The offensive line has been a concern for the Miami Dolphins for several years now, since 2012 at the very least when quarterback Ryan Tannehill was a young and raw rookie who was getting hit on almost every play due to a severe lack of protection upfront.
In response to this lack of protection, Miami has invested a lot of resources into attempting to fix the offensive line, and most recently, featured four 1st round draft picks in Branden Albert, Laremy Tunsil, Mike Pouncey and Ja'Wuan James, with the only odd man out being ten-year veteran Jermon Bushrod who started at right guard.
But despite all the efforts to improve the line, even going as far as to release offensive linemen Dallas Thomas, Billy Turner and Jamil Douglas after Week 5, the line continued to struggle, ranking 30th in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, and it was clear that they were unable to get any push in the run game and their pass protection fell apart late in the season.
So clearly, there needs to be a lot of emphasis placed on improving the offensive line before the 2017 season. Ryan Tannehill got injured because of its failure, and the running game sputtered out and made it very difficult for Jay Ajayi to get any holes to run through.
That is a cause for concern.
However, what should not be dismissed is how much better - and more effective - the offensive line was when all five of their starters were on the field together, specifically Mike Pouncey, who was able to get push on the line and block at the second level unlike backups Anthony Steen and Kraig Urbik.
That alone went a long way in Jay Ajayi having his breakout season, and almost as soon as the line suffered further injury, it all disappeared. Health is the key issue on the offensive line, not talent, and GM Chris Grier recognizes that and is searching for stability.
“I think it’s important. Look at Atlanta. Everyone is talking about how the Falcons … I think they didn’t have an offensive lineman miss a game all year." Grier said. "They stayed together all year. It just shows you that if you can keep those five guys on the field together, especially our offensive line – I forget the record when they’re all on the field together – they’re like 8-1 or something, 9-1 or something like that over the last couple years.
"Again for us, it’s important that we can keep those guys together. But at the end of the day, we know that they may not all be here and we just have to make sure that whoever the next five guys are next season that we do our best to keep them on the field together.”
There are questions as to what Miami should do with certain players, particularly left tackle Branden Albert, whose clock is ticking with the Dolphins and he'll count for $10,600,000 against the cap in 2017. Combined with the injuries he's dealt with the past few seasons, an argument could be made that Miami should part ways with the veteran and free up the $7.2 million in cap space releasing him would make.
In turn, that would shift Laremy Tunsil back outside to left tackle where he was a star at Ole Miss, and force the Dolphins to search for a reliable left guard in Tunsil's absence.
But there is a larger issue than the offensive line, despite its grave importance. The truth of the matter is, when the offensive line is healthy - which it will be by the start of the 2017 season - it is a good unit and there's proof of that very fact in the way Jay Ajayi was able to run with all five players blocking for him, making holes so he could break free and make plays.
Point is, the offensive line works when all five players are healthy, and that has been the core issue for quite some time. Players have gotten hurt, and their backups have been unable to replicate the production of those who are ahead of them. Pouncey and Albert, the anchors of the line, have both missed games, but removing them isn't the answer to success, not yet anyway.
While it is true that Mike Pouncey hasn't played a full season since 2012, this is only the first year in which Pouncey has missed more than four games, so it would be extremely paranoid to assume that Pouncey is now washed up.
You didn't see the Pittsburgh Steelers bail out on Maurkice Pouncey after he played only one game in 2013.
To suggest that the Dolphins shouldn't further invest in the offensive line would be foolish, it's always a good idea to further reinforce the trenches just in case something does happen to someone in the starting lineup.
However, let us also not forget what it was that truly held the Dolphins back this season: their beyond mediocre defense, which ranked 30th against the run and 15th against the pass, although they often looked much worse than that. Do not forget that the need on defense far outweighs that of the offensive line.
Miami needs offensive line help, of course, and they should explore every possibility to improve there. But their needs at this current time lay on the defensive line and the linebacker corps, for if those don't get a major talent infusion, and soon, the bleeding will continue into 2017, and that is just unacceptable.
This story was written by Luis Sung. Follow him on Twitter: @LuisDSung
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