There is a lot to look forward to for the Miami Dolphins this year.
The front office has taken another step towards their goal of building a perennial playoff team, the 2009 NFL Draft has come and gone, and the Dolphins seem to have pulled off another impressive offseason.
Last year, the focus was on the big men that man the trenches. The 2008 Draft brought in some offensive lineman: Jake Long, Shawn Murphy, and Donald Thomas. That same draft had also brought in some defensive lineman: Kendall Langford, Lionel Dotson, and Phillip Merling rounded out the defensive selections.
The Dolphins seemed to concentrate the 2009 Draft on the skill positions. The top five selections for Miami were: cornerback Vontae Davis, quarterback Pat White, cornerback Sean Smith, wide receiver Patrick Turner, and wide receiver Brian Hartline.
Mini-camp has come and and gone and given a small glimpse of who the fans can get excited about and expect bigger things in the near future.
In my opinion, Sean Smith has stood out the most based on practice reports and coaches comments.
The 6'4", 215 pound cornerback has shown the mental ability to step right in and has also been given a chance to practice with the first team defense. He has drawn high praise from coaches and players alike. Even more praise than the Dolphins' first selection, cornerback Vontae Davis.
Smith will be one of the tallest cornerbacks in the NFL and could be a great asset at stopping those jump balls that QB's like to throw to wide receivers like Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, who the Dolphins will face twice this year.
Smith has given credit for his ability to catch to the fact that he played wide receiver before being switched to cornerback at the University of Utah. He is a natural athlete and has shown very nice ball skills.
It's really too early to read too much into mini-camp successes, but there are plenty of position battles to watch, as training camp draws near.
Jason Taylor, who was the face of this franchise for many years, has been brought back to Miami (where he belongs) and at a budget price. Coach Sporano has stated that Taylor will be used as a situational player in '09, but I have a strong feeling that Taylor is still the best player on defense and will see a lot more action.
The problem is going to be figuring out "who goes where"?
Joey Porter has entrenched himself as designated pass rusher on the outside after posting a personal best 17.5 sacks and is not really made for the strong side linebacker spot due to his inefficiencies versus the rush. Porter's sack number is just one half sack shy of Taylor's record that was set in 2000.
Taylor is also a pass rush specialist and is best suited for the same spot Joey will play. Some people seem to think that Taylor's best days are behind him, but I don't buy into that philosophy. He has been the NFL's most prolific sack artist in the past decade and had one down year due to injuries and questionable coaching, that placed him out of position for the Washington Redskins.
Not a bad problem to have, there is no shortage of potential talent at pass rusher in Miami.
Cameron Wake was signed out of the Canadian Football League after two dominating seasons there in which he recorded 39 sacks in two years. He may not quite be ready to dominate in this league, but he does offer promise and should see some playing time.
Matt Roth was switched at the last minute to outside linebacker on the strong side in 2008 and did quite well at the new position. He was beefing up to play 3-4 defensive end and then changed gears to play a position that is usually manned by players 30 pounds lighter. He still managed five sacks and 46 tackles and was Miami's best run defender. All, while playing with a severe groin injury that was operated on during the offseason.
Roth should be a quality OLB and much improved in 2009, but may not get the opportunity for sacks as he loses playing time to other pass rushers.
Charlie Anderson, Erik Walden, Quentin Moses, and Tearrius George round out the outside linebacking crew and those four will compete with Cameron Wake for two or maybe three roster spots. If we could look into the crystal ball, we may see Moses, George, and maybe Walden getting cut at some point before the season starts.
So, now back to the burning question. How do we get the most out of a talented group of pass rushers and get them all plenty of playing time?
One possibility that has been thrown around is using a four-man front on obvious passing downs. This is a look that was worked on during mini camp.
Roth at LE, Randy Starks and Phillip Merling at DT and Taylor playing his old familiar position of RDE. All of these players have good pass rush ability and could get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks with a four man rush.
The fifth pass rusher would be Porter, who could be a rover or elephant and blitz from the linebacker position. Porter and Taylor would be interchangeable at any given time.
Another option is going with the base 3-4 front and having Porter and Taylor playing and alternating at left and right outside linebacker. This is nice because they can change up the defensive look and confuse offensive players trying to recognize the defensive formation.
The question I have is, how will they use Joey Porter this year?
He is sometimes a liability against the rush so why is Taylor being relegated to part time duty instead of Porter? Run stopping has never been Taylor's specialty, but he has historically been better than Porter.
Do we use a 3-4 defensive formation with Roth on one side and another linebacker who excels against the run at the other outside spot? Who can step into that role? Walden, Anderson or Wake?
Then the workload of Porter and Taylor could be cut down and be better utilized elsewhere, giving them fresher legs in the fourth quarter and second half of the season. Porter is 32 and Taylor will be 35 in September.
The other defensive position battle will be at the cornerback spot and nickle back spot.
Will Allen has the strong side CB spot locked down. Eric Green, Vontae Davis, and Sean Smith will compete for the opposite side and with Tyrone Culver, Jason Allen, and Nathan Jones for the nickle role.
Yeremiah Bell and Gibril Wilson have the safety positions in good hands, but the talented draftee, Chris Clemons, may challenge them for playing time. He was the fastest defensive back at the 2009 NFL Combine and that includes cornerbacks. He has looked very good in mini camp.
Kendall Langford has earned his spot at LDE, but Randy Starks and Phillip Merling will battle and possibly platoon at the RDE spot. The enormous Paul Soliai should see time at NT and 6'7" Tony McDaniel and Lionel Dotson will battle for playing time at DE as well. Dotson has earned praise for his pass rush moves and McDaniel has the confidence of general manager Jeff Ireland.
Channing Crowder will be the starting inside linebacker and signal caller with Akin Ayodele playing next to him on rushing downs. Ayodele usually leaves the field in the nickle package. Reggie Torbor was brought in last year to start at ILB, but has only been a backup thus far and makes way too much money not to step up his game.
This rounds out the defense and the key battles, but there are still players like Joe Cohen and Louis Ellis who will battle for a backup NT spot with Soliai. There are too many other spots with young players and rookies competing, but until they make a name for themselves and step out of the shadows, I will not get into that.
In any case, I look for big things from the Dolphins' defense this year. We still have areas to improve and build, but Miami should step into the league's top 10 this year with all of the new talent.
Jason Taylor and the improvement of the returning players and other free agents should vastly improve the secondary and the new talent in the secondary should help the pass rushers.
Next year we should be looking for a young nose tackle, young pass rushers, and inside linebackers, but that's not to say that the ones we use this year won't get the job done.
They certainly have a better supporting cast to help them out.