The Dolphins’ offensive line has been the subject of scrutiny both on- and off-the-field over the past 12 months — the unit not only dealt with the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito bullying scandal that marred Miami’s entire 2013 season, but struggled both in run-blocking and protecting Ryan Tannehill, ranking 18th and 30th in those areas, respectively, according to Football Outsiders’ metrics. The team added reinforcements in Branden Albert, Shelley Smith, and Ju’Wuan James during the offseason, but was dealt another blow today, losing center Mike Pouncey for at least three months after he went underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip.
Per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, the tear was “significant,” and the postulated 90-day absence is the absolute minimum for Pouncey; on such a timetable, the 24-year-old would miss three or four games. However, as Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald writes, any unforeseen complications involving the injury and/or recovery could conceivably force Miami to place Pouncey on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, causing him to miss a minimum of six games.
Losing Pouncey for any amount of time would be significant for the Dolphins, as the 2013 Pro Bowler is one of the best centers in the NFL. After being drafted 15th overall in the 2011 draft, he has started 46 out of possible 48 games, and graded out as a top-13 center in both 2012 and 2013, according to Pro Football Focus’ advanced ratings.
Miami has several replacement options on its roster if it chooses to look internally for help. 2013 undrafted free agent Sam Brenner would probably get the first crack at the job, writes James Walker of ESPN.com; in fact, Walker tweets a projected Pouncey-less offensive line consisting of Albert, Dallas Thomas, Brenner, Smith, and James from left-to-right. Brenner, though, struggled in his limited opportunities at guard last season. Nate Garner is also capable of playing center in a pinch, as he replaced Pouncey for two games last year.
Chris Perkins of the Sun-Sentinel posits that Smith could also be a candidate to play center, though that would force the Dolphins to find a new right guard. And though unsigned rookie Billy Turner could potentially fill that role, the right side of Miami’s line would then consist of two first-year players. Complicating matters is that Turner had primarily been practicing at left guard — putting Smith at center and Turner at right guard would mean the Dolphins’ front five would have two players lining up at new positions.
A scan of our list of remaining free agents shows that there are several unsigned centers who could, if not start, at least add depth in Miami. Fernando Velasco and Kyle Cook were the primary starters for the Steelers and Bengals, respectively, in 2013, but both were below-average according to PFF. Robert Turner, Ryan Cook, and Dan Koppen all played well in 2012, but none played significant snaps last season. David Baas was also above-average two seasons ago, but is battling injuries and his return to the NFL is questionable. However, none of these players has experience in the type of up-tempo offense that new Dolphins coordinator Bill Lazor is implementing — a scheme that will require a center to “be smart and in shape,” tweets Walker.
The Dolphins head into 2014 expected to compete to for a playoff spot, and head coach Joe Philbin and his staff could be ousted if the team falters. Miami won’t want to risk fielding an offensive line that lacks competence at center, so even if Brenner ends up as Pouncey’s replacement, I’d expect them to at least bring in a veteran as depth during training camp and the early part of the regular season.