Miami Dolphins fans received some unfortunate news on Monday evening. Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey could reportedly miss the first month or two of the season after undergoing hip surgery.
On the surface, that’s a huge blow to a club that is desperate for better offensive line play. Following a season that saw 58 sacks and inept run blocking to go along with the media circus surrounding the line’s bullying saga, Miami underwent an extensive rebuilding project up front.
Branden Albert was acquired in free agency to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill‘s blindside, Ja’Wuan James was nabbed in the first round to solidify the right tackle spot and interior players, Shelley Smith and Billy Turner, were added on the open market and in the draft, respectively.
The unit can’t be much worse than it was in 2013 and any change was a step in the right direction after such a disastrous campaign both on and off the field. But with so many new pieces, there’s certainly no guarantee the group will be drastically improved.
The one constant the Dolphins were relying on was Pouncey, who, despite some off-field issues, is considered one of the game’s best centers. However, Monday’s news means the Dolphins will have to make do without him for as many as seven games, the required leave for those placed on the regular-season PUP list — a possible destination for Pouncey.
While that’s not what the Dolphins wanted to hear a month out from training camp, it’s nothing that should significantly reduce their chances of playing well in September and October.
For one, there’s reason to believe Pouncey is a bit overrated. He may be a talented athlete, but he’s not an elite center — at least he hasn’t been.
Perhaps Miami’s new offense, constructed by new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, will do wonders for Pouncey once he’s healthy. The Dolphins should run the football more often, utilizing more screens and plays that allow Pouncey to get out into space where he excels.
However, Pouncey didn’t generate much push as a run blocker in 2013. According to Pro Football Focus, 20 centers graded more effectively run blocking than Pouncey and 12 graded higher in accumulative overall grading.
Some point to Pouncey’s first Pro Bowl appearance as evidence he was on top of his game, but that honor was brought about by reputation much more so than his play. There were multiple centers in both conferences who performed at a higher level.
The Dolphins weren’t necessarily in dire straits when Pouncey missed time last year with a gallbladder issue, either. They beat the San Diego Chargers, a playoff team, in Week 10 without Pouncey and nearly defeated one of the best teams in the league, the Carolina Panthers, the following week without him again.
That’s not to say Pouncey’s replacements, Nate Garner and Sam Brenner, even sniffed his caliber of play, but it did show that losing a center, however talented, isn’t as devastating as it may seem.
Center simply isn’t among the most vital positions in today’s game. It doesn’t protect the edge from fierce pass rushers, nor does it make plays with the football.
In fact, of the league’s top 10 centers last season — in accordance to Pro Football Focus’ grading metrics — six played for teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs. And the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks — all playoff teams — started a center who finished in the bottom 15 of Pro Football Focus’ center rankings.
Furthermore, quality centers seemingly emerge from nowhere every season. Evidence of this is seen in Pro Football Focus’ metrics. Of the 10 centers slotted at the top of the site’s accumulative rankings in 2013, three began their careers as sixth-round picks and one was a former undrafted free agent.
It wouldn’t be an unprecedented event if Sam Brenner, who split time at center and guard as a rookie, Tyler Larsen, an undrafted free agent from Utah State, Nate Garner, the team’s most versatile backup, or Shelley Smith, a highly athletic lineman capable of moving from guard to center, replaced Pouncey and excelled in doing so.
The Dolphins’ new-look offensive line likely won’t operate as smoothly without Pouncey. His experience and athleticism will certainly be missed. But his loss is nothing to panic over. Although Pouncey makes the Dolphins a better team, his absence shouldn’t make them significantly worse.
Cody Strahm is an NFL Senior Writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter.