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  Position Analysis: Offensive Line
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

Click Here To Contact Chris

 

On a periodic basis between now and the 2005 NFL Draft, I will take an in-depth look at the Dolphins. This week: Offensive Line

 

Current State: Perhaps no other unit on a football team has more to do with winning and losing than the offensive line. Cohesiveness, talent, toughness, attitude, and real intelligence are the key ingredients for an excellent offensive line.

 

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The 2004 Miami Dolphins did not have an excellent offensive line. As a result of General Manager Rick Spielman’s questionable decisions, most notably the failure to re-sign RT Todd Wade, the Dolphins were committed to the 2004 season with five new starters across the line.

 

The hope was that they’d come together quickly. And while they worked hard, this unit never really developed into an effective force. In fact, the Dolphin o-line was widely regarded as one of the worst in the league. Their inability to run the ball or protect the quarterback was a huge factor in the team’s 4-12 record.

 

In Damion McIntosh’s case, it was easy to see that the man was not 100% healthy at any point during the season and, not surprisingly, his play suffered for it. McIntosh was a free agent pickup from the San Diego Chargers, bringing size and decent athleticism to the left tackle position. When the Dolphins signed him he was already injured and, consequently, started the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. When he was finally activated, he struggled with everything. However, he was the best they had. It will be interesting to see what a complete offseason of rest and conditioning will do for McIntosh; when healthy, he is strong in the run game and solid in pass protection. He will have a good chance to keep his job in 2005.

 

Another free agent pick-up, Jeno James (Carolina) was touted as a major upgrade at left guard over the released Jamie Nails. And while no one would debate this was the case over the 2003 work that a hobbled Nails turned in, it probably wasn’t the case in terms of the healthy and dominant effort Nails gave in 2002. James’s strength is his run blocking; he is probably the Dolphins’ best player in this regard. After a shaky start, his pass blocking improved as the season rolled on. Physically, James has all the tools needed to dominate, including a nasty attitude. He will likely return as the team’s starting left guard and is the type of player who figures to benefit from the tutelage of new line coach Hudson Houck.

 

Starting center Seth McKinney is another player who should get better with help from Houck. McKinney, who replaced long time fixture Tim Ruddy, struggled from the outset. Some say that McKinney was having a hard time getting the line calls made correctly and in a timely manner. Physically, there is no question that McKinney was ready to play; he has good size and strength and is mobile enough to get into the second level of defenders. McKinney’s strength is in the run game though he is decent in pass protection. He does get bull-rushed back into the pocket on occasion. McKinney must get better if he expects to remain a Dolphin.

 

Taylor Whitley initially won the starting job at right guard in the wake of Todd Perry’s release. Whitley started and struggled through 11 games before interim boss Jim Bates sat him down. A 2003 third round draft pick, Whitley has yet to fulfill the expectations commensurate with his draft position. While I hesitate to call Whitley a flat out bust before training camp begins, it is clear that he has some physical and/or technique shortcomings that may not be correctable. He was regularly beaten in what appeared to be one-on-one blocking, both in open space and in short yardage situations. If Houck cannot help Whitley improve, he will not make the 2005 edition of the Miami Dolphins and will take away with him the dreaded bust tag.

 

Regarded by some as an unexpected and pleasant surprise, right tackle John St. Clair quietly won the starting job and never looked back. A free agent signee from the St. Louis Rams, the opportunistic St. Clair simply outworked his competition in training camp. With the exception of two games missed due to a knee and ankle injury suffered in the home game against the Jets, St. Clair started every game. While St. Clair was serviceable and, according to Dave Wannstedt the best player on the line, it became abundantly clear early on that he was not the talent that the departed Todd Wade was.

 

St. Clair will likely be tried at left tackle in 2005. The reason for this was the recent signing of Stockar McDougle (Lions). A former first round pick of the Lions, McDougle has a reputation for being a dominant run blocker with a tendency to not take his conditioning and preparation work as seriously as he should. As a pass protector, McDougle’s lack of lateral quickness makes him a bit of a liability against speed moves. Bottom line is that McDougle is a meaningful and much-needed upgrade at right tackle, the type of player that could thrive under Houck’s guidance and counsel.

