To recap for those who spared themselves the headache of following the team closely the past few months:
The Miami Dolphins' offensive line in 2013 wasn't good. The offensive line had almost no continuity due to offensive linemen suffering injuries (Pouncey), having mental breakdowns (Martin), being suspended (Incognito), being acquired via trade mid-season (McKinnie), and being benched due to poor play (Clabo and Brenner).
The franchise-record number of sacks allowed (58) wasn't completely the offensive line's fault, but the pass protection was below-average at best, and the run blocking was perhaps worse with the Dolphins finishing multiple games averaging under 1 yard per carry.
Oh, and the Dolphins' offensive line coach of the past 2 years was fired yesterday, and it looks like an early second round pick by the Dolphins at offensive tackle from 2012 (Martin) isn't a viable option going forward due to a recent hazing scandal. The one offensive lineman that everybody agrees played reasonably well in 2013 (Pouncey) stands a good chance of being suspended for at least 1 game in 2014 due to his role in a hazing scandal and allegations that he was less than forthright in answering some questions during the investigation. Both of the Dolphins' starting guards from 2013 (Incognito and Jerry) are unlikely to be re-signed as free agents due to their role in that scandal. Most agree that the Dolphins' starting offensive tackles from the end of last season (Clabo and McKinnie) are past their primes. The Dolphins third round pick in 2013 at OG/OT (Thomas) struggled to earn playing time despite that chaos on the offensive line.
YET, despite all that, I think there are 4 completely sane reasons to be optimistic - or at least, not too pessimistic - about the offensive line in 2014. Here's why:
1. The Dolphins offensive line in 2013 wasn't that good...so losing most of that offensive line isn't a tremendous loss.
I know, I hate beginning an optimism article by talking about how the Dolphins weren't very good last year, but it's true and has to be said. If the Dolphins had an offensive line that had spent the 2013 season developing chemistry and being dominant, the news that the Dolphins might end up starting 5 completely different offensive linemen at the start of 2014 due to a mix of free agency losses at 4 positions and a possible short suspension at center would be devastating news.
However, the 2013 Miami Dolphins offensive line was ranked as below average in pass protection and terrible at run blocking. In addition, because the Dolphins had at least 2 different starters at every offensive line spot except right guard, it's not like our 2013 unit had a ton of experience and chemistry together that will be lost. Regardless of the result of Wells' report, the Dolphins were going to need a mostly rebuilt offensive line in 2014.
So while it's never fun to have your car destroyed by an unexpected accident, the loss hurts less if the destroyed car was unreliable, and you had planned on replacing it soon anyway.
2. As a result of this scandal, the Miami Dolphins potentially upgraded their offensive line coach.
One of the few unanimously praised moves by the Dolphins this offseason so far has been the hiring of John Benton as an assistant offensive line coach. Assuming he gets promoted and loses the "assistant" label, the Dolphins will have an extremely well qualified coach for the team's zone blocking scheme. The hiring of Benton doesn't guarantee he'll get the same results as he did with the Houston Texans. However, he has the credibility of a guy who has gotten the job done at the NFL level with far from the most talented linemen to work with. The offensive line he helped turn into arguably the NFL's most dominant zone blocking line had just one first round pick (Duane Brown), plus two third round picks (Wade Smith and Eric Winston), one sixth round pick (Chris Myers), and an undrafted free agent (Mike Briesel).
That's how a position coach makes a name for himself - by getting guys who aren't necessarily first round picks to produce at a high level (see the Dolphins' defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers for another example of that). Still, even with better coaching, the roster could use talent upgrades, which brings me to the next point.
3. The offensive line free agent market is fairly deep this year, especially at OT, and the Dolphins have a solid amount of cap space.
Pro Football Focus has a list of available free agent offensive guards and offensive tackles, along with their 2013 grades. There will be more coverage of potential free targets in the future, but suffice to say that the Dolphins have decent free agency options at both offensive tackle and offensive guard. Usually, teams don't allow good offensive tackles to leave unless they have serious injury concerns (like Jake Long last year), but this year, several teams like the New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens, and Carolina Panthers are dealing with salary cap issues. That's why good tackles like Eugene Monroe and Zach Strief are considered likely to hit free agency. In particular, Monroe told NFL Network that he's not interested in given the Ravens a discount, which is good news for teams hoping to pry him away. Meanwhile, the Saints are going to prioritize keeping Jimmy Graham at all costs, leaving Strief likely to hit the market.
Also, while the Kansas City Chiefs aren't having the same salary cap difficulties as the Ravens, Panthers, and Saints, the Chiefs don't have an overabundance of salary cap room either (around $5 million in cap space including carryover from last year), making it unlikely that they would franchise tag their left tackle Branden Albert a second time or keep both of their free agent guards, Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah. It's thus likely that at least 2 of those 3 players hit free agency, and all 3 are good players.
Other OTs with a history of playing well at either tackle spot include Anthony Collins of the Bengals, Rodger Saffold of the Rams, Jared Veldheer of the Raiders, Michael Oher of the Ravens, and Eric Winston of the Cardinals. I exclude Jordan Gross of the Panthers because he's said he'd rather retire than play for a team other than the Panthers. However, the Bengals and Raiders do have significant cap space.
Likewise, the better guards available that the Dolphins could look at also include Travelle Wharton of the Carolina Panthers, Mike Pollak of the Bengals, and Willie Colon of the Jets. However, the Jets and Bengals have significant cap room, so Wharton is the only guy besides the Chiefs' guards whose original team isn't in a great position to fight the Dolphins in a bidding war. Zane Beadles of the Broncos is another option, but beware of the "Peyton Manning effect": O-linemen tend to look better than they actually are when they play with Manning due to his quick decision-making, and Beadles didn't do as well in 2013 as he did in 2012 (when he made the ProBowl).
Last, both Bryant McKinnie and Tyson Clabo played decently for the Dolphins towards the end of the year. Not well enough to make them priority re-signings, but they'd be good value signings on 1-year deals if no better options are available. The take home point is that given the options available, there's a good chance the Dolphins come away from free agency with either a good veteran offensive linemen (or two) OR at the very least, a couple of guys the Dolphins can use as a last resort if the Dolphins don't come away with a good OL in the draft. Speaking of the draft...
4. NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock believes that teams can get good offensive tackles in this year's draft as late as the third round.
Hooray for the Dolphins because the draft this year is reasonably deep at offensive tackle. The Dolphins are unlikely to get an elite offensive tackle prospect after the first round, but Mayock believes that teams could get a guy who perhaps could hold his own as a rookie starter as late as rounds 2 and 3. That's great news for a team like the Dolphins that almost certainly would love some young, cheap talent at offensive tackle. This also indirectly helps keep free agent offensive tackle salaries low because teams are less likely to give free agent tackles large deals if they feel they can get a substitute in the second round of the draft at 1/4 of the salary.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that those reasons are mostly dependent on good coaching and smart decision-making by the front office to pan out well. Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins have hired a new offensive line coach whose former team's offensive line did regress a bit after they lost 2 key free agent offensive linemen (RG and RT) that he had helped develop. The Dolphins also have a third year head coach whose competency is in question after the team collapsed the final two weeks of last season with the playoffs within easy reach. Last, the Dolphins have a new GM who wasn't exactly the team's first choice for the job...or second choice...
However, if you're willing to buy into the notion that John Benton knows what he's doing despite a down year in Houston last season, and that the early reports of Hickey and Philbin cooperating extremely well so far should lead to a rookie draft class this year that our coaches are willing to, you know, trust with playing time, it's fair to be optimistic about the Dolphins' ability to successfully address needs like offensive line for 2014.