The Cornerstone: How Laremy Tunsil Has Already Proved to the NFL That He Belongs
All it takes is one stroke of luck.
The Miami Dolphins’ offensive line was in the conversation among the league’s worst units from 2012-2015. It seemed impossible for a team that applied so many resources to that area of the roster could be toiling in mediocrity at the line of scrimmage for so long.
At the onset of the 2016 offseason, it didn’t seem like much would be changing. The Dolphins added Jermon Bushrod, a career-tackle who would be switching his position inside to guard. The team missed out on game-changing guards in free agency like Alex Boone and Kelechi Osemele, instead opting to wait until April to address the need in the NFL Draft.
Upon initial inspection of the collegiate class, there weren’t many instant difference makers that the Dolphins would have a chance to select. Ronnie Stanley would almost certainly not be available come the 13th overall pick, and Jack Conklin didn’t seem like the type of player who warranted a pick that high given Miami’s eventual need at left tackle.
Of course, there is one tackle that hasn’t been mentioned.
When I evaluated all of the best case scenarios for the Dolphins come draft day, I didn’t feel it necessary to even consider one for Laremy Tunsil falling into Miami’s lap. There was no way that the most talented offensive lineman in the class would slip by needy teams like the Ravens and Titans.
Until there was.
The Dolphins’ trade with the Eagles, swapping the 8th and 13th picks in return for Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso, couldn’t possibly look better for Miami. Tony Lippett has showed on multiple occasions that Byron Maxwell, while not by any means a high-level corner, is a clear upgrade over the young Michigan State product. Kiko Alonso, the portion of the trade with higher upside, has been effective as the team’s inside linebacker.
And yes, the Dolphins got lucky that they were able to select arguably the draft’s best prospect with the 13th overall pick.
The turnaround up front for the Dolphins has been pronounced since Week 6, with a fully healthy unit finally on the field together. Branden Albert, Laremy Tunsil, Mike Pouncey, Jermon Bushrod and Ja’Wuan James have the Dolphins 15th in the NFL in QB hits allowed and have helped the team post the league’s second-best average yards per carry at 5.0.
Other than ushering in a competent group of offensive-minded coaches, what led a unit with three returning starters and one aging veteran to go from the league’s worst offensive line to one of its more effective units?
It boils down to the rookie from Ole Miss.
One of the biggest questions for Laremy Tunsil in Miami would be his ability to play guard for the first time in his football career. He had been a tackle for his entire life and would be taking on the world’s best players at an entirely new position.
Tunsil’s skill set applies best to the left tackle position; his ability to move quickly and react are suited well for the dominant athletes at the defensive end position.
However, there was precedent for Tunsil’s switch; Jonathan Ogden, the Hall of Fame left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, played his rookie season at left guard.
In Week 1, the Dolphins headed out west for a showdown with the Seattle Seahawks. If you don’t know what a trial by fire is, it’s being asked to face the NFL’s best defensive line at an entirely new position in your first professional start.
Early in the game, Tunsil and Albert failed to realize their assignments on a stunt by Seattle’s line.
In this situation, the onus falls on Tunsil to feel the pressure coming in open space and switch to the free-runner.
Later, Tunsil showed himself to be a quick learner by picking up on the stunt that he missed earlier.
On the play above, Tunsil and Albert are in sync, and they pick up the blitz by Seattle perfectly.
Tunsil also gave an early look at his ability to get into the second level and help spring runners free.
While the play goes nowhere, Tunsil demonstrates the ability to help out in the first level, be aware of where the runner is, and head into the second level when he has to.
Taking on two defenders and hitting the second level in an NFL debut will make for a pretty good first impression.
The Left Tackle Tryout:
Following an embarrassing 22-7 loss to the Bengals on Thursday Night Football in Week 4, Dolphins fans probably weren’t in the mood to hear about the positives.
Well, the positive.
Due to a rash of injuries that left the Dolphins’ offensive line in shambles for their meeting with the Bengals, Laremy Tunsil was given the start at left tackle. This would provide an opportunity to evaluate the rookie at the position he will eventually switch to fulltime.
