Dolphins’ speedy playmakers star in training camp, but they aren’t the key to success

·5 min read
Al Diaz/adiaz@miamiherald.com

Every day, it seems another highlight surfaces on social media, stirring more excitement about the Dolphins offense.

One day, it’s a 50-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Another day, it’s wideout Jaylen Waddle freezing up a defensive back and blowing by him in 1-on-1 drills.

The potential of the Dolphins’ offense is seen through their speedy playmakers. But as the regular season inches closer, the offensive line remains the key to a successful year.

The assembling of the Dolphins’ coaching staff itself underscored the importance of rectifying an offensive line that was one of the NFL’s worst units last season.

First-year head coach Mike McDaniel made his mark as run game coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers before spending the 2021 season as offensive coordinator. His offensive coordinator in Miami, Frank Smith, has a history of developing linemen and even snapped to Ben Roethlisberger at Miami of Ohio, holding experience that’s assisting Connor Williams in his transition to center.

And Matt Applebaum, hired from Boston College, had a reputation for building top offensive lines in college.

With two veteran additions and a new outside zone running scheme, the Dolphins’ offensive line is beginning to take shape as questions are answered but others remain three weeks into training camp.

The team on Monday released its first unofficial depth chart, which confirmed the starting lineup the team is expected to take into Week 1 against the New England Patriots. While McDaniel previously confirmed Terron Armstead would play left tackle, the chart listed Liam Eichenberg at left guard, Williams at center, Robert Hunt at right guard and Austin Jackson at right tackle. Armstead and Williams were held out of the team’s preseason opener against the Buccaneers on Saturday night.

Armstead, a three-time Pro Bowler with the New Orleans Saints, is expected to be the focal point of the team’s running game with his power and athleticism. The 31-year-old has gradually increased his participation in practice as part of the team’s veteran maintenance program but had his most extensive work to date in Thursday’s joint practice with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Armstead participated in all of the team drills until pulling himself out of the final session.

“We’re getting close. We’re trying to be conscious of load,” Armstead said. “I get in there and I’m having fun and it’s hard to be conscious of sticking to the plan, sticking to the load. I just didn’t want to go overboard dealing with some pain. It’s time to be smart. Right now it’s still August. Getting ready for the live bullets.”

When in the lineup on a full-time basis, Armstead gives the Dolphins a top-flight tackle to anchor their unit. And with Hunt’s previous knowledge of the wide-zone scheme — he played in a similar offense in college — the team has another lineman who they hope will be proficient in executing the offense early on.

“We’ve got a chance to be really dangerous in the run game,” Armstead said. “We’ve got to get more reps at it. It’s a different scheme for me and a lot of others. The running backs are getting on track — besides Raheem [Mostert], he knows the offense in and out. It’s a scheme that you’ve got to get reps and know exactly where you need to fit, where the running backs are trying to go and the landmarks and stuff. That’s something we’re going to continuously work on and improve. Once we get to a place of comfort in that landmark and scheme, it’s going to be a real weapon for us.”

Coincidentally for the Dolphins, the center of the team’s offensive line may be the center of their concerns. Williams, who hasn’t played the position in an NFL regular-season game, has often produced high snaps or had bad under-center exchanges with Tagovailoa. Despite the acclimation period, Williams said he remains “ fully confident as I’ve been at any position prior to the season.”

“Obviously it’s just perfecting your craft,” he said. “It’s day in and day out, just trying to hit the [strike zone]. We get reps whenever we can, however we can. It’s just being able to get it in the box every time. Even in those stressed-out situations where you know you you’ve got to move wide really quick right at the snap of the ball, being able to snap it and then get out, and being able to perfect that.”

For all the changes on the line, the Dolphins might be best aided by internal improvements from a pair of young, returning offensive linemen. After playing — and struggling — in multiple spots in 2021, Eichenberg and Jackson are beginning to settle into their respective positions. Jackson, the No. 18 pick in the 2020 Draft who played at left tackle last season before moving to left guard, said he’s “a lot more comfortable” returning to tackle.

“A lot of things happened over the course of last season,” he said. “That was a great learning experience for me. I definitely feel like my confidence is at an all-time high, especially moving back out to tackle. I love playing the position. I think there’s a lot more confidence.”

The pair of practices in Tampa offered glimpses of progress — and room for growth. On Wednesday, the line failed to frequently open up running lanes as the offense didn’t record a single touchdown in team drills. A day later, the team held up in pass protection against a formidable defensive front as the offense dominated the morning practice.

“We did a lot of really good things,” Armstead said. “We improved in communication. I’m really excited about that. Technique-wise, I saw a lot of guys implement things they were struggling with earlier in camp. I think Austin Jackson had a great two days. Rob Hunt too. We’re all just trying to get better — our wins and losses — and minimize those losses as we keep progressing.”