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Under Pressure: Jake Long must prove he fits in

Around the League will examine one key player under pressure on each team heading into the 2012 season. We kicked things off with the New York Jets on Tuesday and now continue our travels through the AFC East with a look at the Miami Dolphins.

Under Pressure: Jake Long

It's surprising we're even having this conversation, but the hottest seat in Miami might be under offensive tackle Jake Long.

From one angle, this is an absurd notion. The top overall pick in 2008 has started 62 games in four seasons and been named to the Pro Bowl after every one of those campaigns. Long has anchored Miami's line from the left-tackle spot for nearly half a decade, but there are lingering factors that turn this into an interesting season for the 27-year-old lineman:

  1. Let's begin right here: Jeff Ireland is already clicking away from this story -- along with some Dolphins fans -- but the Dolphins general manager's recent promises about Long's value to the organization gloss over some problems. To start, the drafting of left tackle Jonathan Martin out of Stanford. Martin is currently penciled in at right tackle, a position he hasn't played since high school. In college, Martin spent 37 games protecting Andrew Luck. It's hard to believe the team hasn't at least envisioned his future at left tackle. And here's why:
  1. Long is a 6-foot-7, 317-pound mauler, perfect for what former Miami masterminds Bill Parcells and Tony Sparano had in mind. Long is not a perfect fit for the scheme of new coach Joe Philbin, who desires agile and, by definition, leaner linemen. Martin himself is 6-6, but here's what Ireland said about Martin's place in the new-look line: "We're not going to be as much a power scheme as we've been in the past. So his athletic ability and ... quickness and ability to play in space transfers to this scheme probably a lot better than any other scheme."
  1. Ireland also credited Long with being able to make that switch, but let's talk about money: Martin is a second-round pick set to earn manageable dough under the cap-friendly rookie slotting system. Long is in the final year of a five-year, $57.75 million contract. He is due to earn $11.2 million this season before he becomes a free agent in 2013. What sort of money will the team fork over to a lineman who isn't an ideal fit for its scheme?
  1. Long's durability hangs on the fringe of this discussion as a looming issue. He suffered through knee and biceps injuries last season that forced him to miss a pair of regular-season games, the first two absences of his career.
  1. Ireland, on paper, completely disagrees: "Jake Long can transfer to any scheme, in any offense and any team in the National Football League, in my opinion," he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel last month. "I think the guy is a tremendous athlete. He's quick. He's strong. He can do it."

You can make the case that Long's name shouldn't even be in the same sentence with the term "under pressure." The argument here isn't against Long's ability (the majority of the league would fight for his services). The problem is a looming (very expensive) contract for a lineman who doesn't fit the Philbin mode. This makes the 2012 campaign a critical season for Long to prove he's the ideal left tackle in Miami for years to come.

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