 

Unfortunately, McDougle’s signing does not reflect well of what Nick Saban thinks of last year’s first round (and fourth round) pick, right tackle Vernon Carey. Many were quite disappointed when Carey failed to win the starting right tackle job, a real need position at the time he was drafted. Carey started two games last season when St. Clair was hurt and seemed to acquit himself fairly well in those appearances as well as his assignments as a reserve. Considering the position the 2004 team was in, it was strange that the Dolphins didn’t move Carey into the starting lineup. Perhaps his skills as a right tackle are just raw, in which case an excellent tutor like Houck could be just what is needed. Given the McDougle signing, Saban is going to try Carey at left tackle. There some real debate as to whether or not Carey has the ability do it. We shall see. While it is clearly incorrect to call Carey a “bust” just yet, his inability to make an immediate impact in 2004 and, likely, 2005 calls into serious question Spielman’s judgment in drafting him.

 

One player who has more than justified his 2004 sixth round selection was Rex Hadnot. Given an opportunity to play meaningful football when Bates took charge, Hadnot was an immediate and obvious upgrade in all phases. Hadnot made an early impression on coaches during the preseason with a solid camp, showing good push in the run game and solid pass protection skills. As the team’s starting right guard, he has the nasty disposition and toughness all of the good ones have. Hadnot was a center in college and may return there if McKinney disappoints. That could open the door for Carey to return to his senior year college position of right guard. Whatever happens, Hadnot figures to be a starter in 2005.  With Houck’s coaching, Hadnot has a really good chance to be a special player.

 

As the lone returning offensive line starter from 2003, Wade Smith was looked upon as someone who needed to “step up” in 2004. After an excellent offseason of work where he added much-needed strength, it looked as though he was ready to take that next step. Unfortunately, Smith didn’t improve at all and, in fact, may have regressed. After only a few games worth of patience, his unsteady play finally forced him off the field in favor of a hobbled McIntosh. Smith is another Spielman high draft pick (third round, 2003) who has disappointed and is now close to being tagged a bonafide bust. According to a recent report in the Sun Sentinel, the Dolphins may even try him at center. Whether he lines up at tackle or center, the upcoming camps will be pivotal to Smith’s development. If Houck cannot help him improve, particularly as a run blocker, Smith is done as a Dolphin.

 

Greg Jerman continues to compete as a back up as he lacks the talent to be a regular starter in the NFL. While the Dolphins officially list him as a tackle, his skill set is best suited to interior line play at either guard position as his strength is in the run game. Jerman has little upside; at this point in his career he is what he is. Whether it will be good enough to make the 2005 roster remains to be seen. Just keep in mind that every year this guy gets written off and every year he takes care of business and makes the team.

 

The newly signed Damion Cook will come in to compete at guard. Cook started the final six games for the Cleveland Browns last season before becoming a free agent. At 6-5, 320lb. he is one of the team’s heaviest and tallest players. His current strength is in the run game with some real work to do as a pass blocker. This is actually Cook’s second stint as a Dolphin, having spent time on the 2003 practice squad.

 

Other reserve players include guards Jason Thomas, Eric Wilson, Jamil Soriano, and Rodney Reed, as well as tackles Victor Leyva and Tony Pape.

 

Strengths: Guard and Right Tackle. Hadnot and James have good upside that Houck can tap. Hadnot has the talent to become a special player. McDougle is a solid and badly needed upgrade. St. Clair, Carey, Cook, and Jerman are versatile enough to play guard and right tackle, giving the Dolphins good depth. Houck’s presence is a huge boost for this beleaguered unit; he is one of the best in the business.

 

Weaknesses: Left tackle. The Dolphins still have no clue as to who will (or can) do the job with no immediate prospects for a real upgrade.

 

Offseason Priority: High. Left Tackle is a serious weakness the Dolphins must address if they have any desire to properly develop a young quarterback. This has been a real problem since Richmond Webb left Miami. The Dolphins will never make it to the Super Bowl if they cannot stop the premier pass rushers in the NFL. If the Dolphins manage to work a good deal to trade down in the first round of the draft, FSU’s Alex Barron could be the answer. Another solid prospect at center would be a wise move.

 

 


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