The Miami Dolphins' offensive line is the deepest and most talented unit on the roster.
Jake Long made his second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance in 2009, starting for the AFC instead of coming in as an injury replacement like he did the year before.
In his two seasons, Long has established himself as a top-tier left tackle. The former No. 1 overall pick is a bulldozing run blocker and is nearly as good in pass protection.
Long had issues in his first year with the league’s faster and more athletic defensive ends but erased those concerns with an impressive 2009 campaign.
He should be a fixture on the left side of Miami’s line for next five to 10 years. There are only a handful of tackles who do it better than the 24-year-old, and he’s improving at a rapid rate.
He isn’t the only Miami player to receive national attention.
On his 2009 NFL All-Pro Team, Peter King of Sports Illustrated listed Dolphins right tackle Vernon Carey as his first team starter at the position. Carey topped Len Pasquarelli’s rankings on ESPN.com as well.
Since the Dolphins drafted him in 2004, Carey has started every game of his career at either left or right tackle. At 6’5” and 340 lbs, he’s the largest member of Miami’s front five and plays ever bit his size.
He’s physical, consistent and is one of the best run blockers in the NFL. Against the league’s quicker defensive ends, Carey struggles at times, but at right tackle the weakness is minimized since most speed rushers line up against the left tackle.
With Carey and Long anchoring the line and controlling the edges, Miami’s guards are able to focus on pulling blocks and doubling down on opposing defenses’ nose tackles, which opens up the running game in a number of ways.
Justin Smiley was signed as a free agent before the 2008 season and established himself as an All-Pro talent at left guard before a broken leg derailed his year in Week 12. In 2009, he struggled with injuries again but only missed one game because of it—back problems limited his production throughout the season though.
When Smiley is healthy, he’s one of the best in the business. Unfortunately, he’s been labeled as injury-prone, and the stats tend to agree with that label—he’s missed 13 games in the last three seasons.
With Smiley limited, Nat Garner emerged as a starting caliber option for the Dolphins after being elevated off the practice squad midway through the season.
Garner initially was expected to be an injury replacement but blew away the coaching staff with his production. Against the Carolina Panthers, Garner started in place of Smiley and ended up rotating at four positions along Miami’s offensive line—left guard, center, right guard and right tackle.
Garner is big—6’7”, 325 lbs—and extremely versatile. Left and right guard may seem like the same position, but you have to remember everything is reversed from left to right. Add in his ability to play both left and right tackle, and you’re looking at a rare specimen. It didn’t take the coaching staff long to figure this out.
After his performance as an injury replacement, Garner split time at right guard with incumbent starter Donald Thomas and arguably outplayed him. It’s not like Thomas is a slouch either, Garner is just that good.
Expect the 25-year-old to start in 2010.
As for Thomas, the second-year guard will likely come off the bench in 2010 to make room for Garner. Thomas missed all but one game of his rookie year with a torn Achilles tendon in 2008. Last offseason, a shoulder injury had him sidelined for months. He did manage to return by the start of the regular season, but his injury issues are troubling and one of the biggest reasons Garner will replace him.
Garner and Thomas split time equally from Week 13 onward, but that's unusual in the NFL and probably won’t be repeated next season.
Thomas still has a place on this roster though. He’s a legitimate talent, and when healthy, the former sixth-round pick is a firecracker. He is still a bit raw, but his physical strength is elite. If the coaching staff can keep him on the field, Thomas will excel next season.
Starting at center for the Dolphins was one of last season’s major free agent acquisitions, Jake Grove.
Grove is a gritty, physical guy who's known for his nastiness in the trenches but is also known for his problems staying healthy. He finished three of his six seasons on injury reserve. In 2009, hee missed four games due to various injuries. But, when he's healthy, he's one of the better centers in the NFL.
The Dolphins brought him in because of the way he handled the AFC East’s nose tackles in 2008 when playing with the Oakland Raiders. Grove was able to contain the New England Patriots’ Vince Wilfork with ease. Very few centers are capable of that.
Hopefully, Grove can stay healthy in 2010, but if not, the team’s depth should cover any weakness created in his absence.
Joe Berger was signed as a free agent from Dallas before the 2009 season. The versatile center/guard started four games in place of Grove.
Berger is a blue-collar guy, an intelligent hardworking 27-year-old who is more than capable of filling in at center or either guard position if need be. His contribution is usually understated, but Berger rounds out an impressive unit and would likely start for most teams in the league—the Dolphins starting bunch are just that talented.
Beyond Berger, players like Andrew Hartline, Andrew Gardner, Nevin McCaskill, Lydon Murtha and Ray Feinga were little more than roster churn brought in for spot duty throughout the year as injures thinned Miami’s ranks.
None of them provided much, and its hard to tell which of them, if any, will return to the team for 2010. The line is deep enough as is, so don't expect the Dolphins to use up many roster spaces on these guys.
Offensive Line Grade: A+