The Miami Dolphins wasted no time beginning their massive rebuilding project along the offensive line, signing left tackle Branden Albert shortly after the free agency market opened last Tuesday. Acquiring the next piece took a little more patience.
After aggressively pursuing Albert and generously paying him $25 million guaranteed, the Dolphins allowed the market to settle down before signing former St. Louis Rams‘ offensive guard Shelley Smith. On Friday, rookie GM Dennis Hickey and cap specialist Dawn Aponte agreed to a two-year, $5.5 million deal with Smith.
Unlike signing Albert, inking Smith won’t lead to any attention-grabbing headlines around the league. He’s simply too unknown, too unproven for that. Smith has only started eight games in his career, after all, including a mere two in 2013.
So what exactly did the Dolphins see in Smith to presumably make him a starter? The answer is obvious: Untapped potential.
With the Rams, Smith displayed glimpses of dominance as a run blocker. He’s as athletic as they come, possessing the ability to effectively pull and block into the second level of defense. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith’s run blocking prowess was seen in his fourth overall run blocking grade among offensive guards last season.
After entering 2013 with two glaciers at guard in Richie Incognito and John Jerry, the Dolphins are much more equipped to run a zone blocking scheme with an athlete like Smith at one of the guard spots.
It’s not that simple, though. If Smith is such a promising signing, why was he available in the first place? And why did it only take a contract containing $1.5 million guaranteed to snag him?
Inexperience is the obvious answer on both fronts. Many teams were unwilling to compensate Smith like a starter considering he’s never played a full 16-game season and only has eight games of starting action under his belt. However, the guard market is drying up quickly and there isn’t a rookie the Dolphins could obtain during May’s draft who would be any more of a sure thing.
Additionally, for as good as Smith has appeared on the move as a run blocker, he has been equally inept in pass protection. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith graded as the 24th-least efficient offensive guard in pass protection in 2013. He fared even worse in 2012, finishing the year as the site’s 19th-worst pass blocker at the position.
During those two seasons, Smith conceded five sacks, eight quarterback hits and 16 hurries in only 423 pass protection snaps. Those are high numbers for an offensive guard who typically engages with interior defensive linemen who are more accustomed to stuffing the run than rushing the passer.
Moving Smith to left guard, however, could help negate his issues. On the left side of the line, Smith would be sandwiched between too adept pass protectors in Albert at tackle and Mike Pouncey at center, which would potentially enable him to be a difference-maker on running plays and less of a liability on passing plays.
There’s also reason to believe Smith is more comfortable pass blocking at left guard as opposed to right guard. As a right-handed player, Smith’s dominant hand, arm and shoulder are theoretically stronger against interior rushers, making him a more natural fit at left guard. Data from Smith’s snaps last season support that notion.
In 2013, Smith was recorded pass blocking on 124 snaps at right guard and 76 snaps at left guard. On said snaps at right guard, Smith conceded two sacks, three quarterback hits and nine hurries. At left guard, however, Smith only allowed zero sacks, one quarterback hit and three hurries. That means he was detrimental in pass protection a whopping 11 percent of the time at right guard, but only about five percent of the time at left guard.
With such a small sample size, those figures could prove to be untrustworthy. But with the information at hand, placing Smith at left guard would seemingly offer Miami more promise.
For as awful as the Dolphins’ offensive line was at protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill last season, it was nearly as porous at paving holes on running plays, ranking 26th in rushing offense. Smith should help substantially in that area. If he can clean up his shortcomings in pass protection, Smith has the potential to become one of the league’s better interior linemen — quite the steal for the Dolphins considering his modest price.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.