The time has come to begin previewing the Dolphins' position by position entering the offseason (which we all hope officially begins next month with a new CBA). This article focuses on the offensive line.
The Dolphins used the uncapped year to part with some bloated salaries, as effective but injury-prone starters Justin Smiley and Jake Grove were jettisoned before the 2010 season began. The team also cut former starting right guard Donald Thomas, and lost versatile backup and potential starter Nate Garner to a foot injury.
In what became an entirely new interior offensive line, former backup Joe Berger inherited the center spot after strong play in relief of Grove in 2009. Free agent Richie Incognito signed a one-year deal and started at left guard, while third-rounder John Jerry of Ole Miss won the starting right guard out of training camp.
The two returning starters on the line were the tackles, as former first-rounders Jake Long and Vernon Carey manned the left and right tackle spots, respectively. Despite suffering a shoulder injury, Long started every game for the Dolphins and earned his third Pro Bowl selection in as many pro seasons. Carey, meanwhile, had an 88-game consecutive starts streak snapped in December by a knee injury.
In this article, I'll look at the team's strengths and areas of need, who is under contract, who are the free agents and their prospects for being re-signed, and who they might look at via trade, free agency, and the draft.
- G/T Allen Barbre (through 2011) —A fourth-round pick by the Packers out of Missouri Southern State, Barbre has both guard and tackle experience and has started seven career contests. He was signed before the season finale and was inactive for the game.
- C Joe Berger (through 2011) — Originally a member of the Dolphins in 2005-06, Berger returned to Miami in 2009 after three seasons in Dallas. He appeared in 15 games for the Dolphins in 2010, starting 14 contests at center.
- T Vernon Carey (through 2014) — The 19th overall pick in 2001 out of Miami, Carey started the first 12 games of the season at right tackle, and had an 88-game start streak snapped in December after suffering a knee injury.
- G Ray Feinga (through 2011) — Undrafted out of BYU in 2009, Feinga split time between free agency and a suspension, the practice squad, and the active roster in 2010. He made his regular season debut in 2010 and appeared in three games in relief.
- G John Jerry (through 2013) — The brother of Falcons' defensive tackle Peria Jerry, John Jerry was selected by the Dolphins in the third round out of Ole Miss in 2010. He started 10 of 12 contests at right guard and was benched for Pat McQuistan late in the season.
- T Matt Kopa (through 2011) — Undrafted out of Stanford in 2010, Kopa signed with the 49ers in June after recovering from a broken foot that wiped out his senior season. He was signed by the Dolphins' off the 49ers' practice squad in November, though he did not appear in a game.
- T Jake Long (through 2013) — The first overall pick in 2008, Long extended his streak of consecutive starts to 48 and earned his third Pro Bowl selection and second All-Pro selection.
- T James Marten (through 2012) — Originally a third-round pick out of Boston College by the Cowboys in 2007, Marten was signed to the Dolphins' practice squad in early December and was re-signed to a future contract in January.
- G Nate Garner (restricted) — Undrafted in 2008, Garner earned significant playing time in 2009, appearing in 16 games and starting eight. He missed the entire 2010 season with a foot injury.
- G/C Richie Incognito (unrestricted) —Signed to a one-year contract in the offseason, Incognito opened the season at left guard and went on to start all 16 games. He also played some center down the stretch due to injuries and ineffective play by Joe Berger.
- G/T Pat McQuistan (unrestricted) —Acquired from the Cowboys for a conditional draft pick that did not end up going to Dallas, McQuistan worked at both guard and tackle throughout the season. He appeared in all 16 games and made eight starts, primarily at right guard.
- T Lydon Murtha (exclusive-rights) —Signed off the Lions' practice squad midway through the 2009 season, Murtha appeared in nine games in 2010, including four starts at right tackle in place of an injured Vernon Carey.
- C/G Cory Procter (unrestricted) —Signed as a free agent in the offseason, Procter served as Joe Berger's primary backup at center for the first half of the season and also worked at guard. He appeared in 10 games and made his first start in Week 11 against the Chicago Bears, but suffered a torn ACL and was placed on injured reserve shortly thereafter.
The most obvious strength is left tackle Jake Long, who is on his way to the Hall of Fame if he keeps up this level of play and racking up Pro Bowl selections. Long was the best left tackle in football in the first half of 2010, and still held up extremely well with a torn shoulder in the second half. He also got no help from his fellow line mates, including left guard Richie Incognito.
