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Dolphins training camp 2023 position battles: Mike McDaniel talks offensive line

The Miami Dolphins completed their first preseason game of the year on Friday, losing to the Atlanta Falcons. How did Austin Jackson, Liam Eichenberg, and the rest of the offensive line play? Head coach Mike McDaniel provided some thoughts.

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins lost their first preseason game of 2023 on Friday when the Atlanta Falcons visited South Florida. While the 19-3 loss was not pretty, especially down the stretch when mistakes and penalties crushed any rhythm the team tried to find, the final result really does not mean much. As head coach Mike McDaniel explained on Sunday, “The second that 2008 happened, I cared a lot less about preseason games. What happened in 2008? The Detroit Lions went 4-0. And then you go 0-16, and you’re like, okay, well … I don’t see the correlate and vice versa. It happens every year. So I think the biggest thing is that guys continue to get better and learn to learn to worry about the right stuff.”

Continuing to get better is a key part of the evaluation process for the coaching staff, especially when it comes to deciding who will make the roster and where they will stack up on the depth chart. One area of concern for the Dolphins is the offensive line, where the team may be relying on two players who underwhelmed last year, but could be in position to continue to get better and grow into the starting positions they are presumed to be holding.

Right tackle Austin Jackson is entering his fourth year in the league after being a first round pick in 2020 by Miami. One of three first-round selections the team made that year, Jackson’s role as the right tackle makes him the blind-side protector of his fellow 2020 first-rounder, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Jackson has had an up-and-down start to his career and has been moved around the offensive line. Last year, he settled in as the right tackle, but 14 snaps into the team’s Week 1 contest, Jackson sustained an ankle injury that landed him on injured reserve. He was activated and returned to the lineup in Week 11, but again was injured during the game and missed the remainder of the season.

Coming into 2023, Jackson is looking to prove he is ready to reach the potential that made him a first round pick. He started against the Falcons, joining left guard Liam Eichenberg as the only two presumed offensive line starters to play in the game. Both players played 14 snaps before sitting out the rest of the contest.

When asked about Jackson’s performance during the limited playing time, McDaniel replied, “It was what I had hoped for. It’s funny, I saw him in the hallway yesterday and the first thing I told him was like, ‘Dude, I was so fired up for an MA (missed assignment).’ And I meant it. And the reason why is because we really collectively, as a coaching staff, try to go along the journey with the player and this dude has gone all in. And what happens when you go all in and you’re putting your best foot forward? You tend to care a lot. One of the functions of him playing, which were several, was that you get that feeling of competitive tackle football and what happens when something doesn’t go right? What was awesome is he kept his technique, he ended up responding immediately and had some really good – it was on a run play – and had some really good pass protection and then run blocks.”

He continued, saying, “That’s what you’re looking for, to make purpose of these exhibition games. You’re trying to figure out who gets what job. Then you’re trying to have people develop within the preseason so they’re their best selves in the regular season. That was a hurdle that I knew was coming. He didn’t wait much time and then responded as good as one can in the game of football, which was my primary concern since he hadn’t played in a minute.”

Eichenberg is entering his third season, having been a second-round pick by the Dolphins in 2021. He is another player who moved around the offensive line to start his career, working as a tackle and a guard, then adding a little center work this year during the team’s offseason training program, but appears to have settled into working as a left guard. Eichenberg is the presumed starter for the position, but there is competition for the spot and Miami needs to see the Notre Dame product step up if he wants to continue to be on the first team.

Like Jackson, Eichenberg missed playing time in 2022, though not nearly as much. After starting the first eight games, he landed on injured reserve with a knee injury before returning in Week 17. He missed part of the team’s Week 18 game when he sustained a hand injury, then was inactive for the playoff contest due to the issue.

As he looks to retain the starting role between veteran left tackle Terron Armstead and veteran center Connor Williams, Eichenberg has been inconsistent in practices this summer. He had some struggles during the team’s joint practices with the Falcons prior to the preseason game, which McDaniel pointed to when speaking of Eichenberg’s performance on Friday.

“Yeah, he had a cool week because he had some really good things and some things that frustrated him,” McDaniel explained. “What I saw was a deliberate approach, better technique than last year and he played not scared and learned from the practice. What I fear is that things happen to players at any position and that thing doesn’t make you better. For offensive lineman, like, shoot, you get beat on an up-and-under and then now you’re setting short for the rest of the week. So that play made you worse. What I saw was that work week actually made him better and I thought it performed very well in the game.”

As for the battle to claim the starting left guard position, McDaniel provided an update as well, saying, “I feel like it’s pretty close. A good litmus test is the locker room. And I pay attention a lot to what peers feel, think, maybe say, maybe don’t say, their energy. I’ll feel it from the locker room. I’ll feel it from his teammates. Whoever that guy is, will show his face and it’s not really up to my timeline. I’d like it to be sooner than later. But that’s why you have to give guys opportunities to win the job on the field. And it’s not necessarily a negative that there’s a rotation.

He continued, highlighting Eichenberg’s play but stressing that the battle is continuing, “Listen, Liam’s playing as good of football as he’s played. He’s had his bumps and has gotten better from them in this camp. But there’s other good players. So those things have to be settled on the field I believe. And those opportunities will continue. And then I’ll know when the team knows, and I’ll be able to feel it by not just how that person plays, but how his teammates play around him. It’s a collective group, where you have to communicate, and players can make each other better, they can make each other worse, and we’re looking for a guy that plays his best but makes other people better as well.”

The Dolphins are finishing their Monday practice before they travel to Texas on Tuesday to prepare for two joint practices with the Houston Texans. The two teams will then face off on Saturday in Week 2 of the preseason. The offensive line, and the performances of Jackson and Eichenberg, will continue to be a focal point throughout the week.