As we learn more about the outlook for the Miami Dolphins defense in 2012, it's important to take a look back at the defense in 2011. Reflecting on last year will help us get a feel for which players may be primed for more playing time and who might see theirs take a hit.
With help from stats website Pro Football Focus, we get a look at the Dolphins' defensive snap counts from 2011 and what they may (or may not) mean for the 2012 season and going forward.
Cameron Wake is the Dolphins' best defensive player, yet he only played 78.7 percent of the snaps last year. He provides an edge presence comparable to some of the best pass-rushers in the NFL. Expect him to see more playing time as the Dolphins try to figure out their best defensive packages, which will likely consist of four-man fronts under new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle.
Nose tackle Paul Soliai will likely be part of a rotation of defensive tackles, but as the owner of a brand new two-year, $12 million contract, he could be expected to carry a heavier burden this season than the 39.2 percent snap count he received last year.
The departure of Kendall Langford and his 554 snaps could also mean a heavier workload for defensive tackle Jared Odrick (596 snaps, 51.9 percent), a first-round pick in 2010 who has yet to live up to his billing as such.
Who's Going Down?
With so many role players on the defensive line, picking players who will lose time was tough. The departure of Langford will open some doors for other players to earn more time, as will the recent departure of defensive end Phillip Merling, who takes with him 208 snaps.
Defensive tackle Tony McDaniel was a rotational five-technique defensive linemen. Although he didn't play much, his snaps could be in jeopardy unless he proves to be effective as a penetrating defensive tackle, which he hasn't done to this point in his career. He's also overpaid for a role playing defensive linemen at just under $4.2 million for 2012.
This is a group that will be in a lot of flux this season with the revamped defensive alignment. The addition of third-round defensive end Olivier Vernon could also have an impact on how the snap percentages shake out this season.
Linebacker Koa Misi (409 snaps, 35.6 percent) was drafted in the second round in 2010. He could see his snaps go up or down depending on how the training camp battle goes. He's fighting for his starting job with former Patriots linebacker Gary Guyton, now with the Dolphins.
Who's Going Down?
Having lost the pass-rushing outside linebacker Jason Taylor, it's hard to imagine anyone else losing significant snaps. Even if Misi loses the starting job to Guyton, the former could still have significant snaps as a role player.
The presumed switch to a 4-3 alignment and the steady presences of Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett doesn't leave much room for flux at linebacker. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
At safety, it was Yeremiah Bell and then everyone else. That's indicative of the struggles they had in finding a solid starting safety opposite Bell in 2011. With Bell gone, though, there's an extra 1,126 snaps to account for, so someone's work load will increase.
The Dolphins recently moved Jimmy Wilson (216 snaps, 18.8 percent) from cornerback to safety, and his positional versatility could help him see the field a lot more than just 18.8 percent of the snaps.
Safety Chris Clemons (21 snaps in 2011) enters his fourth year in the league, and it may be put-up-or-shut-up time for the young defensive back. He played in just two games last year, but he was running with the first-team defense at strong safety in practice, so the team clearly thinks he can carry the load if need be.
Who's Going Down?
Safety Reshad Jones (674 snaps, 58.7 percent) may also face a make-or-break situation in 2012. Although the Dolphins don't have much talent at safety currently, it only takes one player to step up for someone else to get knocked down. He may be better at strong safety than he was at free safety, though, so he'll get a chance to earn more snaps, but not if his inconsistencies continue.
The secondary is considered one of the biggest weaknesses for the Dolphins defense. They will probably be tooling with a few different combinations on the back end as they try to figure out which unit works best together, and also as they try to find out which players are capable of consistently competent play.