From the what-else-is-new department: It’s the spring, and the Dolphins again need to figure out at least one position on their offensive line and probably two, in this case.
This year, the major quandary is at right tackle.
One concern with the idea of cutting Ja’Wuan James – an idea that has been strongly considered and remains in play - is the free agent tackle market is weak.
So if the Dolphins rescind their $9.3 million non-guaranteed deal for James, it’s doubtful they would be able to get him to take a massive pay cut.
James will elicit interest because he’s young, the market is weak and because he has been effective on occasion. In fact, Pro Football Focus rates him the best tackle on the free agent market.
The problem for the Dolphins is they don’t appear happy with paying him $9.3 million and believe their play at tackle didn’t suffer after his season-ending hamstring injury in November.
The Dolphins believe Jesse Davis can start at guard or tackle but haven’t told him their intentions.
And even if the Dolphins re-sign serviceable Sam Young, the Dolphins shouldn’t go into next season with just Laremy Tunsil and Young, plus Davis as a swing tackle/guard. Another starting-caliber veteran or a high draft pick would be needed.
Here are the seven top tackles available in free agency, based on PFF’s 2017 ratings:
• James. Rated 17th among all offensive tackles by PFF, based on 2017 performance.
If the Dolphins were on truth serum, they would probably tell you that’s too high. After his season-ending injury, Adam Gase said James played at a high level for a few games but that wasn’t the case in at least half of his eight games.
So inconsistency is a concern. So is durability; he missed 17 of 48 games the past three years.
• New England right tackle Cameron Fleming. Rated 24th.
The former fourth round pick was forced into starting late last season because of injuries to Marcus Cannon and LaAdrian Waddle and played OK but also allowed six sacks last season despite playing only 40 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps.
• New England left tackle Nate Solder. Rated 32nd.
He’s going to get paid a ton, and the Dolphins are committed to Tunsil at left tackle.
• Pittsburgh right tackle Chris Hubbard. Rated 40th.
He started 10 games at multiple positions last season. An undrafted free agent out of Alabama Birmingham in 2014, he started only four games his first three seasons before being needed as a starter at tackle and guard last season. Hubbard might get decent offers in a weak class.
“Chris Hubbard is a competent and versatile offensive tackle in a league filled with teams needing competent and versatile offensive tackles,” Steelers.com’s Bob Labriola wrote of Hubbard. “On those teams he will be a starter and will command a salary reflecting that. With the Steelers he’s a valuable and versatile backup and only can be paid a salary reflecting that. I predict Chris Hubbard will get an offer to leave the Steelers that he won’t be able to refuse, nor should he.”
• Dolphins’ Young. Rated 48th.
Played competently at right tackle after James’ and guard Jermon Bushrod’s injuries, and the Dolphins are expected to try to keep him.
• Giants’ guard/tackle Justin Pugh. Rated 52nd.
Health is the big issue here. He missed two games in 2014 and 2015, five games in 2016 and eight games last season because of a back injury.
Somebody will pay him in a weak market. But the injury history makes it somewhat risky.
Pugh has played left guard at a very high level and right tackle at an above average level.
“I want to win. I want to win now,” Pugh told Giants reporters. “I’m excited for the first chance to choose where I play and the situation that I’m in.
“I’ve been in five years. I only made the playoffs one time. Being in a good situation, being close to home was great for me. Being so close to my family. Always having them around. So, all those things go into it. I’m looking forward to getting to it and it’s an exciting time. This is the first time I’ll ever get to choose where I play and the situation that I’m in. Obviously, I’ve grown up in New York. I want to be in New York. But, we’ll see what happens.”
• Chargers guard/tackle Michael Schofield. Rated 61st.
The former third-round pick from Michigan started for two years in Denver – after Adam Gase left for Chicago –and allowed 10.5 sacks and committed eight penalties in 29 games before the Broncos cut him last September.
He signed with the Chargers and started in five of 15 appearances. Mark Schlereth once dubbed him the NFL’s worst offensive lineman and he’s probably not a starter on a good team.
Among other right tackles set to hit free agency, via NFL.com: Cincinnati’s Andre Smith (13 games, 8 starts last season), Austin Pasztor (Brown starter in 2016; Falcons backup last season; a guard as well), San Francisco’s Gary Gilliam (started for Seahawks in 2015 and 2016 and was 49ers backup in 2017) and Cornelius Lucas (seven starts in four seasons for the Lions and Rams).
So if the Dolphins don’t keep James or don’t sign Fleming or Pugh, they will probably need to draft an offensive tackle in the first two days of the draft (perhaps Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey at No. 11), even if they re-sign Young.
And that doesn’t even get into the question of whether the Dolphins would allocate much cap space on a veteran guard to compete with Davis (should he stay there) and Ted Larsen.
If they do, it presumably won’t be at a high salary, considering the Dolphins don’t want to pay a lot to guards.