Thursday, July 19, 2007

Training Camp Positional Preview: Offensive Line

I wrapped up my training camp positional previews of the defense yesterday, and today I begin going through the personnel on offense. Up first is the offensive line.

What to expect: In my opinion, the performance of the offensive line is going to be the biggest key in determining how well the Dolphins perform this season and whether the games that are played in December will have any playoff implications for the team. Of course, it's very hard to predict just what can be expected from this year's line since there will be a new starter at every position. Sure there are some returning faces, but they've all been shuffled around to a new spot. First and foremost, that points to there being a substantial adjustment period at the beginning of the season, during which the team may have to suffer through some potentially devastating poor performances by the line as a whole. It can't just be expected that an entirely rebuilt line will be playing at its top potential from week one. That leaves us with the question of when the line will begin to jell. Will they find their stride quickly by say week 5, or will the process last much longer into the season? Another valid question - will the line come together at all? Unfortunately, no one can really answer those questions at this point. The only thing that is certain is that the line must improve from last season if this offense is going to get anything accomplished. All aspects of the offense are predicated on and driven by the protection and blocking of the line. For a team like Miami whose undoing in the recent past has always been the result of an inept offense, there can be no critical improvements in overall success unless the O-line finds a way to improve.

Here's a closer look at the individual offensive linemen currently on the roster and what can be expected of them this coming season:

Vernon Carey
Carey is the best offensive lineman on the roster. Last year, he really emerged as a bright young player and proved to everyone that he was worthy of a first-round draft pick. Of course, that breakout happened while starting at right tackle. This year, he will be switching over to the most important position on the line - left tackle. That's also the most difficult and demanding position on the line. Early in his career, he saw time at LT but didn't show the confidence or physical skills necessary to excel there. This offseason he seems to have regained the confidence to take on the LT position. There he will be charged with protecting the blind side of Trent Green. I would have liked to see Carey remain at RT where he played so well, but the team simply doesn't have another adequate option to start at LT. Anthony Alabi was given a shot, but he went down with an injury. This means that if Carey is forced to miss time, the team could be in serious trouble. I think that Carey has the ability to play LT well, although I'm afraid that he isn't going to receive the support that he will need. By that I am referring to the left guard position, which is the weakest point on the line and perhaps the weakest position on the entire team. Whether he's playing next to a very average (at best) Chris Liwienski or a very green Drew Mormino, Carey truly is going to be alone on an island. That is going to make it very easy for teams to line up their top pass rushers over Carey and let them go wild on the QB. Training camp is going to be the first step in showing that Carey has the ability to go out on an island and take care of his assigned man in space - and he will have the perfect opponent to practice against: Jason Taylor.

Chris Liwienski
Right now, Liwienski is the starting left guard. That is something that I am definitely not comfortable with for the long term. At this point in his career, Liwienski is what he is. A versatile, experienced linemen who isn't great at any one thing. To me that sounds like a solid backup. Unfortunately, for Miami, he has to start. Drew Mormino is going to make a strong push in training camp to win the starting job, but I would shy away from having two rookies starting next to each on the line to open the season (Mormino at LG, Satele at C). It's going to be hard enough for Carey to hold down the left side of the line as it is. Liwienski has only started 15 games over the past two seasons, including only 6 starts for a poor Arizona line. During his limited playing time over the past two seasons, Liwienski was called for 8 penalties and gave up 5 sacks - not good numbers at all. I'm not counting on Liwienski to all of a sudden turn things around and become a good player, but he really only needs to prove that he can be an average player, at least until the coaches think Mormino is ready to start. In the best-case scenario, Liwienski plays well enough to hold onto the starting job all year, giving Mormino a valuable season to learn on the sidelines.

Samson Satele
Satele has experience at all the line positions, but he will be the team's starting center, which is a big undertaking for a rookie. He started 53 games for Hawaii, so he's definitely mature and durable. The strongest aspect of Satele's game is his pass-blocking. In Hawaii's offense that is what he was asked to do on a vast majority of plays. Because of this, his run-blocking is going to need a lot of work. He also struggles when blocking on the move, which may hamper his effectiveness at the second level. However, if he can concentrate on manning a single position, his good technique should go a long way in helping him to succeed. He has the aggressiveness and toughness that Miami's OL unit sorely needs more of.

