Mutualism: Offensive line and the Run game

A mutualistic relationship is when two things work together in harmony, each benefiting from the relationship. For the Dolphins the Offensive Line needs to be better.

The NFL is an ecosystem, in an ecosystem there are predators and bottom feeders.

In short, there are winners and losers every single year in the NFL and the ecosystem changes. For better or worse.

In Terms for the Miami Dolphins, you couldn’t have seen such a turnaround from 2019 to 2021. A team crafted out of street free agents, undrafted players and ageing veterans had the makings for predators to lick their chops.

It was trial by fire to see who could overcome and adapt harsh situation, and at times while trying to cool the flames, they would hinder themselves and the rest of the team.

The Defense struggles at times but found their footing, they went from prey to predator by learning and adapting to the environment.

2019

On the other hand, the offensive line is trying to find a footing to best handle it’s surroundings. At times in 2019 and 2020 there were inconsistencies. Some days the line was meshing well other days, well, they were fresh meat.

In this league you cannot have abysmal trench play, it hampers the running game and QB play. We all have seen how poorly the line played in 2019, the statistics tells a holistic story.

A Historic Rate

There are other metrics to gauge Offensive line play such as PFF’s pass/run block win rate. ESPN’s rate also shows it too.

Michael Dieter, who was a in 2019, finished as the team’s worst offensive linemen. Jesse Davis, who started 15 games, was the only other offensive linemen to make the list.

The team had the worst pass blocking scheme in the NFL. Trench play was absolutely abysmal and there were many instances where Ryan Fitzpatrick could not do anything.

Trickled down Economics

Running backs Kenyan Drake, Marl Walton, Myles Gaskin and Kalen Ballage could not even eclipse anywhere near 100 yards a game.

Fitzpatrick was the leading rusher for the team.

To say the least, the offensive line was a nagging parasite, harmful to the team overall.

Miami’s offense could not score to compete with its opponents, Defense on the field for more than 60+ snaps every week. As a team, the Dolphins could not function properly.

Sort of like eating gas station sushi to fill your hunger on a road trip, it does not end well.

2020

The good news about the offensive line was that it did not get worse. As a result of newly introduced reinforcements into the NFL landscape there were some improvements.

Helpful Vets

Jesse Davis has been the anchor of the offensive line for the Miami Dolphins since he was drafted in the 2017 NFL draft. As a rookie, he has played in 47 of the team’s 48 games. He’s been improving every year.

Ereck Flowers was brougth in as a Free Agent to plug the hole at Left Guard. He was an important piece to help Austin Jackson understand the NFL before going down with a season ending injury.

The Miami Dolphins have been looking for a solid center since Mike Pouncey left in 2018. They got one in Karras, who did a decent job protecting Fitzpatrick and Tua as the quarterbacks.

The Newbies

Some people may think that Jackson was drafted too high despite having played less games than other starters in college. He showed that he can play left tackle in the NFL, but is still very raw.

Kindley was given no reconsideration as a right guard in 2020. His ability to protect Tua’s blind side helped the team establish a running game that finally eclipsed over 100 yards in the final 6 games. Kindley shifted to left guard when Ereck Flowers went down.

Robert Hunt played on the right side as a right tackle alongside Solomon Kindley, protecting Tua’s blindside. Although Hunt was decent, his highest celling as a lineman looks to be a fixture at Right Guard.

Impact

Overall, the play was significantly better compared to 2019; however, it can always improve. Per PFF, the Dolphins offensive line was ranked 28th. A slight improvement over the worst rank in 2019.

Few teams invested more in improving the offensive line than the Dolphins did entering the 2020 season. They spent draft picks on Austin Jackson in the first round, Robert Hunt in the second round and Solomon Kindley in the fourth round — all who played more than 700 snaps in 2019.

An offensive line with three rookies, would struggle early on, but did improve slightly. Robert Hunt looked to be the best out of the bunch as his 76.4 PFF grade from Week 12 through the end of the regular season was 5th out of 37 right tackles.

