The Ultimate Dolfans Guide to Dethroning the Patriots – Step 2: Holding the Line

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In most aspects, pro football is an exceedingly complex sport, far more so than the average fan could ever hope to understand, and yet, on occasion, the keys to winning are bewilderingly basic. Case and point, for the first half of Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons exposed just how simple the blueprint for trouncing the New England Patriots’ defense could actually be.

The Falcons enjoyed their early success by beating the Patriots’ defenders to the edge. Once that was happening consistently, they began cutting their runs back inside and gauged them up the middle. That ground attack eventually opened lanes in the passing game, which, in turn, created second and short situations that kept the Patriots guessing.

That game plan may sound familiar to Dolphins’ fans. After all, it is eerily similar to what Adam Gase has been preaching for the last year or so…..his vision of how the Dolphins will eventually dethrone the Patriots, and why not? Few doubt that if the Falcons had just stuck to that plan, they would be world champions today.

More importantly for Dolphins fans, there is an even bigger takeaway from Super Bowl LI. Miami already has many of the pieces in place to reproduce what the Falcons did in that first half. A quarterback with a rocket arm and the legs to match, deadly receivers to spread the field, and running backs capable of wearing defenses down or gashing them for huge gains

That said, the one principal ingredient missing on offense is consistent line play. As we saw in 2016, when the team’s front five was healthy, they were excellent, but when they had to depend on backups, they were not nearly as good. Thus, Miami must solve the issue of consistency because mediocrity won’t be enough to win the war of the trenches against New England.

Money Talks, Bovine Scatology Walks

If the Dolphins are serious about toppling the reigning Super Bowl champions, they will need to upgrade their offensive line. Yet, ironically, with four first rounders on the squad in 2016 (Laremy Tunsil, Ja’Wuan James, Mike Pouncey and Branden Albert), they had invested 19% of their roster allocation into that unit ($28.6 million). That means that, for the good of the overall team, they must get better while simultaneously trying to get cheaper, or at the very least, without pouring too much additional cash into the line.

Player Base Salary
(Guaranteed)
Bonuses Cap Number Dead Money Cap Savings
Branden Albert $8,875,000 $1,725,000 $10,600,000 $3,400,000 $7,200,000
Mike Pouncey $7,950,000
$2,000,000
$1,025,000 $8,975,000 $5,000,000 $3,975,000
Laremy Tunsil $1,016,257
$1,016,257
$1,815,027 $2,831,284 $10,192,623 $7,361,339
Ja’Wuan James $1,569,327
$1,569,327
$1,112,436 $2,681,763 $2,681,763 $0
Kraig Urbik $1,225,000 $150,000 $1,375,000 $125,000 $1,250,000
Sam Young $900,000
$125,000
$150,000 $1,050,000 $225,000 $825,000

Yet, before we examine how Miami can go about pulling off this minor miracle, a process which is already under way with the recent news that Albert will not be a Dolphin in 2017, we should first review what steps Gase has already taken to get Miami within reach of this goal.

 Prepare For The Worst And Hope For The Best

One of the biggest reasons for Miami’s turnaround in 2016 was the fact that Gase, unlike his predecessor, Joe Philbin, prepared for the inevitable injures that plague every NFL team. He did this by bringing in athletes capable of playing in more than one spot. Nowhere was this more obvious than along the offensive line, where Tunsil, Jermon Bushrod, Kraig Urbik, Sam Young and Anthony Steen were all cross trained to play at different positions.

As it turned out, this was a brilliant move because Dolphins starters missed a total of 17 regular season games. Pouncey missed 11 games, Albert missed four and, thanks to a slip in the shower, Tunsil missed two.

To better understand just how well this cross training strategy worked, let us review Pro Football Focus’ player grades for each Dolphins lineman.

