Heading into the 2015 season, the Miami Dolphins only need to fill one position on the offensive line. With Branden Albert set to come back, Mike Pouncey moving back to center, Ja’Wuan James ready to take back the right tackle position and Billy Turner penciled in as one of the starting guards, they will only need to find the other guard to play on the line.
The Dolphins can address this position in three ways – free agency, draft or keep Shelley Smith and make him a starter. Unfortunately, the free agent class is extremely weak and Smith isn’t very good. While the Dolphins can spend a mid-round pick on a guard, they have a lot of other needs and they may find themselves on the outside looking in if they don’t pounce quickly enough on day two or three.
Using grades from Pro Football Focus (PFF) and information from other sources, I compiled a list of free agent guards who I believe would be an upgrade over Smith. If you’re asking why I’m not mentioning Daryn Colledge, it’s because that he was very underwhelming during the 2014 season. In addition, he will be 33 when the season begins and is at best, a backup on the line. Besides all of that, he has been considering retirement since the season ended against the New York Jets.
If the Dolphins bring back Colledge to start on the line, it’s going to be a long season for Ryan Tannehill and others in the backfield when plays are run towards his side of the line.
I used three grades from PFF – Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE), overall pass blocking grade and overall run blocking grade. Pass Blocking Efficiency is a weighted formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many snaps and offensive guard stays in pass protection. The other two are self-explanatory.
To get an idea of what our baseline is, let’s take a quick look at Smith from the 2014 season. His PBE was 96.2%, his overall pass blocking grade was -3.2 and his overall run blocking grade was -6.9. He’ll be 28-years-old when the season begins. Smith didn’t play in a ton of snaps last season – 367 to be exact. This is because of injuries and the fact that Colledge received more snaps than him as the season went on. Although he was in a rotation with him, he got the minority of snaps when that happened. We can look back on 2013 but he only played in 371 snaps because of the same reasons when he was with the St. Louis Rams. With all this in mind, it’s easy to see why it’s tough to rely on Smith and he should only be considered a back-up on the offensive line.
Now that we have that information, let’s look at the four guards in free agency I would feel comfortable. My rankings for them, in order are Orlando Franklin, Mike Iupati, Clint Boling and Rob Sims. Please note that this is an extremely weak free agent class so there aren't a ton of good options out there that will provide long-term stability.
Orlando Franklin will be 27-years-old when the 2015 season begins. He was drafted in the second round out of Miami of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos and has been with the team ever since. After playing right tackle for three seasons, he was moved to guard in 2014 and quickly became one of the top guards in the league. This is because he struggled being by himself in pass protection, although he was still a good player when it came to run blocking.
In his new position at left guard, he had a PBE grade of 98.6%. His pass-blocking grade is 9.0 and his run blocking grade is 9.8. As you can see, he is clearly the best offensive guard that will hit the free agent market in just under a month. However, he will likely command a sizeable contract on the market and the guard position is one of the easiest to find in the draft. Will the Dolphins want to spend big money on another offensive lineman? Remember that they just signed Albert to a mega-deal last offseason and are set to extend Pouncey. While Franklin would instantly solidify the line and give the team one of the best offensive lines throughout the league, he might be just too pricey for them to sign.
Mike Iupati will be 28-years-old when the 2015 season begins. He was drafted out of Idaho in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers and has been with the team ever since. Iupati has been a force since day one and has made the Pro Bowl the last three seasons. According to the Sacramento Bee, it is not expected that the 49ers will attempt to re-sign him, which means he will hit the market and will likely get the biggest contract of all the free agent guards.
This is because he is relatively injury free, only missing five games in the past five seasons. Looking deeper, he hasn't missed a game in the past three seasons. In addition to that, his run blocking grade is off the charts with a whopping 18.5. However, he can be a liability in the passing game as his PBE is 95.1% and his overall pass blocking grade is -7.5.
There is no doubt that Iupati is a good player but only for certain teams. Those teams are the ones who rely heavily on the run. The Dolphins are not one of those teams so I would expect them not to pursue him. However, he's still one of the best options on the market - just not the best overall option.
Clint Boling will be 26-years-old when the 2015 season begins. He was drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals and has been with the team ever since. His injury status has been up and down in his four years in the NFL. While he only missed four regular season games in 2013, it was because he was placed on injured reserve because of his knee. With that said, he didn't miss a single game in 2014.
Boling has a PBE of 96.8% with an overall pass blocking grade of -4.5 and an overall run blocking grade of 7.9. As you can see, his strength is the run game with mixed results in the passing game. Boling and the Bengals are trying to work out a deal for him to stay but if he hits the market, the Dolphins may be interested in pursuing his services.
Rob Sims will be 31-years-old when the 2015 season begins. He was drafted out of Ohio State in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks. In 2010, he signed with the Detroit Lions and has been with the team ever since. Sims hasn't missed a game since 2009 so his durability is still there. The only question is his age and whether or not he can continue to hold up for a few more seasons. Based on his steady, but slow, downward spiral over the past several years, it appears his best days are behind him.
In 2014, Sims had a PBE of 96.1. His overall pass blocking grade was 8.0 and his overall run blocking grade was -2.6. Of course, he isn't perfect when it comes to the running game but you'll be hard pressed to find many players in the NFL these days that are perfect in all phases of their specific position. As of now, the Lions are not expected to re-sign Sims so he will hit the open market. If the Dolphins want a stop-gap for a year or two while they wait to groom a draft pick, Sims could be their guy as he likely won't command a ton of money on the market due to his age.
While there are other players out there such as James Carpenter, Paul Fanaika, Vladimir Ducasse and more, I felt that they are much too weak in at least one phase of the game. Their strength in the other phase either wasn’t strong enough or wasn’t enough for me to offset their weakness.
As far as my rankings go, it’s important to note that I think there’s a big drop-off between Franklin and Iupati, despite them being ranked number one and two, respectively. Sims is a stop-gap option and should only be looked at if all other options, including the draft, have been exhausted.
It’s no secret the Dolphins will need to be creative when working with their salary cap this off-season. However, we all know that games are won in the trenches. Therefore, I would love to see the Dolphins go all-in on Franklin and solidify the offensive line once and for all. If they don’t sign Franklin, I would hope they would then look to the draft but wouldn’t be upset if they signed one of the other guys mentioned above.
This column was written by Matthew Cannata. Follow him on Twitter: @PhinManiacs