The Dolphins believe — OK, make that hope — they have finally fixed their perpetual problem that seemingly can never be solved: constructing a skilled offensive line that can stay healthy and thrive together for multiple seasons.
The Dolphins have burned through 17 draft picks — mostly disappointments — and more than $275 million in contractual commitments to offensive linemen during the past 11 years. And yet their line has largely remained mediocre or worse.
So this year, they’re doing something different. For the first time in franchise history, they didn’t draft an offensive linemen, though they considered it strongly.
And unlike many past years, a likely starting group already has emerged by May: Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James at tackle, Josh Sitton and Jesse Davis at guard and Daniel Kilgore at center.
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It’s possible that Ted Larsen could start ahead of Davis if Davis is awful in preseason and Larsen is great. But the Dolphins see great value in having Larsen as a multiposition backup.
Asked if he would like to stick with this starting group permanently and the advantages of that, coach Adam Gase said: “We’re trying to develop a little bit of cohesiveness with that group. Just seeing how everything goes. I don’t want to jump the gun and say here’s what it is, locked in stone. Probably written more in pencil than pen right now.”
New offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said the interior of the offensive line is better now (Sitton and Kilgore essentially replaced Jermon Bushrod and Pouncey as veteran starters) and Gase said: “We did make an emphasis to firm up inside to help the center and get those guards and center working together well and let those guys [Tunsil and James] work on the edges, which we feel they can do a good job of.”
So why the confidence in this group?
The Dolphins believe Tunsil will be much better in his second season at tackle because he played much better late last season than early last season. Though they were frustrated at times by the unevenness in James’ play, his best games were very good and they believe he’s still young enough, at 27, to become more consistent.
They believe Davis can become a quality starter, based on his 2017 work. They believe Kilgore won’t be a downgrade from Pouncey and should be more durable. And though he allowed more sacks than Pouncey last season, Kilgore graded out as the better run-blocker, according to Pro Football Focus.
And they believe Sitton, a Pro Bowler as recently as 2016, is still an upper-echelon guard.
“He has the type of swagger you want from an offensive lineman,” Gase said of Sitton. “He’s a big man that moves really well and knows exactly what the defense is trying to do and how to react to it. Brings confidence with that group. He’s got something different than a lot of guys I’ve been around — very confident, very knowledgeable. Great to see how he works [with Tunsil] — the amount of time they spend with each other.”
Sitton sees considerable upside: “We’ve got a talented group of guys. Two first-round tackles, some pretty good players on the inside. It’s only our second practice, hard to tell everybody’s strengths and weaknesses. [But] I think we’ll be pretty good — we’ve got a couple guys that have played that are backing up. You can’t put a price on that experience. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do. We’ve got a group of eight or nine guys that can come in a play.”
Sitton, who signed a two-year, $13.5 million deal with Miami in March, liked the idea of reuniting with offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn, who coached him in Chicago last season.
"When I came here and met coach Gase, I had a feeling I would end up signing pretty quickly; I knew I liked him right away," Sitton said. "I look at the season they had two years ago, won nine out of 10, you see the foundation of a good football team here. I’m in the last few years of my career. I want to be in a place we can win, and I think I can.”
Sitton’s only concern was playing in Miami’s searing heat. James asked him if he would prefer to play in 5 degrees or 95 degrees, and Sitton said 5 degrees. He said he might need to cut his long hair and heavy beard if the heat gets to him.
“I’ve been blessed,” he said of a career entering its 11th season. “Most of the time injuries are what takes guys out of this league. I’ve been extremely lucky from that standpoint.”
Kilgore, who signed a three-year, $11.8 million extension with the 49ers this offseason and then was traded to Miami weeks later, said he hasn’t spoken with Pouncey since replacing him but “I have nothing but respect for him and what he’s done here.”
Like Sitton, Kilgore is bullish on this offensive line, calling it a “special group. Coming in, I knew right away that you had a bunch of really good guys, led by two really good coaches who care about their players.”
PFF rated Kilgore 23rd among centers last season and Pouncey 27th.
What does Kilgore do well?
“Knowledge of defenses; athletic ability, being able to work first level to second level; communication,” he said.
Kilgore, incidentally, got to keep his jersey number (67) because Tunsil wanted to relinquish that number and return to 78, his college number at Mississippi.