As I promised, here is the follow up to my first article, only this time, focusing on the Defense of the Dolphins. Clearly, there has been a dramatic shift in the D, evidenced by the hiring of Mike Nolan, the signing of Karlos Dansby, and the release of one of the most celebrated Dolphins of all-time, Jason Taylor (who, by the way, signed with the New York Jets, probably their biggest rival). Joey Porter is also gone, by way of Arizona, as is Akin Ayodele, and the Dolphins used their #1 pick in this year's draft on Jared Odrick, a solid addition to a young Defensive Line. Of course, there's the suspension of Jason Ferguson and the continued growth at the Cornerback position from second-year stars Sean Smith and Vontae Davis. Lastly, there is quite possibly the biggest battle in training camp: the dilemma at Free Safety, which, thanks to Gibril Wilson, was arguably the weakest part of the team last season.
Let's begin with the aforementioned Defensive Line. The line will likely be made up of Kendall Langford, Jared Odrick, Phillip Merling and Randy Starks, who had one of his best seasons as a pro last year, and, as announced by Jeff Ireland, will be playing Nose Tackle in Ferguson’s absence. Other men currently in camp are Paul Soliai, who started a few games in 2009, Tony McDaniel, Ryan Baker, Lionel Dotson, Ikaika Alama-Francis, Travis Ivey & Brian Johnston. Lastly, there is the suspended Jason Ferguson, but we already know that he will be out for the first eight games of 2010.
This unit will be competitive in camp, as this team loves to stockpiles on the lines and give every player an opportunity. It is not a coincidence that this team has so much talent on the lines, as Parcells believes that the line is where games are won, and Sparano comes from an OL background. Starting with 2008 pick Kendall Langford, this kid is almost certainly going to be starting at one of the DE spots in the 3-4 hybrid organized by Nolan, but if Jared Odrick and Phillip Merling show the potential that made Miami use top 32 picks on them in the past three drafts, then Langford could be the odd man out, even though he has consistently been one of the more underappreciated players on the team. Still, it is highly unlikely that both players will fulfill their potential this training camp, as Odrick is only a rookie, and Merling has been a career under achiever, even during his time at Clemson. I predict that Langford will continue to start and be solid as always, and one of Merling and Odrick will win the other spot, also because Langford has proven to be a favorite of this staff. My money is on Odrick, considering he was drafted to be an impact player, and in that case, Merling will be a quality backup again this year on a team full of them, even if he returned that Brett Favre pass during the 2008 “Division Championship” game. I honestly think that a Starks, Langford, and Odrick starting D-Line with Merling as a rotational player has the potential to be one of the league's best, especially under a man who turned the Denver Broncos around from #22 to #7 in just one year, using several former Dolphins no less.
If all of these players fill out the roster as I imagine, the question becomes who fills out the last 2 or 3 spots available at DE and NT. This team loves depth, and will surely keep multiple players, and since Starks is their NT option, it seems that the Dolphins will keep at least one backup, which will come down to Paul Soliai, Ryan Baker and Travis Ivey. Soliai is the obvious and most likely choice, as he has started a number of games and has shown himself to be at least capable of being a fine backup. He knows the system, and although Dolphins fans saw last season that he is in no way a long term starter, he can definitely fill in for Starks if need be. However, with only so many spots and a switch in defensive scheme, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Fins would release Soliai. Ryan Baker was an undrafted free agent last season that was signed to the practice squad after a good camp, and made his way onto the roster after injuries struck the team late in the season. He is being trained as a backup NT and will definitely be Soliai's biggest competition this training camp. Considering the Ferguson suspension, there is actually a chance that both Soliai and Baker will make the team, as long as the latter improves and Soliai doesn't lose focus. Travis Ivey, an undrafted free agent, is a long shot, but if he has a great camp, he could win himself a spot on the back end of the roster or the Practice Squad.
