Now that we've analyzed the surprisingly small tight end spot, we're going to do a complete turn-around and look at the biggest position on the roster, the offensive line. Oh the tales that can be told about this unit, and very few of them are actually good ones. The Miami Dolphins offensive line has been a struggling lot even before Ryan Tannehill came in and became the starting quarterback, which is a serious problem no matter what the circumstances.
But are there bright spots on this unit? I believe so, things aren't all bad when it comes to this unit. Let's analyze the players currently on here and see if we can't spot some of them. This column will focus on the tackles.
Ok so this one's a gimme, I'll admit that. There's no doubt in my mind that the best player on this unit is left tackle Branden Albert, who came in and immediately brought stability to a position that had been previously held by a constantly-injured Jake Long, a hot-button topic in Jonathan Martin, and a possibly out of shape and definitely old Bryant McKinnie.
So with that in mind, I find no need to dwell on this for too long. Albert will be on this team and he should be on this team. I find it absolutely asinine that certain individuals are discussing already moving on from Albert because he's too expensive and we have Ja'Wuan James (whom we will get to momentarily). There are plenty of statistics that speak to exactly how much of an impact Branden Albert had on the team while he was playing, and even if we could consider cutting him, doing so now would create over $15,000,000 in dead money and only $5,000,000 in cap space. Not very practical.
Let's get into those numbers I spoke of shall we? Thanks to some solid finds by Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) of the Bleacher Report, we have the differences in Pass Blocking Efficiency according to Pro Football Focus from while Albert was playing, and after he went down for the year. The numbers are quite telling.
This is a chart that shows the team's pass-blocking efficiency before Albert went down for the year. As you can see, the pass-blocking efficiency for the team was 12th in the league at the time with an 81.7 rating, which is a major upgrade when comparing it to last year's numbers.
Albert's individual ratings are also quite impressive, as he managed to put together an overall blocking rating of 17.5, with 12.6 of that coming from pass-blocking alone. His run-blocking was actually pretty solid as well, as he put up a rating of 6.3. His only negatives came in screen blocking with -0.5 and penalties with -0.9. All things considered, that's forgivable.
If you ask me, that's a thing of beauty. Albert's contributions were immediately recognizable and even the most casual of fans could see the improvement in the whole line without much analysis at all. Finally, quarterback Ryan Tannehill had someone he could really trust to defend his blindside, and could focus on growing into a new offense that he was still trying to figure out.
Unfortunately, it was not meant to be, and Albert went down when the team needed him most, against a Detroit Lions team that had one of the greatest defensive lines in the NFL, anchored by arguably the best defensive tackle in football, Ndamukong Suh.
In the games that came after Albert's disappearance, the pass-blocking efficiency plummeted all the way down to the point where the team was the absolute worst in the league in that category. Ja'Wuan James had been forced to go to left tackle, and Dallas Thomas took over at right tackle. Need I say more?
The point that's being made here is quite simple. Despite Albert's $10,725,000 cap hit for the upcoming season, his production is worth every penny. His absence was felt not just on the field, but off the field as well, as the offensive line was once again lacking in much-needed leadership that Mike Pouncey couldn't provide on his own. As I've stated several times, true leadership and mentorship are not easy to find. Guys like Daryn Colledge may be veterans, but they can't offer that veteran leadership that Albert does, and he can't teach the way Albert does either.
I am firmly convinced that Albert's tutelage played a big part in rookie Ja'Wuan James being as NFL ready as he was once the season came around, and I get the feeling that if Albert hadn't pushed James as hard as he did, James's performance at left tackle would have been even more abysmal than it was. Albert is worth the money, and he needs to stay for as long as he can keep producing at the top of the league level that he's produced at in the past.
This young man out of Tennessee was a surprise pick to a large majority of Dolphins fans, and he was one of the few first round picks that did not get an opportunity to up to the stage and take a picture with his new uniform and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, why is that? He wasn't invited, that's why. No one expected James to go in the first round, and why would they? James was a small school right tackle that very few media pundits ever saw coming.
But apparently, General Manager Dennis Hickey knew talent when he saw it, as James came in from day one and immediately solidified the right tackle position in a way that hadn't been done since Vernon Carey, who was the Dolphins first-round pick of 2004. The names that came after Carey? Marc Colombo, Jonathan Martin, Tyson Clabo, and a little bit of Nate Garner thrown in for good measure.
The names alone say it all. Colombo was a failed former Cowboys experiment, Jonathan Martin was...Jonathan Martin, and Tyson Clabo was a revolving door who eventually got benched and promptly placed back into the starting lineup when Martin went AWOL during the bullying scandal that sent Richie Incognito out of Miami.
