Two interesting developments on the Dolphins’ offensive line from the past few weeks:
1. The Dolphins used a first-round pick on Laremy Tunsil.
And 2. Branden Albert reported in arguably his best shape of his career.
How much did No. 2 have to do with No. 1? Probably not a ton — but it sure it is a fascinating coincidence, if nothing else.
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Because how well Albert plays in 2016 will go a long way in determining who starts at left tackle for the Dolphins in 2017.
“I’m the left tackle of this team,” Albert tells people, when they ask about his new understudy. “I wasn’t worried about anything. I’m trying to bring [Tunsil] along best we can because the faster he moves along and the faster that his progress comes and we get the five best offensive linemen on the field, we’re going to be the best offensive line we could be and that’s going to help this team out.”
Barring an injury to Albert or Ja’Wuan James, Tunsil will begin his pro career at guard. But the Dolphins’ long-term vision for the 13th overall pick is surely to protect their quarterback’s blindside.
It’s not a question of if, but when, the baton gets passed. Albert, who counts roughly $10 million against the cap in each of the next two seasons, can delay it for another year if plays like he did in late 2015 during all of 2016.
“Basically, toward the end of the season I started coming back to the form before my injury happened,” Albert said. “I started playing like the elite player I was playing before my injury. Now, I’ve just got to carry it. Right now I’m in the best shape I’ve been in a long time. It’s the lightest I’ve been since I left Kansas City. As of right now, I’m just trying to keep continue to get my body together and learning the offense and just continue to work.”
Albert considered retirement after shredding his knee in 2014, tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL.
Simply returning to field in 2015 was cause for celebration. But after working through fitness issues early in the season, Albert did more than play. He was one of the best tackles in football, earning his second Pro Bowl nod in three seasons.
And his expectation is he will play at that same level — if not higher — from the start this fall. Albert weighs 313 pounds — which is downright svelte for an offensive lineman.
“Right now I don’t feel it,” Albert said of his reconstructed right knee. “I don’t notice it. I’m moving a lot better. I’m running around. I want to take my knee brace off, but I’m not allowed to. Training staff’s call. I gotta listen to what the training staff says.”
Added running back Jay Ajayi: “I think overall, when you have a guy like B.A., who's been playing in this league probably since I was in high school, and he's been playing at a high level. His leadership and those qualities, you definitely need him out there. His strength, both in the run game and the pass game, he is one of the premier left tackles. He didn't make it to the Pro Bowl by accident last year. You always want a guy like that out there on the field, helping anchor down that left side.”
Albert is one of four first-rounders on the Dolphins’ projected offensive line; James, Tunsil and Mike Pouncey are the others. Pouncey has already been on record saying this “better be” the best Dolphins line since Ryan Tannehill entered the league in 2012.
Talent has not been the problem in recent years. Keeping their high-priced linemen on the field has been. Albert, Pouncey and James combined to miss 13 games because of injury last year; the Dolphins went 3-2 with all three in the starting lineup, but 3-8 when at least one of them was missing.
“We played probably five games together in the last two years,” Albert said. “We’ve got to stay healthy somehow, with a little bit of luck, a little bit of prayer, a little bit of extra work. Once all of us stay together healthy, I think we’ll be a pretty good offensive line.”
Albert continued: “I battled through a real bad injury, which at the age I was at going through that injury a lot of people would have quit. Through all that last year, and people saying this and that about me, I’m injury-prone, people in the media and on their little Instagrams and Twitters, always got a remark about how I can’t stay healthy. And tried to say I played half the season. I played 14 of 16 games and nobody gave me my credit coming back a week before the first game coming off an ACL, MCL and PCL injury. Of course, it was gratifying. I’m happy about it, but I’d rather get wins and get my Pro Bowls at the same time.”