Investing Up Front: Why the Dolphins’ Offseason Priority Should Be the Offensive Line
Upon initial review, most would believe that the Dolphins’ offensive line was a huge reason for the team’s success in 2016. In a playoff hunt that would see three 200-yard games from Jay Ajayi and improved performance from Ryan Tannehill, it would be logical to expect that the group up front would take a huge step forward.
While it’s true that Miami’s pass protection and run blocking improved greatly from the unit that attempted to pave the way in 2015, the Dolphins are far from where they need to be.
Right now the Dolphins are reaching a crossroads. Throughout league history, first-year head coaches have guided their teams to improvement, but then have tapered off the following year. Adam Gase & Co. will need to navigate the offseason in a way that not only acquires talent, but also does so with a specific direction in mind.
A solid case study in team decline after a strong rookie performance from a head coach is the New York Jets. In 2015, the Jets posted a 10-6 record and missed the playoffs by one game. Most thought the team would be primed to improve again the next year. However, they spent the offseason locked in negotiations with a QB that it was clear they needed to move on from (they weren’t going to have sustainable success without an upgrade at the position), wasting the critical offseason they needed to use to push themselves over the edge.
It’s time for the Dolphins to pick a direction. While improving defensively should clearly be a priority this offseason, it shouldn’t be the priority.
When were the Dolphins at their best in 2016? When Jay Ajayi was running the ball effectively, setting up Ryan Tannehill to use his ability to make special throws on the run out of play action.
Many speak of a “unicorn lineup” for the team, which consists of their five starting offensive linemen, who seem to never all be available at the same time. They are always at their best with Branden Albert, Laremy Tunsil, Mike Pouncey, Jermon Bushrod, and Ja’Wuan James on the field together. In those games, the Dolphins were an entirely different team than they were with backups paving the way up front.
When formulating their plan for the coming months, the team should give priority to growing a top-tier offensive line, even if it marginalizes some needs on the defensive side of the ball. It might not be the sexy pick for how to improve the Dolphins’ chances of consistency in 2017, but it is a proven way to lead a team to success.
In 2016, only two teams with offensive lines ranked in Pro Football Focus’ bottom 10 made the postseason: The Seahawks (R: 32) and the Dolphins (R: 30). However, six of the top 10 offensive lines were blocking into January last season; The Cowboys, Steelers, Raiders, Packers, Falcons, and Patriots were all within the 10 best units. The Eagles were the only team with one of PFF’s top 10 OLs that was eliminated early from the playoff race, while other high-ranking units like those in Tennessee, Washington, and Baltimore were in the race within the season’s final month.
With Branden Albert under contract for one more season and Mike Pouncey crippled by hip injuries, the time has come for the Dolphins to address their unit up front and find players to pair with Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James moving forward.
Many fans have made their voices heard in the desire for a big-name defensive addition to help aid the team’s oft-maligned unit. While it wouldn’t be a mistake to add a linebacker, corner, or pass rusher if the right potential addition comes around, there’s a much higher chance of success if the team elects to go with an offensive lineman.
The 2017 draft is loaded with defensive talent, and the Dolphins should be in prime position to improve their pass rush or linebacker corps in the first round. However, there isn’t a wealth of top-tier talent along the OL entering this class; if the Dolphins want to bring in new blockers, it’ll have to be in free agency.
In 2013, the Dolphins signed Branden Albert, marking one of their better free agency moves in recent years. There is also a larger trend in NFL history that supports signing offensive linemen to large contracts, electing to overpay for players up front rather than outside of the numbers.
If I were to set the goal for Miami’s offseason acquisitions on the offensive line, the breakdown would be as follows: one top-tier free agent, two veteran depth free agents, and at least one rookie.
The Dolphins need a sure-fire starter at guard to upgrade their unit next season. Jermon Bushrod could return as a reliable backup, but the team would be best served by using him as an insurance policy. If they can bring in a valuable option at guard, the group should be set for starters.
If Anthony Steen can grow in his second season with the Dolphins, he could remain a solid backup option at center. However, adding a young interior lineman in the draft wouldn’t be a bad idea. A backup policy for Mike Pouncey is an absolute necessity at this point.
The remaining issue, if a new starting RG can be found in addition to reserves at center, is what the team should do about the left side of the line. Laremy Tunsil was forced to play multiple games with a severe shoulder injury, and Branden Albert clearly should have sat out for more time after having wrist surgery. At least one additional player should be brought in as a backup left-side offensive lineman. The problem is that it isn’t easy to come across players who can excel while swinging between the two positions. This could create the need for an additional backup tackle and guard.
At this point, most of you are probably wondering where this leaves the defense. Miami’s biggest problem in 2016, other than injuries, was an inconsistent unit that got burned by top-level competition.
It’s currently too early to tell what the field of free agents will look like this offseason. There is certainly a category of linebackers that would be worth overpaying for, such as Dont’a Hightower, but there’s also a class that would be wise to steer away from. If Hightower opts out of free agency, players like Perry Riley, Zach Brown, and Gerald Hodges will be primed to cash in. Even if the Dolphins want to improve at the position, they would be wise to opt for a younger player in the draft rather than spending big for Riley, Brown, Hodges, or another player who doesn’t quite crack the elite category.
The Dolphins will likely decide to hold onto Byron Maxwell, pairing him with a now-healthy Xavien Howard. The two demonstrated enough ability in 2016 to show that they’re a serviceable tandem with better safety play in the back end. Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus both returning would be a huge boost for the secondary.
There’s no concrete answer for which need the Dolphins should have atop their offseason to-do list. Acquiring players to improve the pass rush, secondary, linebacker corps, or offensive line could all be huge boosts in 2017. However, the track record of success in free agency with top-tier O-linemen shows that the safest option for a long-term investment would be pairing dynamic players up front with Laremy Tunsil to supplement Miami’s litany of injury-prone blockers.
The complexion of 2017’s draft class should allow the Dolphins to pick up a linebacker and defensive end in the first two rounds, finding improvements thanks to a deep pool of talent. Defensive growth would be welcomed heading into next season but, at the end of the day, there are two people that the Dolphins will be banking on for growth next season:
Jay Ajayi and Ryan Tannehill.
With Adam Gase at the helm, continued growth for Miami’s already-dynamic offense will be their key to making it into the postseason, and having a longer stay if they can get back to January. If the Dolphins want to improve their most promising unit, they’ll have to use this offseason to help set a foundation along the offensive line that can help push the group to a second-consecutive playoff berth.