The biggest question remaining is who will win the last spot at Defensive End. Tony McDaniel was a pretty solid rotational player last season after coming over from Jacksonville, and although he’s had a run-in with the law this off-season, he is clearly the favorite to make this team. His main competition is going to be from Dotson and Alama-Francis, two players who were on the roster last year, but did not suit up on game days. Dotson, a 7th Round pick by this regime in 2008, will hopefully come through on his potential or win a spot in the rotation, or will be cut if he shows no improvement. Alama-Francis was a 2nd Round pick by the Lions in 2008, so he clearly has potential, but his chances of making this team are slim, only because of how deep this unit is.
Next, we have our Linebackers. While we lost Porter and Taylor, I’m trying to forget about the past and focus on the present. It’s safe to say, having witnessed the transformation of Elvis Dumervil in Mike Nolan’s Denver defense, that Dolphins fans could have an unexpected surprise star in the making. Considering early reports and team history, I would declare it safe to say that Karlos Dansby, Channing Crowder, Tim Dobbins, A.J. Edds, Cameron Wake and Koa Misi all survive onto the roster. Dobbins was acquired via the Dolphins trade-down with the Chargers during the 1st Round this year, and Edds and Misi were 2010 selections. Cameron Wake looks to continue his rise as a lights-out player, but still needs to show improvement in areas other than pass rushing. Also on the Dolphins current roster are Charlie Anderson, Quentin Moses, Chris McCoy, Erik Walden, and Austin Spitler & J.D. Folsom. Though there are less proven commodities at FS, one of most important competitions this summer will be at 3-4 OLB. I think it is becoming evident that the team envisions 2010 2nd round pick Koa Misi starting week one at strong side linebacker. He has started in OTA's and quite frankly, even as a rookie, gives us our best chance. At weak side linebacker, Cameron Wake is the fan favorite, the most talented, and the most likely starter at that spot, and could very well record double digit sacks under Mike Nolan's defense. However, if he doesn't improve his consistency, the team may opt to use him as a nickel rusher and start Charlie Anderson. I’m not sure what it says about the team if Anderson starts, not that he may get better, but he has shown to be a low-impact player thus far. He has made a few plays, but is not ideal. If Wake emerges and beats him out for a starting spot, it is very possible he will be cut all together in favor of younger players like Quentin Moses or 7th Round pick Chris McCoy, just as he could easily be starting opening day should Wake struggle.
I think that the team will likely keep at least four outside linebackers, which means that Moses, Anderson and McCoy will be competing for two spots, unless the team feels that their depth at inside linebacker offsets their lack of depth on the outside. The likelihood is that Anderson will be the top backup, Moses will spend his fourth year at the back end of the roster for depth, and McCoy will be on the Practice Squad, which this staff has used for several late round picks in the past two years.
Inside linebacker is much more simple. Karlos Dansby and Channing Crowder will almost certainly be the starters barring an injury setback with Crowder. Channing Crowder isn't a great player, but he is probably our best option. He was a 3rd Round pick in 2005, and he has been a starter since Day One. He is very solid, but he just isn't a difference maker. Dansby is quite the upgrade on Crowder as a playmaker, while Crowder is still a huge upgrade on Akin Ayodele, a huge liability last season. A.J. Edds is almost certainly safe as a 2010 4th Round pick. He will likely settle into Reggie Torbor's role as a nickel linebacker and will eventually push Crowder for his position. Tim Dobbins is a very solid backup who could easily start for this team if Crowder isn't healthy, and at the very least will be an excellent special teams player. Having a player like Dobbins is an indication of how deep this team is, as he could start elsewhere. Rookie 7th Rounder Austin Spitler will compete with Erik Walden for maybe one more roster spot as a special teams player. Otherwise, he will be a Practice Squad candidate and Walden will be cut for lack of progress. J.D. Folsom just isn't NFL caliber and may not even make it past first cuts, even if he was signed just last season.