Center

Snaps

Pass Block Grade

Run Block Grade

Overall Grade

Position Rank

Mike Pouncey

301

55.5

69.9

71.7

NA

Anthony Steen

408

71.9

47.0

48.9

34

Kraig Urbik

453

59.5

50.5

48.1

35

Due to Mike Pouncey’s hip issues, Anthony Steen and Kraig Urbik both started multiple games at center, and to the surprise of most observers, the backups proved fairly effective. Steen was particularly good in place of Pouncey for a time, but eventually, injuries got the better of him as well. Urbik wasn’t bad either, but despite that, as we shall see, neither he nor Steen could approach Pouncey’s game changing ability.

As of now, Urbik remains under contract, while Steen is an exclusive rights free agent. That means that if the Dolphins want to keep him, they must make an offer by March 9. Either way, expect Miami to be on the lookout for an even better and more versatile lineman to play center in case of an emergency. In fact, given the uncertainty surrounding Pouncey’s long term prognosis, their target will likely be someone capable of evolving into his eventual replacement at center if need be.

Guard

Snaps

Pass Block Grade

Run Block Grade

Overall Grade

Position Rank

Laremy Tunsil

867

81.0

51.0

73.0

41

Jermon Bushrod

1011

75.0

34.9

43.5

69

Billy Turner

138

34.5

42.8

38.6

NA

Dallas Thomas

44

35.4

36.6

35.9

NA

The Dolphins had mixed results at guard. Jermon Bushrod, a former 2 time Pro Bowler who has spent the majority of his career at tackle, didn’t perform badly as a pass blocker, but he was well below average as a run blocker. Because of that, the Dolphins will be in search of an upgrade this offseason.

Tunsil, on the other hand, was an unmitigated success. The rookie quickly became the team’s best pass blocker, giving up only 1 sack all year. Although he wasn’t as sharp in the running game, not wholly unexpected given his lack of experience at the position, he was a marked improvement over Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner.

The following clip demonstrates Tunsil’s ability to stand up opposing defender, and as a result, create huge running lanes where Ajayi can pick up a head of steam. Notice how, at first, he gives up some ground, then, quickly recovers, neutralizing his opponent just long enough for Ajayi to break free on a 57 yard run.

ajayi-ot-run

While Tunsil took some time to get his NFL legs under him, he was better than either Thomas or Turner the day he first set foot in Dolphins camp. If you doubt that, just watch the way Thomas is embarrassed by a bull rush below and ask yourself if anything remotely like this happened to Tunsil his rookie season.

Both Thomas and Turner were cut after their abysmal showing against the Tennessee Titans. Their exit is noteworthy because it marked the beginning of Miami’s turnaround and, not coincidentally, the rise of Jay Ajayi.

 

Games

Sacks

Sacks Per Game

With Turner and Thomas

5

17

3.4

Without Turner and Thomas

11

13

1.2

Further proof of the duo’s ineffectiveness can be seen in the previous chart, which shows how, of the 30 sacks the Dolphins allowed in 2016, 17 of them came during the five game stretch at the beginning of the season when Turner and Thomas were on the squad.

Tackle

Snaps

Pass Block Grade

Run Block Grade

Overall Grade

Position Rank

Ja’Wuan James

1000

74.0

80.8

78.3

32

Sam Young

146

48.4

66.9

53.2

NA

Branden Albert

786

47.7

37.9

42.2

65

Those opposed to the Dolphins moving on from Branden Albert need to accept the shocking truth that the chart above reveals. Albert was simply the team’s poorest performer at tackle, and more ominous still, his play steadily declined due to nagging injuries as the season wore on. Yet, even when healthy, there were times when the 2 time Pro Bowler looked stiff and slow in comparison to his best days, whether early in preseason before injuries set in, or in the playoff loss to the Steelers. Fortunately, Sam Young was able to pick up some of the slack as a run blocker, but he was no better than Albert in the passing game.

Right tackle Ja’Wuan James had his share of ups and downs. On the positive end of the spectrum, he was rated as the team’s top run blocker and best overall lineman.  In the clip below we can also see his ability as a pass blocker, totally neutralizing Cleveland’s defensive end to allows Tannehill the time needed to throw a laser accurate pass.

James, however, was plagued by an overabundance of costly penalties.

