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You want a challenge? Put yourself in the sneakers of new Dolphins offensive line coach John Benton. It doesn’t get any more imposing than having to put together an offensive line with five new starters.
Ask Benton about it and this big man with the warm smile gives you a slow chuckle. “I’ve never had something quite like this,” he said. “I’ve had four new starters before, but five? That’s a first. But I’ll go back to what I always say: ‘It is what it is.’”
And what it is for Benton is perhaps the most formidable task of a coaching career that has spanned more than two decades. Think about it. He’s in a six-week window right now to settle on a starting five, figure out the top reserves, and get them in position to jell as a cohesive unit by the time the New England Patriots come to town on Sept. 7.
“I fully expect to have a quality line,” Benton says. “I feel we have the talent. It’s how fast you come together and how hard you work. Will we be 100 percent refined against New England? No, but we’re going to have a heck of a game plan for what they do.”
The stakes, in truth, couldn’t be higher. You can make the argument that nothing else really matters on this football team unless the offensive line offers some semblance of consistency. We’re not talking Pro Bowl performances here. We’re talking about being adequate enough to give Ryan Tannehill some time, the running game some hope and the defense some rest.
That’s why on this team, at this precise moment in its development, the productivity of the offensive line becomes the most pressing storyline. The clock is ticking and Benton knows it.
There is a reason John Benton never looked at the tape of last season’s 58 sacks. That no longer matters. Those players, for the most part, are gone. The challenge now is creating a new identity, a new attitude, a new level of productivity.
“We have to cut down some of the competitions after the first preseason game,” Benton said. “We have to be down to one or two competitions. We have to get ready to play opening week. Call it jelling. Call it what you want. We have to quickly evaluate who is playing where and who is playing how much.”
So here is where things stand at this precise moment.
• The comfort zone appears to be on the left side where a pair of veterans reside: left tackle Brandon Albert and left guard Daryn Colledge. I believe that’s where the Dolphins will go in key rushing situations. Albert is the anchor of the line, Colledge offers smarts and consistency. The left side, I believe, is a clear, undeniable upgrade over a season ago.
“If you are looking for one area where we are in pretty good shape,” Benton said. “That’s the one area.”
• The right side is an entirely different matter. First-round pick Ja’Wuan James has been occupying right tackle since day one. He should be fine. Benton clearly sees his upside. Guard Dallas Thomas has, for the most part, been working with the starters at right guard. He has come a long way since last season.
It isn’t one of those players that are a concern as much as the combination of both. The inexperience. The learning curve. The communication. Rookie Billy Turner is battling Thomas for his right guard spot. Benton is exploring all sorts of other combinations as well. Thomas, for instance, played some at tackle in Wednesday’s practice. A decision has to be made soon. The question: How soon?
• Center remains the biggest concern. With Mike Pouncey out, Shelley Smith has taken most of the snaps. But Smith has never played center in the pros and there have been too many botched shotgun snaps at practice. It doesn’t help any that back-up center Sam Brenner is missing time with an undisclosed injury. This is a fluid situation. Nate Garner got some snaps at center on Thursday and he even had one faulty snap.
Benton just shakes his head: “I’m concerned about center, but it is what it is. We just have to find a way to do well at that position.”
Find a way. Come up with five starters. Create some chemistry. Build some consistency. All with New England rapidly approaching. John Benton’s plate is overflowing these days.
“We’ll be fine,” he said.
An entire football team is counting on just that.
(On Monday, AC in the AM takes a close look at Coach Joe Philbin entering his third season).
The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed by The Finsiders Blog represent those of individual writers, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions, policies or desires of the Miami Dolphins organization, front office, coaches and executives. Writers' views are formulated independently from any inside information and/or conversation with Dolphins officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.
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