2021

As Pre-season winds down we see glimpses of what this Dolphins offensive line could be, thus as it factors into offensive philosophy.

Scheme

Contrary to Ben Fennels point (I love ya ben) but the Offense looks to be a pass first offense. In theory, it will open up the run game.

In fundamentals of an RPO-based offense the offensive line has to consist of guards and tackles that can run block well. The top three run blockers on this offensive line consists of Soloman Kindley, Robert Hunt and rookie OL Liam Eichenberg.

Eichenberg has tried out playing Left Guard at camp but looks to fight Jesse Davis for the starting RT spot. He took first team reps at Right Tackle for the first time against Atlanta and looked consistent opening up holes in the run game.

“Eichenberg is an extremely solid, if unspectacular, tackle prospect. He saw his performance take a massive leap from his first to his second season as a starter. His pass-blocking grade went from 63.5 in 2018 to 85.6 last year and his run blocking grade from 60.8 to 78.8.”

PFF’s Mike Renner on Liam Eichenberg

Recipe for Success

I expect some growing pains on the offensive line to happen against the 3rd pre-season game against the Bengals and early on in the regular season. Furthermore, there has been a noticeable trend from since last year particularly on the right side of the line.

Last season on the right side proved it with the Combo of Hunt/Kindley as the running game was efficient running the ball to the right. Pass protection and the running game worked on Tua’s Blindside.

Thanks to some help from Kyle Crabbs and Sharp Football analysis, rushing YPC produced on the right side of the line.

It’s about fundamentals and execution this pre-season. If the entire line can stay disciplined, stay confident and build upon fundamentals, this OL will be even better.

Not only will it not harm the team but become another strength to push the Dolphins to the top of the NFL ecosystem.

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Cause for Concern

There’s a lot of optimism riding into Training camp soon. A brand new offense, a better roster with first round talent and a returning top 5 defense even with a holdout of a star defender; however there are some concerns fans and the franchise should be looking out for this upcoming season.

There’s a lot of optimism riding into Training camp soon. A brand new offense, a better roster with first round talent and a returning top 5 defense even with a holdout of a star defender; however there are some concerns fans and the franchise should be looking out for this upcoming season.

The Xavien Howard Situation

News from this weekend started to circle out that Xavien Howard could potentially miss training camp over the pending contract issues. In May of 2019, he signed a 5 year, $75.25 million contract with $39 million total guaranteed. He only played 5 games that season before Miami placed him on the PUP list with another knee issue. After returning to full health in 2020, Howard exploded with 51 tackles, 20 PBU’s, and a league leading 10 interceptions.

A source close to Howard, who turns 28 on Sunday, said he expects Howard to hold out at the start of training camp — if he hasn’t been given a raise by that point — but acknowledged it’s possible he could change his mind,” 

Barry Jackson

While Howard missed mandatory minicamp, the expectation is that Howard does not report to the beginning training camp. According to Barry Jackson there is a possibility Howard comes to training camp in good faith or not at all. The decision is Howards to make.

Rishi Desai detailed the options of what the Miami Dolphins could do to satisfy Howard, and if the organization’s relationship with Howards camp sours a trade may be a possibility.

This situation is one to monitor as Matt Serniak details the situation from a fans perspective:

it’s not like Howard has come out and said that he’s not ever coming back to the Dolphins. But what is painfully apparent is that Howard is not happy with his contract. A contract he signed in the Summer of 2019, which was for five years, $72M with $39M of it being fully guaranteed. You look at that and your first reaction may be to be annoyed that Howard is causing problems when he just signed two years ago. I can’t even tell you you’re wrong to think that. I get why you would

Matt Serniak

If the situation does Sour and Howard is dealt, Miami loses its Interception leader and a former DPOY candidate who has helped Brian Flores and Company win games to push for the playoffs last season. It would be a big task for the rest of the secondary to recoup Howards ability to bait opposing QBs.

