Sunday, February 15, 2009

What to do at center?

I'd like to use this article, about the Wes Welker trade, as a jumpoff into a discussion about Samson Satele, and what direction the team should go in with regards to its center.

The article argues that Miami has been hosed on the trade that sent Wes Welker to New England in return for the 60th and 238th picks in the 2007 NFL Draft.

Before we even begin to consider who the Dolphins selected with those picks, receiving a second-round pick for a player who came to Miami for essentially nothing is a tremendous return on a negligible investment.

Of course, it's important to hang onto good young players as well. That's what forms the nucleus of championship teams.

And that's where the dilemma with Welker comes in. He's not and never will be a number one receiver. He needs a playmaker like Randy Moss line up opposite him in order for his true abilities to come to fruition. Just look at his performance in Miami compared to that in New England. He was quite good for Miami, but he didn't all of a sudden become an entirely different player when he got shipped off to New England. No, instead, the situation just fit his talents perfectly and his performance obviously ratcheted up a notch. It's easy to be sour about seeing him playing like that for the Patriots and realizing that the Phins could use a productive WR.

However, he never would have reached those heights had he stayed in Miami. He would have continued on being a pretty good player but nothing special because Miami lacks (and has lacked for some time) a big, elite WR. Without one of those, Welker's ceiling is significantly lower.

So getting a second-rounder for him when we could was a good trade.

Now, after only two seasons, people are already ready to throw out Samson Satele and move on to another option. But should the Dolphins do that?

Let's remember that he played pretty well in his rookie season, starting all 16 games and being voted to several all-rookie teams. He allowed only 2 sacks in 2007. Of course, he struggled in the running game, and that remains a big problem to this day. The team knew that that would be an issue coming out of college, since he played at Hawaii where they threw the ball on almost every play. But Satele is a very good pass blocker and he is one of the best when it comes to getting out in space and blocking downfield on screens.

But then this past year happened, and Satele's performance backslid mightily. He was still above average in pass protection, but the run-blocking got worse. After the season, a supposed answer for his struggles emerged when it was revealed that he played most of the season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. As we can all see with Justin Smiley, labrum issues with offensive lineman are very tricky and have the propensity to linger. So this obviously is not an issue to be brushed aside. But the fact that his struggles can be traced to injury instead of placing them solely on ability is better for his future.

Satele is only 24 years old, and we've seen that he can be a capable starting center for this team. What would it mean to give up on him now? It would require the investment of another high draft pick (possibly this year's first-rounder) or a big free agent contract. Is is worth that price at this time?

The two draft options that would seem to be able to start right away from day one are Alex Mack and Max Unger, both of whom would almost certainly require the use of Miami's first-round selection and the contract that goes along with that. Choosing to go this route really hampers Miami's ability to plug other holes on the roster because it is willingly choosing to create another hole at center by abandoning the development of Satele. If the coaching decides to continue his development for one more season, that's one less hole that screams for attention with those first day draft picks. Can this team afford to create more holes than it already has?

Centers aren't traditionally drafted very high from year to year anyways, so even if the team sticks with Satele this year and he doesn't improve, they will still have the opportunity to get another good one in the draft next season.

As for a free agent center, the top of the class includes Jason Brown, Jeff Saturday, Matt Birk, and Brad Meester. Right off the bat, I'm throwing out Saturday, Birk, and Meester since they are 33, 32, and 31 years old respectively. This needs to become a young team and especially a young offensive line which can grow together. All of those guys are on the downside of their careers and their play will only get worse each year. They are not worth the big bucks they will likely command in free agency.

So that leaves Brown as the only real option. Brown is still very young, at only 25 years old, and he's coming off his best season as a pro. He's similar to Satele in terms of pass protection, but he's a significantly better run-blocker. Still, I ask, would paying out a huge free agent contract (and he will get a huge one since he is the best center available) be worth it.

It all comes down to whether more of Satele's regression in 2008 can be linked to his injury and having to play beside a rotating cast of average at best players (Ikechuku Ndukwe, Andy Alleman, and Al Johnson) or to his actual ability. At this point, I'm not sold that he has already reached his ceiling. I think his rookie performance is more indicative of his future than last season, and I don't think it is worth replacing him this offseason if it is going to cost a first or second-round draft pick or a huge free agent deal.

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