Accepted Penalties

Yards Lost
Ja’Wuan James

10

91

Laremy Tunsil

7

54

Jermon Bushrod

5

38

Branden Albert

3

20

Anthony Steen

2

15

Mike Pouncey

1

10

Sam Young

0

0

Kraig Urbik

0

0

Given the mixed results, penalties and injuries, the Dolphins’ front office is acutely aware that if they are to challenge the Patriots in 2017, they will need to improve their depth, upgrade at starting guard, and most important of all, stay as healthy as possible.

“I think it’s important; look at Atlanta,” explained General Manager Chris Grier to the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson. “Everyone is talking about how the Falcons … I think they didn’t have an offensive lineman miss a game all year. They stayed together all year. It just shows you that if you can keep those five guys on the field together, especially our offensive line…I forget the record when they’re all on the field together…they’re like 8-1 or something, 9-1 or something like that over the last couple years.”

Unfortunately for the Dolphins, health wise, they were a long way from that kind of consistency in 2016.

A Tale of Two Brothers

Mike Pouncey, a 3 time Pro Bowler (2013-2015), has been a standout for the Dolphins since day one, but his availability has been in steady decline over the last few years, culminating with hip issues that limited him to just 5 games in 2017.

Mike Pouncey

Games Played

% Availability

2011-2012

32

100.0

2013-2015

40

83.3

2016

5

31.3

While there is no perfect way to predict how an athlete’s body will hold up over time, in the case of Mike Pouncey, we have as close to an ideal genetic barometer as possible, his identical twin, Maurkice. Maurkice, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting center, entered the NFL one year ahead of Mike, and if his injury issues are any indication, Miami has reason to worry.

Maurkice Pouncey

Games Played

% Availability

2010-2012

45

93.7

2013

1

6.2

2014

16

66.7

2015

0

0.0

2016

15

93.7

Like Mike, Maurkice began his career relatively injury free, but a torn ACL and MCL ended his 2013 season on opening day. He then missed the entire 2015 campaign due to a broken fibula in preseason which was further complicated by an infection. The one bright spot in Maurkice’s story is the fact that he has continued to play well when healthy, earning Pro Bowl honors in each of the five seasons he wasn’t seriously injured.

Fortunately for Gase and his coaching staff, that same ability to excel when healthy is apparent in Mike was well. In fact, one could go so far as to say that the Dolphins are a different team without him.

Avg Rush Yards Per Game with Pouncey

Avg Rush Yards Per Game without Pouncey

2016

147

99

To put it simply, the running game was nearly 50% better in 2016 when Pouncey was on the field. In the clip below, we see how Pouncey drives the defender off the line of scrimmage and into the ground, paving the way for a Damien Williams touchdown run.

Great Play - TD for Lead Angle 2- Laremy and Pouncey DOMINATE.gif

Physical play like this is why, despite his recent setbacks, the Dolphins are keeping their fingers crossed that Mike will avoid his brother’s pattern of long absences and remain their long term answer at center.

According to Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post, Pouncey is equally optimistic that he can bounce back.

“I’m going to attack it just like any other offseason, to be the best player I can be and I just can’t wait to get started back,” insisted the six-year pro, who claims he will not need surgery because he is already fully healed.

Why Albert Had To Go

Despite being healthier than Pouncey as of late, the Dolphins have decided to move on from Branden Albert, and with good reason. Miami signed the gifted left tackle in 2013 with the hope that he would remain a top-tier lineman, but, as was pointed out earlier, that was clearly no longer the case in 2016. Furthermore, his gradual decline in availability, his advanced age and his high-priced contract eventually undermined his value to the team.

Branden Albert

Games Played

% Availability

First 96 Games

85

88.5

Last 48 Games (MIA)

35

73.0

As a result, the Dolphins had several options with Albert. They could have kept things status quo, but there were numerous reasons why that was never likely. They could have approached him about restructuring his contract, and perhaps even tried switching him to left guard. Yet, in the end, the team made the wisest, and quite frankly, the most obvious choice. They moved on from him in a pending trade to the Jacksonville Jaguars which can’t be finalized until March 9th.

