When Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James trotted off the field at the team’s training facility at Nova Southeastern University on June 16, he breathed a sigh of relief.
A big toe injury against the New England Patriots in October cut his second season in the NFL in half, forcing him to watch as the Dolphins went 3-6 down the stretch in 2016.
Seven months later, James successfully completed the Dolphins’ OTAs and three-day mandatory minicamp.
Every drill, every assignment, every task completed without a hitch.
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“It feels good to be back out here and playing football with my guys,” James said.
The Dolphins are hoping he and the rest of the offensive line can stay out there once training camp begins July 29 and the season starts about six weeks later. Despite being rich in talent, injuries have plagued Miami’s offensive line in recent years and in turn has limited the offense.
With a new coaching staff to go along with four first-round draft picks and about $31.5 million in salary-cap space devoted to the first and second team offensive line — the fifth-highest total in the NFL and third-most in the AFC — the Dolphins are looking for a sizable return on their investment this season.
“I’ve always thought highly of everyone in that room as players and as guys,” James said. “Everybody’s trying to work every day and compete.”
At first glance, James’ injury didn’t seem too serious.
It was Week 8 of the 2015 season, and the Dolphins — 3-3 and winners of two games in a row after Dan Campbell took over as interim coach when Joe Philbin was fired — eyed a statement road victory against the New England Patriots.
The Dolphins, already down 7-0 early in the first quarter, faced a third-and-11 from their 19-yard line underneath a clear Thursday night sky.
An obvious passing situation, quarterback Ryan Tannehill stood in the shotgun with running back Lamar Miller to his right and four wide receivers spanning the field. James was lined up at right tackle.
As Tannehill snapped the ball, James had one goal in mind: Protect his quarterback at all costs. The lineman took a quick right step to block the 6-3, 265 pound Dont’a Hightower on a blitz, giving Tannehill just enough time to throw a tight spiral to Rishard Matthews down the left sideline for 15 yards and a first down.
As the rest of the team sprinted up the field and prepared for the next play, James, the Dolphins’ 2014 first-round pick, hobbled to the sideline accompanied by two trainers.
It was the last play James took part in all season, with a dislocated left big toe ending his second year in the NFL nine weeks early.
James’ injury flew under the radar that day because defensive end Cameron Wake ruptured his Achilles and rookie wide receiver DeVante Parker reinjured his left foot before the Dolphins could walk off the field following a 36-7 defeat.
But it’s a scene the Dolphins have seen a lot lately.
Over the past two seasons, the Dolphins used 12 starting offensive line combinations. Only one lasted longer than four games before a starter was injured or underperformed and was relegated to the bench.
Left tackle Branden Albert, an eight-year veteran heading into the third year of a five year, $47 million contract with the Dolphins, missed the final seven games in 2014 after sustaining season-ending MCL and ACL tears that at one point were thought to be career ending. He also missed two games last season with a hamstring injury.
Mike Pouncey, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, missed the last two games of 2015 with a foot injury and underwent his second hip surgery this offseason. He had the first surgery prior to the 2014 season and missed the Dolphins’ first four games that year because of it.
Add in the nine games James missed to end last season and the revolving door at the two guard positions, and the Dolphins have been forced to field makeshift lines with erratic results at best.
According to Football Outsiders, a website that focuses on in-depth football statistics, the Dolphins’ offensive line ranked 28th out of 32 NFL teams in run blocking efficiency and 24th in pass protection last season.
Pro Football Focus ranked the Dolphins’ offensive line 31st last season. The year before, Miami was the worst in the league.
Yet throughout OTAs, the Dolphins have been optimistic that the troubled past is over. The Dolphins hope this season will serve as a rebirth, an opportunity to finally prove their worth.
“I do think we’re going to have a really good line, but we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Pouncey said. “We’ve still got to go out there and play games.”
The Dolphins return three players who have started over the past two years in first-round draft picks Albert (left tackle), Pouncey (center) and James (right tackle).
The two guard spots are still up for grabs, though 2016 first-round pick Laremy Tunsil and Billy Turner look to be the frontrunners.
Other notables on the Dolphins’ roster include two-time Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod and Kraig Urbik, both veterans who started 57 games over six seasons with the Buffalo Bills before signing with the Dolphins in March.
“I don’t even think we really have a depth chart right now,” first-year coach Adam Gase said at the end of the team’s three-day minicamp in June. “I think I’ve said this before: I’ll walk in the [offensive line] room and every day they’ve got a different lineup as far as what they’re going with as far as the ones, twos and threes.”
Throughout OTAs and minicamp, Gase and offensive line coach Chris Foerster have stressed versatility to their offensive lineman.
“When you go into a game and you have seven guys active, you better have a whole bunch of guys that know how to play a lot of different positions,” Gase said. “If you’re going to do it, this is the time to do it.
“Unless you can’t play center, we’re trying everybody [at every position]. We want to make sure we’ve got options.”
James wants to make sure he’s one of those options.
The 19th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft out of the University of Tennessee, James became an instant contributor for the Dolphins. He started all 16 games in his first season — nine at right tackle, seven at left after Albert was put on the Injured Reserve list — and landed on the NFL All-Rookie Team.
James continued his improvement early in 2015 before he got injured.
Gase praised James’ work ethic and resiliency throughout the offseason.
“He’s always seeming to be that guy where when he gets beat, he somehow recovers and does what he has to do as far as protecting the quarterback,” Gase said. “We like where he’s at right now and we want to just make sure as we get into camp that he keeps doing the right things.”
Although James isn’t exactly back at square one as he prepares for Year Three, he acknowledged he has work to do as he prepares for training camp and the upcoming season.
And when he takes the pads off after the first day of training camp, James hopes to again breathe a sigh of relief.
“There’s nothing that I’m doing great right now, so I’m trying to make everything great,” James said. “I’ll be trying to get stronger, stay in the playbook and just really, really build up my strength. I’ll be ready.”