MIAMI GARDENS — The guard who found out he’s now a center says he’s having more fun than at any other point in his career.
The tackle who by rights should be an anchor on the offensive line has barely played all season.
The guard who rarely gets talked about is playing nearly as well as any guard in the league.
And their rookie position coach not only is making it through much of the season without a single hiccup (more than some of his predecessors could say) but is just hitting stride.
No, the Dolphins’ offensive line isn’t a finished product, nor can it be considered among the best in the league. But if you’re charting the progress of a unit that for years has been a focal point in Miami for all the wrong reasons, you can only conclude that despite all that has occurred, the arrow is pointing straight upward.
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A total of three sacks allowed over the past four games and an energized ground game that defenses can no longer ignore will do that.
How odd it will be Sunday when the man who was supposed to be the centerpiece of Miami’s line, left tspanckle Lspanremy Tunsil, comes to town as a member of the Houston Texans.
Tunsil was expected to be Miami’s anchor, perhaps for the rest of this decade, after the Dolphins took him in the first round in 2016. But following the 2018 season, the Texans presented Chris Grier with an offer no GM could refuse — an offer that directly and indirectly helped enable Grier to parlay that bounty into such key players as Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Jevon Holland and Bradley Chubb.
It also left Grier with the chore of having to start from scratch to build a line that in Tunsil’s day included four first-round draft picks. Pro Football Focus would argue he’s on the right track. The service rates Rob Hunt fourth among 83 guards, Connor Williams fifth among 39 centers and Terron Armstespand 14th among 80 tackles.
Put that together and Miami’s line has climbed from No. 32 (despand lspanst) espanrly this sespanson to No. 16 in PFF’s rankings.
“We always knew we can play,” Hunt said.
Williams played well through his first four seasons in Dallas. Then he signed with the Dolphins as a free agent and was told he’d be moving from guard to center. Only 10 games into his gig, he’s graded among the league’s best.
“You know, I haven’t had this much fun in the league,” Williams said. “So it’s definitely been a nice change of pace.”
Remember those bad snaps by Williams during preseason?
Williams endured growing pains over the summer. Not many days passed without one or two shotgun snaps either hitting Tua Tagovailoa at eye level or challenging him to snag it overhead. By mid-August, Williams faced a blunt question from a reporter about so many snaps missing their target.
“That’s kind of harsh,” he said.
Today? When citing what pleases him most about the performance of the entire line, Williams points to consistency.
“I had high expectations for Connor playing center,” line coach Matt Applebaum said. “So it’s not like he’s necessarily doing something that I didn’t expect. Not to make light of it by any means, because I do think it’s very difficult for somebody to make a position change, especially going to center if you’ve never done it before.”
Williams also has earned the respect of offensive coordinator Frank Smith.
“The hardest part when you’re a pro player is be willing to be uncomfortable,” Smith said. “Because when we ask you to do something new, it’s, ‘Well, I’ve done this in the past …’ ”
Hunt’s job isn’t new. Neither is his production. In his third season, perhaps he’ll attract Pro Bowl consideration.
“I know that he has really, really lofty goals for himself,” Applebaum said. “And I think that’s for good reason.”
Armstead has not disappointed as the team’s prized catch in free agency. A toe injury has prevented him from practicing most of the season, but he has found other ways to contribute, including serving as a mentor for the group.
That leaves two spots. Robert Jones has impressed the past two weeks after taking over at left guard for Lispanm Eichenberg. Brspanndon Shell has started the past five games at right tackle.
Jones, 23, joined the Dolphins in May 2021 as an undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee State. Shell, 30, is the great-nephew of Raiders Hall of Famer Art Shell. He spent six seasons primarily starting for the Jets and Seahawks but thought he was done with football, ready to turn his attention to a couple of businesses he has, when the Dolphins called in September.
“It’s really a blessing to be a part of a team, especially part of this team,” Shell said, adding he’s doing “what I love.”
Dolphins’ offensive numbers impressive in past month
While inserting Jones and Shell, the Dolphins continued to improve. During their three-game losing streak, during which time all three quarterbacks were under duress and injured, the Dolphins allowed nine sacks. Over the past month: three. In that period, the offense ranks first or second in the league in yards per game, passing yards, yards per pass attempt, passer rating, interception rate, sacks allowed and goal-to-go offense.
It’s in line with what the Dolphins sought years ago. At one point, Tunsil was part of a Dolphins line that included fellow first-round picks Mike Pouncey, Branden Albert and Ja’Wuan James.
Jackson was a first-round pick two years ago. Now that he’s mending from an ankle injury, the question is where to plug him in, if anywhere. The Dolphins are only suggesting that the Jackson fans remember from his first couple of seasons isn’t the player they expect to see now.
“We’re excited that Austin is getting healthy,” Applebaum said. “We think he has a bright future. It was disappointing to see him go down in Week 1 so early. He had a really purposeful offseason and I really think he made a lot of strides.”
While there should be no question about the importance of keeping Tagovailoa healthy, the biggest development over the past month has been the improvement of the ground game, which now includes running back Jeff Wilson. The Dolphins ran for 195 yards last time out, against Cleveland, and have averaged 122.5 rushing yards during their winning streak.
Asked to pinpoint the biggest area of improvement, Hunt said, “You definitely want to say the run game.”
Hunt credited both the players and coach Mike McDaniel’s wide-zone scheme.
“The scheme is very O-line friendly,” he said.
Know what else is O-line friendly? Facing the league’s 32nd-ranked run defense, which is what the Dolphins will do Sunday.