Tuesday, January 26, 2010

2009 Miami Dolphins Position Grades: Offensive Line

All told, the Miami Dolphins' offensive line was easily one of the most productive units on the team in 2009.

While even the best players on the line had their struggles, be it (briefly) with performance or (not-so-briefly) with health, the players as a group performed admirably for most of the season.

With one Pro Bowl selection on the unit and a few others ranking near the top of the league at their respective positions, the Dolphins' offensive line was a forced to be reckoned with in all aspects.

These are my grades for the Dolphins' offensive line in 2009:

Jake Long: A+

Coming off a Pro Bowl season a rookie in 2008, Long struggled out of the game by allowing two sacks to Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham in the 2009 regular season opener.

Long quickly turned things around, however, and dominated for most of the season as both a pass protector and run blocker. He allowed just four sacks all season long, and ranked second among full-time starting left tackles with just nine quarterback pressures, behind only Cleveland's Joe Thomas.

Long was simply fantastic all season, and his performance is all the more impressive when you consider he played most of the season protecting a first-year starting quarterback in Chad Henne, whose pocket presence early on was understandably shaky.

Earning his second Pro Bowl selection in as many seasons, Long is making a strong case that the Dolphins made the right call with the first overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.

Jake Grove: B+

As has become a regular occurrence in his six-year professional career, Jake Grove failed to play a full 16-game season due to injury. In fact, he has done so just once in his career.

Despite missing a quarter of the season, however, Grove was an excellent blocker when he did play and was a strong contributor to the ground game.

In addition to positive marks as a pass protector, Grove ranked as the second-best run-blocking center in the AFC, behind only the New York Jets' Nick Mangold.

Grove was acquired last year to replace Samson Satele and at some strength and power to the center position, and he's certainly accomplished that.

Now he just needs to stay healthy.

Vernon Carey:

I've always felt he was a sub-par left tackle and average right tackle more suited for guard, but Carey certainly held his own on the right side of the line in 2009.

Although he didn't play anywhere near Long's level despite facing less talent at defensive end on the right side, Carey was a solid pass protector last season, allowing just four sacks on the year.

It was the running game, however, where Carey really shined, dominating opposing defenders as the third-best run-blocking right tackle in the league.

Joe Berger: B-

A versatile interior lineman who had spent his entire career prior to 2009 as a backup, Berger got his first real opportunity at playing time during his second stint with the Dolphins this past season.

Berger appeared in all 16 games for the Dolphins in 2009, including six starts at center in place of an injured Jake Grove. In fact, Berger even got the nod in the final two games of the season, when Grove was available and played off the bench.

Despite playing about half the snaps of most NFL starting centers, Berger ranked as an above average blocker in 2009 and gave the Dolphins two centers among the NFL's top-12 most productive of the season.

Berger's hard work and dedication, teamed with an extensive knowledge of the staff's offense from his time in Dallas, has made him an invaluable reserve and surprisingly capable starter.

Justin Smiley: C+

Coming off a broken leg suffered midway though the 2008 season, Smiley was a little rusty in 2009, and not quite the dominant interior lineman he was during his first season with the Dolphins.

Smiley was a strong pass protector in 2009, although this is a far less difficult task as an interior lineman facing bigger but slower defensive tackles.

Meanwhile, Smiley was merely average as a run-blocker, and if anything was the weakest link on an otherwise extremely sound unit.

Smiley struggled with some nagging injuries in 2009, and his level of play was nearly matched by a second-year offensive tackle with no game experience prior to the season in Nate Garner. Had it not been for Donald Thomas' poor play at right guard, Smiley might have had a more difficult time wrestling his job back from Garner.

Nate Garner:

After not appearing in a game serving as Vernon Carey's backup at right tackle as a rookie in 2008, Garner displayed his versatility by starting games at both guard spots in 2009, as well as working at center when both Grove and Berger were injured against Carolina.

Initially replacing Justin Smiley due to injury, Garner's solid play, combined with mediocre play on the part of Donald Thomas, allowed Garner to slide over to right guard and finish out the season as the team's starter.

While his production was just average, Garner was certainly one of the biggest surprises in 2009, and it's safe to say he exceeded any of our preseason expectations.

I don't see Garner as a long-term starting prospect, but he has shown he has the talent to be a versatile sixth lineman off the bench, and can start in a pinch if needed.

Donald Thomas: D

Hopes were high for Thomas in 2008, as the raw rookie sixth-rounder earned a starting job with the team in his first NFL preseason.

A foot injury in last year's regular season opener put his development on hold, and Dolphins fans hoping for a diamond in the rough were forced to wait another year to see what the team had in Thomas.

Starting the team's first 12 games of the 2009 season at right guard, Thomas was all-around sub-par as a below average pass protector and run blocker. His poor play was not as glaring due to excellent play on both sides of him, but he was certainly the weak link in the unit before ultimately being replaced by Nate Garner.

Expectations for Thomas have perhaps been a little too high, as many sixth-round picks don't even make the team their first season. It is also possible that Thomas earning the starting job in 2008 was more a reflection of the talent (or lack thereof) competing with him rather than his own performance.

Thomas is still young and still fairly new to football as someone that didn't play until college, so I still think there is some upside there. Nothing will be handed to him, however, and he'll be battling to just make the team in 2010.

Andrew Gardner: n/a

The Dolphins' sixth-round pick in 2009, Gardner dressed for only one game as a rookie with no starts.

Gardner continue to be developed as Jake Long's primary backup on the left side, and should get the chance for a bigger role during his second season.

Andrew Hartline: n/a

An undrafted rookie and college offensive tackle, Hartline was signed off the Dolphins' practice squad in late November after mounting injuries to the Dolphins' interior offensive linemen.

Hartline worked at both guard and center for the Dolphins in practice, but did not appear in a game.

Lydon Murtha: n/a

Signed off the Detroit Lions' practice squad in midseason, Murtha appeared in just one game for the Dolphins (vs. Tampa Bay) before landing on injured reserve with an ankle injury.

It wasn't realistic to expect contributions from Murtha anyway, who joined the team later than most of the team's offensive linemen and came in as a seventh-round rookie.

Murtha has plenty of experience at right tackle from his time at Nebraska and could project inside at guard as well, so he should have a decent shot at earning a backup job in 2010.

Overall Position Grade: B+

Although right guard was the shaky spot on the offensive line for the second consecutive season, play from most of the other positions was significantly improved.

The Dolphins' tackles did a fantastic job protecting a young quarterback, while all five starters made contributions to one of the NFL's best downhill running games.

There are a few things that need to be worked out at right guard, and a couple other starters need to stay healthy (I'm looking at you, Grove and Smiley).

All in all, the Dolphins have one of the NFL's best starting units in the NFL, as well as a solid group of young reserves.

How would you grade the Miami Dolphins' offensive line in 2009? Share your thoughts on the forums here!