Miami Dolphins: A Young Defense to Build Upon
All the Bleacher Report writers for the Miami Dolphins seem to be focused on is the draft, and with good reason; it's a week and a half away. However, everyone seems to be putting out an ungodly amount of Mock Drafts and the like, so I decided to look a little further into the future.
The defense of the Miami Dolphins witnessed a massive turnaround from 2009 to 2010. This impressive feat was spear-headed by none other than the great coach Mike Nolan. The man took a defense that finished 22nd in the league in total defense and turned it into a stout squad that finished sixth overall in total defense.
All this was done with a defense which has an average age of 25 years old. And this is with a 33-year-old starting strong safety to skew the numbers a bit. What's more is that it was the squad's first year under Mike Nolan.
My point? The Miami Dolphins should potentially be able to enjoy defensive success for years to come.
In this article, I will take a look at the starters at each position, along with the rest of the young contributors who did not see much action in 2010.
Mike Nolan, Defensive Coordinator
Mike Nolan has always been an excellent defensive coordinator. He has ties to three very prominent coaching trees: the Bill Walsh tree, the Bill Belichick tree and the Jimmy Johnson tree. One can't complain with those credentials.
In 1993, in his first defensive coordinator gig, he lead a New York Giants defense which ranked in the top five in total defense. He held that post through the '96 season before moving on to work with the Washington Redskins from 1997-1999.
He then went on to coach another top-10 unit with the Jets in 2000 before moving on to coach the Ravens defense from 2002-2004 prior to his lone NFL head coaching gig in San Fransisco. And what did Nolan do with the Ravens? Coached two more top-10 units.
After his four years as head coach of the San Fransisco 49ers, he joined the Denver Broncos and boasted yet another big defensive turnaround. This time, Nolan took a team that finished 29th in total defense in 2008 lead them up the rankings to seventh in total defense in 2009.
After this awesome turnaround, Mr. Josh McDaniels did what he does best and sabotaged his relationship with Nolan. And thank goodness he did, because Nolan wound up in Miami and did what he does best: turn around a struggling defense.
So here we are, a year removed from the Fins finishing sixth in total Defense, eighth against the pass and seventh against the run. And as mentioned previously, this was the Dolphins first season under Nolan and with quite a young squad.
Here's to many more great years of solid D under Mike Nolan!
Paul Soliai, Defensive Tackle
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I'm going to start with the big man up front who recently received a $12 million raise this offseason. Paul Soliai was one of two holdovers from the Cam Cameron draft of 2007, the other being punter Brandon Fields (just goes to show how poor THAT regime was at drafting). And until last season, Soliai was as good as a labeled bust.
No one could have guessed Soliai would be as good as he was in 2010. Heck, he wasn't even supposed to start.
Prior to the season, all we heard about Soliai was how Tony Sparano and his coaches constantly criticized him about his weight and work ethic. Three seasons removed from being drafted in the fourth round, Soliai finally seemed to get the hint and became a dominating force in the middle.
He was the anchor of the Dolphins defense and racked up 39 tackles along with two sacks.
Many fans and writers have criticized the Dolphins front office for giving Soliai such a hefty paycheck after one good season during a contract year. However, it was a safe move in reality.
Finding solid 3-4 defensive tackles is not an easy thing to do. Letting Soliai test the open market (you know, the one that hasn't started due to the lockout) would have been a dangerous move that could have potentially left Miami without a starting DT.
Also, those who say Soliai only did as well as he did to get a new contract can rest assured. Sticking Soliai with the franchise tag puts him in another contract year (granted, a wealthy one). If he wants a long-term contract done, he'll continue to perform at a high level. Hey, Stephan Ross's fat wallet should be able to handle that.
Soliai is only 27 years old, and after not getting much play time his first three seasons, he should have many good years ahead of him. If he can build on the type of season we saw out of him in 2010, he could be with the Miami Dolphins for years to come.
Here's to many more fruitful years out of "Big Paul."
Kendall Langford, Defensive End
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Kendall Langford was the third-round selection for the Miami Dolphins in 2008. Aside from perennial left tackle Jake Long, Langford is easily our best player from that draft class. He became an immediate contributor along the defensive line, starting 13 of 16 games his first seasons and all 16 in 2010.
