Two of my major criticisms with Miami Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey's offensive line rebuild that took place over the 2014 offseason was the unwillingness to acquire top interior talent and, more importantly, quality depth. While the effects of the former aren't felt quite yet, complications that stem from Hickey's trust in his player's health are already manifesting themselves and have led to serious questions regarding the offensive line surfacing for a second straight offseason.
Free agency brought only two new starting caliber (one, depending on who you ask) linemen, left tackle Branden Albert and guard Shelley Smith, to a team that needed to replace four offensive linemen. Hickey also landed the injury-prone Jason Fox as the only depth signing. This left Hickey with obvious holes to fill in the 2014 NFL Draft.
While Hickey was able to land a few desirable undrafted free agent interior linemen after the draft, the draft itself only yielded Hickey right tackle Ja'Wuan James, who some say he reached for (I've always said it was the right choice) and Billy Turner a raw, college left tackle who will make a position switch and (hopefully but not likely considering how much he needs to learn) be able to contend for a starting guard spot.
Why Hickey didn't elect to draft another lineman in the later rounds to provide depth is still a bit baffling to me. Even more so when you consider that he spent a sixth round pick on Matt Hazel, who will struggle to make the team because of depth at the wide receiver position. It's likely that Hickey was sticking to his draft board and taking the best player available, but he will learn in time that team needs must factor into the decision when drafting.
Acquiring only five new linemen in the offseason meant that the depth of the line would consist mainly of Sam Brenner, Nate Garner and Fox. This originally scared some people, but didn't cause too much concern amongst the general fan base as many people liked Fox from his days at the University of Miami and trusted the health of their team, not unlike Hickey. Injuries happen though which is why quality depth is key in the NFL.
After Mike Pouncey, arguably the Dolphins' best offensive lineman, needed a procedure to repair a torn labrum in his hip, sidelining him up to four months, the Dolphins offensive line problems became real once again, and hope that the line would improve turned to doubt that we would see a repeat of the 2013 debacle at offensive line (minus the whole "bullying" thing, of course).
Many people highlight Pouncey's injury as Hickey's first true test as a GM, but in my eyes the offensive line rebuild was his first test. The concern and turmoil following the injury, while mostly media driven, showed that Hickey didn't do a great job of rebuilding the line completely.
The injury forced Shelley Smith, one of the aforementioned 2014 free agency signees, to move to center and forced Hickey to seek further offensive line help, which led to the signing of guard Daryn Colledge in July. Colledge is in line to start next to Smith on the line, but both have a fair share of question marks. Smith is, historically, a liability in pass protection while Colledge is on the wrong side of 30 and may have lost a step.
One thing that really eases criticism on Hickey's rebuild is the development of guard Dallas Thomas, a 2013 third round pick who played zero offensive snaps in his rookie season. Thomas is in line to earn a starting guard spot after increasing his lower body strength and technique in the offseason, but it's unclear to me whether he is really the best man for the job or simply the best man available in a growingly depleted offensive line group (however, it should be noted that he has held a starting position throughout the offseason).
To make things worse on the depth-front, Brenner, one of the main back-up interior lineman, suffered a lower leg injury on Tuesday that will likely sideline him for most of the season. This not only makes the center position a bit more frightening, as Smith now has to play well and also not get hurt in the process, but also means that the only insurance players with any NFL experience behind the current starting line are Garner and Fox, both prone to injuries in their own right.
The Dolphins have so far seen two important players go down with injuries that will cause them to miss serious time. This highlights the lack of depth on the line and is probably the last thing that Hickey wanted or anticipated to happen. However, in the NFL you must learn to adapt and adjust. Not just the GM, but the coaching staff too, The early turmoil and injuries will test everyone in the Dolphins building, but it all stems from decisions that Hickey made.
Whether Hickey's offensive line rebuild is a success or not is yet to be seen, but the early stage of it does not instill much confidence in me (even Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert has injury concerns, and depth behind him is very questionable).
Nonetheless, I believe Hickey's rebuild is not over and he will pull a few more aces out of his sleeve to ensure that the line will be at least average in all areas, which would be a huge step up from atrocious (as they were in 2013). Samson Satele or Kyle Cook anyone?
The lack of depth on this team cannot be ignored after a two key interior players have already been lost for a considerable amount of time. Hickey still has time to add more linemen, and will likely do so in wake of Brenner's injury. Until that happens, though, I can't give Hickey more than a C+ on his rebuild.
Time will tell if the rebuild was a success, but if the answer turns out to be no due to injuries and the concerns that I laid out in this article, then it's going to be a long season for Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins' running backs and the Dolphins' offense as a whole.
As we all know, the offensive line kept this team out of the playoffs in 2013 and is probably the only thing that has the hindrance ability to keep this team on the rise out of the playoffs for a sixth straight year.