Miami Dolphins 2014 preview: Retooled offensive line crucial to success
For the Miami Dolphins to find success in 2014, the cohesion and play of their rebuilt offensive line will be the key.
The new-look Dolphins offensive line has a lot to improve upon from last season.
Robert Mayer / USA TODAY Sports
By Ross Devonport
With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it's the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes ... even February. Goodbye, offseason!
Tannehill got a good look at the Miami sky during his sophomore season, as he was sacked a franchise-record 58 times. Sure, the bullying scandal and related games missed by starters didn't help things, but the line wasn't good from Week 1.
Management at least addressed this major deficiency in the offseason by bringing in Albert, a former first-round pick, and Smith via free agency and adding James out of the University of Tennessee. With second-year guy Dallas Thomas apparently much improved, it looked like center Mike Pouncey would theoretically be surrounded by upgrades on either side of him heading into the 2014 campaign.
Then came the bad news in mid-June that Pouncey would likely miss the first few games of the season following hip surgery, leaving the team scrambling at center heading into training camp. Backups Sam Brenner and Nate Garner are capable, but Pouncey was a Pro Bowler last season and his presence as the leadership voice of the offensive line will undoubtedly be missed, especially with the opening two games being division contests against New England and Buffalo.
The quandary for management: Do they spend some money and sign a high-end free agent like former Dolphin Samson Satele or ex-Bengal Kyle Cook but risk them being a waste of cash if Pouncey comes back early? Or do they wait and see how Pouncey progresses and potentially miss out on those guys? With the signing this week of veteran Daryn Colledge, it appears the Dolphins are willing to sit and wait for the time being, but there's still plenty of time for panic to set in.
The Dolphins were pathetic on offense last season, averaging just 19.8 points a game (26th). They also managed just 90 rushing yards a contest, ranked 27th in yards-per-game (312.9) and were 28th in time of possession (28:42). Basically, when they did have the ball -- which wasn't for very long -- they didn't do much of anything with it.
The losses of free agent signings TE Dustin Keller, who tore all three major knee ligaments in the preseason, and slot receiver Brandon Gibson, to a lesser knee problem in late October, certainly hurt the unit, but coordinator Mike Sherman clearly wasn't getting the most out of the talent at his disposal. So he was disposed of.
In comes Bill Lazor, who has never been an offensive coordinator in the NFL but coached the quarterbacks for Washington (2006-07), Seattle (2008-09) and Philadelphia (2013) and has run offenses at the college level (Buffalo and Virginia). Though there is not a lot to go by from Lazor's history, the limited amount of plays we saw during OTAs and minicamp involved a ton of one thing: motion.
Players have called Lazor's new scheme interesting, exciting and a work in progress. It involves a quarterback who needs to make quick decisions and backs and receivers moving all over the place pre-snap to exploit perceived weak spots in the defense and create matchup difficulties.
With a speed guy in Mike Wallace, solid possession receivers in Brian Hartline and Gibson, and third-year running back Lamar Miller, Lazor has all the weapons he needs to make this offense work.
Moreno was brought in to challenge Miller for the starting job, but all he's done so far this offseason is manage to get hurt.
Moreno earned his $5 million deal with a very nice 2013 campaign that saw him rush for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns in a pass-heavy Denver offense. However, 224 of those yards came in one contest against the Patriots and Moreno failed to top 25 yards in three of his final five games.
His knees continue to be an issue, as the surgery he underwent last month was on the opposite knee from the one he tore the ACL in back in 2011. He is expected to be back in action at some point in training camp that begins July 24, but will he be too far behind Miller to give him any kind of run for his money?
Running back Lamar Miller
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The fashionable guy to focus on would probably be second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The big problem for the former first-round pick, though, is how deep the Dolphins are at defensive end. Just how many snaps will Jordan see if Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon continue to excel? Will he get enough to have a breakout season? I think not.
Thus, it's Miller, the third-year back out of the University of Miami who struggled last year as a starter behind the awful line but has shown flashes of what he might be capable of if given holes and a role in an offense that fits his skillset.
Luckily for Miller, Lazor's offense is built for speed, something he has plenty of. While he hasn't got to show it off yet much during his short NFL career, Miller was an All-ACC track participant in college who put up a personal best of 10.56 in the 100 meters.
Sure, speed on a track is a lot different from having football quickness, but in Lazor's new offense where Miller will be moved around from the backfield to the slot and maybe even out wide, he will get plenty of chances to catch balls, allowing him to show off his ability to potentially turn a short pass into a big gain.
Miller caught 26 passes last season, only nine fewer than Reggie Bush did the previous year, so it's clear management has faith in his hands and YAC ability. Add his receiving yards to the improved totals on the ground he should see with the re-tooled offensive line, and Miller is primed for a breakout campaign.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
While the offense might have struggled last season, the defense didn't. Yes, the loss of standout defensive tackle Paul Soliai might sting a little, especially considering how much trouble the team had stopping the run in 2013 (124.9 yards a game, 24th in the league), but the Dolphins were eighth in points allowed last season (20.9 per game) and have the chance to be even better this season.
The cream of the Dolphins defense is defensive end, where Wake and Vernon combined for 18.5 sacks in 2013. The reserves are also useful, as Derrick Shelby showed potential in limited action, and Jordan is clearly stronger and injury-free entering his sophomore season.
Robert Mayer / USA TODAY Sports
With newly re-signed Brent Grimes anchoring down one corner, the much-improved Jamar Taylor a potential breakout candidate on the other side of the field, along with the addition of veterans Louis Delmas and Cortland Finnegan, the secondary is also a very capable unit.
Linebacker, meanwhile, was a position of concern last season thanks to the underwhelming 2013 performances from free agent additions Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe. To try and remedy that situation, Koa Misi has been moved to the middle to try and get the most out of his solid overall play and instincts.
If Misi shores up the middle and the offense improves enough to keep the defense off the field a little more than last season, watch out.
REASON FOR PANIC
The Dolphins will only go as far as the offensive line can take them. It's as simple as that. It's rare to see one team start a season with a completely different unit than it finished the previous season, but that's the situation in Miami.
General manager Dennis Hickey's career with the Dolphins would get off to a great start if the line does the same in the first few games without Pouncey, especially with those two divisional contests to open the season.
On the other hand, if James plays like a rookie, Smith plays like a career backup and Thomas reverts to his shaky form of 2013, then Hickey will be in for a barrage of abuse on sports radio and fans could be in for a very long season.
The coaching staff, which also has a lot to prove for various reasons, would also be under severe pressure if the team stumbles out of the gate. Philbin has yet to really endear himself to the fan base, but a solid campaign would make many forget about the Martin-Incognito case and probably buy Philbin at least another couple of years of employment.
ALEX MARVEZ'S 2014 PREDICTION
One of the NFL's leakiest offensive lines was upgraded with the acquisition of two new starting tackles: Brandon Albert and 2014 first-round pick Ja'Wuan James. The skill-position talent is solid. And new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is expected to field a high-tempo scheme with concepts learned last season under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. But all of this will be for naught if third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill doesn't make significant strides – especially when throwing the deep ball to wide receiver Mike Wallace and getting a better feel for the pass rush to avoid sacks. Prediction:8-8