Langford has got to be one of the most underrated 5-technique 3-4 lineman in the NFL. He's been a consistent run stopper since he joined the lineup and can rush the pass when given the chance. In 2010, Langford posted 47 total tackles and three sacks to go along with two forced fumbles. That is a good season for a 290 pound 3-4 defensive end.
To give you an idea of how well Langford performed in 2010, take these examples of Pro Bowl 3-4 ends:
Brett Keisel, Pittsburgh (didn't play in Pro Bowl because of Super Bowl):
Forced Fumbles: Two
Our very own Randy Starks, Miami (alternate):
Forced Fumbles: Zero
Granted, Starks was probably given the nod to be an alternate due to his breakout 2009 campaign, Langford's numbers are in the same ball park as these two. In three seasons, Langford's production has him in the same league as a couple seasoned veterans.
At 25 years of age, Kendall Langford has many more good ones to give. He's one of my personal favorite guys on the defense and should be sticking around in South Beach for quite some time.
Here's to Langford not losing another 2.5 carrot diamond earring during training camp!
Randy Starks, Defensive End
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As mentioned in the previous slide, Randy Starks made the 2010 Pro Bowl. He's been a constant contributor along the defensive line since being brought over to Miami in 2008 by the Bill Parcells regime after playing his first four seasons with the Tennessee Titans.
Starks bust onto the scene in 2009 when he started all 16 games for the first time since his second year in the league in 2005. In 2009, Starks racked up 56 tackles to go along with a whopping seven sacks; outstanding numbers for a 3-4 end.
In 2010, however, he was asked to gain some weight and move in to play nose tackle after the Dolphins selected Jared Odrick in the first round of the 2010 draft (this was prior to Soliai's break-out).
He did as asked and went all through training camp gearing up to play in the middle under new Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan's scheme. However, Odrick suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the season, so Starks was put back out at defensive end.
This slowed his season down a bit from 2009, but he still performed at a high level for the Fins in 2010. He continues to be a leader along the defensive front and a key piece of arguably the Dolphins greatest strength on defense.
Starks is 29 years old and is the "old guy" along the defensive line. However, he only started 40 games in five years prior to 2009 and should have a handful of good years to offer for the Fins. He also has young guys such as Odrick and Merling to rotate with him in the future.
Here's to Randy Starks for being Randy Starks.
Cameron Wake, Outside Linebacker
Next we have the fan favorite, Cameron Wake. Wake is another player who burst onto the scene in 2009 but as a situational pass-rusher for a team that was already occupied by seasoned pass-rushers in Jason Taylor and Joey Porter.
Before joining the Fins in 2009, Wake was a relative unknown to the NFL world.
Wake played college ball at Penn State for the great Joe Paterno but wasn't an overly flashy collegiate player. He went undrafted in 2005 and was picked up by the New York Giants before being released during training camp. He then lived a life without football and thought his football career to be over until May of 2007.
In 2007, Wake ventured up to Canada and signed a free-agent contract with the British Columbia Lions as a defensive end and never looked back.
He became the first player in CFL history to be named Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. In two seasons with the B.C. Lions, Wake racked up 39 sacks and two Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Wake's terrorizing play caught the eye of Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland, and Wake signed a contract to play for the Fins prior to the 2009 season. In his first season with the Fins, he was merely a situational pass-rusher due to his lack of run-stop and coverage skills. After all, as a 4-3 end for the B.C. Lions, he wasn't asked to do much of anything aside from rushing the pass.
In the offseason prior to the 2010 season, the Dolphins released a disgruntled Joey Porter and Aging Jason Taylor. This was shocking to some. To others, it was a nod of approval for Cameron Wake to take over the reigns.
Keep in mind, this was a season removed from when Porter posted 17.5 sacks and three seasons removed from Jason Taylor winning Defensive Player of the Year.
Wake took the opportunity and ran with it, posting 14 sacks and three forced fumbles en route to earning a starting Pro Bowl berth and All-Pro honors in his first year as stating outside linebacker. He also was more stout against the run than most anticipated and racked up 12 tackles for losses and 26 total tackles behind the line of scrimmage including sacks, according to thephinsider.com. No defensive player could trump that in 2010.
Due to his time out of football and in the CFL, Wake is already 29 years of age. However, he's in tremendous shape and doesn't have any outstanding injuries on his resume. His hard work and relentless attitude should allow him to play well into his 30's.
