I have been an observer of defensive schemes since Dan Marino lost his only Super Bowl against a well-trained 49ers' defense.
So I got astonished of the level of defensive units like 2000 Baltimore Ravens, followed shortly by 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers have tradition of building great defenses too.
But my hopes still reside on having such kind of defense in my beloved Miami Dolphins. Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor, Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain were part of one of the biggest defenses that I could remember.
Those days were hard to see in the complete absence of any offensive support, and after a year of new philosophies, showing offensive creativity and rebuilding a team coming from disaster, there is time to analyze if this team is ready to repeat winning the AFC East title or how much of a step back 2009 will be.
So trying to understand the reality of our offense, I found our o-line is upgraded, the receiving corps are young and need to prove their worth and we can add a tested WR after draft, in case we can't get a taller, faster rookie receiver.
That must give us some extra points during 2009, expecting Chad Pennington won't play the way he did vs. Baltimore.
Then I focused on defense and saw fragile areas everywhere. Secondary is the most obvious, with a complete lack of quality and facing two times each AFC East superstar receivers Randy Moss and T.O.
This looks more dangerous than handling nitroglycerin. The current argument from the coaching staff is that an effective pass rush may ease coverage task.
Then I hear alarms and noticed how fragile we are on pass rush with an upcoming schedule including: Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills (twice), Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots (twice), New York Jets (twice), New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans.
On 2008, Joey Porter was a defensive monster with 17.5 sacks, but after him Matt Roth added five sacks as second QB hunter, and the rest put very discrete numbers, so adding a stronger, faster OLB can help a lot, and there are several options for addressing the spot.
Recently added Cameron Wake was a CFL superstar who may become the next big thing. Also there can be excellent options at the 25th pick on draft like USC's Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews or Ohio State's James Laurinaitis, whoever can serve as pass rusher featuring Joey Porter.
Our last option is to add former Dolphin star Jason Taylor, who at 34 may help for a year or two as a 3-4 OLB. The side effect can be slowing the development of younger players.
But returning to the point of a 2009 schedule including almost every serious contender, being deep is a must. So trying to understand draft priorities, here's a quick list of the state of Miami's roster.
- QB has a fine starter in Chad Pennington and a future leader and current backup in Chad Henne, who is more than anxious to start. After the Chads, John Beck is a non-favorite of Sparano but he may do the job.
- K & P are well addressed.
- C was upgraded, but there are backup concerns and a draft gem can be included to complete.
- OL is younger and retooled. A late round or undrafted free agent may enter as part of the rotation.
- RB is more than decent, especially with three guys rotation, but young blood won't hurt.
- TE is acceptable but with most starters finishing their contracts in 2009, adding young options can avoid future holes.
- Special teams were better in 2008 but surely can be upgraded.
- WR corps are filled with excellent slot receivers but lack a go-to receiver. As told before, we can address this with a tested veteran, in case we can't get a taller, faster rookie.
- FB is a little discrete but can wait a year.
- NT is pretty fragile, as Jason Ferguson is 34 and got several injuries on 2008 and Paul Soliai has shown poor development, struggling at training and acting like an overweight baby. NT has become too expensive in free agency and won't be easy to find on draft day.
- DL needs fresh talent, as both starters are more run stoppers than pass rushers. One more guy may fit.
- S have decent starters but could have finer backups, also as TE, some contracts will expire next year. Dealing everybody is unlikely, as they command more money and look overpaid.
- LB is fine but could be upgraded as mentioned by Ireland, adding a OLB pass rusher. Another upgradable spot is ILB, where we may add a quality guy able to compete with Crowder.
- CB is the weakest part of the roster. We must add a starter and a backup as there's another place that will have contract issues after 2009.
So that means the draft list includes: Two CB, one DT, one or two LB, one NT, one C/G, one OT, one RB, one S, one TE and one WR.
That's as much as 2+1+2+1+1+1+1+1+1+1= 12 players. As of today, the Miami Dolphins only have nine draft picks, which leads to focus on the most imperative needs.
Center and Running Back only need bodies, so unrestricted free agents may fit.
Interior Linebacker is a matter of quality so unless some cool option is available after the first day, this can be fitted the same way.
