Curious to learn how the Dolphins plan to stock their OL cupboard with zone-blocking personnel? Look no further than head coach Joe Philbin's previous employer.
Aaron Rodgers, his godawful mustache (mercifully shaved prior to Week 1) and Green Bay's hulking offensive line are the cover of my latest ESPN The Magazine. Two things to note here:
1) It's truly remarkable how all Packers linemen look like they are actually from Wisconsin.
2) Those linemen on the cover were once Joe Philbin's players. No doubt that they also represent what the Dolphins are looking for in an offensive lineman: intelligence, technique and agility.
Now in Miami, Philbin probably wishes he still had some of those Green Bay linemen, namely guard Josh Sitton, and tackles Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga. Instead, Philbin this season has a franchise left tackle (Jake Long) and center (Mike Pouncey), a very promising rookie right tackle (Jonathan Martin, who, in my opinion, belongs on the left side at some point), and questionable guards (Richie Incognito, John Jerry). Some of these players (Pouncey, Martin) fit handsomely into the zone-blocking scheme now employed by the Dolphins. One player (Long) isn't necessarily ideal for zone, but has the agility and intelligence to thrive nonetheless. Others (Incognito and Jerry) are likely just keeping their seat warm until Philbin and Ireland can sit down and find their very own Sitton or T.J. Lang.
Ted Thompson and Green Bay found those two guards in the fourth rounds of the 2008 and 2009 drafts, respectively. I urge the Dolphins to try and do the same next spring.
See, the days of Miami taking interior offensive lineman on day one or two of the NFL Draft are long, long gone, and you likely won't see any tackles selected with a mid-to-high first-round selection, either. That's just not the Green Bay way of acquiring zone-block pieces. Like their receiver corps, the Packers believe in acquiring several quality items, as opposed to a couple great ones. This is why they can get away with assigning Marshall Newhouse to protect Aaron Rodgers' blindside. If Newhouse struggles, Derek Sherrod (if healthy) can come in and take over left tackle duty. If Sitton, Lang or center Jeff Saturday are injured, committing multiple false starts or just getting flat-out walloped, backup plug Evan Dietrich-Smith can come in and stop the bleeding.
This is also why the Pack can eschew a Pro Bowl center like Scott Wells in favor of an almost-washed-up Jeff Saturday. Jeff Saturday!? Not only did the Packers throw Wells to the curb for Saturday, they'll probably see little-to-no difference at the position. That's because most of these guys, with the exception of Saturday, are in the 6'3"-6'5", 310-320 range, which absolutely helps the position-diverse aspect of GB's line (Lang has even started a game at left tackle. Imagine assigning Incognito or Jerry to play blindside tackle for Ryan Tannehill. Yecch!). Instead of a couple of giant tackles, fat guards and a stout center, Green Bay's line essentially equates to one body type at all five positions. It's like that movie Multiplicity, in which Michael Keaton clones himself several times in order to keep up with his hectic work schedule and family life.
Look, no one is about to confuse this Green Bay offensive line with the group that starred for the Dallas Cowboys through most of the '90s. But when it comes to solid, workmanlike and efficient zone blocking, the Pack's offensive linemen are rock stars. Joe Philbin knows that as well as anyone.
What immediately jumps out when looking at Miami's starting offensive line is Long's upcoming payday, and the question of whether the Dolphins are willing to pay him Joe Thomas-like money (Thomas in 2011 received a seven-year, $84 million extension, $44 million of which is guaranteed). I won't make many friends with this prediction, but I don't see the Dolphins forking over that kind of bread, not even for arguably the best left tackle in the game.
Remember, Philbin just left behind an offensive line anchored by human fossil Chad Clifton. He's done just fine with considerably less talent at the position. He comes from an organization that is absolutely OK with letting Marshall Newhouse block for Aaron Rodgers. MARSHALL NEWHOUSE!!!
Thus, if Long isn't re-signed, there's a strong chance Philbin swings Martin over to left tackle.
Yep, Martin struggled on the right side at times last Sunday. Yep, he gave up a sack to Conner Barwin. You know who gave up a sack to Barwin last season? Jake Long. So judging a technical wunderkind like Martin based off of one game against a berserk defense such as Houston's is a bit unfair. If Martin sucks it up throughout this season, we'll talk about whether it's really a good idea to put him on the blindside. But I am rolling with this premise for the time being.
Again, I could be completely wrong about Long's situation in Miami. He could be a Dolphin for life. If he's not, though, it's up to the Dolphins to add a quality zone-block piece at right tackle, and Miami can do so by either nabbing a key free agent or getting fancy and bringing in a tackle via the third round of the 2013 draft. Some names to keep in mind:
-Dallas Thomas, Tennessee (6'5", 299)
-Oday Aboushi, Virginia (6'5", 315)
-Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (6'5", 304)
-Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin (6'6", 315)
The OL acquisition formula Philbin brought from Green Bay is a simple one: tackles anywhere after the late first round; guards no higher than the fourth round.
Center? We don't need one; we have the archetype player at that position right now. Pouncey gives Miami a franchise hammer in the middle, and the Dolphins have an opportunity to bookend him with quality--not great, but quality--guards. No need to draft Steve Hutchinson or David DeCastro (yikes) or that Chance Warmack kid everyone is so f'n high on right now. Guards in the zone-block set (see: smart, instinctive and athletic) can be found later in the draft.
The thinking in Miami's front office from now on should go something like this: If it's good enough for the Packers' offensive line, it's good enough for ours.
After all, imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery.