The Dolphins’ most scrutinized unit will take the field against the Washington Redskins on Sunday with a rookie fourth-round pick at right guard (Jamil Douglas) and a left guard (Dallas Thomas) determined to prove he’s better than the player who struggled mightily at times in the past.
And, oh yes, there's also a left tackle coming off major knee surgery (Branden Albert), a center fresh off a season at guard (Mike Pouncey), and a right tackle (Ju’Wuan James) whose rookie season was disrupted by a need to fill in at left tackle.
None of this turnover and tumult seems particularly unsettling to the Dolphins’ starting offensive linemen.
“We are going to surprise people,” Albert assured this week. “Everyone doubted us last year and I think they’re doubting us again.”
As Thomas said: “We want to prove to people we are not the weak link.”
So from a coach’s perspective, is there confidence or concern about this group?
“I think there are concerns when you have unknowns,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “I am hoping that we answered most of those. The best teams I have been on typically have had the same five guys play the majority if not all of the games, maybe not every snap.
“We can’t predict what is going to happen in the future. [But] I feel pretty confident we are going to have a good group out there.”
The biggest questions about this offensive line swirl around the new starting guards (Thomas and Douglas) and the fact that Albert, a two-time Pro Bowler, is coming off major knee surgery.
Albert admitted he’s “nervous because I haven’t played football in 10 months. And I’ve never played against this defensive line.”
The Dolphins are optimistic Albert will return to his Pro Bowl-caliber form and are also hopeful the young guards are ready to become reliable NFL starters.
Coach Joe Philbin has remained a strong supporter of Thomas, even when he faltered last season in a fill-in role at offensive tackle.
“He’s always pitched in and I think last year he took snaps at three different positions in games for us,” Philbin said. “That’s a valuable asset and trait to have in the National Football League. He’s still a young player.”
Lazor said the faith in Thomas is based on the fact that he “is a very improved player from what he has been in the past. It has been pretty constant improvement.”
Douglas seized the right guard job by outplaying Billy Turner in preseason.
“His level of professionalism for a young player is really impressive,” Philbin said. “He doesn’t seem to get flustered and he he’s picked up the system well. When he’s in there, he’s done a good job, he’s really been solid.”
Albert said Douglas “has a lot of heart. You have to have a lot of heart to go up against [Ndamukong Suh] every day in practice. He’s putting up a fight.” And Pouncey said Douglas is “stronger than me.”
The Dolphins also want to see another step from James, the 2014 first-round pick.
Pro Football Focus rated James only 80th among 84 offensive tackles last season, but those numbers are skewed because they include James’ uneven work at left tackle, filling in for Albert. The Dolphins believe James’ performance at right tackle was much better than those numbers suggest.
“I’ve seen improvement all the way around,” offensive line coach John Benton said. “His protection has improved. He’s a more consistent player. Maybe a little more physical.”
James said he studied each of his 1069 rookie snaps on tape this offseason.
“Each week, I would watch a game and really pick my bad ones first so I could build off them and what I wanted to focus on coming into the OTAs,” he said. “I would look at it before workouts. I would say, ‘My footwork was bad there’ and then work on it.”
James assessed his rookie season thusly: “I feel you can't really put a good or very good on it. I have got to be more consistent in my technique and everything.
“On the right side, I was getting to a level I was comfortable. Then I moved to the left, had some struggles. I'm hard on myself.”
Pouncey, meanwhile, is thrilled to return to center, where he was a Pro Bowler in 2013. Rewarded with a five-year, $52 million extension this past offseason, Pouncey selflessly offered to play guard last season when he returned from injury in the fifth game, because Samson Satele was playing well at center.
“You have to get used to talking to everybody again,” Pouncey said of playing center. “For the most part, it’s where I’m comfortable. It’s like the back of my hand. I want to be the best center in the NFL.”
Lazor said of Pouncey: “The biggest thing I can say is I love the way he runs the show. That’s what the center has to do and he’s built for it because… he’s a student of the game. Mike is exactly what we want.”
Feeling they needed a big back in reserve to replace injured Jay Ajayi, the Dolphins promoted former Patriots running back Jonas Gray from their practice squad. They also promoted guard/center Sam Brenner from the practice squad to the 53-man roster and released quarterback Logan Thomas and guard/center Jacques McClendon, as we broke earlier today on Twitter (@flasportsbuzz).
The Dolphins might sign Thomas to the practice squad; they're still intrigued by his skill set as a developmental quarterback.
The deadline to guarantee vested veterans’ salaries for the entire season is 4 p.m. Saturday, so cutting McClendon saves the Dolphins from paying his $745,000 base salary. He would be paid week to week if the Dolphins bring him back at any point this season.
Gray said he has caught on quickly to the Dolphins’ system. “All you have to do is learn the game plan,” he said.
Gray averaged 4.6 yards on 89 carries for the Patriots last season but was cut by New England last weekend. He joins starter Lamar Miller, top backup Damien Williams and LaMike James as running backs on the 53-man roster.
Ajayi is eligible to return from short-term IR for Miami's eighth game of the season.
### The Dolphins listed tackle Jason Fox (concussion) as doubtful for Sunday. Nobody is ruled out or questionable.
Branden Albert (knee), DeVante Parker (foot), Jamar Taylor (thigh) and LaMike James (shoulder) are listed as probable and expected to play.
The Heat's roster, which had been nearing the maximum-permitted 20 players, was reduced to 18 this week when the team decided against going through with a camp invitation to undrafted Virginia Commonwealth point guard Briante Weber because he is not yet at full strength after February knee surgery. RealGM.com had reported that the Heat was signing Weber.
His agent, Bill Neff, told me several hours ago that he hopes Weber can join the Heat's D-League affiliate in South Dakota by December, if not earlier. “He’s very good defensively, fits their style,” Neff said. "There were a lot of teams interested; the Heat were the best recruiters."
Miami auditioned 345-pound ex-Georgetown center Joshua Smith at AA Arena this week but did not immediately make an offer. He remains a possibility as Miami considers options to fill out its camp roster.
If you missed it, please see the last post for a roundtable discussion on the state of UM football and Fox’s odd plan to cover tonight’s UM-FAU game… Twitter: @flasportsbuzz