Early in the game, the Bengals clearly aimed to take advantage of the rookie, who was making his first start at the position on short notice.
On the Dolphins’ huge touchdown to start the game, Geno Atkins rushes Laremy Tunsil, hoping to catch the tackle by surprise coming from an inside position.
The Dolphins leave Michael Johnson with the tight end, asking Tunsil to go head-to-head with the four-time Pro Bowler. Tunsil handles the assignment very well, showing good strength to hold back Atkins’ bull-rush. Tunsil is also able to redirect Atkins across the formation, clearing a lane for Tannehill to theoretically step up into.
Laremy Tunsil also showed good instincts as a blocker — a trait that separates good athletes from good offensive linemen.
Instead of being a tackle for loss, which would have been the case had Vontaze Burfict gone unblocked, this play ends up gaining yards for the Dolphins. This is thanks to Laremy Tunsil’s ability to pick up the defender coming behind him. Tunsil could have helped on Michael Johnson, or continued downfield, but instead he picks up Burfict and prevents the linebacker from shooting into the backfield and tackling Isaiah Pead for a loss.
Tunsil also showed ability to make plays as a pure pass protector against lengthy, athletic defensive ends. (Michael Johnson is 6’7”, 272 lbs. and has impressive movement skills).
Tunsil didn’t have to deal with outside rushers trying to dip against him while playing guard. However, in his first start at left tackle, he did a good job of not surrendering pressure on Tannehill when Johnson tried to lower himself and slip past Tunsil.
Tunsil also understood the importance of forcing defensive ends into overpursuing, leading them past the QB.
Michael Johnson ends up behind Ryan Tannehill, pushed back after attempting to fake-out Tunsil.
Tunsil’s best play came on a run off of the left side during which he single-handedly drove Michael Johnson out of the running lane, allowing Jay Ajayi to cut back for a big gain.
This combination of power, awareness and control made Tunsil one of college football’s most dominant players and, if harnessed consistently, will have a similar positive impact on his NFL success.
While Tunsil was largely impressive during this game, there were some hiccups.
On the play above, Tunsil really had no idea where he needed to be. I’ll chalk this one up to short notice for his first NFL start at the offensive line’s toughest position, but it isn’t an error that you can accept twice.
Tunsil also had a false start that went uncalled.
Later, a play on which Tannehill was brought down for a sack could have resulted in a holding call against Tunsil had he been asked to block for longer.
Laremy Tunsil’s positives from his first game at left tackle largely outweigh the negatives, confirming what most who watched him at Ole Miss already knew:
He’s going to be a really, really good left tackle for the Dolphins.
Health is Wealth:
When the Dolphins’ primary combination of offensive linemen took to the field together for the first time in 2016, the result was special. Jay Ajayi had his first of two-straight 200-yard rushing performances, and the group only allowed one sack through their games against the Steelers and Bills.
During these games, the unit’s chemistry and preparation has improved exponentially from Weeks 1-5. The Dolphins looked like an entirely different team, and they finally were able to capitalize on the dynamic combination of Laremy Tunsil and Branden Albert on the left side, with Mike Pouncey playing center.
While Jermon Bushrod and Ja’Wuan James have had their lapses even in the unit’s improved state, the team’s consistency up front was unbroken in Weeks 6 and 7 thanks to play of their left tackle, left guard and center.
Against the Steelers, an interesting blitz package allowed the Dolphins to demonstrate this chemistry along their now-healthy O-line.
On this play, the Steelers will be dropping one player back into coverage, either the inside linebacker or the outside rusher. This allows the defense to create uncertainty and optimally chaos for the offensive line. The Dolphins show that they are ready for the look, blocking it perfectly.
In a key play moment towards the end of the half against Pittsburgh, Laremy Tunsil showed his ability to clean up in areas of weakness from the first four weeks of the season.
Tunsil and Pouncey execute the switch perfectly on this play. Of note is the fact that Laremy Tunsil actually leads the switch; he takes initiative and engages Pouncey’s defender, which allows Pouncey to block the attempted stunt by the Steelers.
