How Dolphins’ Jackson and Eichenberg are doing at new positions and what they changed

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The Dolphins essentially had two options with their highly-drafted offensive linemen who struggled last season: A) sign veterans to challenge or replace them or B) make them potential starters at new positions.

The Dolphins chose Door No. 2, and while it’s too strong and too soon to say the team is trying to salvage Austin Jackson and Liam Eichenberg, it’s evident to anyone with eyes that both must play much better this season to become longterm NFL starters.

Jackson -- who struggled badly at left tackle to start last season (after missing the opener with COVID) and was uneven, at best, at left guard for the remainder of the season -- has found a new home at right tackle, as The Miami Herald reported in March and Jackson subsequently confirmed.

Eichenberg - who was at right tackle early last season, then moved in October to left tackle, where he encountered all kinds of trouble - confirmed he has relocated to left guard, at least as of now.

And he has thrived in unpadded practices; he wore an orange jersey at Friday’s practice, signifying that the coaching staff considered him the top performer in Thursday’s practice.

We won’t know until October, or possibly beyond, whether each has the ability to become above average NFL starters at their new positions.

But this much is clear: The Dolphins - neither general manager Chris Grier nor the coaching staff - was ready to throw up their hands and give up on the idea of each remaining NFL starting linemen.

“We’re definitely glad they believe in us,” Jackson said.

After being selected 18th overall in 2020, Jackson’s career arc has been somewhat odd: He was fairly competent - below average, but far from an embarrassment - as a starter at left tackle as a rookie, then unraveled in three starts at left tackle early last season before moving to guard.

Overall, he permitted 49 quarterback pressures (fourth most among guards) but just two sacks in his time at guard. He was whistled for 12 penalties overall, fourth most among all offensive linemen.

After signing Terron Armstead to play left tackle, the Dolphins decided that Jackson was a good fit at right tackle, because of his athleticism and skill set to play in Miami’s new wide zone running scheme.

“Sitting down with all coaches, they definitely want to utilize my athleticism in this position in this offense,” Jackson said. “It’s my first time playing in this scheme. I’ve made great strides.”

After reporting at nearly 330 last summer, he’s now a “lean” 310 while dropping eight percent in body fat.

“I had a really great offseason,” Jackson said. “I would not say good, but great.”

Has he enjoyed returning to tackle, albeit on a new side?

“I enjoy being a tackle…. I take a lot of pride in whatever position I play. Moving back to tackle, I have always had pride in playing tackle. I got drafted as a tackle. That’s my own personal thing.”

Jackson has studied several offensive tackles on tape, including Tampa Bay’s Tristan Wirfs - who was selected five picks before Jackson in the 2020 draft and was a first-team All Pro last season.

He also has picked the brain of Armstead, who was a Pro Bowler in 2018, ‘19 and ‘20.

“Terron is a technician,” Jackson said, adding he has valued “hearing a lot of his teaching points” and Armstead’s advice to maintain “good body leverage and the having tools to utilize your athleticism with technique. It’s been very helpful. There’s definitely a lot of knowledge there.”

Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Austin Jackson (73) speaks to the media after practice at Baptist Health Training Complex in Miami Gardens on Friday, July 29, 2022.
Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Austin Jackson (73) speaks to the media after practice at Baptist Health Training Complex in Miami Gardens on Friday, July 29, 2022.

Jackson loves the new offense and blocking scheme.

“Our biggest advantage on offense is we know the snap count and what play to run,” he said. “That makes a huge difference in approach to the game. It has been very exciting to learn this offense…. I’m very comfortable.”

As a tackle, Eichenberg went his final 2 ½ years of his career at Notre Dame without giving up a sack. The Dolphins held him in such high regard that they traded a 2022 third-round pick to the Giants to move from 50 to 42 to draft him in 2021.

But after replacing Jackson at left tackle in Miami’s fifth game last season, he relinquished nine sacks; among NFL tackles, only David Quessenberry and Jonah Williams yielded more. Eichenberg’s 45 quarterback pressures allowed were most among NFL tackles.

So coach Mike McDaniel and new offensive line coach Matt Applebaum decided to try him at left guard in the spring, and the results have been good enough for Miami to stick with him there in training camp.

“They didn’t explain that [decision],” Eichenberg said. “I got a phone call” explaining he would play left guard and potentially other spots. “It’s stuck so far. I’m working on my footwork and hands and cleaning up pass protection and everything that comes with playing the position.”

Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg (74) speaks with reporters after practice at Baptist Health Training Complex in Miami Gardens on Friday, July 29, 2022.
Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg (74) speaks with reporters after practice at Baptist Health Training Complex in Miami Gardens on Friday, July 29, 2022.

Eichenberg said it’s easier to focus on one position - as he is now - after playing at both tackle and guard during training camp last year.

“It makes it a lot easier with this offense,” he said. “This offense is a good fit, similar to what we did at Notre Dame.”

Eichenberg has been getting counsel from Connor Williams, who has transitioned from left guard with the Cowboys to center with the Dolphins.

“I’m listening to Connor because he played left guard in Dallas and Terron has been around a while,” Eichenberg said. “It’s nice having two guys who have played for other teams going into their second contract.

“I love Jesse Davis [who was cut by Miami and signed with Minnesota]. I thought he did a good job for us. It’s nice having two of those guys instead of one, more eyes, more information.”

While Jackson has lost weight in his return to tackle, Eichenberg has gained weight (seven pounds) in his move to guard, while also cutting his body fat.

The Dolphins’ 2021 draft is already very good, thanks to the production and promise of Jaylen Waddle, Jaelan Phillips and Jevon Holland. If Eichenberg can become a very good NFL left guard, then that draft will rise even higher in any listing of Grier’s greatest hits.