The rebuild is complete.
The Miami Dolphins have turned over four-fifths of their offensive line in a two-month span.
Sun Life Stadium became the Island of Misfit Pass-Blockers last season, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked an NFL-high 58 times. The Dolphins also set a team record for pass-blocking futility with that number.
Their solution: blow the whole thing up (or 80 percent of it) and start over.
|Miami Dolphins' turnover on the offensive line|
|Position||2013||How left||2014||How acquired|
|LT||Bryant McKinnie/Jonathan Martin||FA/trade||Branden Albert||FA|
|LG||Richie Incognito||FA||Shelley Smith||FA|
|RG||John Jerry||FA||Billy Turner||Draft|
|RT||Tyson Clabo||FA||Ja'Wuan James||Draft|
It's no surprise that they went after the position so aggressively. Joe Philbin runs a zone-blocking scheme, which requires its offensive line to block on the move; but he has been coaching an offensive line built primarily around big, powerful man-blocking offensive linemen under former head coach Tony Sparano.
Each 2014 starter is a better scheme fit than his predecessor. Let's get familiar with what projects as the starting five for the Dolphins offensive line.
LT: Branden Albert
At 6'5", 316 pounds with 33.625" arms, Branden Albert is as close to a prototype left tackle as it gets. Of all the new linemen, Albert's transition looks to be the easiest. He played in a zone-blocking scheme for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller graded Albert as the 13th-best left tackle in the NFL last season, but says that although Albert was a solid pass-protector, he leaves a lot to be desired in the running game:
Albert is a good athlete who can hold the edge with quickness and a solid first punch. He knows how to stun pass-rushers and is strong enough to hold his ground against inside moves. ... He will get blown off the ball in the run game as he fires off too high. He has a tendency to plant his feet and try to reach with his arms, which extends his upper body and causes him to lose balance. He has to learn to keep his weight transferred and his body over his feet.
That being said, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid seems to think the Dolphins won't have to worry about him "run or pass."
The other problem for the Dolphins is Albert's injury history, which includes back spasms and a knee injury over the past two years. Albert started all 16 games only once in his six-year career—back in 2010. When healthy, Albert has been a quality left tackle, but he will be 30 years old at the beginning of the 2014 season, so it's fair to wonder how long he will hold up.
LG: Shelley Smith
Shelley Smith is a big man at 6'4", 312 pounds, and has been ingrained in zone-blocking systems since entering the NFL as a sixth-round pick of the Houston Texans in 2010. Even when he went to the St. Louis Rams from 2012-2013, he was pulling out in space and blocking at the second level in Brian Schottenheimer's zone-blocking scheme.
No surprise, Smith thinks he is ideally suited for a zone-blocking scheme like the one the Dolphins run.
"In the zone blocking scheme, particularly how it was in Houston, they kind of looked for offensive linemen that maybe were more athletic, that can move and open up the holes on the outside zone by stretching out wide," Smith said, according to Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald. "I could fit there a little bit."
General manager Dennis Hickey pointed to Smith's "athleticism" and "his ability to climb to the second level" as big factors in their pursuit of his services. Those traits have been missing from the Dolphins' guards for years; neither Richie Incognito nor John Jerry were regarded as good blockers on the move, and Mike Pouncey has often had to carry the burden of both snapping and blocking out in front of perimeter runs and screens.
C: Mike Pouncey
The lone holdover is the anchor and signal-caller of the whole unit. Not only has he been the best lineman on the team, he's probably been the best offensive player for the past three years.
As mentioned earlier, the Dolphins' Pro Bowl center can often be seen snapping the ball and then quickly getting out in front of a play. He can handle one-on-one pass protection against defensive tackles, but he knows when to slip off a defender and get out to the second level on screens, outside runs and other perimeter plays.
It will be a tremendous help to the new linemen that the lone holdover is the center, who is in charge of directing traffic in pass protection. Pouncey can help get his new teammates up to speed quickly.
RG: Billy Turner
If there's a weak link in this group, it could be Turner. Don't call the 6'5", 315-pound lineman with 34" arms "weak," but his level of competition will be much higher in the NFL than it was at North Dakota State in the Missouri Valley Conference.
There may be a competition between Turner and Dallas Thomas, a third-round pick of the 2013 draft, for the starting right guard spot.
If Turner is the Week 1 starter, the Dolphins may not be able to do everything with him that they might like. He will have to work to become an ideal fit. NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki says he has "moldable tools," and in reviewing Turner's scouting report, a few notes stand out about his fit in the Dolphins' zone-blocking scheme:
Big hands and nice length. Light on his feet. Flashes strength in his punch. Tries to run his feet on contact. Is athletic enough to fan the rush when all his moving parts are coordinated. Aware to handle stunts. ... Struggles to clear his feet as a puller. Inconsistent connecting and sustaining on the second level.
Plugging him on the right side seems like the smart choice for now, and if he ever develops his ability to block on the move, the Dolphins could have solid pulling guards on both sides of the line.
RT: Ja'Wuan James
The Dolphins made Tennessee tackle Ja'Wuan James the 19th overall pick of the draft, and while they may have reached for a position of need, no one will be complaining if James turns into a long-term starter at right tackle. It sounds like he has the tools to do just that. At 6'6", 311 pounds with 35" arms, James is built like a forklift.
Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated says James is "quick-footed enough to throw his weight into a defensive lineman, then release to find a linebacker as well." That's pretty much the job description for a right tackle in a zone-blocking scheme. James spent time in a zone-blocking scheme at college, and thinks he should have a smooth transition to Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's system.
"It's very similar to what I did this previous year with my new coaching staff with Coach (Butch) Jones. When he came to Tennessee, he brought the zone-blocking scheme," he said in his introductory press conference. "It fits what I bring to the table very well. I have long arms. During the pass block, I'm able to move, adjust and things like that. It's definitely the same [scheme] watching it on film and in the game."
He'll need to be able to set the edge against both a lineman and a linebacker at times to open up the outside for big plays. Pairing him with Turner could be beneficial, at least until Turner develops his ability to block at the second level.
Scouting combine information provided by NFL.com. Unless otherwise noted, quotes obtained first-hand or through team press releases.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots correspondent for Boston.com.
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