Monday, January 27, 2014

Season in Review: Offensive Line

Throughout January, I'll be reviewing each position's performance for the Dolphins during the 2013 season, noting the good and the bad play and looking ahead at where the position stands for the 2014 season and beyond. Check out the archives for past entries in the series.

For all the media attention given to Incognito (left) and
Martin (right), the Dolphins' offensive line problems
were already well-documented before their departures.
Relevant 2013 Ranks:
Points/Game: 19.8 (26th)
Yards/Game: 312.9 (27th)
Pass Yards/Game: 222.9 (20th)
Sacks Allowed: 58 (1st)
Rush Yards/Carry: 4.1 (17th)

Current Depth Chart:
LT: Jonathan Martin (NFI)
LG: Sam Brenner, Nate Garner
C: Mike Pouncey
RG: David Arkin, Michael Ola
RT: Dallas Thomas, Jason Weaver

Free Agents:
OT Tyson Clabo (UFA)
OG Richie Incognito (UFA)
OG John Jerry (UFA)
OT Bryant McKinnie (UFA)
OG Danny Watkins (RFA)
OT Will Yeatman (RFA)

You know how negative my linebackers review article was? Think of the Dolphins' offensive line as the "linebackers of the offense." For all you can say to defend Jeff Ireland (and there is plenty to say, especially after the team's recent joke of a GM search), one thing you can criticize him for is his horrendous plan (or lack thereof) for the Dolphins' offensive line in 2013.

I'm not going to get into the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito scandal here, in large part because 1) it was massively overblown by the media; 2) the Dolphins survived the scandal on the field; and 3) the offensive line was terrible before those two exited the lineup, anyway.

Center Mike Pouncey was the lone bright spot on an offensive line that could do no right elsehwere, grading out as Pro Football Focus' No. 13 center (No. 1 in pass protection) despite missing two games with a gallbladder issue.

Incognito, actually, was solid as always before he was suspended by the team, and the six sacks he allowed is somewhat misleading thanks to quarterback Ryan Tannehill's complete inability to sense pressure that's right in front of his face.

Beyond that, it was nothing but ugly. John Jerry continued to be a poor fit for the team's blocking scheme is is curiously horrible as a run blocker for someone that should be such a mauler.  We might only be four seasons into his career, but something tells me Jimmy Graham would've been a better pick in the third round of the 2010 Draft because Jerry doesn't have a single good season under his belt.

When Incognito was suspended, the Dolphins turned to undrafted rookie Sam Brenner at left guard. While some fans seem high on the guy, the reality is that he was blatantly over-matched and he predictably grade out negatively in all facets.

And then, we have the tackles. Where to even begin. Jonathan Martin was over-matched in all facets on the left side, grading out poorly in pass protection and as a run blocker. While I certainly understand letting Jake Long walk in free agency due to durability concerns, there's little doubt in my mind Martin was to be a failed second-round pick even if he hadn't cowardly abandoned the team midseason.

Replacing Martin at left tackle was Bryant McKinnie after a midseason trade with the Ravens. While the Dolphins likely gave up nothing of much value (I suspect a conditional seventh or something similar based on McKinnie's starts in Miami), he certainly wasn't an improvement. Laughably, Baltimore McKinnie ranks 67th in PFF's offensive tackle rankings, while Miami McKinnie ranks 65th. Therefore, McKinnie actually makes up two of the worst 12 tackles in the NFL last season. Having watched him play, that sounds about right.

Last, we have Tyson Clabo. It was actually a tail of two seasons for Clabo, who came over a one-year deal after a steady career in Atlanta. Despite a proven track record, Clabo was absolutely lost in the first half of the season, getting benched at the right tackle spot seven weeks into the season after allowing eight sacks and 18 hurries in the team's first six games. He was re-inserted into the starting lineup in Week 9 following Martin's departure, and actually performed well down the stretch with 3 sacks in the last nine games.

2014 Outlook

The Dolphins' line certainly can't get much worse than it was in 2013, but the situation remains far from ideal. Only center Mike Pouncey is under contract and projected to start next season. And even then, ties to the Aaron Hernandez trial are certainly a cause for some concern.

McKinnie, Clabo, Jerry and Incognito are all unrestricted free agents, with Incognito almost certainly gone after the scandal and the others hardly worth bringing back anyway. In all honesty, Clabo might be the best bet to return on a one-year deal as a stop-gap at right tackle, assuming he can continue his quality of play from late in 2013.

That means at best, the Dolphins are looking for three new starters on the offensive line, and four if you move on from Clabo. It seems unlikely that Brenner, Dallas ThomasNate Garner, Will Yeatman (RFA), Danny Watkins (RFA) or anyone else currently on the team has the talent or upside to start, which means the Dolphins will have to focus heavily on the draft and free agency.

If the Dolphins go the free agent route for a new left tackle (expensive, but safer in the short-term), Branden Albert (Chiefs), Eugene Monroe (Ravens), Jared Veldheer (Raiders) and Anthony Collins (Bengals) are all potential options. Rodger Saffold (Rams) has a lot of appeal at age 25, but is also a durability concern. The Dolphins could also fill a guard spot in free agency, with Jon Asamoah (Chiefs) and Zane Beadles (Broncos) leading the pack.

Of course, building through the draft is much more ideal from cost and longevity perspectives, and the Dolphins may look at a tackle or guard with the 19th overall pick in April. While the top tackles are likely to be gone by the time Miami picks, someone like Taylor Lewan (Michigan), Zack Martin (Notre Dame) or Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama) could fall to that spot.

We'll have a much clearer picture of what direction Joe Philbin and Dennis Hickey are heading once free agency begins in March, but with so many holes to fill, it's almost certainly going to be a mix of free agency and the draft. I would prefer to focus primarily on the draft, but I also realize that starting 3-4 rookies isn't a realistic scenario either.

Needless, to say, the Dolphins brass has its hands full when it comes to protecting Tannehill and bringing this offense into the upper half of the league.