Miami Dolphins Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis
At a time when players should be battling it out on the field to decide who's starting and who's getting cut, there is off-field drama in Davie, Florida.
After gaining 17 pounds in the offseason and earning glowing praise at OTAs, Dion Jordan had sky-high expectations and was going to be battling for a starting role on the Dolphins stout defensive front.
But instead of hitting the ground running on his way to a breakout season, Jordan was suspended for the first four games of the year for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances, via ESPN's James Walker.
The suspension is not only a major setback for Jordan—who appeared primed for a breakout season—but it was also a tough loss for a typically deep Dolphins defensive line that is now a bit thinner.
However, it's not all bad for Miami, which still boasts a talented defense with a number of ascending players.
With that said, let's take a position-by-position look at the projected Dolphins defense for the 2014 season, both with and without Jordan.
Defensive Depth Chart
There will still be plenty of positional battles and final cuts to be decided in training camp, but for now, here's the projected final defensive depth chart for the Dolphins:
- LDE: Cameron Wake, Derrick Shelby
- DT: Randy Starks, Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell, Anthony Johnson
- RDE: Olivier Vernon, Terrence Fede/Dion Jordan
- WLB: Dannell Ellerbe, Jonathan Freeny
- MLB: Koa Misi, Jordan Tripp, Jason Trusnik
- SLB: Jelani Jenkins, Philip Wheeler
- LCB: Brent Grimes, Jamar Taylor, Walt Aikens
- RCB: Cortland Finnegan, Will Davis
- FS: Louis Delmas, Jimmy Wilson
- SS: Reshad Jones, Don Jones
Left Defensive End
Starter: Cameron Wake
Backup: Derrick Shelby
Cameron Wake continued to be a dominant force on Miami's defensive line last season, earning his third Pro Bowl selection in the last four years.
Despite being limited with an injury throughout the season, Wake still finished with 10 sacks, falling just one shy of team leader Olivier Vernon despite playing in over 200 fewer snaps. He also registered 41 quarterback hurries and 20 QB hits, getting pressure on the opposing quarterback once every five snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The former CFL star will once again enter the season as the driving force on the Dolphins defense, continuing to prove why he is one of the game's best pass-rushers.
Backing up Wake is third-year player Derrick Shelby, who had a solid season in 2013 despite playing in a part-time role. Playing on just 38 percent of the team's defensive snaps, Shelby recorded three sacks and 34 total tackles, with 16 of them coming at or behind the line of scrimmage on run plays, via PFF.
With Jordan missing the first four games, Shelby will likely see much more of a workload early on, bouncing around both sides of the defensive line.
Right Defensive End
Starter: Olivier Vernon
Backup: Terrence Fede/Dion Jordan
On the other side of the defensive line will be Vernon, who broke onto the scene in 2013 thanks to a huge increase in playing time.
Vernon's snaps more than doubled from 2012 and he responded with a team-leading 11 sacks, along with 32 quarterback hurries, five quarterback hits and 40 tackles, via PFF. His next step this season should be to become a more efficient and consistent pass-rusher, as he registered pressure just once every 11 snaps in 2013.
Jordan's suspension changes a lot at this position, as I previously made the case that the second-year player would beat out Vernon for the starting job in training camp.
I also argued that there was likely no room for rookie Terrence Fede on the Dolphins' active roster, but after losing Jordan, there is now an opening that he can step right in and fill, provided he can have a solid showing during training camp.
While there's no denying the Dolphins lost a lot of talent with the suspension of Jordan, there is also no reason to panic just yet.
After all, losing Jordan essentially leaves the Dolphins with the same defensive line they had last year. Jordan only played on 29 percent of the team's defensive snaps in 2013, according to PFF, so it's not as if they were reliant upon his production.
Providing the rest of the defensive line can stay healthy, the Dolphins should be fine for the first four games before welcoming Jordan back in Week 6, at which point they can begin to dominate.
Starters: Randy Starks, Jared Odrick
Backups: Earl Mitchell, Anthony Johnson
Even after losing Paul Soliai, the Dolphins are absolutely loaded at defensive tackle, led by the veteran Randy Starks.
Playing in a contract year, Starks put up arguably the best season of his career in 2013, rating as the seventh-best defensive tackle in the NFL (out of 69 players) while recording four sacks, six quarterback hits and 30 hurries. He registered pressure on the opposing quarterback once every 10 snaps, an impressive number for a defensive tackle.
