Thanks to all who commented on my previous FanPost, "Out of Extreme Boredom, Let's Try to Map out Draft Needs of 2013." The best argument I found by reading the comments was that I might be too optimistic about our current pass rush options, even after drafting Vernon and switching to the new defensive scheme, which is fair.
In that same spirit of, "There's not much in sports to talk about right now, so I'll kill 20 minutes writing a long rant," I wanted to call everybody's attention to the state of our offensive line, in wake of OTAs and mini-camp. Kevin just posted a story about the O-line, but ProFootballFocus.com has been running a series on "Pass-blocking efficiency for the past 3 years." I thought it'd be a good idea to take a look at our offensive line situation, with a little bit of data from ProFootballFocus and Football Outsiders.
My past 2 FanPosts have been full of praises of Jeff Ireland's draft-day decisions after Bill Parcells abandoned the team, but we've been a 7-9 team (or worse) for 3 years now, and Ireland deserves some blame. This is especially true when it comes to the offensive line, where we never seem to have more than 3 positions settled in any given season, despite spending multiple draft picks and tens of millions of dollars in free agency. Ireland told the media that he was surprised that so many of the Dolphins head coaching job candidates he interviewed said the first step in improving the team's offense was improving the offense line.
Well, last year's starters at right guard and tackle are now both retired (Marc Colombo and, update, Vernon Carey), and Football Outsiders ranked the Dolphins' pass protection 30th out of 32 last year. Let's see what happened.
Offensive Line Last Year - The Right Side (The Ugly)
ProFootballFocus: Marc Colombo last season played 1,037 snaps and graded out 69th out of 76 tackles in the league last season, giving up nine sacks and 35 quarterback hurries. Marc Colombo the past 3 years was one of the 7 worst pass-protecting offensive tackles in football. Meanwhile, RG Vernon Carey ranked 44th among 77 offensive guards (below average)
FootballOutsiders: Dolphins' offensive line ranked 31st out of 32 teams on runs to the right (B and C gaps).
So just to be clear - the right side of our offensive line couldn't run-block and couldn't pass-block last year.
Offensive Line, Past and Future - Left Side (The Good to Great)
ProFootballFocus: Last season, LT Jake Long fell out of ProFootball Focus's top 5 tackles for the first time due to his rough start. However, he has been virtually tied with Joe Thomas as the best pass-protectors in the NFL over the past 3 seasons (despite injury trouble last season). In terms of "Top pass-blocking for the past 3 years among guards," you see the usual suspects (Logan Mankins, Carl Nicks) but Ritchie Incognito also makes the list. But, last year, Incognito was ranked 36 out of 77 guards overall (above-average).
Football Outsiders: To the left, our offensive line ranks 11th in runs to the outside (C gap) and 7th in runs between LT and LG (B Gap). This fits in with the statistic that Dolphin running backs running to the left side of our offensive line averaged a league-high 5+ yards per carry.
So, let's start with Jake Long - Teams like the Giants, Packers, and Saints do well without elite left tackles, but they have elite veteran franchise QBs who make up for lack of offensive line talent with pre-snap reads and quick decision-making. However, "elite veteran franchise QB" doesn't describe the Dolphins' QB situation (sadly). We have a rookie QB, Ryan Tannehill, who is struggling to adjust to the speed of the pro-game. We signed a veteran former Pro-Bowler, David Garrard, who had a back injury so severe that he lost his starting job and had to sit out a full year of football. And, we have a career backup, Matt Moore, who played well last year but got beat up, fumbling 14 times while getting sacked 36 times in 12 starts. Some of that is Moore holding onto the ball too long, but the fact is, in 2009 and 2011, our starting QBs have had early season-ending injuries. To me, that's not a situation where I would consider decreasing the quality of any of our offensive linemen.
Elite Franchise QBs are earning $12-20 million a year. If Tannehill takes over in 2013, he'll be earning less than $4 million a year. Left tackle is an impact position if your QB is still developing, so I favor keeping Long during Tannehill's developmental years (2012-2015). When Tannehill is due for a contract extension and a pay increase after hopefully playing well, Long's contract will be close to its end, and we can consider down-grading Tannehill's blindside protection by trading away Long or letting him leave in free agency. The Patriots and Jets have invested recent 1st round picks on pass rushers. The Buffalo Bills gave out big deals to Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. Life for QBs in the AFC East getting harder, so O-line talent is a must for QB success.
A fair argument is that Jake Long might be an injury risk, but Long has missed just two games with injury, and is apparently completely healthy right now. Ireland has said he intends to keep Long, and if he gets through this season playing at an elite level, I think an extension should be wrapped up in the offseason.
Now, Ritchie Incognito has been bumped around our offensive line (he finished the 2010 season as a center), but his pass protecting track record for the past 3 years have been solid, and last year, in a horrible year for our offensive line, he was still ranked above-average. There are some concerns about him in a zone-blocking scheme, but no reports yet of him getting burned while up against our very good front-7, so I'm hopeful.
Offensive Line, Past and Future - Center (A Force in the Middle)
Mike Pouncey had some struggles early after missing out on OTAs and minicamp before settling down and being a difference maker, especially making blocks downfield in the run game. Joe Philbin has praised Pouncey's athleticism and fit in the new scheme, so I have to feel good about our center (for now).
Offensive Line 2012 Predictions
I was optimistic earlier this summer about John Jerry, but early reports from OTAs and minicamp aren't good. Artis Hicks is a veteran in this scheme, but he's more of a backup than a starter. I predict RG will be a weak point this year (again.) Free agent G Jake Scott is probably hoping for a long deal, but I think the team's preference is to draft a guy rather than sign a 31 year old, given Ireland's past bad luck with free agent linemen...
As for the right tackle position, I'm predicting some early struggles for Jonathan Martin on the right side since he is adjusting to a new position. However, his athleticism, intelligence, and background in a run-first West Coast offense at Stanford all make me predict a decent rookie year for him, especially run blocking. And if worse comes to worst, we can always slip in Lydon Murtha at the right tackle and get average play from him at that position. No matter what, both will be better than Colombo.
Summary: Good to great play from Long, Incognito, and Pouncey. Martin having early struggles but settling into his role. Right guard will be Artis Hicks and a weak-point, addressed with a third round or higher pick next year. Lydon Murtha is a backup tackle who steps in if Martin struggles or Long is injured. Jerry kept as backup guard and leaves after his rookie deal ends unless he impresses during his limited on-field opportunities.
I'll check this post after the season to see how my predictions fared. I'm hoping that this year, with an extension for Long and a good year for Jonathan Martin, we have 4 out of 5 positions settled (progress!).