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan over Long had merit; NFL.com ran the story as Parcells regretting taking Long No. 1 overall.

Parcells adamantly denied that, telling ESPN's Tim Graham that Parcells "does not regret" taking Long. That may be, but having to publicly deny that charge no one could have dreamed of after Long's incredible start.

Nolan whipped the defense into even better shape, finishing sixth in the NFL in scoring defense. The problems on offense were too great to overcome, though, and Sparano was finally fired midseason. The defense pulled the team through to 6-10, but it was time for a new offensive identity.

 

School of Hard Knocks

2012 was a season of upheaval for the Dolphins. They finally went in a different direction at head coach, with Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin getting the nod. They brought in HBO's Hard Knocks documentary series and added notorious receiver Chad Johnson (née Ochocinco, née Johnson) before releasing him. 

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The Dolphins also drafted rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Together with former Saints running back Reggie Bush, the Dolphins rejuvenated their struggling offense...kind of. The Dolphins offense was actually less productive in 2012, scoring just 20.6 points per game.

The defense was no less solid in 2012, despite Nolan moving on. They finished seventh in the NFL, allowing just 19.8 points per game. It wasn't enough, though, and the Dolphins finished 7-9 for the third time in four seasons. It looked as though the status quo hadn't changed.

Jake Long, though, had changed.

Long finished as the 42nd-ranked offensive tackle in the NFL with an overall grade of minus-0.4. He was the 25th-ranked starting left tackle. His pass blocking was barely above water at plus-3.0, but his run blocking was strongly negative, at minus-1.9. Long also committed seven penalties (four were declined or offset), which is very unusual.

Long's season, perhaps thankfully, ended early. For the second season in a row, he tore an arm muscle (triceps this time), and was placed on IR.

For the first time ever, Long played a season of professional football and wasn't named to the Pro Bowl.

 

Undeclared

Long's rookie contract is expiring, and the franchise tag cost for left tackles is enormous. The Miami Herald's Armando Salguero reports that the Dolphins have made multiple offers to Long's agent. Long's agent characterizes the offers as "low-ball" offers, but such is negotiation.

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If Miami can get Long locked up cheaply, it could be a genius move.

A healthy Jake Long is as good as, if not better than, any left tackle in football today. Can he get healthy, though? Or has one of the knocks of the past two seasons permanently robbed Long of what made him great?

If the Dolphins let him walk, it could also be a genius move; two-thirds of the league had better left tackle play for nowhere near the money Long might earn on the open market. Moreover, there's a surplus of good tackles hitting free agency and quite a few quality athletic linemen available in the draft.

Long is the NFL free-agency equivalent of a unicorn: a Hall of Fame left tackle in his prime for something less than Hall of Fame money. If Long moves on, there's no shortage of teams that would gladly step up to lock up the man who might be the best player available in free agency.

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