Starks also played stellar run defense, recording 48 total tackles, 31 of which came at or behind the line of scrimmage, via PFF.
Alongside him will now be Jared Odrick, who is also coming off the best season of his young career.
Odrick ranked as the 16th-best defensive tackle in the NFL, recording 4.5 sacks, 13 QB hits and 28 hurries while putting pressure on the opposing quarterback once every 11.1 snaps, via PFF. He also did well as a run-stuffer, recording 43 tackles, 24 of which came at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Behind Starks and Odrick will be a pair of new faces, with Earl Mitchell and undrafted rookie Anthony Johnson joining the team this offseason.
Mitchell signed a four-year, $16 million deal during free agency and the 26-year-old is expecting to make a major impact now that he will be playing in his more natural position in the Dolphins' 4-3 defense.
Johnson, meanwhile, is an extremely talented player that could do great things with Miami, providing he can stay focused and keep his head on straight.
I recently took a look at Johnson and set training camp expectations for him, along with the rest of the Dolphins rookies.
Starter: Dannell Ellerbe
Backup: Jonathan Freeny
After signing a five-year, $35 million deal last season, it's tough to play much worse than Dannell Ellerbe did in 2013.
Switching over to play middle linebacker, Ellerbe was atrocious against the run, finished top six in most missed-tackles and graded out as the sixth-worst inside linebacker in the league (out of 55), according to PFF.
However, hope springs eternal, and in the case of Ellerbe, there may be cause for some cautious optimism. With Koa Misi switching to middle linebacker, Ellerbe will slide over to the weak side, where he can do less thinking and be more of a playmaker.
The Dolphins hope the switch will turn the light back on for Ellerbe, who was touted as one of the best young linebackers in the league after the year he had with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012.
Behind Ellerbe is Jonathan Freeny, who is primarily a special teams player.
Freeny played all 16 games for the Dolphins in 2013, but logged just two tackles and 26 total snaps on the defensive side of the ball.
Starter: Koa Misi
Backups: Jordan Tripp, Jason Trusnik
By switching him over to middle linebacker, the Dolphins are hoping that Misi can provide the same consistently solid play that he did in 2013.
Playing in 15 of the team's 16 games, Misi finishing with 38 tackles and two sacks, doing his best work as a run-stopper, with 26 of his tackles coming at or behind the line of scrimmage. He also graded out as the 14th-best outside linebacker (out of 35), according to PFF.
The reality is that Misi can't be any worse than Ellerbe was in 2013, and if he can provide consistent and reliable production at his new position, then the Dolphins defense has a chance to be very good.
Backing up Misi will be rookie Jordan Tripp, who will likely be bouncing around to the other linebacker positions as well. Tripp is a versatile player that boasts a high football IQ, good vision and recognition and a great read-and-react ability.
Providing he can adjust to the sharp learning curve in making the jump from Montana to the NFL, he has the potential to be a very good player early on for Miami.
Jason Trusnik will round out the depth at the position, playing limited snaps on defense while doing most of his work on special teams.
Starter: Jelani Jenkins
Backup: Philip Wheeler
After a quiet rookie year that saw him get on the field for just 127 snaps, Jelani Jenkins appears ready for a much larger role in 2014.
While Philip Wheeler will certainly try to hold on to his starting role in training camp, I expect Jenkins to wrestle it away from him.
Last year the former fourth-round pick proved his worth in coverage and was on the field quite a bit as an outside linebacker with the first-team defense during OTAs, according to Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post:
Jelani Jenkins getting a lot of looks with first teamers. Several times today I've seen him and Ellerbe on outside with Misi inside.— Andrew Abramson (@AbramsonPBP) June 2, 2014
Jenkins starting means that Wheeler can turn into the player he should have been all along—a rotational pass-rushing specialist.
As atrocious as Wheeler's 2013 season was, he still excelled in rushing the passer, ranking behind only Von Miller among 4-3 outside linebackers with 23 hurries, despite rushing the passer on just 12 percent of his snaps. He registered pressure on opposing quarterbacks once every 4.5 pass plays, which was the best on the team, according to Pro Football Focus.
