Miami Dolphins 2010 Position Grades: Did the Defensive Line Dominance Continue?
After ranking 18th against the run in 2009, the Miami Dolphins' defense finished 7th in the NFL and helped opponents to just 3.6 yards per carry.
Already with a wealth of talent on the defensive line, the Dolphins used their first-round pick in 2010 on defensive end Jared Odrick, who looked promising before the season but was lost for the year with foot and leg injuries.
Despite the loss of Odrick and the torn Achilles' of Phillip Merling in the offseason, the Dolphins' defense got even better in 2010 thanks to the emergence of backups Paul Soliai and Tony McDaniel, as well as the continued play of Kendall Langford and Randy Starks.
So how did each player grade out in 2010? Continue on to find out...
Chris J. Nelson majored in journalism at Georgia State University and is currently a programming coordinator for Turner Sports in Atlanta. He operates his own Miami Dolphins website, The Miami Dolphins Spotlight, and he can be followed on Twitter here.
NT Paul Soliai: A
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Drafted in the Cam Cameron/Randy Mueller era of 2007 in the fourth round, Soliai spent his first three seasons primarily as a backup and often in Tony Sparano's dog house thanks to weight and effort issues. (One Miami reporter also told me last year that the guy is "dumb as a box of rocks. Yikes!)
That being said, Soliai always had the potential to be a dominant 3-4 nose tackle with his rare mammoth size, and he finally realized that potential when the Dolphins needed it most in 2010.
After Jared Odrick went down and Randy Starks was asked to move back to right end from nose tackle, Soliai became a full-time starter and did not disappoint.
While his numbers are modest (39 tackles, two sacks) as those of most nose tackles are, Soliai's dominance against the run was apparent. He did an excellent job of fighting off blocks and disrupting the backfield, at times throwing running backs around like rag dolls.
Slated for unrestricted free agency if the league and the union can work out a new CBA, Soliai's agent David Canter has conveyed that they will not be re-signing with the Dolphins prior to the free agent signing period.
It's hard to blame them, as they are looking to cash in on the 27-year-old's breakout season with so many teams desperate for a game-changing nose tackle to anchor their 3-4 schemes.
The Dolphin don't want to break the bank for a guy that has had one good season, but they will certainly have a void to fill if he does walk. A 366-pound void.
DE Kendall Langford: A
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Since being drafted in the third round in 2008, Langford has been one of the most consistent and reliable defensive linemen on the Dolphins' roster.
He was excellent against the run in 2010 while setting career highs in tackles (47), sacks (3) and forced fumbles (2). While 3-4 defensive ends aren't primarily tasked with rushing the passer, Langford does it about as well as any of his counterparts around the league.
Langford will return as the Dolphins' starting left end in 2011, but his rookie contract expires after next season and he's a prime candidate for an extension.
DE Tony McDaniel: B+
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In addition to Paul Soliai, McDaniel was another player that had a pretty great year when called upon for more playing time due to injuries on the defensive line.
After a pretty unimpressive year as a backup in 2009, McDaniel was stellar against the run in 2010 and set career highs across the board in tackles (36), sacks (2.5) and pass deflections.
A free agent this offseason, McDaniel is going to be tough to keep if there is the kind of market there should be for his services. Because they have so many talented players already with Odrick and Merling returning in 2011, it's possible the Dolphins could be losing one of their most reliable and versatile backups.
DE/NT Randy Starks: B
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Snubbed from the Pro Bowl after an incredible season in 2009, Starks actually made the Pro Bowl this past season as an injury replacement despite having only a decent year. Consider it a make-up pick from the previous year.
There was nothing wrong with Starks' effort or talent in 2010, but he was asked to beef up and move from defensive end to nose tackle in the offseason. That was until Jared Odrick was lost for the season, after which time Starks moved back to his old right end spot and Paul Soliai stepped in at nose tackle.
Starks was still good against the run, but he wasn't the playmaker he was as a pass rusher or in the backfield like he was in 2009 thanks to the added weight.
Entering the fourth year of his $21 million contract signed in 2008, Starks is locked in to a starting job in 2011. The only question is where that will be, which will depend greatly on what moves the Dolphins make in the offseason.
NT Ryan Baker: D
While Paul Soliai and Tony McDaniel stepped up their game when called upon in 2010, Baker really did not.
Despite being given some solid playing time, Baker was not very effective for the Dolphins in nine games played in 2010, recording just four tackles.
