Sports on Earth's NFL writers Mike Tanier, Dan Pompei, Russ Lande and Robert Weintraub will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most pressing problems facing each one and proposing the best solutions. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
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Most general managers must deal with cap issues, free-agent headaches and major draft needs. New Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey must deal with bullies, emotionally damaged offensive tackles and the public perception that he is the new warden of an insane asylum. Also on his docket: an offensive line depth chart full of blank spaces, some veteran free agents in search of a payday and a five-year organizational malaise that was the franchise's biggest problem before someone gave Richie Incognito a 4G upgrade and a world atlas.
Jump into Hickey's shoes for a day, and you will find that there is no easy answer to the offensive line crisis, and that the Incognito Affair left a residue that still needs a vigorous mopping. The good news: The Dolphins have some cap money and adequate talent everywhere but the offensive line. Take care of the biggest problems of all, and the smaller ones may take care of themselves.
Problem: Unfinished Wells Report business.
Solution: Do the right thing, Mookie.
Mookie? What would prompt us to reference Do the Right Thing, a movie filled with strong language, racial tensions, code-of-the-street ethics, fat-and-mouthy Italian wiseguys at odds with their predominantly African-American surroundings and … oh yeah: every single thing we have heard about the Dolphins for the last six months.
Anyway, Jonathan Martin is still under contract to the Dolphins. Mike Pouncey, who appears fifth or sixth in the closing credits of the Wells Report, is very much in the team's future plans. This is unfinished business, and the Dolphins cannot handle it the way they have handled all previous Incognito/Martin business, because if you jam your fingers too deep into your ears for too long you can get a nasty infection.
Martin must be traded or released. The Dolphins must play ball with Martin's agents in either case. If he is released, some kind of settlement must be worked out. If he is traded, the Dolphins must work whatever mojo it will take to ensure all parties express appropriate joy at how things worked out under the circumstances. The Incognito Truthers may want to stomp their feet and cry the Dolphins don't owe Jonathan Martin nuttin', but everyone can agree that the Dolphins owe themselves quite a bit of public-relations boat bailing.
As for Pouncey, the Wells Report makes it clear that he was just going along with the sewage flow. And yes, he is too important to simply cut in a fit of pique. But the Dolphins need to exercise a little spin control. Have Pouncey give a few "I made some mistakes" interviews. Make him talk to some middle schools about the dangers of bullying. Give Pouncey some controlled separation from Incognito, and he can arrive in training camp relatively baggage-free.
The Dolphins must put some effort into getting ahead of the Incognito Affair, something they have gone out of their way to avoid from the moment Martin began retreating from the organization. The team still appears content to react instead of acting. A few days ago, long snapper and Dolphins union rep John Denney ripped Martin and the Wells Report on Miami radio. Forget for a moment that a union rep publically commenting upon a dispute between two union members is one of the most unprofessional, incompetent acts in the history of organized labor (the NFLPA has its own work to do on this matter). No one within the Dolphins has placed the Cone of Silence over the players? Every backup on the roster is allowed to take a side and voice an opinion on this issue?
If the Dolphins move forward with Pouncey in a leadership role (perhaps a member of that wonderful leadership council), the union rep doubling as an Incognito-sympathizing talk-radio personality and Joe Philbin giving "nobody escapes from Stalag 13" speeches, it will send a powerful message. No, that message is not "we love bullies!" It's "we love the status quo, which is why we always finish around .500."
Problem: The Dolphins need an entirely new offensive line.
Solution: Get guys. Lots of guys.
Every mock draft on the Internet from mid-November through May 7 had or will have the Dolphins selecting a tackle. There is no logical reason for the Dolphins to do anything else. Taylor Lewan and Zack Martin are two obvious fits: athletic, versatile and ready to play. Failure to get one of them is NOT an option. If Lewan or Martin goes quickly after Greg Robinson and Jake Mathews leave the board, the Dolphins have no choice but to trade themselves into position to land the other. The gap between Lewan and Martin and the tier that includes Cyrus Kouandjio (massive health concerns) and Morgan Moses (technically raw) is just too great to risk.
The Dolphins need two tackles, so let's give them a natural right tackle in the middle rounds. Tennessee's Ja'wuan James is quicker than most right tackles and has both the strength and hand technique to set the edge or drive defenders off the ball. He is not agile enough to be a top blind side protector, but he can develop quickly into a fine fit as the right tackle in a pass-oriented offense.
The Dolphins also need some guards, plus veteran leadership that does not lead them off a cliff. Wade Smith started his career as a Dolphins left tackle prospect, but he blossomed late in his career as a Gary Kubiak zone-blocking guard. He has not missed a start in four years, so he can bring durability, stability and technique for what should be an affordable price. The locker room is now allegedly safe for a bright, intellectually curious player like Penn State's John Urschel, a developmental pick for the later rounds. Cheap scaffolding veterans like Jeremy Trueblood or Geoff Hangartner may also find a home in Miami, though the best bet for the Dolphins will be to find ways to incorporate youngsters as quickly as possible.
