Countdown To Training Camp: Guards


The Miami Dolphins are set with their starting LT in Jake Long.  Their RT in Vernon Carey.  Their Center Jake Grove.  While Justin Smiley is a lock to start at the LG position, the right guard position is not only up in the air but the battle for depth should be a good one.

Last year the Dolphins found a gem in 6th round selection Donald Thomas but lost him for the year after game 1.  A second injury slowed down his return.  Can he make it back and will he progress enough to win the starting RG spot?  Let’s take a look at who he is competing against.  Here is our countdown to training camp:  Guards.

You can hear about all the offensive line tonight on as we explore the line of scrimmage from the offensive side.  Join us at 8PM Eastern time as “On the Fin Side” continues it’s look toward training camp.

Donald Thomas: Taken with the Dolphins 2nd 6th round pick in the 2008 draft, Thomas quickly became the penciled in starter…while still working in OTA’s.  The Dolphins swapped right guards throughout training camp but after day 3 when Thomas received his first full day in pads as the number 1, it became clear that he wouldn’t give it up.

Thomas is tough and despite the fact he started football late (walk-on in college), he has the mental make-up and the body size to move defenders and play at the NFL level.  A rare late round gem that is learning from some of the best Oline coaches in the NFL.  Still, there is always a but, and in Thomas’ case, that “but” will make this training camp anything but his job to lose.

Thomas was placed on IR last season after the opening game for a Lisfranc fracture in his foot.  Thomas recovered quickly from the injury and began to do the off-season workouts only to tear his pectoral muscle lifting weights.  Is this going to be a continual problem or just simply bad luck?

It appears that Thomas has recovered from his torn pec and at last report he was lifting weights at normal ranges.  Still, the fact that he missed all of last season means that he lost a valuable year in his development.  That will allow other guards on the team an opportunity to step into that starting spot.

Prediction: Too hard to tell now and without pads but Thomas’ downfall could be another injury regardless of how minor it may be.  It’s hard to imagine that a healthy Thomas couldn’t beat out Ikechuku Ndukwe or Shawn Murphy but can he beat out a healthy Joe Berger?  That’s what training camp is for.

Joe Berger: Berger was one of the Dolphins first free agent signings.  He played back-up center and guard in Dallas but only saw 3 games in his time there.  Berger was on the Miami Dolphins roster in 2005 and 2006.  He won the starting job at center during training camp but an injury put him on IR and he was released a year later.

Berger knows the Tony Sparano offensive line philosophy and his value to the team as both a guard and center will do him well.  Can he steal the RG spot away from Donald Thomas or do the Dolphins value him too much as a back-up center to Jake Grove who has an injury history?

Prediction: Berger is in no danger of losing his roster spot unless he just melts down in training camp.  The Dolphins have only one listed center on the roster which means that Berger is in line for a lot of action this year if injury strikes.  Berger will likely push Thomas for the starting guard spot and it should be a tough battle between them.

Andy Alleman: Alleman was a 3rd round 2007 draft pick by the Saints and upon his release was claimed off waivers by 6 teams including New England.  Miami was awarded the center/guard.  Alleman and Berger will serve as the back-up centers on the roster and last season when Samson Satele was shifted to RG, Alleman did well suiting up at the center position.

Alleman will battle with Joe Berger for the number 2 Center position while Berger will battle with Donald Thomas for the starting RG job.  If Thomas wins out at RG, the battle between the two behind Grove could be a good one.  Alleman is a strong physical lineman who showed good footwork and quickness last year but he still needs to progress to become a full-time player for the Phins.  Something that won’t likely happen anytime soon.

Prediction: Alleman is not going to be the outright starter on this team, not for a couple of years anyway.  Alleman will keep his roster spot because of his flexibility and high ceiling of potential but for now he is a back-up who can like Berger can play both center and guard positions.

Shawn Murphy: The Dolphins moved up in round 4 of the 2008 draft to take the son of former Atlanta Braves star Dale Murphy.  So far that is still his only claim to fame.  Smallish in size for a Bill Parcells type lineman, Murphy quickly fell off the depth chart during last years training camp.  Out shined by 6th rounder Donald Thomas.

Murphy struggled with footwork and speed and at times was unable to move the defenders.  He did however manage to make the final 53 but remained inactive for all 16 regular season games.  The Dolphins are not in a position to do the same thing with Murphy this year.

