Flash back to the end of the 2013 season, and the Miami Dolphins’ offensive line consisted of 34-year old tackle Bryant McKinnie, career backup Nate Garner at guard, 32-year-old tackle Tyson Clabo, guard John Jerry and Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey.
That line wasn’t the opening day starting group, as the Dolphins lost starting tackle Jonathan Martin and guard Ritchie Incognito midway through the season due to the infamous bullying scandal. But the line that featured those two didn’t perform well either, and the unit allowed a league-high 58 sacks of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The aged offensive line ultimately cost general manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman their respective jobs as the Dolphins generated all of seven total points in losing the last two weeks of the season and missing the playoffs.
Enter new general manager Dennis Hickey and a spending spree of $68 million, and the Dolphins have a brand new offensive line, featuring five new starters on opening day.
Included in that $68 million is former Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert, first-round pick Ju’Wuan James, and former St. Louis Rams guard Shelley Smith. The toys are new and shiny, but has the shimmer worn off after four weeks of tape to study?
We’re going to take a look at whether this group is ready to be a functional unit as Week 1 nears. Like a sophisticated dinner, we’ll work from the outside to the interior.
The Dolphins opened the Brink’s vault and devoted tremendous resources to upgrade the offensive tackle position, signing the best available free agent in Branden Albert. They then selected Ju’wan James No. 19 overall in the NFL draft.
The decision to upgrade the position was a no-brainer, but how well the players perform will determine whether the moves were good investments or not.
Albert made headlines when he signed with the Dolphins because the seventh-year veteran had nearly joined the team via a trade the year prior to signing as a free agent.
His task in Miami is quite clear; Albert must protect Ryan Tannehill at the same Pro Bowl level that he’s demonstrated in recent seasons. His ranking as PFF’s fourth-most efficient pass-blocker in 2013 confirms the accolades that he’s received from fans, coaches and players alike.
While studying the film of the Dolphins’ first four preseason games, Albert played well as a pass protector. His ability to neutralize pass-rushers is in large part due to his natural athleticism. In the NFL, great athletes must also have technique, and Albert really controls speed rushers effectively because of his ability to recover after he's been beaten initially.
In the screen shot below, you’ll see Albert shoving the rusher around the pocket. At the start of the play, the end was able to get to the corner before Albert could kick-slide over, but Albert used his length to disrupt the rusher’s turn before getting into proper position.
As a run blocker, Albert has always been considered average. Despite being 6’6” and 309 pounds, he doesn’t drive opponents off the line of scrimmage especially well. He’s not a bad blocker, and playing in the zone-blocking scheme should help, but don’t expect a Walter Jones-type impact in the running game from Albert.
Quietly, Ju’Wuan James has been one of the better rookies in the preseason. I’d also say he was the best of the Dolphins’ starting offensive linemen in his 133 preseason snaps.
James is prone to mistakes, as you’ll see below. In preseason opener against the Atlanta, the defensive end for the Falcons makes a speed move to the inside shoulder of James, getting the rookie tackle off balance. This forces the ball-carrier to bounce the play outside.
Like Albert, James is much better as a pass protector. His performance in Miami's second preseason game was really eye opening, given that he was able on four separate occasions to contain Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ star Gerald McCoy who looped to the outside on a stunt. When McCoy attacked James, James kept a strong base, anchoring himself and preventing McCoy from driving him backwards. More importantly, he didn’t allow McCoy’s speed to trick him.
When placed on an island, James continued to shine. He’s a solid athlete, but not as good as Albert. He had to develop his technique while playing at the University of Tennessee, and even compared to last season, his hand usage is much more consistent. He’s been beaten only a few times off the snap, but is yet to give up a pressure or sack.
Entering the season, the tackles are certainly prepared as pass protectors. Albert and James are similar players because they share strengths and weaknesses, and Miami’s priority of keeping the quarterback safe seems to be in good hands.
The right tackle is normally more of a road-grading, power-run blocker who clears running lanes with ease. James is more like a left tackle because he doesn’t generate a lot of power in his lower body. There are ways to work around this weakness, and Miami is sure to help the rookie whenever possible.
It was presumed that third-round pick Billy Turner would challenge for a starting job, but veterans Daryn Colledge and Shelley Smith have grasped the job for the foreseeable future because of their preseason performances.
Unlike the tackles, Colledge and Smith couldn’t be more opposite.
At 32 years old, Colledge signed with the Dolphins in late June to provide some veteran depth to a very young nucleus. What Miami found though, is that Colledge seems to have much more in the tank than just a locker room presence.