The Running Game does not improve

Pro Football Focus graded Miami’s Offensive line 27th of 32 teams last year. There is a new man in the middle with former Raven Matt Skura who was benched last year and didnt earn his job again. Four of the starters are back, so the team is cautiously optimistic and are banking on the extra year of experience to translate into better performances. Notably Sophomore slumps do occur in the NFL.

Miami was 22nd in rushing last season and 29th in YPC. Admittely, a strong ground game would have hugely taken pressure off Tagovailoa last season, and would again. But, on a paper at least, the run offense looks substandard.

No ones stock rose higher than Myles Gaskin after the draft was concluded. His task will be to improve the running game with a new offense installed by co-offensive coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville. Gaskin will be a critical cog in the passing game.

“And of all the running backs in the NFL to take 60+ snaps in pass protection (there were 16 of them), none posted a better pass block efficiency rate than Gaskin — who is credited with just 2 hurries in those 71 snaps by Pro Football Focus. Gaskin wasn’t just good ‘for the Dolphins’ in this area, he was one of the best pass protecting backs in all of football last year.”

Kyle Crabbs

While we can look at the roster now and say the addition of Malcolm Brown should help, drafting a bruiser in Gerrid Doaks and the emergence last year of Salvon Ahmed is a good sign as well; however, the Miami Dolphins do not have a feature running back that can carry the load off of Tua’s shoulders.

If the offensive line and running back play stay the same, the Dolphins offense will become one dimensional and stagnant again which would not help second year QB Tua Tagovailoa. Alarms may not be raised on Brian Flores seat yet but there will be more concerns about him not being able to bring in a proven Offensive coordinator to run the offensive side of the ball

Tua Tagovailoa does not take the leap we are expecting

If Tua Tagovailoa does not take the next step into becoming a prolific passer, the Dolphins might have a big issue on their hands.

Tua has to be better than what we saw last year, We saw glimpses of what could be a potential star and we routinely saw what could possibly lead to him being another Miami Dolphins QB.

He has all the tools and skillset to become a great QB along with the team investing along the offensive line to protect a valuable asset like him. With better protection Tua should be able to stand in the pocket a little bit longer and throw to his new offensive weapons.

Devante Parker is an Above Average WR in this context and returning to the team as the “X” WR.

His Weapons include free agent pickup Will Fuller V a fast and reliable pass catcher that has a knack for finding the end zone. Fuller is a proven WR, when healthy. Jaylen Waddle was selected with the 6th overall pick in the NFL draft and already has chemistry with Tua, as both have played together at Alabama.

Will Fuller feasted in Houston with and without George Godsey, if Fuller can provide the same ability in Houston Tua should play better.

NFL Network project Jaylen Waddle will help to increase Tua as a passer and his rise to become the next great QB in Miami.

“Not only will Waddle help Tua Tagovailoa when the second-year signal-caller targets his former college teammate, but the speedy playmaker will also generally command a lot of attention, which will help the whole offense have more space to work with and inherently drive up the unit’s potential to be extremely efficient. Last season, 29.4 percent of Miami’s targets to wide receivers were thrown into tight windows — the highest rate in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. Over the past two college campaigns, Pro Football Focus ranks Waddle in the top five in yards per route run (3.6, including a robust 4.4 in 2020 alone) and yards after the catch per reception (11.5). My model says his speed when open — i.e., when no defenders are closer than 3 yards — is the fastest in this draft class. And according to PFF, Waddle also had just one drop on 29 catchable passes during his injury-abbreviated 2020 campaign.” 

Cynthia Frelund

Now, I am not one to completely move on from a QB who has not even played a full season in the NFL, barring any unforseen circumstances, if Tua cannot deliver his projections with the increased assets the Dolphins organization has provided to him another offseason of scrutiny will befall on Tua and the Miami Dolphins.

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