The Miami Dolphins can't take a mulligan on the 2013 season, but they can take a mulligan on the group that was most responsible for their downfall: the offensive line. The Dolphins have a rare opportunity to hit the reset button on that group, with contracts expiring for five offensive linemen; Four of them started several games in 2013.
The scandal between left tackle Jonathan Martin and left guard Richie Incognito left the offensive line without two of its starters, but you could argue it played even better after those two left. That's why it's not hard to imagine that neither of the two will be back in 2014, and although Incognito's suspension has been lifted, he will not get a chance to put on a Dolphins uniform again.
Richie Incognito is no longer under suspension. But he is not part of Dolphins again. He becomes UFA in March.— Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) February 4, 2014
As for the rest of the O-line, the reason for their departure is simple: For years, the Dolphins had built their offensive line in the image of "bigger, stronger" linemen to execute the man-blocking scheme of head coach Tony Sparano. The hard-nosed former offensive line coach believed that by winning your assignment up front, everything else would work out. That scheme beckoned for burly guards like Incognito (6'3", 319 pounds) and John Jerry (6'5", 345 pounds), as well as tackles like Jake Long (6'7", 319 pounds) and Marc Colombo (6'8", 325 pounds), among others.
These days, the Dolphins have shifted to a zone-blocking scheme under Joe Philbin, where quicker, athletic linemen are more of a fit, as they are asked to move more horizontally (out in space) than vertically (in a "phone booth").
The Dolphins do have some pieces in place, but not many. Looking at the list of free agents, it's hard to argue for 100 percent confidence in any of these players as a starter in 2014.
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So, what do the Dolphins do in the face of drastic change? Here's an idea of what the next chapter should look like.
One player the Dolphins are certainly happy they'll have for at least another year is center Mike Pouncey.
He has been the Dolphins' best offensive lineman for the past two years running, and he is also one of the most versatile centers in the NFL; Not only does he call the protections before the snap, but once he snaps the ball, you can often find him pulling out in space as a lead blocker on an outside run or a screen pass.
On an offensive line that gave up a league-high 58 sacks on the season, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) only charted him for allowing two of those sacks.
The Dolphins offensive line was one disaster after another this past season, but when Pouncey was out for a game with an illness, a new starter began to emerge. Rookie undrafted free-agent guard Sam Brenner filled in at center, and he played so well that he moved past Nate Garner on the depth chart as the starting left guard.
"[Brenner has] been with us since the offseason program, and he's kind of quietly gotten better and better," Philbin said. "As you guys would imagine, the early part of the season he's kind of running the scout team and the 'look' team of the upcoming opponent. He's a guy we just kind of had our eye on, and you'd watch one-on-one pass rush and he'd be doing a good job against some of our better guys, and circumstances were such that we threw him in a game and he did pretty well there, too. He's making a good contribution."
At the very least, Brenner should be part of the competition for starting duties at guard, but with both Incognito and Jerry's contracts expiring, the Dolphins may be better off just penciling Brenner in as the starter right now.
Of the five total O-linemen with expiring contracts, Tyson Clabo is the only one worth re-signing. The Dolphins gave up a pittance for Bryant McKinnie at the trade deadline, so letting him go shouldn't be too difficult. When it comes down to which player played the best at the end of the season, there's no debate—it was Clabo.
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McKinnie allowed three fewer sacks than Clabo over the course of the season, but Clabo was the better lineman overall, especially down the stretch—where he earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus in eight of the last nine games of the season.
That leaves the Dolphins with three starters in place and two slots to fill.
The Dolphins must now find a left tackle and one more interior offensive lineman.
I use the phrase "interior offensive lineman" because the Dolphins could get creative with their rebuild if they want to.
Pouncey has played center his entire career thus far, but there's no reason they can't move him to guard to better use his talents as a pulling lineman. The Dolphins have noticeably lacked guards who can get out and block in front of perimeter plays. Pouncey could add that dynamic if he changes positions.
If that's the route they choose to go, center Alex Mack promises to be the apple of the free-agent shoppers' eye; He would be a fit for any team, regardless of the scheme. If the Dolphins are unable to land Mack, Saints center Brian De La Puente and Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith both come from a background in a zone-blocking scheme and would be nice plug-and-play options.
They may be better off just keeping Pouncey at center, though; there are just as many good options at guard (Panthers guard Travelle Wharton, Chiefs guard Geoff Schwartz and Jets guard Willie Colon come to mind), and it probably wouldn't cost as much to sign a veteran guard as it would to sign one of those young centers.
Either way, the Dolphins' resources could be focused on finding a left tackle, according to Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post:
Don't be surprised if the Dolphins go hard after a left tackle with Kansas City's Branden Albert being the biggest target. Albert supposedly wants a deal worth $9 million a year with $25 million guaranteed. The Dolphins would probably try to counter in $7 million a year range. Philbin wanted the Dolphins to trade for Albert last offseason (Miami likely would've had to give up a second-round pick), but former GM Jeff Ireland wanted to give Jonathan Martin time to develop at left tackle.
Would the Dolphins really spend on both a guard and a tackle, though? They have the cap space to do it if they want, but maybe the Dolphins will spend their money on a free-agent tackle like Albert and focus some draft resources on the guard spot and/or right tackle if they opt to move on from Clabo instead.
One perfect fit in the draft at guard would be Stanford's David Yankey.
Dolphins fans may become apoplectic at the thought of another Stanford offensive lineman after Martin failed to pan out and was involved in a scandal that ripped the offensive line apart, but Yankey would be a great fit for their scheme. CBS Sports' Rob Rang gives us a feel for what he brings to the table:
Natural athlete on the move with very good body control and lower-body explosion. Outstanding shuffle footwork and lateral movement skills. Active puller with good coordination to square up his target in motion. ...Very good initial surge as a lead blocker through the hole.
The Dolphins have to address at least two, maybe three or four, starting spots on the offensive line. How the Dolphins choose to do it is up to them, but at some point, they have to start thinking about the long-term future of the line, so it will serve them well to invest some draft resources in the line.
Those are just some of the possible outcomes of the Dolphins' moving and shaking on the offensive line.
What should they do, though?
Retaining Clabo is an easy first step; As mentioned earlier, he was playing his best football down the stretch. Ideally, the Dolphins find a way to get him back on a one- or two-year deal.
They would need to draft his replacement, at some point, as he will be 33 after the 2014 season.
Signing Albert sets the wheels in motion for the future of the offensive line. Albert will certainly command a heavy price tag, but at 29 years old, he could be a building block for four years or more.
Where I'm most torn is at guard. Wharton could be a nice bargain on a one-year deal; His guard-tackle versatility also makes him intriguing in the event of an injury. They could draft Wharton's replacement in the second round and let him battle it out with Brenner for the starting job; If he doesn't win the job, let him develop for a year.
However, the Dolphins will have to start building for the future on the offensive line sooner rather than later. Perhaps, rather than plop a ton of money on three free agents, Miami picks two positions to spend on and address the other in the first round of the draft—it wouldn't be unheard of to take a guard in the 19th slot of the first round.
Picking one of the two, the Dolphins may be better off taking a guard high to plug in and play. They've been missing a good zone-blocking guard who can get out in space; Signing Wharton on a one-year deal helps now, but they could be facing the same issue again next offseason.
For too long, the Dolphins have been using man-blocking linemen to execute a zone-blocking scheme. It's time to start building the Dolphins offensive line in the right direction for the long term. Free agency is a good first step, but the best way to do it is to draft well.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.