So while the drafting of James led to a certain amount of skepticism, we were all pleasantly surprised to find that James was able to hold his own once the games got started, managing to hold back some of the best pass-rushers in the NFL, like Mario Williams.
The numbers for James aren't nearly as complimentary as I am, Pro Football Focus has his overall blocking rating during his time at right tackle at -5.4, and at times it seemed that his run blocking was actually better than his pass blocking, which makes no sense since James is primarily a pass blocking right tackle.
I would submit however that these numbers are likely skewed due to the overall failure of the offensive line over the course of the season. Albert's numbers may be great, but he is still only one man. When your teammates on the interior consist of the likes of Daryn Colledge, Samson Satele and Dallas Thomas/Shelley Smith, the line is bound to have its struggles.
It got worse when James moved to left tackle after Albert's injury. By this time, Mike Pouncey had returned to the lineup, but he was now playing at right guard, which he hadn't played since his college days. Pouncey struggled to succeed at his old college position, and the interior of the line remained average at best, putting more pressure on James to succeed at a position that he had never played in his entire career.
There's no doubt in my mind that under Albert's tutelage, James will continues to develop into possibly one of the NFL's best right tackles, and he may even learn to become a great left tackle in time. He needs to stay, he will stay, and if the team is willing to pay him when the time comes, James will be an excellent investment for the future.
He's not a star, he's not someone who should necessarily be starting for someone's team, but he does have what it takes to be a reliable backup. Why the team insisted on keeping Dallas Thomas above him on the depth chart is something I will likely never understand.
This past season, Fox only counted for $635,000 against the cap, so the money shouldn't be a huge issue even if he gets brought back. The problem is how reliable is he? A former Miami Hurricane and fourth round draft pick of the Detroit Lions in 2010, Fox was being sold to the public as someone who could be trained by the starting left tackle for the Lions at the time, Jeff Backus. Unfortunately, injuries kept Fox down throughout his tenure as a Detroit Lion, and they eventually moved on because he simply couldn't stay healthy.
Fox latched on with the Dolphins on a one-year deal, and several people felt that Fox could potentially compete for the starting right tackle spot on the team. The issue with Fox was never a lack of talent, it was his health, and for the most part, Fox was relatively healthy through the year for the Dolphins. It might be because he didn't get to see the field that often, an unjustified action in my opinion, but that's water under the bridge now.
When you think of veteran backups, you automatically think he's already too old to be brought back, but surprisingly, Fox is only just now entering his prime years, as he's currently 26 years old (he'll be 27 on May 2nd), and his value as a quality backup should not be overlooked. He can play both tackle positions if the situation calls for it, and while he'll never be a star, he is more than capable of holding down the fort until a team's starter comes back to health. If I'm the Dolphins, I find a way to retain him, and the reason for this is coming next.
While listed on the Dolphins roster as a guard, Garner is technically the Dolphins swiss-army knife on the offensive line, at least as far as backups are concerned. He's been quite serviceable ever since the Dolphins picked him up. Garner was a former seventh round draft pick of the New York Jets back in 2008, but he never got the chance to play for them, and the Dolphins scooped him up soon after.
Garner is valuable because of his versatility, having the ability to play every position on the offensive line, center included, and unlike Dallas Thomas, he can actually do well enough to warrant getting to stay there until the starter returns. As a starter, Garner is underwhelming to say the least, but as a backup, solid.
Unfortunately, Garner seems to be made of glass these days, as injuries of all kinds have kept him from making a significant impact for too long. He only played in five games sparingly this past season, with his newest issue being migraines. He's had shoulder injuries, knee injuries, ribs, neck, you name it, but he's always managed to fight through it. Migraines on the other hand are scary, because that could be a sign of something much worse.
Garner just turned 30 and he's guaranteed $1,625,000, and he counts as a $1,816,668 against the cap this upcoming season. There's speculation out that he may retire due to his migraines, and if he does so, he'll count for $166,668 in dead money, so he'd be a little over a million dollars in cap savings. If he's healthy, Garner is a valuable asset...but for the sake of the team, not to mention Garner himself, I think it'd be best for the Dolphins to move on, and possibly for Garner to retire if there's a worse underlying reason for his migraines.
The next column will focus on the offensive guards on the team as well as the centers. The tackle position is pretty good assuming we keep Fox on the team, but the loss of Garner would be cause to look around the league for a little more depth, because you never want to have a bad lineman on the team going out and trying to be good...I'll get more into that next time.
This column was written by Luis Sung. Follow him on Twitter: @FLSportDebater