In the 3-4 defense, the defensive line is an integral part of the scheme, as all the players are tasked with occupying the opposing offensive line and allowing the four linebackers behind them to rush the passer and/or stop the ball-carriers.
While they didn't always get the ideal amount of help from the eight guys playing behind them, the Dolphins' defensive line was one of the most reliable and productive units on the team in 2009.
These are my individual and overall grades for the Miami Dolphins' defensive line in 2009:
Randy Starks: A+
Signed to a five-year, $21 million contract during the 2008 offseason, Starks initially struggled with the transition from 4-3 defensive tackle to 3-4 defensive end.
He certainly put things together in 2009, however, dominating opposing offensive lines and wreaking having up the middle.
Starks was the second-best 3-4 defensive end against the run in 2009, behind only the Cleveland Browns' Robaire Smith.
Players at his position aren't primarily tasked with rushing the passer, but that didn't stop Starks from also ranking second among 3-4 defensive ends in sacks with seven.
There were simply no holes in Starks' game in 2009, which is why he gets such a high grade from me.
Kendall Langford: B+
Langford doesn't have the eye-popping, big-play numbers that his fellow linemate Randy Starks does, but 3-4 defensive lineman don't play a glorified position.
The reality is that Langford was excellent in his sophomore season with the Dolphins, playing the run very well and doing his share of pass rushing.
The Dolphins certainly found a gem in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft in Langford, and along with Starks, the two make up arguably the best pair of starting 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL.
Jason Ferguson: B
Despite being 35 years old, Ferguson is still playing at a fairly high level and remains a quality starting nose tackle.
Injuries have limited his availability in recent years, however, and a torn quadriceps forced him to miss the final seven games of the 2009 season.
When he did play he was quite productive, even surpassing his 2008 tackle total by one, despite playing in seven fewer games this season.
It's unclear how much Ferguson has left in the tank, but if healthy, he still has the ability to be a strong veteran backup at nose tackle.
Phillip Merling: B
Although the man picked a round after him, Kendall Langford, has been a better pro to-date, Merling has held his own and has become a key piece of the Dolphins' defensive line rotation.
Despite starting just two games, Merling played regularly at defensive end and at tackle in four-man fronts, appearing in all 16 games and recording a career-high 33 tackles.
Merling also notched 2.5 sacks and batted down three passes, proving to be a very useful third defensive end with starting talent.
Paul Soliai: C+
I've probably said it a hundred times on this site, but Soliai has all the physical tools to be a great nose tackle in the NFL. It's the stuff upstairs that's prevented him from establishing himself as an NFL starter.
A constant in the coaching staff's doghouse, Soliai did have his most productive season to date in 2009, starting five of 14 games played and recording 25 tackles.
Soliai was solid against the run this past season, but was inconsistent overall and disappeared or got dominated at others.
Tony McDaniel: D+
Serving as Miami's fourth defensive end, McDaniel was also tasked with backup up nose tackle Paul Soliai for the second half of the season when Jason Ferguson went down with an injury.
Although he worked his way into the defensive line rotation and played in all 16 games, McDaniel didn't make many plays against the run or the pass in 2009.
McDaniel, who finished the season with 16 tackles and 1.5 sacks, doesn't have much upside and profiles as a career backup.
Ryan Baker: n/a
An undrafted rookie out of Purdue, Baker saw action in five games during the second half of the season, jumping 2008 seventh-round pick Lionel Dotson on the depth chart.
Although he did make a small splash with two tackles and half a sack in his NFL debut against Buffalo in November, Baker did not record another tackle in 2009 and was deactivated during the regular season finale.
Lionel Dotson: n/a
A seventh-round pick in 2008, Dotson has appeared in just two games during each of his first two NFL seasons, recording three tackles.
Recording a career-high two tackles in 2009, Dotson spent most of the year inactive as the team's fifth or sixth defensive end.
Ikaika Alama-Francis: n/a
Signed in November, Alama-Francis was inactive for all six games on the Dolphins' roster in 2009.
The former 2007 second-round pick was picked up as a developmental prospect, and should be given the chance to earn a backup job with the team in 2010.
Overall Position Grade: B
Things weren't always easy for the Dolphins' offensive line, as they lose their anchor in nose tackle Jason Ferguson midway through the season.
That being said, there is little to complain about when analyzing the unit's performance in 2009.
The Dolphins ranked in the upper half of the league in yards-per-carry against, and the team's run defense would have been even better had they not been starting two average inside linebackers (Akin Ayodele and Channing Crowder) and a one-dimensional pass-rusher in Joey Porter.
The team's top three defensive ends ranged from very good to superb, while the overall nose tackle play between Ferguson and Soliai was strong for the most part as well.
A nose tackle for the long-term is still needed, but defensive end is arguably the deepest position on the team right now, and should help the Dolphins hold up well against the run in the coming years.
How would you grade the Miami Dolphins' defensive line in 2009? Share your thoughts on the forum here !
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