Here's to never giving up on your dreams, Cameron Wake.
Koa Misi, Outside Linebacker
Koa Misi was Miami's 2010 second-round draft choice, taken 40th overall. Like Odrick at 28, it was a frustrating pick for many fans. The Fins passed on supposed pass-rushing stud Sergio Kindle and athletic safety Taylor Mays TWICE and took Misi instead.
In hindsight, the pick was safe and of quality. Kindle suffered a hospitalizing head injury after falling down a couple flights of stairs before the 2010 season, and Mays hasn't done anything prolific in the league as of yet.
Misi, meanwhile, started 11 games during his rookie season and quietly produced. He posted 41 tackles to pair with 4.5 sacks while playing strong-side outside linebacker. He also recovered a fumble for a touchdown week two against the Vikings. Not gaudy numbers but definitely something to build on as a rookie.
Something to also keep in mind is how well he played on the strong side against the run. He also was adequate in covering the pass when asked. As he continues to grow as a player, we can hopefully expect more pass rush from him to free up Wake. He also seems to have a good head on his shoulders and is an overall likable guy.
Being that 2010 was his rookie season, he is only 24 years of age and has time to grow on an adequate rookie campaign.
Here's to the under appreciated player not many people wanted Miami to draft with the 40th pick, Koa Misi.
Karlos Dansby, Inside Linebacker
Dansby the Mansby, some call him. And with good reason: Karlos Dansby has always had a knack to finding and constantly being around the football. In the offseason prior to 2010, the Miami Dolphins signed this stud middle linebacker to a five year, $43 million contract.
Dansby's presence was a welcome sight to fans in 2010 after a 2009 season which lacked a truly elite inside linebacker. After playing his first six seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, the Dolphins snatched him out of free agency, and he immediately joined the lineup as a team captain.
Dansby's most memorable play in recent history was in the 2009 playoffs when Dansby recovered an Aaron Rogers fumble for a touchdown in overtime. He didn't have any outstanding plays like that in 2010 for Miami, but that doesn't mean his presence wasn't felt.
Due to an injury towards the end of the season, Dansby only started 13 games and played in a limited role for a 14th before being put in injured reserve. Prior to the injury, however, Dansby posted 95 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles.
He was asked to drop back into coverage more than he ever needed to with Arizona due to the lack of any other good coverage inside linebacker options (we all know how slow Channing Crowder is). While paired with Crowder, Dansby played back more while Crowder stuffed the run.
Dansby is already 29 years old but should be able to enjoy success well into his 30's due to his overall athleticism, play-making ability and versatility.
Here's to the defensive captain, Dansby the Mansby.
Channing Crowder, Inside Linebacker
Before any Crowder fans get upset over my humorous video, let me riddle you this: YOU try finding Crowder highlights on Youtube. It's impossible! Everywhere I looked there were either locker room trash-talk interviews of video clips of him getting laid out by another player.
Crowder is a player whom I have a love/hate relationship with. I love his playful mentality and swagger. I hate that nine times out of 10 he can't back up his talk. With that being said, he is a starting member of this defensive unit and has been a voice to be heard (how can't you hear it) on defense.
This former Florida Gator was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the third round of the 2005 draft class. He's been an adequate player when paired with a better linebacker next to him. When he was younger, that player was the great Zach Thomas, and now it's Karlos Dansby.
If he has to carry the workload as the No. 1 inside linebacker, he struggles, as he did after the retirement of Thomas and before the signing of Dansby.
Crowder's biggest knock has been his durability, which has been a concern since high school. In six seasons with the Dolphins, Crowder has started 74 of 96 games. Even this last season he started only 11 games.
The Dolphins drafted young linebacker A.J. Edds in hopes that he'd be able to play on passing situations where Crowder struggles most. Unfortunately, Edds' season ended in training camp and therefor Dansby had to drop into coverage more while Crowder stuffed the run.
Overall, Crowder is a high-character guy that brings attitude to the team. Could he tone it down a bit? Perhaps, considering his up-and-down career. But the point remains, he's a 27-year-old piece of this defense who, barring more injuries, will probably be with us for a few more seasons.
Here's to the motor mouth of the Dolphins defense, Channing Crowder.
