At center, the Miami Dolphins have to make a snap judgment.
At this point, it looks like a long shot for Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey to be ready for Week 1 against the New England Patriots. According to a report from Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald, Pouncey may not be fully recovered until late October following surgery to repair a torn labrum.
This is not good news for the Dolphins' reconstructed offensive line, where Pouncey was supposed to be the lone holdover from last year's starting lineup.
Through the first two weeks of camp, the Dolphins have struggled to find an answer. They have tried Shelley Smith, Nate Garner, Sam Brenner and newly acquired Samson Satele at center with mixed results—but it's been mostly bad.
So bad, in fact, that Dolphins beat writers are even beginning to pile on.
Smith was the first man up when it came time for the Dolphins to begin searching for their interim starting center. The extent of Smith's experience at the position dates back to college, where he took a few reps at Colorado State, according to Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
The thought of playing center was so far removed from his mind, he even laughed when asked if he had thought he'd be answering questions about snapping the ball during training camp.
The Dolphins had originally signed him as an offensive guard but experimented with a potential move to center. After a few days worth of botched snaps, that experiment ended quickly. Smith's errors at center did not hurt his status at left guard, where he continues to get reps with the first team, according to Greg Likens of MiamiDolphins.com.
Next up was Garner, a seventh-year offensive lineman for the Dolphins who has filled in at various spots on the line throughout his career. One of those spots was center, when Pouncey missed two games in 2013. He didn't set the world on fire, but he fared well in pass protection—which is more than almost any other Miami offensive lineman could say last season.
Garner also struggled snapping the ball, with two botched snaps in his first practice at center in training camp.
The repeated errors have become a concern for head coach Joe Philbin.
"It's definitely a concern, but I'm also confident that we will clean it up and we'll get it addressed," he said. "But it is definitely a concern. Ball security is the No. 1 thing we talk about every night in training camp. We pick one specific fundamental and talk about it. The first night, we did ball security. We talked about center-quarterback exchange. We talked about quarterback-running back exchange. We showed them pictures. ... So we talk about it, it's definitely a concern. We've got to get it cleaned up."
The Dolphins continue to shuffle the board, though. Brenner, a 2013 undrafted free agent, has even earned some practice time at center with the first-team offensive line. He was carted off the field with a leg injury in a practice last week, according to Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, but he made a quick return and has apparently earned some recognition (albeit "pointless") from the coaching staff.
The overall uncertainty at center was unsettling enough for the Dolphins, however, that they called up free-agent center Samson Satele to come back to the team. Satele was the Dolphins' starting center in 2007 and 2008, before stints with the Oakland Raiders (2009-2011) and Indianapolis Colts (2012-2013). The Colts released Satele in March to clear cap space, and he's been out of work since.
Satele was immediately inserted as the center in the starting lineup on Monday, and that continued on Tuesday.
Before we go penciling in Satele as the starting center, let's go back to something Philbin said last week regarding Garner's trip to the center spot.
"As we've said, we're looking at a number of different combinations. We don't have a rock-solid, solidified, 'These are our five starters at this position.' And so that’s part of the process at training camp."
With Pouncey out of the picture, Branden Albert (signed to a big free-agent contract) and Ja'Wuan James (drafted in the first round) seem like the only locks to start on the offensive line. It would seem the competition is at its toughest on the inside, where Billy Turner, Shelley Smith, Dallas Thomas, Brenner and Garner are competing for the starting spots, while Brenner and Garner also get an opportunity to battle Satele for the center spot.
It's a bit of a hodgepodge. Luckily, the Dolphins have a number of options. Hopefully, one of those options steps up and proves himself to be head and shoulders above the rest before the end of the preseason.
That being said, this competition is about more than just the center spot. It's about finding the best group of five linemen that can work together to consistently create clean pockets for quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the passing game and holes for the running backs on the ground.
It's important to remember that being the center means much more than simply snapping the ball and blocking the man in front of you. Of course, Pouncey takes the center position to a whole other level with his ability to get out in front of a play as a lead blocker, but we can only expect so much from his replacement.
One thing that needs to be expected, though, is calling out protection assignments. The center is the communicator in pass protection and is supposed to help his teammates know where to go and who to block before a play. The Dolphins already have four brand new offensive linemen, and whoever the center is, he will have to get everyone working as a unit before the season starts.
Things will surely settle down when Pouncey returns to the lineup, but in the meantime, the Dolphins have a dilemma on their hands that could threaten their chances to create a cohesive unit up front.
Unless otherwise noted, quotes obtained via team news release.