Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Austin Jackson earned the team’s starting right tackle spot in the preseason, but a lot has changed since then.
Jackson, the 2020 first-round pick, suffered a high-ankle sprain in the team’s opener, sending him to injured reserve. The following week, veteran tackle Brandon Shell was signed, initially to the practice squad. Shell worked his way onto the active roster and emerged as a solid right tackle in the starting lineup over the past four games. Two games ago, left guard Liam Eichenberg suffered a knee injury, sending him to IR as Jackson was reactivated.
The Dolphins have slowly eased Jackson back into practice. He worked in drills again on Thursday after getting a session of limited work last Friday, when Jackson was doubtful to play against the Bears, and ultimately didn’t. Jackson said Thursday’s workload was the most he’s done in practice since being designated to return.
“It feels good,” Jackson said. “I’m excited to be back out there, doing my job. It’s been fun. It’s been a long time, and I’m just glad that everything is working out the way it should.”
The question now is, where does Jackson, after missing Miami’s last eight games, fit as he gets closer to a return?
“Our goal is to play the best five, and whatever combination that is, is what we’re going to try and put out there,” Miami offensive coordinator Frank Smith said Thursday. “When it comes to his return, we’ll evaluate that when we get there, but ultimately, right now, our goal is just to get him back to the practice field, get him back to the game field.
“We’re just trying to make sure we get Austin ramped up in an appropriate way so we don’t have any setbacks. So, introduce him back in, slow ramp-up into getting ready for the game.”
It may not be imminent for Jackson to return to being active on game day, and Shell’s play could give the veteran a hold on right tackle. Meanwhile, the Dolphins are using backup lineman Robert Jones at left guard for Eichenberg. Left guard is the spot that Jackson played mostly in his second season after getting shifted in from left tackle, where he was originally drafted to play.
“It’s definitely not ideal to switch positions out the blue, for any football player,” Jackson said. “I’m definitely looking to play right tackle or wherever I can fit. That’s where I was at last time. There’s no plans of me switching, that I know of.”
Jackson added on Shell: “He’s done a great job at right tackle,” Jackson said. “He’s a great dude, great football player, and I think he really fits in with our room.”
Smith felt Jones was serviceable in his first start of the season after getting one as an undrafted rookie in the finale of the 2021 season.
“I thought he did a good job,” Smith said of Jones. “I thought there were a couple of things, as far as making sure you’re looking at the right things, constantly working on technique as things move. Overall, we felt like he executed the game plan, was physical. Things that he needs to work on and improve on, he’s well aware of.”
Like Jackson, left tackle Terron Armstead also returned for his weekly Thursday practice as he nurses his toe injury.
Good and bad on special teams
There was a good special teams play and a bad special teams play from Sunday’s win over the Bears that special teams coordinator Danny Crossman offered his thoughts on Thursday.
First, the punt block for a touchdown where Jaelan Phillips came through to get his chest on the booted ball and Andrew Van Ginkel recovered it for the 25-yard touchdown.
“We liked some matchups, and the players did a great job of executing,” Crossman said. “Jaelan almost got there too cleanly, almost overran it. And then great job by Andrew Van Ginkel with the scoop and score.”
But then, there was kicker Jason Sanders’ missed 29-yard field goal at the end of the half.
“Make no question, that’s a kick that has to be made. You can’t miss that kick,” Crossman said.
Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel used the wind at Soldier Field as an excuse for Sanders, but Crossman didn’t give him that out on the field goal that was shorter than extra point.
“Wind’s a factor in everything, but we got to make that kick,” he said.
Salute to Service
With Veterans Day on Friday, Dolphins long snapper Blake Ferguson is the team’s nominee for the NFL’s Salute to Service Award, which “acknowledges the exceptional efforts by members of the NFL community to honor and support U.S. service members, veterans and their families.”
“We have a history in my family of military service — both my granddads, my great uncle, my great grandad, my best friend was in the Air Force, served in Afghanistan,” said Ferguson, whose brother, Reid, is the Buffalo Bills’ nominee. “I have a huge respect for what those men and women do when they go overseas to fight for our safety and for our freedom.”
Ferguson’s efforts range from charity events to barbecues for local veterans. Last Thanksgiving, Ferguson helped distribute 800 Thanksgiving meals to Broward County’s military veterans and active reserve members.
“I don’t take that lightly, but I also don’t do it for myself,” said Ferguson, who was also Miami’s nominee last season. “I do it because I want to show the importance of the military, the armed forces in our South Florida community.”