The former Green Bay Packer and Arizona Cardinal has had an average career so far, but with Miami stressing the importance of pass protection, he’s earned his start for Week 1.
As a pass protector, Colledge just makes it work. He’s not a great athlete and he’s not the strongest player, but he keeps his pad level low and maintains his balance. His hand placement is good, which further enhances his effectiveness. He was highly impressive in the preseason as a pass protector, and it was difficult finding plays in which a defender embarrassed him or made him look outright looked lost.
Run blocking isn’t Colledge’s forte. He is inconsistent as a blocker in space because of his lack of athleticism. Putting a poor athlete in a position where he must quickly reach a smaller, faster player can lead to head-scratching plays. Take a look below, where Colledge isn’t lined up with the linebacker, despite being just a few yards away from the line of scrimmages. The result is predictable; he doesn't seal well and the defender sheds the block to make the tackle.
He doesn’t have the ability to recover from physical mistakes, so he needs to be mentally sharp and his technique exceptional to be an effective run blocker.
Colledge did have an impressive showing on a toss play against the Dal;las Cowboys in the third preseason game. He was the lead blocker on this play, and he’s 10 yards downfield making a block for the running back. That’s what Miami needs occasionally from Colledge if they are to have any success running the ball.
At right guard, Shelley Smith beat out Turner and second-year lineman Dallas Thomas to start. Smith played very well, but his promotion had as much to do with Thomas’ struggles against Tampa Bay's McCoy as anything.
Focusing on Smith, his play was at times brilliant through the preseason. He’s still very inconsistent as a technician, as you can see in this screenshot.
Smith whiffs on the tackle as soon as the ball is snapped, allowing the play to be over before it has a chance to develop. Smith was overzealous and should’ve kept his head higher and hit the defender in the chest with his hands.
But, Smith also showed terrific ability in space. His awareness, quickness and strength allow running lanes like this to open.
He’s also able to get downfield in a hurry. On this next play, Smith is five yards downfield within two seconds of the snap. You’ll notice the running back has just received the ball and is diagnosing the play. If every other person can execute, Smith is about to make the block that can spur a 60-yard touchdown.
Pass protection was a concern for Smith in St. Louis, as he posted a minus-6.0 PFF grade in 10 games for the Rams. Looking deeper, he had only two bad games, and they were against Seattle and Tennessee, each of which has a tremendous defensive line.
Smith has played well for the Dolphins in the preseason, though. His ability to anchor and stuff pass-rushers is more evident this year than in 2013. His effectiveness has been a pleasant surprise because he is still a raw player: He’s only started eight of 25 NFL career games.
But, look at how he kept the defender at the line of scrimmage throughout the play.
And this wasn’t uncommon. Stronger tackles beat Smith at times, but his ability to win as a pass and run blocker is promising.
With Mike Pouncey out for the first few weeks of the Dolphins’ season, veteran Samson Satele will play. According to Adam Beasley The Miami Herald, Pouncey will start the season on the 53-man roster and is expected to play before the sixth game of the year.
That’s great news for the Dolphins, because even if Pouncey isn’t a top-five NFL center, he’s still very good and will help this line with his ability to pass block.
In case you weren’t counting, that’s four out of five starters expected to be good, if not better, pass blockers.
Satele probably will be difficult to watch in the meantime because he is an average athlete at this point in his career. Like Colledge, he doesn’t move well downfield. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have great strength to hold up against nose tackles, either.
To go from the worst offensive line in the NFL to one of the best was an impossible task to accomplish in one offseason, but the Dolphins should be given credit for building a new group with solid potential. There’s a blend of veterans and young players who can win now and build for the future.
With Billy Turner developing at guard, the Dolphins are just hoping that Colledge can be a decent option until the rookie is ready to take over. Turner is a punishing run blocker with terrific athleticism. But the raw prospect needs time to refine his technique.
Once Mike Pouncey returns from injury, the Dolphins offensive line, in terms of talent, should be in the top half of the league. Expect the 58 sacks allowed in 2013 to be cut closer to the league average of 42, and that’s one sack fewer per game.
Is this line ready to play that well right away, even with Satele inserted into the lineup?
There will be bumps in the road and inconsistent play, but the Dolphins offensive line is much more talented than years past. Once the unit gels a bit, it should ease the job of every skill player on the team, because there will be more time to let plays develop.
2014 might not bring greatness, but competence will be a major boost for this offense.