Had Miami chosen to keep things as they were, they would have paid Albert $10,600,000 in 2017. Yet, based on his availability since joining the team, his true value was closer to $7,700,000. That led many to ponder the possibility that the Dolphins might approach him about restructuring his contract to something closer to that figure. That was a reasonable possibility considering that a savings of $2,900,000 would be enough to cover the 2017 salary of either Laremy Tunsil or Ja’Wuan James, or the combined salaries of Kraig Urbik and Sam Young.

Nevertheless, as we now know, the Dolphins were intent on cutting Albert, and in the process, saving themselves $7,200,000. Who could blame them? After all, that sum is nearly the equal of the combined 2017 salaries of Tunsil, James, Urbik and Young ($7,938,047). To put it another way, it would be more than enough to infuse a ton of depth to the line with the addition of several role players, or just enough to acquire the services of a quality free agent guard to play alongside Tunsil or James.

Yet, after the Dolphins had already informed Albert of their decision to cut him, the team changed their mind and held off, at least for the moment. That last minute shift came about when the Jaguars expressed some interest in trading for him, a move that would keep Jacksonville from getting into a bidding war for his services in free agency. While it isn’t likely that Miami will get a whole lot for Albert if the trade goes through, they have two important reasons for pursuing the matter. (Keep in mind that, despite initial reports, the Julius Thomas trade evolved into a completely separate deal)

  1. Depending on the terms of the trade, Miami could clear up to $10,600,000 off their books (if Jacksonville agrees to take on the entirety of the veteran tackle’s compensation). That alone, would be a huge win for the Dolphins because that money could do wonders for Miami’s line, or any other unit for that matter.
  2. The possibility of acquiring a draft choice, be it a conditional pick in 2018 or a 2017 pick, would be a huge plus for Miami.

There was some initial skepticism that the trade to Jacksonville might not go through, including the fact that Albert himself would have to agree to it, and many doubted his eagerness to land on a squad that finished 3-13. Nevertheless, given the evidence of his declining skills and availability, it is far from a guarantee that the veteran would fetch anything near his current contract in free agency. Thus, the deal seems to be proceeding without incident.

Beyond the fiscal components behind the decision to move on from Albert, there is, of course, Laremy Tunsil. Albert’s heir at left tackle is younger, faster, stronger, and by the veteran’s own admission, way ahead of where he was at this early stage of his career.

Below is a prime example of how effective Tunsil was while filling in for Albert at left tackle. His success in holding his block against a strong pass rush was key to Miami’s lone highlight against the Bengals.

https://j.gifs.com/31k8rx.gif

Now, with the budding star moving out to his natural position, all that remains is finding someone to take his place at guard.

Top Free Agent Options

 Guard  Team  Age  PFF Rating  Pos Rank  2016 Contract  Expected Contract
 Kevin Zeitler  CIN  26  87.1  7  $8,070,000  $10 million
 T.J. Lang  GB  29 87.0  8  $6,181,250  $10 million
 Ron Leary  DAL  27  80.4  24  $2,553,000  $8-9 million
 Luke Joeckel  JAC  25  68.3  NA  $6,745,963  $5-6 million

While the Bengals’ Kevin Zeitler, a Pro Bowl alternate, is probably the best of the bunch, Dallas’ Ron Leary may turn out be the team’s dark horse target due to his unique combination of experience along the Cowboys’ dominant front line, as well as his outstanding play as both a run and pass blocker. T.J. Lang is another viable option. The Packer would be a better fit than Leary in Miami’s blocking scheme, and is a particularly effective pass blocker. Still, he has repeatedly stated his desire to stay in Green Bay. In addition to that, he is not without some risk. Lang is coming off minor arthroscopic surgeries on both his foot and hip.

There are of course, other, less expensive options on the market, such as Chance Warmack of Tennessee, Larry Warford of Detroit, Brandon Fusco of Minnesota, and Brian Pasztor of Cleveland. All of them are serviceable guards and should be available in the $3 to $6 million price range. It should be noted that some rumors out of Miami suggest that the Dolphins could be looking to fill both guard positions with the money they will save from Albert’s departure. Thus, it is very possible that any of these free agents could be a Dolphin next season.