Murphy has bulked up in the weight room and his off-season conditioning program will serve him well.  Even though he is a 4th round pick, he still has an uphill battle that could make it hard to find a roster spot.  The Dolphins, who have been thin on the offensive line suddenly find themselves, like at the WR position, holding the cards of a lot of unproven potential.  Can Murphy step it up?  He has to.

Prediction:  Murphy is on the bubble in my opinion.  Despite his youth, the Dolphins have better options with more experience in Alleman and Berger and even Ndukwe.  Murphy is still raw and the Dolphins have a couple of other lineman with raw talent potential.  I don’t think the Phins will keep him on the final 53 only to keep him inactive again.  He may be a candidate for the practice squad but if he lands there, it likely means that his time in Miami could be over.  Murphy will have to have made some very solid progress from last year to impress the coaches enough to warrant making the team.

J.D. Quinn: Quinn went undrafted in this past April’s draft and that was more as a result of off-field issues than on-field play.  Quinn was one of the Oklahoma Sooner’s who were kicked off the team for NCAA violations stemming from work related compensation.  He transferred to Montana where he excelled as the teams guard.

Quinn could have been a mid-round draft pick had his off-field issues been curtailed and the Dolphins will keep a close eye on what Quinn does while he is not in camp.  When he is in camp, Quinn, 6-4 300 pounds, will get a chance to show that he can play at this level.  Quinn is a powerful guard and can move defenders out of the hole.  He has solid upper body strength and a good base with adequate footwork to move laterally along the line of scrimmage while holding his ground.  While the opponents against Montana are not as big as say the NFL, the opponents against Oklahoma are and Quinn held his own very well in short term with the Sooners.

While Quinn played well at Oklahoma, he struggled his final 2 years at Montana, perhaps because of more off-field issues that resulted in 3 DUI charges.  Quinn can be a brutally nasty player on the field and that’s why the Dolphins brought him in to the fold.  The question is has he grown up?

Prediction: Quinn on the field, will push Shawn Murphy for what could be the last spot on the team and if he can regain his earlier college play, he will have little problem doing so.  If he can’t, it could be a push.  Qunn off the field will battle himself and the Dolphins have him on a short leash.  Quinn can’t afford any more DUI’s or anything else.  I think Quinn gets it together and realizes that this may be his only shot at making it in the NFL.  If it comes down to Quinn and Murphy…my money is on Quinn.

Ikechuku Ndukwe:  Ndukwe was forced into the starter roll last year when the team lost Donald Thomas.  He struggled and was replaced but found the starting roll again later in the season when Justin Smiley went down.  As a back-up Ndukwe did well and later in the season he performed at a higher level.  Ndukwe is young entering only his 3rd NFL season.  He has proven that he can be an adequate back-up in this league but as a starter still has much to prove and gain by more experience.

With Berger on the roster and Thomas coming back from injury, Ndukwe could find himself backing up Smiley on the left side.

Prediction: It’s unlikely that Ndukwe loses his job unless he struggles and Quinn and Murphy excel.  He won’t be the starter unless there is an injury to someone else, but he could compete with Berger given that he has one year up on him in Miami…but I doubt it.

Mark Lewis: Lewis was signed by the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent out of Oregon where Lewis played 4 years.  Originally a tackle, the Ducks eventually moved him to guard.  Lewis has a long way to go to make the roster and could simply be auditioning for another tryout somewhere else.  It’s unlikely that he makes the teams practice squad unless he shows enough upside to the coaches.

Prediction: I don’t see the Dolphins keeping him on the roster throughout training camp.

Justin Smiley: Smiley is road grading mean SOB who the Dolphins made a priority in the infant hours of the 2008 free agent period.  Smiley who left San Francisco coming of an injury riddled career easily became the starter at LG providing then rookie Jake Long with a solid veteran leader on his right.

Smiley was placed on IR later in the year when he broke his ankle, a freak injury that occurred when someone rolled up on him.  Smiley has rehabbed enough to do drills in camp and it appears that he will undoubtedly be ready to go when training camp kicks off in August.

Smiley is an important piece on the offensive line as he will work between the “Two Jakes” leading the charge on the left side.  A brilliant blocker, Smiley can move a line almost at will at handled larger opponents easily last season before going down to injury.

Prediction: There is no reason to believe that Smiley will not return to his playing capabilities this season.