How the Dolphins’ offensive line functions in 2017 will likely hinge on Mike Pouncey’s hips.
If Pouncey — bedeviled by a series of hip injuries in recent years — is indeed fully healthy and ready to play a full season, then the line could be excellent.
But if he has yet another setback, then there could be trouble.
Recent history suggests Option A is iffy, at best.
Pouncey has missed 17 games due to injury in the last three years. He hasn’t played all 16 games since 2012.
He appeared in just five games last year after first fracturing, and then re-injuring (perhaps by returning too soon), his left hip.
And while he’s still just 27, NFL players tend to become less durable as they get older, not more.
Still, the Dolphins are all-in on Pouncey. He’s always been part of their 2017 plans, as evidenced by Adam Gase’s decision to shut him down late last year, even though Pouncey lobbied hard to play.
Gase explained the team’s thinking back in December:
“As a coach, you want to have a guy – especially that’s at an elite level at his position – to play. But the thought process we had was we were not going to risk long-term injury for one game or possibly two games. We weren’t even sure if that was the right thing to do. When you’re getting the answer of, ‘He could be alright, but this could still happen.’ That’s just not a great answer for me. I wasn’t going to put him in that kind of position to where I had to tell him, ‘You might not be able to ever play again.’ That wasn’t going to happen. I want to be around Mike as long as he can possibly go.”
Said Pouncey at the time: “Of course I [fought it]. I was frustrated with it. Not with coach or [Chris] Grier. I was more frustrated with the process. I went out there, re-aggravated the hip again. I was expecting to come back for the end of the year, hopefully play in the playoff game with these guys. But they put me on [injured reserve], so that's how the season's going to end for me.”
Still, Pouncey was upbeat about his long-term career prognosis after meeting with a specialist, and said he’s “looking forward to next year.”
Well, it’s next year. The offseason conditioning program is only a few weeks off.
And it’ll be up to Pouncey (more specifically, his body) to justify the Dolphins’ patience.
They based a good chunk of their 2017 planning on the belief he’ll be back playing at a high level this fall.
They sent that message, not just by Gase’s comments, but by what they didn’t do: drastically revamp their offensive line.
Four of the five starters from 2016 are back, with the only change so far being Ted Larsen replacing Branden Albert.
Pouncey, who’s entering Year 3 of his five-year, $52 million contract, will cost $9 million against the cap this year, and another $9 million if he’s on the roster next year. Had the Dolphins cut him, it would have freed up all but $5 million in cap space going forward.
The Dolphins could have used that savings to add a top-end interior lineman like T.J. Lang, who inked a three-year, $28.5 million deal with the Lions, or Ronald Leary, who joined the Broncos on a four-year, $36 million contract.
Those are guards, so the Dolphins would have still needed a center; Larsen has played the position before and could have done so again here.
But they didn’t go that route. As they’ve done all offseason, they valued their own player over another team’s.
And in Pouncey’s case, there are many reasons why — when healthy, he’s one of the best at his position; he’s a respected leader in the locker room; and, perhaps most importantly, the Dolphins offense is simply better when he’s on the field.
The stats back up Point No. 3.
In the five games Pouncey was on the field last year, the Dolphins scored an average of 26.6 points, rushed for an average 154.4 yards and gained 5.1 yards per carry.
In the 11 regular-season games he missed, those numbers dropped to 20.9, 95.6 and 4.1.