Much has been made of Miami Dolphins' desperate need for a number one wide receiver. Critics have consistently argued that without that go-to-guy, Chad Henne's offensive weapons will be limited, which will in turn limit his productivity and future Dolphins' success.
But Miami's needs are not limited to the offense, and it's their struggling defense which requires the most improvement.
The off-season has seem some dramatic changes in the Dolphins defense, not least the decision to replace outgoing defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni with Mike Nolan.
Nolan’s task will be improving a side who allowed 390 points this season (the third highest in the AFC), and who gave up a franchise-record, and NFL-high, of 140 points in the fourth quarter.
Last season Nolan improved the Denver Broncos defence substantially, with them ranked seventh overall in the NFL. But their ranking of third against the pass, giving up just 186.3 yards per game, will be of more interest to Dolphins fans, who watched their team give away big play after big play through the air.
Miami looked to address the “big play” issue at the beginning of the uncapped year – immediately releasing free-safety Gibril Wilson. However, after missing out on Antrel Rolle and Ryan Clark, there is still a glaring hole at the position that must be addressed.
There are options in Free Agency. Darren Sharper has not yet been shown the love by the New Orleans Saints, and AJ Atogwe has not been resigned by the Rams. Atogwe would command considerable money, while Sharper would be a short-term solution to the problem. Regardless, both players possess the ball-hawking tendencies required in Miami, and they must be potential targets.
In the Draft, Eric Berry is considered the top safety, but he will be long gone by Miami’s 12th pick. Earl Thomas is a possibility, but questions remain over whether he commands a pick that high. Other options include taking Myron Rolle or Major Wright in the 3rd round, with this option remaining a distinct possibility.
At the end of the day, a ball-hawking free safety is a must. Stopping the pass against teams like the Patriots and Jets is no easy feat. The Dolphins must have a strong corps of defensive backs if they are to succeed in stopping the likes of Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Braylon Edwards, and if the rumours prove correct, possible Brandon Marshall.
With the exception of Free Safety, the Dolphins’ secondary does look strong. Yeremiah Bell made the Pro-Bowl, while rookie cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith both displayed enough ability to convince critics that the CB position looks well under control.
However, further up the field, problems have arisen. Jason Ferguson’s eight game suspension has caused Miami immediate problems on their defensive line. While a long-term replacement was a necessity, Miami have now been forced into considering the Nose Tackle position a priority.
Ferguson is coming off a season-ending injury, and will be suspended for half the regular season to boot, while Paul Solai hardly fits the bill as a top class NT. Unfortunately, Nose Tackle’s are a hot commodity today in the NFL, and are the main figure in any 3-4 defense. Sadly for the Dolphins, those few Nose Tackles available in Free Agency were not available for long.
This leaves the Draft as Miami’s most viable option. There is huge depth in the class of defensive tackles, and most have the potential to become starting nose tackles.
Dan Williams is seen as the standout performer, with many tipping him as Miami’s 1st round pick. However, should Miami choose a different route, Terrence “Mount” Cody could be a 2nd round pick-up, while Cam Thomas offers great value in the 3rd round.
The question is not if the Dolphins will draft a Nose Tackle. It’s when.
The issue of inside linebacker was a problem immediately addressed by the Bill Parcells’ regime. Karlos Dansby is a proven performer, and is a huge upgrade from the recently released Akin Ayodele. The signing of Dansby immediately strengthened Miami's defense significantly – albeit at a high cost.
Outside linebacker is now a much more pressing concern. Joey Porter’s release was a necessity, but does leave a gaping hole for Miami. Parcells will hope that former CFL star Cameron Wake can step up to fill the gap left by Porter and become more than just a pass rush specialist and impact player.
Questions do still remain over Wake’s ability to stop the run, but his 5.5 sacks with limited game time are evidence that he is more than capable of playing the pass.
In addition to this, Parcells will have to decide on whether to bring back veteran Jason Taylor. The iconic #99 is no longer the force he was, but still brings great leadership to the team.
There is no doubting his best days are behind him, but he can still have an impact in any team, and has the ability to make big plays (his fumble return against the Jets is a testament to that) and his re-signing could be vital to the development of Miami’s younger stars.
The talent pool for outside linebackers at this year’s draft is deep. A large number of mock drafts see Miami taking Sergio Kindle at number 12. The Texas OLB has the size and pace that Parcells loves, and is a proven commodity at college level.
Brandon Graham is another player who should receive serious consideration. Seen by many as the most complete OLB in the draft, and ranked as the best OLB by NFLDraftScout.com, Graham is a possible selection, although his current value in the draft is not as high as his ability might command.
Jason Pierre-Paul is another great athlete that could warrant the number 12 pick. However, he is still very raw and has played just a single year of college football. The potential to be a bust may scare many teams away, and if Pierre-Paul begins to slide down the draft due to his inexperience, which is a distinct possibility, then he would be a serious contender for a second round pick – unfortunately, he is unlikely to slide quite far enough for Miami.
Even Rolando McClain is an outside bet at number 12. Before the signing of Dansby he was tipped to be the Dolphins first round pick. Although an inside linebacker in college, McClain can play outside too, and has the size, strength and speed that a Parcells' regime would love.
Additionally, the signing of Karlos Dansby, who is more than capable at OLB, could free up space in the middle for McClain to work alongside Channing Crowder. Either way, McClain cannot be ruled out quite yet.
Daryl Washington and Sean Weatherspoon will likely be gone by Miami’s 2nd round pick, but Ricky Sapp and Koa Misi could land at the Sun Life Stadium.
Other options include Thaddeus Gibson from Ohio State, who could be available as late as the 3rd, while concerns over Navorro Bowman’s character could see him slip as low as the 4th.
Jerry Hughes, Carlos Dunlap, and Everson Griffen could all be converted from dominant Defensive Ends to prolific pass-rushing OLBs should the chance arise. It is also a great possibility that one of these will be available at the Dolphins 2nd round pick, but no guarantee.
It is difficult to see the Dolphins waiting as late as the third round to address their outside linebacker needs. The talent pool is exceptionally strong in the first and second rounds of the draft, so it would be difficult to pass up the chance to sign one of these great athletes with one of Miami’s first two picks.
So, what will the Dolphins do? Well, addressing the nose tackle and outside linebacker issues will be vital. It would be a shock if the Dolphins don't address both positions in the first three rounds. Then the free safety issue can be addressed in later rounds, or with the leftover pick from those rounds.
Now, what to do about that receiving issue...