Fourth part in an occasional eight-part series examining the Dolphins roster by position, with metrics from last season and where things stand moving forward.
Reshaping the offensive line with players who could be nucleus pieces when the Dolphins are ready to win again will be among a long list of priorities this offseason.
The Dolphins have one clear-cut building block in left tackle Laremy Tunsil, a potential 2021 free agent. But do they have anyone else who will be part of this offensive line longterm?
Right tackle Ja’Wuan James has had some good moments, but other moments that have given the franchise pause about whether to commit longterm to him at big dollars.
Guard Josh Sitton is 32, was brought here by dismissed coach Adam Gase, has one year left on his contract, and is coming off a season in which he missed 15 games.
Daniel Kilgore, 31, played only three games — grading out below average, according to Pro Football Focus — before sustaining a season-ending triceps injury in the late-September loss at New England.
And Jesse Davis had some decent moments, and some less encouraging ones, in his first year as a starter at right guard.
Exploring where the line stands:
▪ The Dolphins initially didn’t plan to bring James back this past season but changed their mind because of lack of affordable free agent options.
This year’s free agent class of offensive tackles (including James) isn’t great, but nobody would be surprised if Miami moves on instead of paying James in the range of the $9 million he earned this season, or potentially more.
But here’s the caveat: New offensive line coach Pat Flaherty made clear that he would like James to return. James has some level of support inside the front office. And agent Drew Rosenhaus - who does not represent James - predicted on his weekly Sunday night segment on WSVN-Fox 7 that the Dolphins will make James the highest-paid right tackle in football.
“I think it keeps the continuity there, if we’re able to retain him,” Flaherty said. “We sure hope he does [stay with Miami]. He’s a good football player. I’ve had an opportunity to go back and watch every game from 2018. He’s a fairly young guy also, so he has some things technique-wise that he can get better.”
Among all qualifying tackles, PFF rated James 33rd and Tunsil 34th — an order the Dolphins would strongly dispute. (They considered Tunsil the far more consistent player.)
James allowed seven sacks, which was tied for 10th most among tackles. But he gave up a modest number of hurries (16, which was tied for 51st).
PFF rated James the 14th-best run blocker among 80 qualifying tackles.
Tunsil allowed two sacks and 13 hurries and was rated the 39th best run blocker among qualifying tackles.
Flaherty said of Tunsil: “He has potential to be one of the best, if not the best, in the league, at his position. He still has some work to do to separate himself into that category. I really like the things he does. He has a high ceiling and we feel he’s going to get better and better each year.”
▪ Final tackle snap counts: Tunsil 820, James 816, Sam Young 121, Zach Sterup 92.
▪ One priority moving forward: Finding a No. 3 tackle capable of playing both the right and left sides. Sam Young is serviceable at right tackle but ill-equipped to play left tackle, as we saw in the Bengals games. Sterup is better equipped to play left tackle than right tackle but remains something of a developmental player.
▪ One bit of good news is there are half dozen offensive tackles considered potential first or second-round picks. We explore them in this piece.
Flaherty cautioned that if the Dolphins draft offensive linemen, “It’s going to take some time for those young guys. Even though they’ve played at a high level in college, they’re not seeing the same type of player. You’re seeing really a skilled player at this level.”
▪ As for the guard situation... When I asked Gase, before his dismissal, if Davis had proven he’s an NFL starting guard, Gase punted, saying he would need to review the tape.
Because the Dolphins are embarking on a rebuilding project and Davis is young and cheap, the expectation is he will get another chance to build on his first season, as a projected starter or at least with a chance to compete to start in 2019.
Of 79 qualifying guards, Davis rated 57th, according to Pro Football Focus, and 61st in run blocking. He allowed seven sacks (tied for fourth most among guards) and 17 hurries (tied for 32nd most).
As for the other guard spot, the Dolphins might move on from Sitton as part of their rebuilding project. Sitton has a $4.9 million base salary (non-guaranteed) and a $7 million cap hit in the final year of a two-year contract. Cutting Sitton would result in $4.9 million in savings and a $2 million dead-money charge.
▪ Here were the final guard snap counts: Davis 922, Ted Larsen 752, Sitton 62 and Wesley Johnson 26. Jake Brendel played 176 snaps, with some at guard and some at center....
I expect Brendel to get a long look. And Isaac Asiata - who showed potential as a run-blocker in preseason - has perhaps his final chance to prove he can be a contributor.
▪ Larsen, incidentally, was rated 79th and last among qualifying guards by PFF. He allowed four sacks and 29 hurries (seventh-most among NFL guards).
▪ Kilgore would have been 31st of PFF’s 38 centers if he had enough snaps to qualify. Travis Swanson, who started at the position for much of the second half of the season, was 20th.
It would be surprising if the Dolphins move on from Kilgore, considering he’s competent and inexpensive, with a $2.2 million base salary and $2.4 million cap hit next season and a $3.1 million salary and $3.6 million cap hit in 2020, the final year of his deal.
▪ Final center snap counts: Swanson 644, Kilgore 182 and Brendel 176 (some of those 176 were at guard).
▪ Contract status: James, Young and Johnson are unrestricted free agents and Brendel is a restricted free agent. Tunsil’s fifth year option through 2020 assuredly will be exercised. He would then be eligible for unrestricted free agency in the spring of 2021.
Kilgore has two years left on his deal. Davis, Sterup and Asiata are exclusive rights free agents. Larsen has one year left at $1.9 million, but the Dolphins would have no dead money if they cut Larsen instead.
Here was part 1 of my series on the Dolphins’ running back situation, including eye-opening numbers on Kenyan Drake.
Here was part 2 of my series on the Dolphins’ receiver situation.
Here was part 3 of my series examining percolating issues in the defensive backfield.