Lastly, there is the possibility that Miami could bring in former #2 overall pick, Luke Joeckel. The youngster’s ability to play both guard and tackle would suggest at least a passing glance from Gase and company, but he appears to be a long shot due to the knee injury that ended his 2016 campaign, as well as less than stellar play at either position. After all, given their cap space, the Dolphins have no need of settling for mediocrity or of taking too big of a gamble. Still, a one year “prove it” contract is not out of the question.

Draft Possibilities

Of course, fee agency isn’t the only place where Miami may look to bolster the line. In fact, they have too many needs to rely on free agency alone. Fortunately, this year’s draft class is unusually deep at guard.

Top Draft Options

Rank Guard School Measurables
1 Dan Feeney Indiana 6′ 4″, 304 lbs.
2 Dorian Johnson Pittsburgh 6′ 5″, 315 lbs.
3 Dion Dawkins Temple 6′ 3″, 317 lbs.
4 Nico Siragusa San Diego State 6′ 4″, 326 lbs.
5 Danny Isadora Miami 6′ 3″, 311 lbs.
6 Greg Pyke Georgia 6′ 6″, 325 lbs.
7 Isaac Asiata Utah 6′ 3″, 325 lbs.
8 Kyle Kalis Michigan 6′ 5″, 305 lbs.
9 Jessaman Dunker Tennessee State 6′ 4″, 306 lbs.
10 Forrest Lamp Western Kentucky 6′ 4″, 305 lbs.

While many of these top prospects could quickly develop into upgrades over Bushrod, it is difficult to imagine a lineman better suited to fill Miami’s needs than Ohio State’s Pat Elflein.

https://thedeependmiami.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/pat-elflein.gif?w=1626&h=909

The young Buckeye had an outstanding year at center, and before that, he was equally good at guard. Given the questions swirling around Mike Pouncey’s long term viability, Elfin, like Tunsil, could start at guard, and if need be, make an eventual transition to center. Beyond that, his dominant run blocking ability makes him a near-perfect fit for the Dolphins’ newfound emphasis on the ground game and the role it will play in toppling the Patriots.

Rank Player School Measurables
1 Pat Elflein Ohio State 6′ 3″, 300 lbs.
2 Ethan Pocic LSU 6′ 7″, 302 lbs.
3 Tyler Orlosky West Virginia 6′ 4″, 296 lbs.
4 Kyle Fuller Baylor 6′ 5″, 315 lbs.
5 Jon Toth Kentucky 6′ 5″, 310 lbs.

Better Isn’t Good Enough

However Miami chooses to answer the nagging questions at guard and center, there is no doubt resolutions are required as soon as possible if the Dolphins are to have any hope of overtaking the Patriots during the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. That is not to imply that Miami’s offensive line hasn’t gotten considerably better. It has. Nevertheless, it can still improve by leaps and bounds, particularly in the running game. If you doubt this, simply consider that the Dolphins offensive line, for all their success on the ground, were among the league’s worst when it came to being stopped for no gains or losses.

dec-15-2016-14-45-08

Running Plays Runs Stuffed Percent of Runs Stuffed Rank
Indianapolis 409 22 5.4 1st
Dallas 499 40 8.0 6th
Miami 405 51 12.6 30th

In an odd twist, the interesting takeaway from the chart above isn’t how much better the Cowboy’s vaunted line is at keeping negative runs to a minimum. That is to be expected. No, the surprise here is that the Indianapolis Colts, of all teams, ranks first in this particular category. The twist, of course, is that Joe Philbin, who oversaw the NFL’s worst line during his tenure as Miami’s head coach, is now in charge of that unit in Indianapolis. As such, the fact that a Philbin-coached line could be better than Miami’s front five in any aspect of the game is irrefutable proof that there is still plenty of room for improvement.

https://thedeependmiami.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/jay-ajayi-stuffed.gif?w=860

The Gase Effect

While the line still has a way to go, Dolphins fans shouldn’t doubt Gase’s ability to implement the necessary improvements. After all, in his first year he took several key steps to improve the unit’s overall play. Beyond the cross training previously mentioned, he intensified their strengthening program and installed a more balanced and diversified offensive attack to keep defenses honest. He got rid of dead weight, such as Turner and Thomas, as well as former starter, Jamil Douglas. Gase also improved quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s pocket awareness, giving him more freedom to roam out of the pocket. Additionally, Tannehill was given the option of audibling out of bad situations, like the kind that led to safeties in 3 consecutive games in 2015. The result of these changes was an offensive line that was twice as good at pass blocking than the front five Joe Philbin put on the field in his first year as the Dolphins’ coach.