Problem: The other Dolphins line is loaded with free agents.
Solution: Move quickly.
Defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Randy Starks are both 30-year old 300-plus-pound defensive tackles ready to hit the free-agent market. If the Dolphins were a true contender, they would be wise to keep both players, which would be tricky but doable, cap-wise. If they were a true rebuilding team, the Dolphins could jettison both players and start a youth movement.
But the Dolphins are in a strange netherworld of roster instability and permanent .500-ness. A quick offensive line fix could easily propel them to 11 wins, so keeping the defensive line intact makes sense. More importantly, the team needs to retain locker-room leaders who actually act like locker-room leaders, and both Starks and Soliai are well-respected. If the Dolphins can keep only one, it should be Starks, who is lighter and playing at a higher level. Soliai, on the other hand, may be more affordable. Soliai is also a potential franchise tag recipient. Tagging him will not go over well, as his agent made sure everyone at the combine knew how in-demand his client is, but then it rarely does.
Here is another example of a place where the Dolphins must do something. Allow both Soliai and Starks to test the market, and both are likely to walk. Rumor has it the Dolphins Experience has not been an all-expenses-paid trip to Pebble Beach lately. So the Dolphins can franchise Soliai and left Starks walk. Or make a fat offer to Starks and let Soliai walk. Or lock them both down and prepare for the financial consequences. A Soliai tag and Starks contract might fit both the budget and the long-range plan, allowing the tackles to stay together without creating massive future cap problems.
Letting both Starks and Soliai go, then coming back from free agency with a fresh bag of groceries ("Look fans: Roger Saffold and Knowshon Moreno!") would be a Jeff Ireland move. "Jeff Ireland move" will never be used in NFL circles as a compliment.
Problem: An offense full of mismatched parts.
Solution: Lazor guidance.
Once the Dolphins find five capable offensive linemen who can peacefully coexist, Ryan Tannehill can bid farewell to 58-sack seasons and games in which the Dolphins average 0.14 yards per rush (like last year's Buccaneers game).
But who will the new Dolphins offensive line be blocking for? Who is Tannehill, really? Are Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas a one-two running back punch, or are they more of a two-three? Mike Wallace caught only five passes longer than 40 yards last year; his five-catch, 25-yard stat lines are as strange as Tannehill's sack totals or the worst of the rushing figures. Brandon Gibson had another four-game stretch in which he looked like a breakout player before tearing a patellar tendon. Where does he fit in 2013? Charles Clay was marvelous in 2013, and Brian Hartline keeps showing up and producing 70-catch, 1,000-yard seasons, but it is hard to figure out where all the other puzzle pieces fit.
The Dolphins can't make significant skill-position upgrades in the offseason. If they have a spare draft pick or free-agent dollar, they have to commit it to their offensive line Superfund project. Luckily, the Tannehill-Hartline-Wallace-Clay nucleus has the potential to be playoff caliber, and the backs aren't terrible. Someone simply has to sort the offensive mess out. That someone is new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
Lazor coached Eagles quarterbacks last season, contributing to Nick Foles' development. A year under Chip Kelly probably provide some inspiration in the form of no-huddle concepts and option wrinkles, both of which can play to Tannehill's strengths. But Lazor also worked for Mike Holmgren and Joe Gibbs, so he brings a wealth of offensive ideas to the party. It is hard to tease a "Lazor philosophy" from all of those mentors, and Philbin's Mike McCarthy principles are also in play, but you have to assume that the Dolphins will rediscover the obvious next year.
"The obvious" includes getting Wallace open downfield and giving Tannehill the time and confidence to reach him. It also means getting more from Thomas and Miller as both rushers and receivers: The Dolphins got almost nothing from their running backs in the passing game, though their need to constantly block was part of the reason. A little bit of 21st century flavoring will taste good for an offense that looked too much like a 1990s Packers cover band last season.
Fix the offensive line, and Lazor's innovations can take hold, allowing Tannehill to develop. The Dolphins must hope it is not too late. Last year was supposed to be Tannehill's breakout year -- Wallace and Dustin Keller were acquired specifically to make that happen -- but Richie Incognito broke it, and the organization was too slow to sweep up the pieces. A terrible line can make quarterbacks and running backs develop terrible habits. Tannehill looked terrible in his final two games, though he still had his act together in a win against the Patriots in Week 15. Lazor, Philbin and the Dolphins must hope that any damage caused by the 2013 debacle is easily reversible.