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Dolphins training camp preview: Offensive line

Dolphins training camp preview: Offensive line
Branden Albert was headed for the Pro Bowl until he was derailed by a season-ending knee injury against Detroit, meaning he only appeared in nine games. The OL, and the team, fell apart after his injury. Albert proved his value both by his presence and absence. (Jim Rassol / Sun Sentinel)

Training camp opens on July 30, which means the Dolphins will have roughly five weeks to select their starting guards and whip their offensive line into game shape before the regular season opener. That's not much time, especially considering Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert is still recovering from a serious knee injury.

If Albert returns to full health quickly, and the guard positions get settled, this group has a chance to show real improvement.

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Here's a look at the offensive line entering training camp:

Projected starters: C Mike Pouncey, LG Dallas Thomas, RG Billy Turner, LT Branden Albert, RT Ja'Wuan James

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Key reserves: G-T Jason Fox, C-G Sam Brenner, G Jamil Douglas, G-T Jeff Linkenbach, C-G J.D. Walton

OL expected on 53-man roster: Nine or 10

2014 unit performance: Bad. They gave up 46 sacks, 10th-worst in the NFL. Injuries to Pouncey and Albert really hurt. Rushing offense (12th in NFL) was respectable.

Offseason moves: Departures have been more significant than additions. Guards Daryn Colledge (13 starts) and Shelley Smith (three starts) and center Samson Satele (16 starts) won't be back. That's 32 starts gone. In addition, guard-tackle Nate Garner, a key reserve the past few seasons, won't return.

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The Dolphins drafted guard Jamil Douglas (Arizona State) in the fourth round and he could contend for a starting job. They also signed guard-tackle Jeff Linkenbach from Kansas City and he could also contend for a starting guard job. Guard-center J.D. Walton, signed from the New York Giants, seems a capable backup and possibly a reliable part-time starter.

The Dolphins, well aware they need an upgrade at guard, sent a committee of players to woo guard La'el Collins, the undrafted standout from LSU, but they were unsuccessful. Collins, a first-round talent whose name came up in a murder investigation, signed with Dallas. The Dolphins are believed to have interest in Philadelphia Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis, but there's no indication they're among the leaders for his services.

Questions entering training camp: There are lots of questions. The biggest is Albert, a Pro Bowl selection in 2013 with Kansas City. He tore two ligaments in his right knee midway through last season. His return is more important than settling the two guard positions. If Albert doesn't return to 100 percent healthy quickly, so that he's able to protect QB Ryan Tannehill's blind side, the trickle-down effect on the offense could be tremendous. The Dolphins need Albert back as soon as possible. If he's not ready, Fox starts and that position becomes a concern.

As for the guard positions, Thomas (LG) and Turner (RG) could eventually develop into solid starters. But they haven't showed that will happen by the Sept. 13 season opener. That could spell trouble in both the pass and run games. Perhaps the Dolphins sign Mathis, or perhaps Douglas or Linkenbach wins a starting job. Either way, it seems at least one guard spot will open the season as a huge question mark, and possibly both.

The outlook is bright at center and right tackle. At center, Pouncey, a two-time Pro Bowl pick who got a contract extension, is among the team's best players regardless of position. James, who was outstanding as a rookie, has a bright future at right tackle. There are no concerns with either player. They're the bright spots. Combine them with Albert and the Dolphins have the framework of an outstanding OL.

Depth is decent considering among Fox, Linkenbach, Walton, Brenner and Douglas they have a good amount of experience and backup-caliber talent.

2015 outlook: Shaky. Albert (knee) needs to get healthy. That's the priority. He's expected to be ready for the Sept. 13 opener at Washington. And the guard positions need to be solidified. The AFC East is full of dangerous DTs. Failure at the guard positions could bring down what could be a strong offense. If Albert can't start the opener look for Fox to take his job, which might make the entire unit vulnerable. And, no, there's still no word on the Dolphins signing Mathis.

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