Vontae Davis, Cornerback
Vontae Davis was the 2009 first-round selection of the Dolphins. This younger brother to tight end Vernon Davis came out of college young and eager to win, and he hasn't looked back.
Davis was the first piece of more to come in the 2009-2010 backfield youth movement. Prior to the signing of Davis, Miami had a defensive backfield that featured insufficient, aging guys like Andre Goodman and Renaldo Hill, draft bust Jason Allen and another aging corner in Will Allen.
Davis started nine games in his rookie season but played in all 16, gathering 51 tackles and four interceptions. He went on to start 15 this last season and posted another interception (shown above) and he also forced a fumble.
He hasn't put up ridiculous numbers in terms of interceptions, but Davis has been one of the top young corners since being drafted. Quarterbacks tended to shy away from his side of the field in 2010; understandable when he was able to shut down the likes of Randy Moss and keep other veteran receivers in check.
Paired with Sean Smith, Miami's second round selection in 2009, Miami has the best young cornerback tandem since Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison.
At 22 years of age, Vontae has a lot of upside and has yet to hit the prime of his career. He's got all the tools you want in a corner back: size, speed, aggression and desire to succeed. The coaches love him, and he's got swagger and confidence you want to see in young guys.
Here's to many more acrobatic interceptions by Vontae Davis.
Sean Smith, Cornerback
Sean Smith was the Miami Dolphin's second player of choice in their secondary youth movement. They drafted Smith in the second round of the 2009 draft to be a corner of the future along with Vontae Davis.
This massive corner looked to be of great value when he wound up starting all 16 games as a rookie, the first corner back to ever do that. However, the player that looked like a play-making stud in the 2009 pre-season struggled during the regular season by giving up big yards, missing tackles and not recording a single interception.
As young players tend to do, Smith got better down the stretch. His confidence wavered slightly in camp prior to the 2010 season while he got torched by Brandon Marshall day-in and day-out. But who's wouldn't?
Well, in the beginning of the season Smith got benched in favor of underachiever Jason Allen in Nolan's new system.
He still played in 15 games in 2010 but didn't get the nod to start until halfway through the season. When given the second chance, Smith took it and ran. Down the stretch, he became one of the better press-cover corners in the league.
But still something was lacking. Where was the play-making that we saw a glimpse of during the pre-season? Why couldn't this ex-receiver hang on to the ball? Your guess is as good as mine, but he should have had about seven more interceptions than he did (one) in 2010.
HOWEVER, he's been around the ball, which is a good sign. He's clearly in the right place on the field.
If the game can slow down for him a bit on the field, we should be able to see Smith develop into the playmaker he was in college. Like Sparano said, if he can hang on to some of those interceptions, he'll make the Pro Bowl in no time.
Like Davis, Smith is a young guy with plenty of swagger and upside. At 23, we fans should be able to enjoy watching Smith and Davis develop into one of the premiere cornerback tandems in the NFL.
Here's to a 2011 season without popcorn for Sean Smith.
Yeremiah Bell, Strong Safety
Yeremiah Bell is the oldest starting player on the defense. He was drafted in 2004 by the Fins and broke into the fulltime starting lineup in 2008. This 2009 Pro Bowler provides a solid mentor to the younger guys in the secondary.
Bell has been one of those guys who has quietly gone about his business for some years now. He isn't in the same category as Troy Polamalu or Adrian Wilson, but he's a solid starter and great leader for this young defensive unit. He isn't much of a trash talker and seems to be a very reserved and down-to-earth guy in interviews
He's a better run stuffer than he is in one-on-one coverage. Unless matched up against a speedy guy in coverage, he can hold his own. In 2010, he made 101 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. Respectable numbers for a strong safety.
At 33, he probably won't be around for too many more years, but he's still got game and will likely stick around to be a mentor to young safeties Christ Clemons, Reshad Jones and Johnathon Amaya. He's led the Dolphins in tackles the past three seasons and seems to be well-liked by fellow players and coaches.
Here's to Yeremiah Bell.
Chris Clemons, Free Safety
Chris Clemons was the third piece of the 2009 draft class secondary youth-movement. Drafted in Round 5 to play free safety, Clemons didn't see the field much as a rookie, starting only two games while seeing action in 11. This was mostly because he was sitting behind the much-invested in Gibril Wilson.