While he is a versatile guy that can play anywhere on the line, he doesn't seem to have a high ceiling and probably isn't going to get much better than he is. That means he'll once again just be fighting for a roster spot in 2011.
DE Phillip Merling: F
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Arrested for domestic battery against his pregnant girlfriend and suffering a torn Achilles' tendon in the offseason, Merling spent most of the season on the non-football injury list before playing in five games late in the season, recording three tackles.
Merling's agility wasn't quite there and he clearly wasn't in game shape, which resulted in him making a pretty minimal impact in the season.
He is a serviceable starter and good rotational player with a manageable salary in 2011, but he will return as nothing more than a backup with the other talent the Dolphins have.
DE Jared Odrick: n/a
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The 28th overall pick in 2010, Odrick appeared to be a promising prospect at right defensive end before suffering a broken ankle in the regular season opener against the Buffalo Bills.
Nearing a return to the field in October, Odrick suffered a separate foot injury in practice that eventually sideliend him for the remainder of the 2010 season and landed him on injured reserve.
Odrick recorded only one tackle in 2010, but he is a good prospect and will likely start at right end in 2011 if he can get healthy. The nose tackle situation and where Randy Starks plays will impact Odrick as well.
DE Lionel Dotson: n/a
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A seventh-round pick in 2008, Dotson did little in two seasons as a backup before being waived during final cuts before the 2010 season.
After that time, Dotson joined the Denver Broncos' practice squad, where he remained until the Dolphins came calling with an offer to join the active roster less than two weeks later in need of defensive line depth with Jared Odrick's injury.
Dotson played in three games and recorded two tackles before the Dolphins decided they didn't need him anymore, placing him on injured reserve with what was likely a phantom or short-term injury.
He hasn't made an impact in three seasons, and will be a long shot to make the active roster in 2011 if he survives until camp.
NT Chris Baker: n/a
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An undrafted free agent who spent all of his 2009 rookie season with the Denver Broncos, Baker was reunited with former Broncos and current Dolphins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan when he was signed to the Dolphins' practice squad in October.
Baker was promoted to the active roster in late November, appearing in one game while being inactive for the final five and recording zero tackles.
Kicked out of Penn State for off-the-field problems, Hampton is more talented than his career to date would indicate. He's a versatile guy that can play both nose tackle and defensive end, making him someone that should compete for a backup job in 2011.
Closing Comments and 2011 Outlook
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There isn't much the Dolphins really need to do on the defensive line, even if they do lose both Paul Soliai and Tony McDaniel to free agency.
The Dolphins have a full starting corps of talent with Kendall Langford, Randy Starks, and Jared Odrick, as well as Phillip Merling returning to a backup role.
Of course, Merling and Odrick have durability concerns in addition to not really being starting-caliber (Merling) or proven (Odrick), and there is some debate as to whether Starks should return to nose tackle if Soliai leaves via free agency.
If Starks remains the nose tackle, then the Dolphins will be pretty much set and will need to add nothing but depth.
If, however, Starks moves back to right end where he was so dominant in 2009 and Soliai is not retained, the Dolphins will have a huge need for a starting-caliber nose tackle.
In free agency, the top nose tackle (though he plays end in Baltimore) is Haloti Ngata, although he is almost sure to be franchised. The next best option could be Aubrayo Franklin (49ers), who worked with Mike Nolan in Baltimore and was brought by Nolan to San Francisco.
Other options include Shaun Rogers, who is available now after being released by the Browns, and Ronald Fields, who worked with Nolan in San Francisco and Denver. Even more names of guys with starting experience or potential include Ma'ake Kemoeatu (Redskins), Gabe Watson (Cardinals) and Alan Branch (Cardinals).
Backup options in free agency include Chris Hoke (Steelers), Ron Edwards (Chiefs), Junior Siavii (Seahawks), and Remi Ayodele (Saints). Ayodele spent time with the Dolphins' coaching staff in Dallas and is the younger brother of former Dolphins linebacker Akin Ayodele.
In the draft, the top nose tackle prospect is Baylor's Phil Taylor, who is someone the Dolphins could seriously consider if they can get back into the second round via trade. Kenrick Ellis (Hampton), Jerell Powe (Ole Miss), Siona Fua (Stanford), Anthony Gray (Southern Miss), and Ian Williams (Notre Dame) are also good nose tackle prospects.