Pass Attempts Sacks Pass Attempts Per Sack
Miami 2016 477 30 15.9
Miami 2015 588 45 13.0
Miami 2014 595 46 12.9
Miami 2013 594 58 10.2

Putting It All Together

As we shall see in this series, the Miami Dolphins still have tremendous room for improvement at each position and every facet of the game. Yet, nowhere will Adam Gase’s drive towards perfection play out more dramatically than in the 18 foot span between Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James. For it is there, amidst the bone shattering chaos of armored giants pounding each other into submission, that the ascension of the next Miami Dolphins dynasty shall begin in earnest.

The path to such heights may seem daunting at first. Yet, it isn’t nearly as perilous or farfetched as most would perceive. After all, the Dolphins are already well on their why. In fact, all they need do is follow the same outline they employed last season. Focus on improving their ground attack, and that in turn will take pressure off the line and make for a more electrifying passing game.

For all of Gase’s offensive wizardry, rest assured, the second-year head coach knows the Patriots will not be defeated by finesse alone. Belichick and company have far too much experience for that. Thus, if the Super Bowl champions are to be humbled, their first and deepest wounds will come in the trenches, where they can be outmuscled and bullied before the relentless assault of a human locomotive named the J-train, who will wear them down and eat up the clock while Tom Brady watches helplessly from the sidelines.

While that may sound too good to be true, what follows is a realistic plan for the Dolphins to acquire the offensive line that could make that glorious future a reality:

  1. Trade Albert. Save no less than $7,200,000. Move Tunsil out to left tackle.
  2. Add a top tier veteran guard in free agency for around $7.5 million a year, or two 2nd tier guards for about $9 million combined. Get creative. Use Florida tax laws to make this happen. In other words, regardless of whomever they choose, Miami needs to find a way to underpay rather than overpay.
  3. Add one or two more linemen through the draft. One in the 2nd round under a rookie contract that calls for about $700,000 or less in the first year, and possibly another in the 4th or 5th round for around $600,000. The scouting department must come through again, as they did with Tunsil, in order to guarantee versatile players capable of manning other positions as well.
  4. Consider moving on from Urbik or Young, but only if better options become available in free agency at a similar price. This move would cost the team no more than $350,000 in dead cap space.

This plan, 1f properly executed, would give Miami the potential for a vastly improved line at $30.2 to $31.5 million. That is an increase of no more than $3 million, leaving the team plenty of money to address other pressing issues on defense. All things considered, a very small price to pay for a shot at finally dethroning the Patriots.

While it would be unrealistic to expect Miami to follow this specific blueprint down to the last detail, given that hundreds of previously unforeseen factors can pop up at any time, such as the unexpected Albert trade. Nevertheless, one thing is undeniable. In order to beat the Patriots, the Dolphins will, in some ways, have to return to the glory days of Don Shula, when Larry Little and Jim Langer paved the way for an eighteen wheeler named Larry Csonka, who left the broken bodies of Patriots in his wake like so much road kill.

Fortunately, now, like then, Miami is armed with a brilliant young coach and bruising linemen in Pouncey and Tunsil. Yet, instead of a semi named Csonka, they have upgraded to the aforementioned J-Train, and as we shall see in the next installment of this series, Ajayi, perhaps more than any other Dolphin, will be key to bringing down New England….once and for all.

Gifs courtesy of CJZERO/Twitter], Giphy.com and The Deep End

Coming Soon – Step 2: The Backfield

To read Step 1 of this series, click here.

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