The Miami Dolphins biggest hindrance last season was the offensive line. This cannot be debated. The Dolphins offense scored only 19.8 points per game behind the unreliable line, had four games with under 25 rushing yards (one with merely two yards rushing) and lost multiple contests due to late-game sacks given up by the offensive line.
The Dolphins entered the 2014 offseason with only one returning starting lineman and needed to rebuild each side of the offensive line around Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey.
Miami's rebuild of the left side went smoothly, mainly due to the acquisition of Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert. Albert's addition instantly transformed the Dolphins line from a group missing four starters to a group with two Pro Bowlers (even though they were they only proven starters).
Albert is a seasoned vet who will hold down Ryan Tannehill's blind side, and though he struggled a bit in summer workouts against Olivier Vernon, who is primed for a Pro Bowl season, Albert's addition ensures solid play at the left tackle spot. It is worth noting that the 29-year old Albert has played a full 16-game season only once in his six-year career.
The Dolphins put the finishing touches on the left side of the line with the addition of Billy Turner, a left tackle at the small school of North Dakota State, in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft to compete for the left guard spot with last year's third round pick Dallas Thomas.
I originally liked the Turner pick, but upon further thought it doesn't make much sense. Turner was a project to begin with, this line needed starters and capable guards were still on the board when the Dolphins traded up to select Turner. However, his upside is clearly something that was coveted in Miami. The only question is will he be ready to showcase it this season?
Keep in mind, John Benton, the Dolphins new offensive line coach, is one of the best in the league so Turner's development could go much faster and smoother than anyone expects. With that being said, there's still a learning curve he has to deal with, even more so coming from a small school.
Left guard will see either Thomas or Turner as the starter. Thomas currently has the edge over Turner, who still has a lot to learn being only a month into his NFL career. Either way this spot should be set for 2014, leaving the left side of the offensive line looking pretty dandy after a rough 2013 season which saw five different players at left guard and tackle.
The right side of the line is where things start to get a little bit more worrisome.
Miami signed Shelley Smith to compete to be their starting right guard, but Smith has held the position throughout the entire summer. However, Smith is a huge question mark as he started only eight games in his two years with the St. Louis Rams and was a liability in pass coverage.
There are also questions to if he can hold up through a full 16-game season due to his limited playing time in the past (was there a reason he played so sparingly?) Also, Smith was better when playing left guard. This may be due to the fact that most teams use the left guard to pull on running plays. Smith is better when on the move so he can use his athleticism to his advantage.
That is the good news about Smith. He fits the zone-blocking scheme that Miami runs. After two years of having offensive linemen who didn't fit the scheme, the opposite is finally true. Smith also reunites with his old coach, Benton, who coached Smith during his time with the Houston Texans in 2010.
I wouldn't object to Turner providing competition to Smith for the right guard position if Turner doesn't win the left guard spot (though if he loses LG competition then he is probably not ready to start. Unless, of course, Dallas Thomas has improved that drastically.)
Ja'Wuan James was selected 19th overall in the first round of the 2014 draft to solidify the right tackle position, a spot that has haunted the Dolphins with mediocre play after being filled with washed-up players for two straight years.
Many questioned the pick, but it was the right one. This was, and now is (for different reasons), the most troublesome position on the offensive side of the ball. James was the best true right tackle in the draft and was one of the best pass-blocking tackles in the draft.
Some same James' run-blocking prowess is modest at best, but I see potential for him to be more than adequate when run-blocking based on the movement skills he showed in college. James will benefit from playing in a zone-blocking scheme, which puts athletic and smart offensive linemen in a position to thrive.
The thing that concerns me with James, ironically, is his pass-blocking. James will be facing a new level of competition with a strength/speed/quickness combination that he's never seen before.
It is inevitable that he will get beat, but having a guard next to him that can hold his own in pass protection and even help the rookie out when he is struggling, such as the relationship between Justin Smiley and young Jake Long in 2008, is huge for a rookie and his confidence. I'm not convinced that Smith is that guard.
The Dolphins line, and season for that matter, hinge on the play of Smith and James on the right side of the line. If either of these two aren't who we thought they were (yes, I slipped a Denny Green reference on you) then the men behind them won't provide much relief and the Dolphins offense will be in trouble.
After adding two starters in free agency, adding a backup and selecting only two offensive linemen in the draft, did the Dolphins do enough to solidify the offensive line?
Numbers wise, yes, as the Dolphins filled all four spots that were left vacant after the Dolphins cleaned-house of everything related to the 2013 offensive line (except Pouncey). However, I'm not positive that this line will hold solid in all five spots throughout 16 games.
The Dolphins 2014 season depends on the success of this offensive line rebuild, and by those standards it would seem as though the Dolphins took a bit of a skimpy route to rebuilding.
Choosing not to sign any big name offensive linemen besides Branden Albert in free agency sent the Dolphins into the draft with obvious glaring needs at offensive line, but even only two were drafted, one of whom was not ready to start immediately.
Dolphins' GM Dennis Hickey knows what he is doing (at least I hope so), but as it stands now this offensive line, specifically the right side, has me a bit apprehensive.