It's now time to begin breaking down what are the most pressing needs of the Miami Dolphins as we head into the offseason. And keep in mind that these are in no particular oder.
So we kick things off with the big guys up front - the offensive line. It was thought that the offensive line would be an upgrade from '07 to '08. But injuries really hindered how effective the line could be.
2008 Key Contributors: Jake Long, Justin Smiley, Samson Satele, Ike Ndukwe, Vernon Carey, Andy Alleman, Al Johnson, Donald Thomas
Key Dolphin Free Agents: Vernon Carey, Ike Ndukwe
We all know about Vernon Carey's impending free agency. And it'll be interesting to see what happens. We all know he loves playing in Miami. But he also struggled at times this season as he moved back to right tackle. And further complicating things is the fact that he played above average in 2007 at left tackle - meaning some desperate team could potentially offer him LT money - which would be tough for Miami to match, if they even want to.
Meanwhile, Ndukwe filled in valiantly at right guard once Donald Thomas went down in week 1. He's an exclusive rights free agent - meaning the Dolphins have until a certain deadline to offer him a contract and should they decide not to, he'd become an unrestricted free agent. I'd look for the Dolphins to bring back Ike with a relatively low contract offer.
The best way to quantify with statistics how an offensive line performed over the course of a season is to use the stats created by Football Outsiders. You can read the explanations of the stats right here. I'll do my best to explain them "in a nut shell."
In 2008, the Dolphins' offensive line ranked 12th in the NFL in the statistic "adjusted line yards" per carry - with an average of 4.25 yards. So what is "adjusted line yards"? Basically, Football Outsiders assigns a value for every running back carry to the offensive line, attempting to identify how much of the play's success was due to the offensive line. For example, a run for a loss is credited 120% to the offensive line. A run for 0 to 4 yards is credited 100% to the OL. And then these figures are adjusted for things like down and distance, and so on.
While "adjusted line yards" is one key stat, there are others. The Dolphins had a "power success" rate of 76% - which is terrific. Basically, the "power success" rate is the percentage of runs on 3rd down and 4th down with two yards to go or less that resulted in a first down or touchdown. The Dolphins' rate of 76% is good for 5th best in the entire NFL. And I think Lousaka Polite had a lot to do with that - though the offensive line did show that it could line up and pick up a yard or two when it needed to.
The one other interesting run-blocking stat is the "stuffed" percentage. Simply put, this measures how often the team is either stopped for no gain or a loss on 1st down as well as how often a team gains less than one-fourth of the yards to go for a first down (on 2nd through 4th downs). The Fins were stuffed 22% of the time, which ranked them 6th in the NFL.
As far as pass protection goes, the Dolphins allowed 26 sacks, which was the 10th lowest total in the league. Their "adjusted sack rate" - which is another FO stat, placed the Dolphins 12th, with a rate of 5.7%. Just so you know, "adjusted sack rate" is simply the percentage of sacks per pass attempt adjusted for things like down and distance.
But here's the thing. While these figures make you think the Dolphins' offensive line is above average, that is where stats fail. If you watched the Dolphins play, you'd know that they really were unable to run the ball consistently - mainly because the offensive line couldn't open up any holes for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams on a regular basis. Hence the need to introduce the 'Wildcat.'
Meanwhile, we all saw on Sunday how the offensive line was also unable to keep Chad Pennington comfortable in the pocket. Sure, the Fins only allowed 26 sacks. But they didn't play that many teams with great pass rushes. And when they did, the results weren't that pretty - as our QB was taking a beating, even if he wasn't officially sacked. In all, too many QB hurries this year.
There are a ton of question marks for the Dolphins along the offensive line as we enter the offseason. The only spot that isn't a question mark is manned by last year's #1 overall pick, Jake Long. He's solidified the left tackle spot, allowing just 2.5 sacks all season - ranking him in the top 5 among all left tackles.
But outside of Long, there are questions. Justin Smiley is said to be making good progress from his injury, but even if he's ready for camp, will he be as good as he was before the injury?
Samson Satele struggled in 2008. He just might not be big enough to play center in Miami's blocking schemes. He had too much trouble with bigger nose tackles and might even have to transition to guard. Al Johnson, who really isn't much bigger, could potentially be given a shot at the starting center job of the Dolphins aren't sold on Satele and they don't address the position with a free agent or high draft pick.
Over at right guard, promising rookie Donald Thomas saw his season come to an early close. He's close to 100% already and should be given every opportunity to win the starting RG job. But even so, he's still very raw.
And we all know the question of whether or not the Fins will re-sign Vernon Carey. This decision will likely be one of the key decisions all offseason by the front office.
Potential Unrestricted Free Agent Targets
Offensive Tackles: Jordan Gross (Car), Mark Tauscher (GB), Khalif Barnes (Jax), Max Starks (Pit)
Offensive Guards: Mike Goff (SD), Cooper Carlisle (Oak), Chris Kemoeatu (Pit)
Centers: Matt Birk (Min), Jeff Saturday (Ind), Jason Brown (Bal)
Not many options out there, huh? Jordan Gross is intriguing, but will likely be offered LT money. And is it worth waiting and letting Vernon Carey hit the open market to take a chance on bidding on Gross? Tough call. Tauscher is coming off a knee injury and likely isn't a safe alternative to Carey, either.
I'd just re-sign Carey. I think he'll take a little less to stay in Miami and the alternatives aren't too intriguing. That is, unless the Dolphins want to take a right tackle somewhere in the first 2 rounds on draft day and let him start at RT. Regardless, the Dolphins do need depth at both tackle spots and should look to draft a tackle or two in April.
One intriguing prospect in free agency, though, is Jason Brown. He's a big, physical, mauling center - something this regime likes. He's young (only 25) and is a big boy (weighing 320 pounds). He's also athletic, proven by how he played some guard this year for the Ravens. If the Dolphins could land Brown, I'd be all for it.