Against Pittsburgh, Tunsil’s showed off his ability to burst into the second-level and make plays that help spring runners free.
You’d like to see Tunsil engage Vince Williams for longer here, but the play does what it has to; Williams is delayed by just a second, allowing Jay Ajayi to get a step on him bouncing out. Tunsil’s burst is evident on the play, leaving traffic and making sure that he helps out with the linebacker coming down against the run.
Tunsil’s downfield blocking looked even better on another big play against the Steelers.
On the play above, Tunsil is actually able to power Lawrence Timmons away from Jay Ajayi, making sure that they would not be tangled up in the runner’s path. Being able to demonstrate that type of control and awareness helps set Tunsil above other rookies (and even veterans) at his position.
Laremy Tunsil’s speed coming across the formation also allows him to make key second-level blocks.
Tunsil (who I’d bet can beat Dion Sims in a foot-race) takes on the linebacker that would normally be there to fill the gap Ajayi is running in. This allows Ajayi to gain extra yards, making the difference between a 2-yard gain and a 7-yard gain (which Ajayi subsequently turns into an 11-yard gain thanks to his power).
One key trait that is emphasized more heavily in guards than in tackles is brute strength. Laremy Tunsil’s eventual move to left tackle is made even more exciting by the fact that he has showed guard-like pure power in his starts inside.
Kyle Williams is one of the NFL’s most underrated defensive linemen. His strength allows him to blow past blockers, often beating some of the league’s best players up front. However, he doesn’t get the best of Tunsil.
Laremy Tunsil is able to neutralize Kyle Williams on this snap. When it becomes evident that the call was a play-action, Williams attempts to power through Tunsil. No luck, sir. Tunsil stands his ground, preventing Williams from closing-in on towards Tannehill.
Tunsil was also able to slow down interior defensive linemen the week before against Pittsburgh, showing strength that will set him apart from many left tackles when he eventually makes the shift to the position.
(Aside: Yes, Facebook commenters, I know that NFL left tackles are plenty strong too. However, the ability to routinely neutralize a bull-rush from defensive linemen will help make Tunsil a diverse player at LT.)
This article has highlighted previous plays from games against Cincinnati and Seattle in which Tunsil made key mistakes on stunts or switches. One of the best parts of his performance as a rookie has been watching him learn from those mistakes and continue to correct them.
Against the Bills, Tunsil was able to perfectly execute one of the stunts he missed in his early starts for the Dolphins.
Tunsil is immediately aware of the defensive end bouncing to the inside, setting himself in position to make the block well-before any pressure can get to Ryan Tannehill.
Turnarounds are not uncommon in the NFL. However, a unit that allowed the most QB sacks in the league for a three-year period suddenly performing at a high level is.
The Miami Dolphins’ offensive line play has been a game-changer for the team; with a consistent running game, things open up for other facets of the offense. Sure, the line’s job is made easier by some savvy coaching decisions by Adam Gase and his staff, but at the end of the day it comes down to execution.
Right now, Laremy Tunsil and the Dolphins offensive line are executing at an impressive level.
Tunsil has been able to live up to the enormous expectations that followed him to Miami. He is blocking incredibly well at the second level and making plays with the power and poise of a player who has years of experience at guard. Not to mention he has done this while only playing in two games with a complete unit of healthy teammates.
The Dolphins’ current draft class would look very different if it weren’t for the Laremy Tunsil pick. With Xavien Howard battling injuries and Leonte Carroo buried on the depth chart, Tunsil and Jakeem Grant are the only rookies contributing in South Florida at the moment.
Not only would the team’s draft class have looked different, but its future could also have been vastly different.
The Miami Dolphins now have a cornerstone. Regardless of what happens at the quarterback position, or who the Dolphins’ coach is in a half-decade, chances are that Laremy Tunsil will be around. Much like Cameron Wake on the defensive side of the ball, Miami now has a player that they can build around on offense.
At the end of the day, all it took for the Dolphins to finally solve their offensive line woes was a gas mask and a little bit of weed.