The Dolphins are also pretty set with Vernon Carey at right tackle, who was an iron man before missing a few games toward the end of last season. He's getting bulkier and doesn't have the athleticism to be a left tackle, but he's still a good pass protector and is a mauling run blocker. He'd also be a fantastic guard down the line if the team chose to convert him.
Areas of Need
Quite simply, every spot except tackle. John Jerry struggled at right guard as a rookie, Richie Incognito was terrible at left guard, and Joe Berger was so bad at center he made Incognito look like a stud.
Incognito might be a better center than left guard, but he is a free agent and after his 2010 performance there is simply no way he should be brought back with a guaranteed starting spot in hand.
Meanwhile, Berger is purely backup material at center. There is really no explanation for how bad he was in 2010, given how good he was in relief of Jake Grove in 2009. The Dolphins gambled that good play would continue and that he could save them significant coin by starting, but they swung and missed.
I was a proponent of drafting Jerry long before last April's draft, but I'm not afraid to say he was a serious disappointment in 2010. He still has the talent to be a good starter and his best football might be ahead of him, but he certainly can't be counted on as a future starter without considering other options.
Free Agency Outlook
Unfortunately for the Dolphins, Patriots All-Pro guard Logan Mankins received the franchise tag, and thus will be staying in New England. He could be had for two first-round picks, but nobody, including Miami, is going to pay that price even for a stud lineman.
That doesn't mean the Dolphins aren't without options, as players like Deuce Lutui (Cardinals), Justin Blalock (Falcons), Marshal Yanda (Ravens), Chris Chester (Ravens), Kyle Kosier (Cowboys), Carl Nicks (Saints), Robert Gallery (Raiders) and Davin Joseph (Buccaneers) are bring starting ability to the free agent market.
In particular, Blalock, Joseph, and Nicks are three extremely talented, young guards on the open market, and it wouldn't surprise me to see the Dolphins shell out big bucks for one of them now that the contracts of Justin Smiley and Jake Grove are gone.
At center, options include the aforementioned Chester and Kosier, as well as Jonathan Goodwin (Saints), who has done so well in the New Orleans' high-powered offense, and David Baas (49ers).
With three need positions in the offensive line, I absolutely expect the Dolphins to open their checkbooks for at least one big-time name.
The Dolphins will almost certainly look to the draft for offensive line help as well, but they are unlikely to do it at No. 15 as the top handful of prospects are tackles, and they are not in the market for one unless they plan on replacing or moving Vernon Carey to guard.
More likely, the Dolphins will trade down in the first round, and will begin to look for prospects either late in the first round or beyond. They could use an acquired late first-round pick on a potential starting center or guard, such as Stefen Wisniewski (Penn State) or Mike Pouncey (Florida).
At center, mid-round prospects like Kristofer O'Dowd (USC), Brandon Fusco (Slippery Rock), and Jake Kirkpatrick (TCU) will draw interest. Any later and the Dolphins likely won't find a potential rookie starter, although someone like Syracuse's Ryan Bartholomew could be an intriguing late-round prospect after topping all offensive linemen in the bench press at the combine and running the position's fastest 40-yard dash.
Mid-round guards that could appeal to the Dolphins include Stephen Schilling (Michigan), John Moffitt (Wisconsin), and Keith Williams (Nebraska). The could also look to convert a college tackle like Marcus Cannon (TCU), DeMarcus Love (Arkansas), or Lee Ziemba (Auburn).
The Dolphins have a luxury not many teams do in a franchise left tackle, and they also should be set for the coming years at right tackle so long as Vernon Carey remains healthy.
Beyond that, however, little is certain. But what is certain is that new talent needs to be added at the interior line spots. Free agent Richie Incognito was bad, center Joe Berger was worse, and John Jerry needs a huge turnaround to be an effective player.
With potentially three holes to fill on the offensive line before the 2011 season begins, look for the Dolphins to spend big on at least one free agent (likely a guard), find a center through the draft and/or free agency, and hold a competition for the third spot between the likes of Jerry, Nate Garner, and others.
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Chris J. Nelson majored in journalism at Georgia State University and currently works for Turner Sports in Atlanta. He operates his own Miami Dolphins website, The Miami Dolphins Spotlight, and he can be followed on Twitter here.