Moving on to the Cornerbacks, I am thoroughly impressed by the progress made at this position. The Dolphins have starters Vontae Davis & Sean Smith, Will Allen remains on the roster following his injury last season, and the team also has rookie Nolan Carrol, former first-round pick Jason Allen, A.J. Wallace, Ross Weaver & Evan Oglesby. Unlike most, I don't see Will Allen winning a starting spot in camp, as Davis and Smith have too much talent and potential, and asserted themselves as an up and coming powerhouse as rookies last season. The team, I think, would be stupid to ruin the momentum this pair has established by bringing Allen back in, and thus, it is likely that Will Allen will be battling for the nickel corner spot, or will be traded to a CB-needy team. If he is healthy, he will be the nickel corner. If not, he will be placed on PUP and it will be a battle between rookie 5th Rounder Nolan Carrol and habitual disappointment Jason Allen. Will Allen is likely going to be on the roster come September, and therefore there is a battle for a 4th and possibly 5th corner spot.
Carrol is not a lock as a 2010 draft pick, as many teams, including Miami, cut 5th Round picks out of camp who fail to meet expectations (see Nalbone, John). Also, he was injury prone in college, so if he sustains another injury, he could find himself on IR or PUP, or he could impress and win himself a spot on the roster as a backup CB and special teams player. Jason Allen, on the other hand, is a massive bust as a former 16th overall pick during the Satan era. He will never start for this team, and probably won't anywhere else. Still, he is a great athlete, a core special teams player, and provides quality depth at corner as he has played a lot of snaps there and hasn't always struggled. He is an ideal fourth corner for this or any other NFL team. I could easily see him making this team yet again as a core special teams player and backup, but he may be unseated by the younger Carrol if there is only one spot available. Of course, there is a chance that Wallace or Weaver could be a hidden gem, but likely, one or both will be on the Practice Squad. Evan Oglesby has virtually no chance at making this team as he is just a less talented version of Jason Allen competing for the same position.
Finally, we have our Safeties. Yes, Yeremiah Bell had a Pro Bowl year, and remains a leader of the defense. Yes, we have young talent in players like Chris Clemons, Tyrone Culver and Reshad Jones. Yes, we didn’t resign Gibril Wilson, who I honestly think cost the Dolphins multiple victories last year. However, the safety position is still the position I worry about most on this team, which gave up tons of points last year, especially late in the game. The roster also includes Jonathon Amaya & Nate Ness. 2009 5th round pick Chris Clemons seems to have a leg up going into camp. Even if he happens to be beat out for a starting job, it is hard to see him not making the team barring a disastrous camp. More than likely, he will be starting for this team at FS comes September, unless O.J. Atogwe, a rumored signee, joins the team. Tyrone Culver would be the best player to start at FS currently on the roster. If this team had an injury last season he could be put in without much issue, and solidly fill the role. He is smart and has a lot of game experience over the last few years for this team. The problem is that the Dolphins are looking for a long-term starter, and Culver is best suited for strong safety, and Clemons has all the tools to be the team's answer at free safety long-term. Then there are the two rookies on the board. Reshad Jones, as talented as he is, he fell to the 5th Round for a reason. Second of all, even if he is going to be a player for this team, he almost certainly will need time to develop. Jones is very talented, and long-term could be the team's future at strong or free safety, but again, he fell so far for a reason, and as a 5th round pick is not a lock for a roster spot. I would be very surprised if he didn't make the team, given their lack of depth, but I would not be totally shocked because of Jonathan Amaya. Though in theory the team could keep 5 safeties, it is more likely they will keep 4, and if they do, the battle will come down to Jones and Amaya. Jones has the advantage as a draft pick, and the more physically gifted player. However, if Jones has trouble in camp and Amaya continues to impress the coaching staff, don't be shocked if Jones is the odd man out. Nate Ness, given safety is the team's biggest question mark, still has a shot, but it’s small.
Overall, this defense will, without a doubt, be improved in 2010. Yet, from a talent and depth standpoint, in my opinion, they are not quite to the level of the offense heading into training camp. On defense there are unproven players looking to win starting jobs at critical spots, while offense has a much clearer future. Still, this defense, with Randy Starks, Karlos Dansby and Yeremiah Bell, has star power and play-making ability. It has two talented young corners who hopefully will make major strides this season in Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, solid incumbent starters in Channing Crowder and Kendall Langford, Jared Odrick, who should immediately make an impact, and starting caliber players who will provide quality depth. Get excited for 2010.