With the 2023 NFL season approaching, the South Florida Florida Today News reviews 10 storylines to keep an eye on in a 10-part series ahead of the first day of Miami Dolphins training camp set for July 26th.
Looking ahead to the 2023 season, there is a strong belief that the Dolphins will go as far as their defender Tua Tagovailoa.
But perhaps equally important is the play of the offensive line in front of him, because this unit is at the heart of everything the Dolphins do offensively, and because it is responsible for keeping Tagovailoa upright.
And the offensive line looks solid in three of its five starting positions. The question ahead of training camp, which begins with a veterans report on Tuesday and first practice next Wednesday, is whether Miami can get what it needs in right tackle and left back.
For all intents and purposes, Austin Jackson, approaching his fourth season, and Liam Eichenberg as he enters his third season, will get their chance – perhaps their last chance – to fill their respective positions on the Dolphins in 2023.
Picked in the first round of the same 2020 draft as Tagovailoa, Jackson will be tasked with defending the left quarterback’s blind side, so his role is particularly important.
He entered a pivotal third season in 2022 but he came and went and he showed no improvement as back-to-back ankle injuries derailed his season. He went to the reserve with injuries after each of the two games played.
Eichenberg, who was traded in the second round by the Dolphins in the 2021 draft, was battling for the left-back position early last season, but he was nearing midway when he went down with a knee ailment.
While the two have five NFL seasons combined, Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel remains convinced they need a second year in the same offense.
“If you talk to any offensive lineman, you will see that a significant increase in their game in the system they play is 100% of the time in year 2,” McDaniel said. “So what’s the best second year in Austin’s or Liam’s career that people judge them by, the second year of the system? The answer is: it didn’t happen.”
Miami changed offensive coordinators each year while Jackson and Eichenberg were around until 2023 when they returned with the McDaniel offense and Frank Smith returned as offensive coordinator. Although this is with the next change of coaches of the offensive line, the transition from Matt Applebaum to Butch Barry in position.
The two have also moved down Miami’s offensive line over the years. Everyone had a chance for a left grab before moving to where they are now. Jackson even tried out at left back for most of 2021. During organized team events and the mandatory mini-camp, Eichenberg hit the ball in the center and starter Connor Williams was absent from the team facilities.
Jackson came through off-season training looking leaner and fitter after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his right ankle. Among three 2020 first-round picks to decide on their fifth-year contract option, Jackson and cornerback Noah Igbinogene did not exercise their rights while Tagovailoa’s pick was chosen.
If one or both of them can make a significant contribution to the Dolphins’ offensive line, especially if Jackson reinforces the right tackle position, it could be a huge benefit to Miami’s entire offensive game. McDaniel can trust the running game for more rush attempts, no matter what tail is back there, and Tagovailoa can be given more time to progress.
Miami has a four-time pro bowler on the left tackle at Terron Armstead, although he has his own injury worries, which he has always overcome. Williams also established himself well as a free agent last year, moving from guard to center, and right guard Robert Hunt has been a solid player in his first three seasons in the NFL.
During the off-season, the Dolphins didn’t buy an expensive lineman. They took a more modest step, bringing in inside offensive lineman Dan Feeney in the first wave of free agents, and then veteran former first-round picks who didn’t quite match the scores put up by Isaiah Wynn and Cedric Ogbuehi in May.
Names are not sexy. They provide depth and competition in the positions of Jackson and Eichenberg. This while Miami chose not to bring back Brandon Schell, who was a formidable substitute for a proper tackle for Jackson. The Dolphins also have defensemen Robert Jones and Lester Cotton, and players returning from last year’s team include Kendall Lamm and Jeron Christian. The latter three were only added at the end of the 2022 season and given another chance with the team, while Jones enters Year 3 as a solid backup after being unselected in 2021.
In what areas will we see tangible improvements from Year 2 Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel?
How would Vic Fangio’s Dolphins defense be better than Josh Boyer’s or Brian Flores’ defense?
What is a successful season for Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa?
Can the Dolphins offense succeed beyond Tyreke Hill’s big plays?