The Miami Dolphins have developed a young offensive line with a dominating leader on it. The problem is, that leader is second year center Mike Pouncey, not fifth year left tackle Jake Long. And, that's despite Long being a four time Pro Bowler and former First Team All Pro selection. Long simply is not playing up to his normal level this season.
There are many possible reasons for the decline in Long. He's been injured a lot over the past few years, from a torn biceps muscle to a knee injury, a back injury to a shoulder that needed surgery, Long's body has let him down often the past two years, and that wear and tear may be catching up to the 6', 7", 319 pounds behemoth - and he's actually playing lighter than he has in previous seasons. Long could be injured again. The Dolphins have switched to a zone blocking scheme, which Long could be still trying to fully grasp.
But, whatever the reason, Long's play has been down this season, and, with this being the final year of his rookie contract, Long could be losing money every week he struggles. Already costing the Dolphins nearly $13 million against the salary cap, Long will most likely be looking for an even larger deal after the year, using the collateral he has built up with those Pro Bowl and All Pro selections. But, will the Dolphins, or any other team, be willing to pay Long as the top tackle in the league, if he keeps struggling this season?
Yesterday, NFL statistics and analysis website Pro Football Focus looked at several potential free agents that could be hurting their value with below expected play this year. Jake Long easily made the list. Of Long, Nathaniel Peters-Kroll wrote:
After being a dominant performer for the first four years of his career, after he was drafted with the first overall pick in 2008, Long has looked very ordinary so far this season. Playing every single offensive snap, Long has an overall grade of -2.0, including a putrid -5.5 performance this past week against the Colts. Further hurting his value, the Dolphins have signaled that they likely intend to let him go, especially after drafting Jonathan Martin, who primarily played left tackle at Stanford. Long wants to get paid like Joe Thomas, and will likely get a nice contract after his fine play for the past four years. The big question is will teams hesitate if he continues to underperform down the stretch?
The debate over Long's worth versus the amount of salary cap space has been ongoing among Dolphins fans for a while now. Could the Dolphins let their 2008, first overall draft pick simply walk away this year? Could the downturn in his play lead to Long settling for less money - especially if that money were coming from the Dolphins?
While Long still has eight games to turn around his play, it will be one of the major storylines to watch the remainder of this season, and into the offseason, for the Dolphins.