Miami Dolphins Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis
Training camps are just a few weeks away, and in the month between the start of camp and the beginning of the regular season, the Miami Dolphins are hoping to get a 100 percent crystal-clear picture of their depth charts at every position.
At some positions, the decisions will be easy. Certain players are already etched in stone as the starter at their spot. At other positions, battles must play out that will determine the seeding on the depth chart and ultimately decide who gets more playing time.
It's not too early to take stock of what head coach Joe Philbin and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle will be working with this year. Some names have changed, while others have stayed the same, but one thing has remained true: The Dolphins feature one of the NFL's most underrated defenses.
Here's how an underrated defense is built.
Starters: Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon
Backups: Derrick Shelby, Terrence Fede, Ray Drew
With four Pro Bowl selections in the past five years and three seasons with double-digit sacks in that span, there's no doubt that Cameron Wake has settled in as one of the premier defensive ends in the NFL. He was the second-most productive pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, finishing with 39 hurries, 14 hits and 12 total sacks on the season.
Every Batman needs a Robin, though, and that's where Olivier Vernon comes in. Wake lines up almost exclusively on the defensive left, which puts Vernon against opposing left tackles as the right defensive end.
Vernon wasn't quite the pass-rushing maven that Wake was last year; Vernon finished as the 19th-most productive pass-rushing 4-3 end with 29 hurries, 12 hits and seven total sacks. He showed immense potential in 2013 when he registered a team-leading 12 sacks, though, so we know he's capable of big things.
In a perfect world, the two explosive pass-rushers would never come off the field. When your main weapon is your burst off the line of scrimmage though, it's important to have fresh legs as much as possible.
Derrick Shelby and Terrence Fede have been two of the primary backups over the years, but with a one-year suspension for Dion Jordan, the Dolphins will have to find a third player to add to the rotation. Undrafted rookie Ray Drew is a sleeper with the potential to break out if he can improve his pad level. Training camp will serve as a measuring stick for how quickly he can learn, and if he shows a positive trajectory, he could make the final cut.
Starters: Ndamukong Suh, Earl Mitchell
Backups: Jordan Phillips, C.J. Mosley, Anthony Johnson
Spoiler alert: If you thought there would be a training-camp battle for starting spots at defensive tackle, you apparently thought wrong. Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald reported that Ndamukong Suh and Earl Mitchell will be the Dolphins' starting defensive tackles in 2015.
Suh's status atop the depth chart is as much of a surprise as the sun rising in the east. The four-time Pro-Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro has a knack for sacks and big plays in the backfield. He was the NFL's seventh-most productive pass-rushing defensive tackle, according to Pro Football Focus, registering 37 hurries, 12 hits and eight total sacks in 2014. He was also the 11th-best run-stuffing defensive tackle, with a stopped run on 26 of his 268 run snaps.
His ability against the run is what will make him such an asset to the Dolphins defense, which yielded 4.3 yards per carry (21st in the NFL) and 121 yards per game (24th).
The interesting part is that Mitchell will be starting alongside Suh. Mitchell has been a part-time player his entire career and maxed out at 553 snaps in 2013 with the Houston Texans. He's a much better run-stuffer than pass-rusher, but being a starter doesn't necessarily mean being an every-down player. After all, first down is a running down.
That's where Jordan Phillips, C.J. Mosley and Anthony Johnson come in. Those three should provide the necessary support for the starters in supplementary roles. Mosley is accustomed to that role from his time with Suh with the Detroit Lions, and Phillips is suited for that role given his lack of pass-rushing potential and dominance in the running game. Johnson played only 84 snaps as a rookie but could see more playing time in 2015 with more openings at the top of the depth chart.
Starters: Jelani Jenkins, Koa Misi, Chris McCain
Backups: Kelvin Sheppard, Jeff Luc
At defensive end and defensive tackle, the Dolphins have hand-picked their starters. At linebacker, the starters have emerged from the depth chart following a series of moves.