As a sophomore, however, Clemons started all 14 games prior to an injury that nagged him at the end of the season and had him benched for rookie Reshad Jones. he made 61 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. Once again, not gaudy numbers but admirable.
Clemons wasn't a major ball hawk you like to see in a free safety, and he did have his fair share of the "dropsies" like fellow sophomore Smith, but he still was the starting free safety on a defense that allowed the eighth fewest passing yards a game.
He's a hard-hitting guy who should continue to get better with age, and like Smith, if he can handle some of those dropped interceptions, he'll be all the better.
He's an older sophomore than Davis and Smith but still is only 25 years old. He'll be in competition with 2010 rookie Reshad Jones for the starting spot in 2011, and whether he's starting or second on the depth chart, he provides solid youth at the free safety position.
Here's to Clemons for having a better year at free safety than everyone expected.
Reshad Jones, Free Safety
Reshad Jones is the only non-starting player on my list that I dedicated a whole page to. Why? Because I think he has the potential to potentially be a starter next season.
The Dolphins decided to double-down at free safety, taking Reshad Jones in the fifth round of the 2010 draft as they did with Clemons in the 2009 draft. I was really excited when the Fins were able to grab him in the fifth round because of what I saw on tape. When you watch him, you see a hard-hitting guy who also has a nose for the ball. And he was had at the price of a fifth-round pick.
He started only two games in 2010 while playing in a limited role in 13. In that limited play time, Jones recorded 21 tackles along with a sack and an interception. Both the sack and interception came against the Titans in Week 10. He was Vince Young's nightmare that day.
In my opinion, Jones would make an excellent strong safety. He's a hard-hitter who does not shy away from contact, and he just has the look of a strong safety. At the same time, he's a better ball hawk than Clemons is, so he could play both safety positions. He played both positions in college, so he is versatile.
His ball skills could be the deciding factor as to who starts at free safety in 2011, but it is still to be determined. I like both young options and am comfortable with either back there in the secondary.
At 23 years of age, Jones is another youthful player who will be able to contribute to the secondary for years to come. Also, I suggest everyone watch the first hit he makes on the college highlight real above. Absolutely ridiculous.
Here's to many more receivers to be laid out by Jones in the future.
Other Young Players to Make Impact in 2011
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There are a handful of other player who will look to make a serious impact in 2011.
Phillip Merling, DE: Merling was the 32nd pick in the 2008 draft by the Fins. Over the past three seasons, he just hasn't panned out the way his third-round protégé Langford has.
He played in a limited role in all 32 games his first two seasons and missed most of 2010 with an injury. With the stellar play from Langford and Starks, along with the drafting of Jared Odrick, Merling looks to be a rotational player in 2011. He's still only 25 years of age and offers depth along the defensive line.
Nolan Carroll,CB: Carroll was the Dolphins first fifth-round pick in 2010. He played as the team's primary return man on kickoffs and played corner on the edge in certain situations where the Fins kicked Smith to the slot.
He made one interception in 2010. He looks to see more play time as a potential nickel or situational corner in 2011. He's 24 years old.
Jared Odrick, DE: Odrick was the team's first-round draft pick in 2010. He was slated to start opposite Langford prior to his season-ending injury in Week 1. He provides more upside than Merling at this point and looks to be the primary rotational guy behind Starks and Langford. He's 23 years old.
A.J. Edds, ILB: Edds was the Fins 2010 fourth-round selection and looked to be an immediate third-down linebacker prior to his season-ending knee injury in training camp. He is a speedy linebacker who is good in coverage and possesses good ball skills.
If fully healed, he should press Crowder for the starting spot in 2011, or at least play on third downs and provide necessary linebacker depth. He is also 23 years old.
Jonathan Amaya, CB: An undrafted rookie in 2010, Amaya was mostly a kickoff team player last season. Sparano speaks highly of him, and we should expect a larger role in 2011. He's 22 years old.
Defense is a major part of the game. As stated in the opening slide, Miami's defense is very young and popping with talent.
In this article, I addressed the starters at each position, as well as other young guys I expect to press the starters for playing time. The Fin's defense is much closer to being an elite force than the offense is, and I felt they didn't get the credit they deserve.
But what do you think? Is there another young player you expect to press for play time I did not address? Please, by all means, shoot me some feedback with your opinions.
Here's to a youthful defense to enjoy years of success.