His total snap number should drop significantly and that percentage should spike considerably as well, with Wheeler rotating with Jenkins and Tripp, who both provide much better skills in coverage and against the run.
Starter: Brent Grimes
Backups: Jamar Taylor, Walt Aikens
Last season Brent Grimes proved to be one of the biggest steals in free agency, re-establishing himself as one of the elite cornerbacks in the league while also becoming the team's defensive MVP.
Getting thrown at 98 times, Grimes allowed 59 catches while recording a team-high four interceptions and defending 16 passes on his way to earning a spot in the Pro Bowl. Of the 61 cornerbacks in the league that were targeted at least 70 times, Grimes was the only one to not allow a touchdown pass.
Grimes also held opposing quarterbacks to just a 66.3 rating when throwing at him, as Pro Football Focus ranked him as the second-best cornerback in the league behind only Darrelle Revis.
This time around, Grimes has much more security after signing a four-year, $32 million deal in the offseason.
Meanwhile, Jamar Taylor will battle both newcomer Cortland Finnegan and second-year player Will Davis for the No. 2 cornerback job.
Taylor is one of the players most fans are expecting a breakout season from after the second-round pick was virtually a non-factor in 2013. He missed a total of seven games throughout the year and was on the field for just a grand total of 45 snaps.
With a full year under his belt to recover from his nagging injuries, Taylor should become one of the key members of the Dolphins secondary in 2014.
Walt Aikens will round out the position, as the Dolphins' fourth-round pick has plenty of potential but not much room to move up on the depth chart.
Starter: Cortland Finnegan
Backup: Will Davis
As previously mentioned, the No. 2 cornerback position will likely be a three-man battle that will drag on throughout training camp.
With that said, I do believe that it's Finnegan's job to lose, with all reports out of OTAs being that the veteran cornerback has looked very good.
Admittedly, I was initially critical of the Finnegan signing, as the 30-year-old appeared to have his best days well behind him after two atrocious seasons in St. Louis. However, if he can return to a form similar to where he was back in 2011, it could give the Dolphins one of the best cornerback tandems in the league.
Much like Taylor, Davis is also expecting big things this year after an injury-riddled 2013 season. The 2013 third-round pick was hobbled by a toe injury that caused him to be inactive for 10 games and play just 65 snaps all season.
Although most expect him to enter the season as the No. 4 cornerback, a strong training camp may see him rise a spot or two up the depth chart.
Starter: Louis Delmas
Backup: Jimmy Wilson
Signing a one-year, $3.5 million deal with Miami just before the start of free agency to replace Chris Clemons, Louis Delmas should bring a newfound toughness and leadership to the position.
Delmas is also more of a playmaker, picking off nearly as many passes last season (three) as Clemons has recorded in his five-year career (four).
When it comes to Delmas, the major question will be his health, as the 2013 season was the first time in his five-year career that he played a full 16-game season. If he were to struggle or cannot stay healthy, then it will be up to Jimmy Wilson to step in and fill the role.
The former seventh-round pick has improved every year and could potentially be a breakout candidate in 2014 if given enough playing time. Over his short time with the Dolphins, he has shown very good playmaking ability and seemingly is only going to get better.
If given the opportunity, Wilson has a very good chance of putting together an impressive season and could potentially become the team's safety of the future.
Starter: Reshad Jones
Backup: Don Jones
After a breakout season in 2012, Reshad Jones took a major step backward last year.
He struggled most in coverage, where he got torched by opposing quarterbacks all year long. When matched up with a wide receiver, Jones allowed completions on 37 of 45 passes thrown at him. The 82.2 percent of passes completed on him was the worst in the league among safeties targeted at least 25 times, via Pro Football Focus.
Quarterbacks also boasted a passer rating of 123.5 when targeting Jones in coverage, a massive drop-off from the 38 rating they had when going against him in 2012.
It was simply a dreadful year for Jones from day one.
Obviously, the Dolphins are hoping that these struggles were a one-year fluke, as Jones is in just the second year of his four-year extension that he signed last offseason.
Regardless, Jones showed the type of talent he has with his 2012 season, in which he proved that he has the potential to be a top safety in the league.
If Jones can return to that top form, he has the ability to turn the Dolphins defense into a very dangerous unit in 2014.
Don Jones will round out the depth chart at the safety position, mainly being an emergency option and special teams contributor.