Jelani Jenkins emerged in 2014 following a season-ending injury to Dannell Ellerbe. Chris McCain appears primed to fill a void vacated by Philip Wheeler. Koa Misi has taken a trip to every linebacker position on defense before finally landing in the middle.
The three have taken different paths to their newfound roles in the starting lineup, but all three share one thing in common: They are not considered top-notch starters at their positions.
Misi was drafted to play 3-4 outside linebacker, so 4-3 inside linebacker is about as far of a cry as it gets from his original position. He played well in his newfound home last year, and if he continues to progress as quickly as he did in 2014, he could develop into a top inside linebacker with time.
Jenkins showed a lot of promise in 2014, and he's in the same boat as Misi. There just isn't enough info to form a solid opinion on McCain's projection to outside linebacker—he played mostly end in college and in his rookie year.
The backup spots come with even more uncertainty. Kelvin Sheppard seems like a logical backup to Misi because he excels at stopping the run, an area where Misi has struggled at times. But three undrafted rookies are battling it out for one backup spot, maybe two. Jeff Luc could be a similar player to Sheppard but also has more potential to play other positions because of better overall athleticism. If he can show special teams ability, the roster spot could be his for the taking.
Starters: Brent Grimes, Jamar Taylor
Backups: Brice McCain, Bobby McCain, Will Davis, Zack Bowman
Brent Grimes is the starting cornerback on one side; that much is not up for debate. The three-time Pro Bowler had a tougher-than-usual 2014 season, allowing seven touchdowns into his coverage, but he intercepted five passes to make up for the lost ground. Since he's going on 32 years old, it may be time for the Dolphins to begin searching for a future replacement, but for now, Grimes is a quality starting option.
But as mentioned in a previous slide, every Batman needs a Robin, and there's been some serious doubt as to whether Miami can trust Taylor in a full-time role as Grimes' sidekick. Taylor could prove to be that guy, but he's not yet been that guy in his first two seasons in the league. He has yielded completions on 37 of the 53 passes in his direction throughout his two-year career (69.8 percent) with two touchdowns and has not registered a single pass breakup, according to Pro Football Focus.
This is a make-or-break year for Taylor.
As for who lands in the backup spots and slot duty, the most likely candidate is Brice McCain because of his experience and status as a coveted free-agent signing. He hasn't had his best performances of late, though, and yielded completions on 84 of 128 passes thrown into his coverage over the past two seasons (65.6 percent) with seven touchdowns and four picks to show for it, according to PFF.
Will Davis was gunning for a prominent role on both defense and special teams before he tore his ACL and ended his 2014 season, so if he can pick up where he left off, he could be a major factor in the defensive rotation.
Starters: Reshad Jones, Louis Delmas
Backups: Michael Thomas, Cedric Thompson
Reshad Jones is a lock to be one of the Dolphins' two starting safeties. He's universally regarded as a high-quality starter at the position, despite having never made a Pro Bowl in his career. He has started 56 of the past 64 games for the Dolphins at safety, with four of his absences due to a suspension. He has a knack for making big plays all over the field and has notched at least one sack and one interception in each of the past four seasons.
It would appear that the other starting safety spot belongs to Louis Delmas, who was the starting safety last year before he suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Week 14. Given how late in the season he suffered the injury, it's impressive that he's "borderline full-go," according to Alex Marvez of Fox Sports. The hard-hitting six-year veteran has played all over, but after spending the 2014 season at strong safety for the Dolphins, it would appear that's where he's headed again.
Michael Thomas has been a key backup for the past couple of years, filling in everywhere from safety to slot cornerback. His versatility and special teams experience make him as close to safe as it gets at the bottom of the depth chart.
Cedric Thompson is a physical specimen, as he showed at his pro day in running a 4.48-second 40-yard dash at 6'0" and 208 pounds while posting a 10'2" broad jump and 21 reps on a 225-pound bench press. The Dolphins drafted him in the fifth round, and while fifth-round picks aren't safe, it's easy to see how a player with his athletic upside could earn a spot with his potential alone.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.