The Dolphins’ offensive line, with new starting tackles, has been a work in progress since training camp began.
Amid the changes is an important constant: Sunday in Cleveland, center Mike Pouncey will start his third opener in three seasons. His presence alone could prevent the Dolphins from being overly concerned about a line in flux.
Pro Football Focus last season graded Pouncey as the eighth-best center in the NFL, giving him favorable marks for pass blocking, screen blocking and run blocking. His only average statistic was penalties allowed.
He graded four spots higher than his twin, Maurkice, an All-Pro center for Pittsburgh in each of his three seasons.
“I’ve become one of the best centers in the NFL,” Mike said.
Last year, when left tackle Jake Long was hurt and Jonathan Martin struggled to replace him, Pouncey kept the line from collapsing.
Now, with Long leaving for St. Louis, Martin learning to play left tackle full time and the Dolphins bringing in veteran right tackle Tyson Clabo from Atlanta, the team again will rely on Pouncey to maintain order.
“He picks up everything so easily and he’s one of the fastest centers I’ve seen,” Clabo said.
Just Tuesday, Pouncey got another player to chaperone when the Dolphins signed guard Danny Watkins, a former first-round pick released by Philadelphia, and cut back-up center and guard Josh Samuda.
Former Dolphins offensive tackle Richmond Webb said he has been impressed by Pouncey’s ability to transition from an All-American guard at the University of Florida — where Maurkice was the center until Mike’s senior season — to a Pro Bowl-caliber NFL center. Webb said it’s easier to move from center to guard.
“I’ve seen other guys try to make that transition from guard to center and it’s a lot tougher,” said Webb, a Pro Bowl selection seven times. “For him to be able to make those changes and still be effective and play at a high level like he does, that just speaks volumes about his athletic ability.”
Pouncey was drafted by a franchise with a history of successful centers. Jim Langer (1970-79) and Dwight Stephenson (1980-87) are Hall of Famers.
Stephenson said Pouncey has only begun to tap his potential.
“He’s got athleticism, strength and he’s smart,” Stephenson said. “He has the leadership abilities to be one of the best to ever play the game.”
Pouncey wasn’t born until two years after Stephenson retired, but he knows Stephenson’s game well. Coaches often show Pouncey and his teammates film of Stephenson and a line that let Dan Marino be sacked just 13 times in Marino’s record-breaking 1984 season.
“They play it all the time for us,” Pouncey said. “We watch it in the O-line room to joke around, see how those guys played back in the day. Those guys were heck of football players.”
Pouncey said he sees a lot of Stephenson in himself.
“He was a very explosive guy, much like me,” Pouncey said. “Not too big but he could beat guys to the spot.”
Pouncey is listed at 6-foot-5, 303 pounds. NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes, a former offensive lineman at Florida State and in the NFL, said he would like to see Pouncey add 10 to 15 pounds. Otherwise, he could find no fault with either of the Pounceys.
“Their games are very similar,” Dukes said. “They are tough football players and they are good guys, too.”
Their good-guy reputations took a hit this summer when they were photographed at their joint birthday party wearing “Free Hernandez” hats in support of Aaron Hernandez. The former New England Patriots tight end, who is facing murder charges in Massachusetts, played with the Pounceys at Florida.
Maurkice apologized for wearing the hat but Mike deflected questions about it. When training camp opened, Maurkice said the Dolphins told Mike not to publicly address the issue.
But Mike told The Palm Beach Post that “you learn from all your mistakes.”
“No one is perfect in life,” he said. “It’s a mistake I made and I’ll get over it. If you’re a leader on the field you have to be one off the field.”
On the field, Mike still considers his brother — who is one minute younger — to be the better player, but he said he is catching up.
“He’s been more proven in the NFL,” Mike said of Maurkice. “He’s a three-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro. He deserves all the credit right now. I’m just learning from him. My day will come.”
The brothers go to each other for advice. Mike has been quizzing Maurkice about the Browns, whom the Steelers face twice a year.
“I call him and ask them how those guys play, their tendencies,” Mike said. “It’s just good having a brother play in the NFL, especially at the same position.”