Thursday, July 24, 2008

Training Camp Positional Preview 2008: Offensive Line

Concluding my look at the offensive side of the ball, today's training camp positional preview will focus on the offensive linemen. (I will be referencing some advanced metrics like Adjusted Line Yards. For an explanation of these stats go to Football Outsiders.)

What to expect: Miami's offensive line was, for the most part, a pleasant surprise last year. The group's performance tailed off as the year wore on, but I think that had something to do with the younger players not being quite prepared to last an entire NFL season. That's to be expected. The line was a huge part of Ronnie Brown's success last season, and while they didn't play as well after he went down with an injury, some of that drop-off can be attributed to the backup running backs. Miami is returning only two of its starters from last season, but they've brought in two highly touted players in LT Jake Long and G Justin Smiley. One guard spot remains open for the taking. Miami will start one of the most promising young lines in the league, but I'm scared to death of the lack of depth behind the starters. If any starter goes down, the cupboard is quite bare and the overall performance could fall off sharply should a starter be lost to injury.

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
Until Jake Long proves himself in games, Carey is still the best player on this line. He's moving back over to his more natural right tackle position this season after playing well at left tackle in 2007. As a RT, Carey can play at a Pro Bowl level. His mauling run-blocking abilities are tailor-made for paving huge holes on the right side of the line. Last season, Miami averaged 5.05 Adjusted Line Yards when running behind the LT, good for fourth best in the league. In 2006 (when Carey was playing RT), Miami averaged 4.76 ALY when running behind the RT, good for second best in the league. Suffice to say, Carey is one of the league's most dominant run blockers at the tackle position. He has some room for improvement in his pass blocking. He gave up 3 sacks last season, which actually isn't too bad considering it was his first season as a left tackle. He won't face the same caliber pass rusher on the right side, so hopefully he will limit that sack total even more. Carey also was called for an uncharacteristic 7 false starts last year, after only being flagged 3 times in his previous 3 seasons combined for false starts. I'll chalk that up to his position switch and assume that he will regain his superb discipline that he's shown at RT. The icing on the cake is that Carey is only 27 years old, and he very well may be the oldest player among the starting linemen. That means that these young guys could be together for a long time, and that kind of stability is exactly what Miami has needed on the line for a long time.

Jake Long
Jake Long is going to be thrown into the fire from day one, as the team's starting left tackle - and that's exactly where he should be. His mental and physical toughness is top-notch and he has the strong work habits that will be necessary as he improves on his technique. I have no questions about Long's run-blocking abilities. He could easily be as dominant as Carey, and he's a better run-blocker than Joe Thomas was coming out of college. On the other hand, he's not as good a pass-blocker as Thomas is and was. He's going to need to refine his foot movement and improve his susceptibility to secondary pass rush techniques, otherwise he will get beat for some sacks. The coaching staff will surely give him some help as he begins in the form of an extra tight end on his side or a chipping running back. While he may struggle a bit with the pass rush this season, I don't have much doubt that in time he will become a very good left tackle.

Samson Satele
When citing the Wes Welker trade, most people disregard the fact that Miami used that second-round pick to get Satele. In just his rookie season, Satele has proven that that trade worked out very well for Miami. In Satele, the Dolphins got a stud center who will be a key part of this line well into the future. He was unquestionably the best rookie on the team last year, and was probably the best offensive player after Ronnie Brown went down. One of Satele's specialties is blocking in the open field on screens. Much of Ronnie Brown's success in the passing game last season was due to Satele's excellent blocking. Also, he was only flagged for two penalties and let up only two sacks - tremendously low numbers considering he started all 16 games at center as a rookie. Coming from a pass-dominated offense in Hawaii, Satele was raw as a run-blocker, and he could still use some improvement in that area. The team averaged a mere 3.86 ALY when running up the middle last season, which was ranked 24th in the league.

Justin Smiley
Smiley was Miami's biggest free agent acquisition this offseason, and he will fill one of the starting guard spots. As for right now, it appears as if he will start at left guard in order to give Jake Long some added insurance. Smiley missed half the season last year with a shoulder surgery, so he will have to prove that he is suffering no ill effects from that injury. In 2006, when he started all 16 games in San Francisco, the team averaged 4.40 ALY when running up the middle, 15th best in the league. Smiley may not dominate in any one area, but he's above average across the board. Most importantly, he provides some leadership opposite Carey and he will have an important job helping out Jake Long's development.

Shawn Murphy
The Dolphins traded up to get Murphy in this year's draft, so you know Parcells and Ireland love him. He will be challenging for the starting right guard spot. Because he went on a Mormon mission, he's older than most rookies, and that added maturity could go a long way in his battle to start. He's only played guard for one season, and that was on the left side. Overall, he's only played two seasons as an offensive lineman, so he will face a stiff challenge of developing quickly. He has great size and is a strong run-blocker.

Donald Thomas
Thomas has even less experience than Murphy, as he was a college walk-on at Connecticut and started only 14 games there. Obviously, he's very raw at this point, and he needs a lot of work on his technique, but he has the physical build and tools to become a valuable player down the road. He will be in the mix for the starting RG spot, but he's probably best suited as a backup this season as he develops in practices.

Trey Darilek
Darilek has not played in an NFL game since 2005. He was with Dallas for training camp last season but got cut before the season began. Parcells and Ireland must have seen something they liked during that brief time because they brought him to Miami and he has been challenging for the starting RG spot. He has the versatility to play both guard and center which will help him in his quest to make the team.

Steve McKinney
McKinney tore his ACL in the third game last year and missed the rest of the season. He's still rehabbing, and he did not take part in minicamps or OTAs. He's 32 years old, and injuries and slipping play have probably erased any chance of him starting, unless someone suffers an injury. To even make the team, he's going to have to prove that he's fully recovered. If he can, his leadership and versatility to play both center and guard will make him a serviceable backup.

Julius Wilson
Miami has very little for backup tackles, but Wilson is probably the best of what is available. He spent three quarters of last season on the practice squad before being called up to the 53-man roster. He has tremendous size and although his technique still needs plenty of work, I think his development last season (coupled with a lack of better options) should lead to him finding a spot on the roster as the top backup tackle.

Dan Gore
This undrafted college free agent is a converted defensive tackle. He now plays offensive tackle. He will fight for a backup position, but may have to settle for the practice squad.

Daren Heerspink
Heerspink is in the same situation as Gore. There's an opportunity to make the team as a backup tackle, but the practice squad is probably more likely - if he makes the team at all.

Ikechuku Ndukwe
Ndukwe has bounced around the practice squads and 53-man rosters of three teams in his short career, but he is another guy who can play both guard and center and he also has experience on special teams.

Mike Byrne
Byrne was an undrafted college free agent from Delaware, where he started for three seasons and played all across the line. He's likely a center at the NFL level, but he could play tackle or guard if needed.

Matt Spanos
Like Byrne, Spanos can play every position along the line. He'll likely never be a starter, but he could become a valuable backup in time.


Here's my predicted depth chart:
LT - Jake Long
LG - Justin Smiley
C - Samson Satele
RG - Shawn Murphy
RT - Vernon Carey

1. Trey Darilek
2. Steve McKinney
3. Julius Wilson
4. Ikechuku Ndukwe
5. Donald Thomas
6. Dan Gore (practice squad)
7. Mike Byrne (practice squad)

Training camp battle to watch: Murphy vs. Darilek for the starting RG spot.

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