Wide Receiver is first day or nothing, so having the bunch of holes to fill, this can wait a year and may be repaired by signing a veteran after the draft.
Unlike those positions, Cornerback is a huge need so we're looking for instant starters, both spots must be addressed on first day. That doesn't necessarily means first round as this class is deep on CB.
Outside linebacker is on the same page, while Defensive Tackle and Tight End can wait until later rounds.
But things seem blurry on NT. Why? Because Nose Tackle is an ambiguous term.
Even most of us understand a NT is a big mammoth placed in the center of a defensive line, there are different ways to see a Nose Tackle.
The main role for such guy is to stop the running game, but also must try to break the center of the offensive line and hunt for the passer.
So he must be big, heavy, and have some speed, but not the kind of North-South speed he may expect on WR, but lateral speed and agility to lose two or even three men covering him. What? That sounds like looking for a dancing hippopotamus!
It's a matter of physics, where a normal difference of DT and NT, is a lower center of gravity that allows the NT to be almost immovable. But that's not a rule, as handwork may vary the effect, allowing teams to use taller guys on center.
Weight can work favorably or unfavorably on each case, because a bulky 6'4", 355 guy like Soliai can't break his blocker as fast as desired, while a 6'5", 305 player like Kevin Vickerson can't compete with two bodyguards like those in our starting o-line because his center is mass is too high.
As dancing hippos are rare specimens, teams have been creative finding new ways to create an immovable center of the defense, using two men in 4-3 schemes, where one guy is the NT and the other is a little lighter as he needs to move faster.
Other variations of NT is the unbalanced d-line used by Jacksonville, where they use bigger DE which normally shortens the protection pocket and allows pass rush from both sides. But the key for such scheme is that center battle can be well managed for a rotating crew of DT, variating the pass rush schemes each play. So NT doesn't play on center each time.
Tennessee Titans used a variation of 4-3 defense but will have to think twice as they won't have Albert Haynesworth anymore, after he moved to Washington, placing Redskins defensive line into top of the league.
Masters of the 3-4 defense like Patriots, Steelers, Cowboys and Ravens got NFL's best Nose Tackles. Names like Vince Wilfork, Casey Hampton, Jay Ratliff and Haloti Ngata prove NT is the key piece of 3-4 defense as much as QB is to offense.
A talented nose guard may allow the rest of the defense on helping him, focusing on pass rush and easing backfield coverage. So Miami defense is in trouble if Jason Ferguson gets injured because Paul Soliai has the size to become the next NT superstar but needs a lot of work and he hasn't shown any commitment.
So with a 2009 class including Boston College mega monsters: B.J. Rají and Ron Brace as best choices at NT, but several teams needing to address the spot (Oakland, Green Bay, Denver, Kansas City, Tennessee), and other willing to upgrade/refresh the position (Chicago, Minnesota, San Diego, New England, Miami, NY Giants) NT is priority in terms that there may be raw quality available after 25th pick.
|Name||Height||Weight||40 yard dash||Bench press||Vertical jump||College|
|Raji, B.J.||6'2"||337||5.23||33||32||Boston College|
|Brace, Ron||6'3"||330||5.5||32||28||Boston College|
|Hill, Sammie Lee||6'4"||329||5.17||27||28||Stillman|
|Moala, Fili||6'4"||305||5.16||25||30.5||Southern Cal|
|Walker, Vance||6'2"||304||5.44||29||33||Georgia Tech|
|Richard, Darryl||6'3"||303||17||25.5||Georgia Tech|
Finally I tried to resume my analysis with a table showing every NFL starting NT or variation.
Let´s start with AFC East, where fine players like Wilfork, Ferguson and Jenkins can demolish offensive lines every single day when healthy.
|Kyle Williams||Buffalo Bills||6'1"||306||25|
|Jason Ferguson||Miami Dolphins||6'3"||305||34|
|Paul Soliai||Miami Dolphins||6'4"||355||25|
|Vince Wilfork||New England Patriots||6'2"||325||27|
|Kris Jenkins||NY Jets||6'4"||349||29|
Now check AFC North, where Baltimore and Pittsburgh have the biggest 2008 defensive battle with Ngata and Hampton as central piece of each team.