Over the course of his five-year career in Miami, Long was elected to four Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams. Long was also a pillar of consistency in South Beach, as the left tackle started all but six games.
But in 2013 Long will don the blue and gold of the St. Louis Rams and Miami will need to replace him.
When Long went down in Week 13 last season, Miami moved Jonathan Martin from right to left tackle. The rookie showed enough in his four-game stint at his new position for the Dolphins to move forward with him as their franchise left tackle. Martin’s move leaves a vacancy at right tackle.
Last year Miami used Nate Garner at right tackle following the Long injury. Garner, who the team re-signed this offseason, is an excellent player to have on the roster due to his versatility. He plays all five positions on the offensive line, making him a great spot-starter—if you can excuse the baseball reference—when inevitable injuries occur. Yet, Garner can’t be expected to be the full-time starter at right tackle.
The remaining free-agent pool of tackles is shallow, consisting of aged veterans clinging to their final opportunities for a paycheck. Miami could take a one-year flyer on Eric Winston or Bryant McKinnie, but a young team like Miami would be much better suited to address its right tackle vacancy with youth via the draft.
The Dolphins enter the 2013 draft plenty of draft picks. They possess six of the first 111 picks, including four in the first three rounds.
Their first-round selection is the 12th overall pick. By the time their draft clock starts ticking, top offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher will have already shaken Roger Goodell’s hand wearing their new NFL team’s hat.
Lane Johnson of Oklahoma might be available tackle at this spot, but Miami needs to address corner with this selection. After losing Sean Smith in free agency, the Dolphins cornerbacks consist of Nolan Carrol, who is not very good, and Brent Grimes, who is 30 years old and coming off an Achilles injury. With the 12th pick, the Dolphins should, and most likely will, take a cornerback—Xavier Rhodes would be a great pick.
The Dolphins have two picks in the second round with the 42nd and 54th overall selections. By this junction of the draft, Alabama’s D.J. Fluker will likely be off the board. Still, with the top four tackles drafted, there are a variety of tackles the Fins can target:
Florida State’s Menelik Watson: Big physical player, but raw with very limited football experience.
Syracuse’s Justin Pugh: Small but experienced.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s Terron Armstead: Extremely athletic but faced very weak competition.
Tennessee’s Dallas Thomas: Versatile, experienced and faced strong SEC competition but lacks quickness.
All four of these players have their strengths and weaknesses. Watson and Armstead are the best talents, but considering Watson’s inexperience and Armstead’s lack of collegiate competition, both are risks to be busts.
Pugh is probably the safest option, as his size limitations are less significant in Miami’s zone-blocking scheme. But with Pugh, the upside is small as he doesn’t project to be much better than what Miami already possesses in Garner.
Thomas, perhaps the most rounded of the group, will transition quickly to the NFL as he spent his collegiate career blocking SEC pass-rushers. Quickness is an issue with him, which doesn’t bode well in Miami’s zone-blocking scheme.
Miami must use one of its second-round picks on a tackle. They do possess two third-round picks and two fourth-round picks, but to cross their fingers and hope one of these four slip that far would be risky.
Miami is a young team nearing the end of its rebuilding. Because of this, they should swing for the fence and draft either Watson or Armstead. Each has the ability to become long-term answers at right tackle, and in combination with the young Jonathan Martin, could give the Dolphins stability at both tackle positions moving forward.
However, Miami should hedge its bet and sign Winston or McKinnie to a one-year contract. Bringing in one of these two gives a veteran presence in camp and provides an even deeper competition for the right tackle spot. If following training camp it is apparent that the rookie is not ready for the NFL yet, the Dolphins can open the season with Garner or the veteran at right tackle. If the rookie is prepared, Miami can cut the veteran and use Garner as the backup.
The greater the risk, the greater the reward. Miami should be aggressive and take either Menelik Watson or Terron Armstead in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft to replace the departed Jake Long.