The Miami Dolphins said goodbye to nine players on Monday, but the release of three offensive tackles—including 2007 starter L.J. Shelton—indicates that Miami is leaning toward taking Michigan's Jake Long with the first overall pick in the upcoming draft.
On Monday, Miami's new regime began what is the first of what is expected to be many waves of turning current Dolphins into former ones. In doing so, the team might have tipped off what it's thinking entering April's NFL draft. It appears that former offensive lineman and new head coach Tony Sparano isn't going to waste time molding a line in his image, and Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long might want to start looking for real estate in South Florida.
Four tackles were shown the door Monday by Miami general manager Jeff Ireland, including three who either played significant roles in 2007 or figured into the team's long-term plans during the recent past.
L.J. Shelton was the biggest name sent to the street, as the 2006 free-agent acquisition appeared for Miami in every game last season.
Drafted as a tackle two years ago by Nick Saban, former fourth-rounder Joe Toledo looked like he had won the starting right guard slot in his rookie training camp, but a string of injuries kept him on the sideline. Toledo never saw regular-season action for Miami.
Finally, the release of former fifth-round pick Anthony Alabi officially means the Dolphins have one less thing to show (other than drafting DE Matt Roth in the second round also in 2005) for sending Patrick Surtain to Kansas City, making that officially one more awful Miami trade for the history books. Pointing out that the Dolphins passed on Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson to take the tackle from Texas Christian might be salt in the wound at this point.
Obviously, there are many different directions the Dolphins can go with the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. If the Dolphins cannot trade down, then they are likely to select one of three players: LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, or Long. Even with Monday's release of Trent Green and Keith Traylor—potentially paving the way for Ryan or Dorsey to respectively replace them—the moves indicate that the 6-foot-7, 315-pound Long is the current favorite.
For a management team that hasn't firmly stated a whole lot about what its agenda is in trying to resurrect the franchise, the release of Shelton—along with two guys who could've stepped in for him—by Ireland and Sparano is the most telling move yet.
Shelton was in the middle of a four-year, $15 million deal signed in March of 2006. For the next two seasons, he could've held the right tackle position, giving Ireland time to find and Sparano time to coach up someone potentially better. Miami has elected to go in a different direction.
It's also not as if Shelton had a horrible season either. With a healthy Ronnie Brown during the season's first couple of months, Shelton was blowing open good-sized holes in the running game. Shelton's pass-protection abilities, while not Pro Bowl-caliber, were serviceable when considering Miami used two novices and a veteran with limited mobility skills at quarterback in 2007. However, Shelton is probably, as Bill Parcells likes to say, "just another guy," and that's not good enough in Miami anymore.
Sparano has probably reviewed the game tape from the 2007 campaign, and likely has come to the conclusion many in South Florida had around the middle of November: Vernon Carey is better suited to play tackle on the right side than the left. After coming along noticeably during 2005 and 2006, Carey was switched from right to left tackle by Cam Cameron before the 2007 season.
Carey regressed somewhat this past season, and often showed difficulty in protecting the quarterback's blindside against speed-rushing defensive ends. Shelton's release leaves the right tackle slot open again, and Carey is the most logical replacement.
With Carey moving out, left tackle is open again. Miami hasn't had a consistently good left tackle since Richmond Webb retired. Bringing in the likes of Billy Milner, Jeff Buckey and Brent Smith, the Dolphins have looked long and hard for Webb's replacement. They should look at Long this time.
Plug the two-time All-America selection in on the left side, with the 26-year-old Carey back over on the right and impressive 2007 draft pick Samson Satele at center, and what has long been one of the weakest parts of Miami's roster all of a sudden becomes one of its best—and youngest.
Drafting Long would also be a benefit to the advancement of John Beck. During the preseason, playing with and against third-stringers, Beck was able to move the Miami offense. When the regular season began, and first-team defensive lines began feasting on the below-average Miami offensive line, Beck struggled. Any hope that Beck can turn into a workable NFL thrower depends on whether he can gain confidence in his passing abilities, which will only happen if he's standing upright.