Monday, December 1, 2008

Dolphins Lose Guard Justin Smiley For Season

After going much of the 2008 season without any significant injuries, the Dolphins have lost their second offensive player in as many weeks. With problems on the right side of the line throughout the season, the Dolphins lost starting left guard Justin Smiley to a season-ending broken leg against the Rams in Week 13.

Background

A consensus first-team All-SEC selection at Alabama in 2003, Smiley was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the second round (46th overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft. He appeared in all 16 games for the 49ers as a rookie including nine starts at right guard.

Smiley went on to start all 16 games for the 49ers at left guard in 2005, then all 16 games at right guard in 2006. He started the team's first eight games at right guard in 2007 before a shoulder injury forced him to miss the remainder of the season.

An unrestricted free agent in the 2008 offseason, Smiley became the first free agent to sign with a team after he agreed to terms with the Dolphins just over half an hour into the free agency period. On March 1, he signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Dolphins that included a $9 million signing bonus.

Originally slated to play right guard, Smiley was moved to left guard during the offseason. He started all four preseason contests and the team's first 12 regular-season contests at left guard.

On Nov. 30, Smiley suffered a broken right leg in the first quarter of a game against the St. Louis Rams. He will be placed on injured reserve, ending his season.

Analysis

Without question this is the worst injury the Dolphins have suffered all season. They lost starting right guard Donald Thomas after the season opener, but the promising rookie was completely unproven and there is no way to know how he would have performed. The team also lost wideout Greg Camarillo to a torn ACL last week, and though he's been Miami's most consistent receiver the team does have Davone Bess to fill the void in addition to two great running backs.

A tremendous free-agent pick-up in the offseason, Smiley had been the Dolphins' most reliable and consistent lineman this season. An experienced veteran, Smiley never shied away from helping his younger linemates and has been instrumental in the development of rookie offensive tackle Jake Long.

Early reports on Smiley's injury have been wholly negative. The Sun-Sentinel reports Smiley broke his leg near the ankle and will likely need a pin inserted. I've also seen reports about some potential ligament damage. While it's fortunate Smiley's never had any problems in this area before, it sure sounds like a nasty injury and it's impossible to know at this point what kind of timetable we're looking at for a return. If/when he gets back healthy, he'll no doubt regain a starting job.

The worst part about losing Smiley at this point is the fact that the team is already struggling on the offensive line. The unit was riddled with penalties yesterday against St. Louis and failed to establish a productive rushing game against one of the NFL's worst defenses.

Replacing Smiley in the Rams game was second-year man Andy Alleman, a waiver claim at the beginning of the season who had been splitting time with Ike Ndukwe at right guard as of late. Alleman struggled against St. Louis but has the potential to be a good pulling guard, which is what Miami needs in Smiley's absence.

Alleman will surely get the first crack at replacing Smiley long-term, but it's unclear if he'll be able to hold onto the job. Recently-signed center Al Johnson has guard experience and could push for time, while (as I expected) offensive tackle Brandon Frye has been working at guard since being signed off the Texans' practice squad earlier in the season.

If I had to guess, I'd say we'll see Alleman start the team's next game against Buffalo and possibly even the week after. If he performs well, he could keep the job though the end of the season. If not, I think we'll see Johnson or Frye in the mix first. Don't be fooled by the Dolphins' depth chart either: rookie fourth-rounder Shawn Murphy still isn't close to getting on the field.

Finally, on the issue of who will take Smiley's spot on the active roster, it remains to be seen if it will be an offensive lineman. The team currently has no offensive linemen on their practice squad after Kirk Barton was signed by the Bengals, and another potential candidate (Evan Mathis) has since signed with Cincinnati after being released by Miami.

Remember, the Dolphins have at times kept only nine lineman (they have 10 now) and added one when wide receiver Greg Camarillo was placed on I.R. last week. That being the case, it's possible the Dolphins could choose to add a fifth receiver (such as practice squad player Anthony Armstrong) in lieu of a tenth lineman.