The time has come to begin previewing the Dolphins' position by position entering the offseason (which we all hope officially begins this month with a new CBA). This article focuses on the defensive line.
The Dolphins returned many of their key players from last year on the defensive line, including starters Kendall Langford and Randy Starks (who shifted from end to nose tackle) as well as Paul Soliai and Tony McDaniel.
The team lost Phillip Merling to a torn Achilles' in the offseason, and also had 2010 first-round defensive end Jared Odrick limited to just one game with foot and leg injuries.
In this article, I'll look at the team's strengths and areas of need, who is under contract, who are the free agents and their prospects for being re-signed and who they might look at via trade, free agency and the draft.
- NT Chris Baker (through 2011) — An undrafted free agent with the Broncos in 2009, Baker joined the Dolphins' practice squad in November and ended up appearing on one game during the season.
- NT Ryan Baker (through 2011) — Signed by the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in 2009, Baker began the season on the team's practice squad and went on to play in nine games, recording four tackles.
- DE Lionel Dotson (through 2011) — A seventh-round pick in 2008, Dotson began the season on the Broncos' practice squad after being waived by the Dolphins during final cuts, but Miami re-signed him in September after Jared Odrick's injury. He appeared in three games and recorded two tackles before landing on injured reserve.
- DE Kendall Langford (through 2011) — Originally a third-round pick out of Hampton in 2008, Langford continued to start for the Dolphins at left defensive end in 2010, totaling career highs in tackles (47), sacks (3), forced fumbles (2) and pass deflections (4).
- DE Phillip Merling (through 2011) — Arrested for domestic battery and suffering a torn Achilles' in the offseason, Merling spent most of the season on the non-football injury list. He appeared in five games late in the season and recorded three tackles.
- DE Jared Odrick (through 2014) — The 28th overall pick in 2010, Odrick opened the season as the starter at right defensive end before suffering a leg injury. He suffered a broken foot in his return to the practice field and finished the season on injured reserve.
- DE Rob Rose (through 2012) — Picked up off waivers from the Seahawks before the season, Rose bounced between the Dolphins' practice squad and active roster, but did not appear in a game.
- NT Paul Soliai (through 2011) — After three seasons as a disappointing backup, Soliai emerged as one of the best run-stuffing nose tackles in the NFL in 2010 and set statistical career highs across the board. He was expected to be a free agent this offseason, but received the franchise tag and signed a one-year, $12.38 million tender on Feb. 26.
- DE Randy Starks (through 2012) —Starting off the season at nose tackle, Starks moved back to his old right defensive end spot upon Jared Odrick's injury. He started all 16 contests and recorded 30 tackles, three sacks and three pass deflections.
- DE Tony McDaniel (unrestricted) —Acquired for a seventh-round pick from the Jaguars in 2009, McDaniel has spent the past two seasons serving as a top backup at both defensive end and nose tackle. He experienced a breakout season in 2010, recording career highs in tackles (36), sacks (2.5) and pass deflections (4).
Quite simply, the entire defensive line is a strength. They retained nose tackle Paul Soliai with the franchise tag; they have two quality starting ends than are good rushers and excellent run-stoppers in Kendall Langford and Randy Starks; and some nice talent to rotate in with Phillip Merling and Jared Odrick.
Areas of Need
It's hard to say the Dolphins have many glaring needs on the defensive line, because they have a great nose tackle returning in Soliai and are four-deep at defensive end.
If you had to isolate some needs at the position, one would be a long-term solution at nose tackle, be it Soliai or someone else. Soliai is only on a one-year deal from the franchise tag, and his rough first three years make him a scary extension candidate. The Dolphins will need to use 2011 to determine whether or not he's the future there.
Free Agency Outlook
With a full slate of starters and then some, the Dolphins are unlikely to be in the market for any free agent defensive lineman, and certainly not any high-priced players. The $12.5 million price tag for Soliai essentially puts them out of the market for a big-name nose tackle like Aubrayo Franklin.
That being the case, they could look for a little depth at the position, since Chris Baker and Ryan Baker are hardly worthy of significant playing time and the team probably doesn't want to shuffle Randy Starks around any more.
One player the Dolphins could target as a backup nose tackle is Ronald Fields, who is a free agent of the Broncos and worked with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in both Denver and San Francisco. Someone like Gabe Watson, who flamed out in Arizona, would also be a nice prospect to add and develop.
The Dolphins are far more likely to look for defensive line depth in the draft, but even there it seems an unlikely position to be taken early with Soliai re-signed and Odrick taken in the first round a year ago.
The Dolphins might be tempted to take a nose tackle like Baylor's Phil Taylor if he were available at a spot they could trade down to in the late first or early second round, and they could have interest in Kenrick Ellis (Hampton) in the second or Jerrell Powe (Ole Miss) a little later, but for the most part the defensive line should be untouched early on.
In the mid-to-late rounds, 3-4 defensive end prospects like Pep Levingston (LSU), Cedric Thornton (Southern Arkansas), David Carter (UCLA), and John Graves (Virginia Tech) could draw interest for depth.
The Dolphins' defensive line has been rock solid over the past few seasons, and it was better than ever in 2010.
Losing a versatile backup like Tony McDaniel, who seems unlikely to return as a free agent, will certainly hurt, but the Dolphins' current personnel can more than make up for his absence.
The healthy returns of Phillip Merling and Jared Odrick at defensive end will create a seriously nice rotation, as well a more stable situation for Randy Starks, who won't be asked to switch between nose tackle and end.
The Dolphins need a true backup nose tackle capable of playing significant time, and they also need to figure out of Paul Soliai is the right guy for the starting job at the position long-term.
Beyond that, however, things are looking very good for the Dolphins' defensive line in 2011 and it should continue to thrive.
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Chris J. Nelson majored in journalism at Georgia State University and currently works for Turner Sports in Atlanta. He operates his own Miami Dolphins website, The Miami Dolphins Spotlight, and he can be followed on Twitter here.