Rex Hadnot
After manning the center position last season, Hadnot will be moving back to his natural position as the team's starting right guard. In 16 games last season, Hadnot played admirably, allowing 2.5 sacks and being flagged for 3 penalties. There's still room to improve on those numbers, however. He's really going to have to step up his run-blocking. According to Football Outsiders, Miami ranked 24th in the NFL last season when running between the guards. Ronnie Brown is a pounding back and it will be critical that he gets better blocking up the middle. Last season, Miami ran 50% of its running plays between the guards, and another 18% behind the right tackle (as opposed to 10% behind the left tackle). It's clear that Brown is going to be heading to the right side of the line a lot and his success will largely be determined by how well Hadnot plays.

L.J. Shelton
Shelton is moving over one spot from right guard to right tackle. After failing last season at left tackle, Shelton moved to right guard where he played well. This season at tackle he will have to deal with pass rushers coming around the end. At 6'6". 345 lbs., Shelton is a hulking man who is going to have to show that he can contend with speed rushers trying to beat him to the outside. He was also flagged for 5 penalties last season, meaning that his discipline needs work.

Anthony Alabi
Alabi played in six games last year, but he didn't start any so it's still uncertain how good he can be. He was given the opportunity in minicamps this offseason to win the starting LT job, but he went down with a knee injury that required surgery. Training camp will be the first time he returns to action since the injury. If he is healthy, he will make a decent backup to Carey at LT.

Joe Toledo
Toledo is bitten by the injury bug and he can't seem to shake it. It's sad, considering the potential he has. He should also be returning to action at training camps, so we'll all know a little more about where he stands then. If he's healthy, he deserves a spot on the team. He'll probably be relegated to a backup role this season, but if he can find a way to stay healthy (clearly no easy task) he could start in the future. It's not worth giving up on him yet.

Johnathan Ingram
Ingram seemingly came out of nowhere to take some snaps as the starting center during minicamps. Satele eventually overtook him, but there will be a small training camp battle between the two to see who starts. Satele will win the job and Ingram will make the team as his backup.

Mike Rosenthal
Rosenthal is a veteran with a good chunk of experience starting games (58 starts in 8 seasons). However, he's only started 17 games in the last 3 seasons combined. He commits a lot of penalties and he gives up a lot of sacks. The team may keep him because of his experience, but he is going to face a heated battle from the younger guys for a backup job.

Dan Stevenson
Stevenson will be heavily engaged in the camp battle for the backup right guard spot.

Drew Mormino
A four-year starter in college, Mormino can play both G and C. He's very tough and he plays with good leverage, but he's smaller than most (300 lbs.) and lacks great power. While he is good at the point of attack, he has problems getting to the second level effectively. Mormino has a great shot to start at left guard, but I think that transition will happen during the season. It would be wise to start out with the experienced Liwienski, allowing Mormino to get his feet under him instead of prematurely shoving him into a starting role. He'll make a good backup since he can play center in a pinch.

Julius Wilson
Some scouts had Wilson pegged as a mid-rounder in this year's draft, but Miami snagged him as an undrafted free agent. He has great size at 6'5", 327 lbs. He started for three years in college and at the pro level he could play either tackle position or even guard, although I think the Dolphins see him as a RT. He has all the physical tools necessary to succeed in the NFL, but he needs coaching for his technique. Wilson is a perfect practice squad player who could certainly see time on the roster during the season.

Tala Esera
Esera projects as a guard at the NFL-level. Having played with Satele on the Hawaiian team, Esera excels at pass protection. He's also smart and comes to the Dolphins with four years of starting experience in college. Like Satele, Esera needs a lot of work on his run-blocking. He'll fight for a backup job, but most likely wind up on the practice squad.

Marion Dukes
Camp body

Stephen Parker
Camp body


Here's my projected depth chart:

LT - Vernon Carey
LG - Chris Liwienski
C - Samson Satele
RG - Rex Hadnot
RT - L.J. Shelton

Anthony Alabi
Drew Mormino
Johnathan Ingram
Joe Toledo
Mike Rosenthal
Julius Wilson (practice squad)
Tala Esera (practice squad)

Training camp battle to watch: Chris Liwienski vs. Drew Mormino for the starting LG spot. LG is probably the weakest position on the entire team. This is going to be a battle of experience versus youth. The winner of this battle is important because whoever starts at LG is going to be starting between a new LT and a rookie C. It will really hurt the confidence and progression of Carey and Satele if they have to constantly worry about the play of the LG.

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