In the previous article, observations from the first two preseason games around the offense were discussed, as well as at the place kicker position. The importance of making the “top forty-six” players was mentioned, as the Dolphins are a team that systematically looks to “churn” the bottom end of their roster. Many players will appear to be training camp heroes and zeroes based upon a number of factors, but looking at all the factors in play can also paint a different picture of any individual. In the end, as one analyst recently put it via twitter “We see what we want to see.”
In this installment, we’ll examine the positions on defense, and some of the storylines, battles and observations on that side of the ball. Miami has the potential to have one of the top defenses in the league if everything comes together as it appears to be doing at this point. Jeff Ireland has built a defensive roster with a multitude of talents who can provide numerous versatile looks, personnel packages and deception based upon the skill sets that exist on that side of the ball. The following is broken out by position group, with a synopsis and observations for each.
Miami just might have the best personnel group in the NFL this season in their “front four” – which truly will consist of six-seven “starters.” Miami has a formidable base run defense out of their front four on rushing downs, and I expect that they will deploy their personnel packages in such a way as to make the most of the true versatility that they posess. In a new twist to their defense this year, Miami has the personnel to push the pocket while Cameron Wake, Oliver Vernon & Dion Jordan pin their ears back and relentlessly collapse on the quarterback off the edge. With Odrick, Miami has the ability to have him set the edge on rushing plays, while moving to the interior and spelling Soliai and/or Starks on passing downs to push the pocket. In Soliai, Miami has a mountain of a player who has come into his own the past couple of years to be an underrated force in the middle on rushing plays taking up multiple blockers, while Starks provides true versatility on both rushing and passing downs up the middle.
Behind them, there are a number of younger, inexperienced players that are putting their own claims in to demand notice, with strong play coming out of Shelby, Robertson, Randall, Onyenekwu and Okpalaugo. This may be one of the toughest position groups to whittle down, though several of these players could be placed on the practice squad if they clear waivers. Many of these players have shone on an individual level in their limited action thus far, such as Shelby and Okpaulaugo alone combining for 4 sacks in the first two games and a fumble in their limited action, with Okpaulaugo being fourth on the team in tackles thus far.
The development of these younger players, as well as for Odrick on the interior, is a critical item this offseason. Starks and Soliai are both potentially in their final year in aqua and orange, meaning that one of the Dolphins strongest units could potentially be losing one or both of them after this season creating a gaping hole in the center of the defense. Look for the Dolphins to give an extra look to the defensive line with this in mind, especially given the young talent that is stepping up thus far within this unit.
The various personnel groups that Miami deploys on the defensive line, combined with making each other better, will make the position groups behind them that much better. We’ll explore the impact on each in their individual sections as well.
For Miami’s new-look linebacker group, Miami’s front four will be wreaking havoc on offensive lines throughout the year, freeing up the linebackers to wreak havoc in the backfield. The new look linebacking corps is made up of players that play aggressive and quick, while having a knack for making plays happen. Additionally, Miami got much stronger this offseason in pass coverage from their linebackers, which will provide a huge asset against teams with strong tight end play.
Ellerbe and Wheeler are locks to start in the Middle and the Outside, while Misi appears to be losing his grip on the starting Outside Linebacker spot, and it is unclear as to who will start the year as the teams third linebacker. There have been a number of flashes from the younger Linebackers in Freeny, Kaddu, Clay, Robinson and Spitler, and the coaching staff seems to have a fascination with Trusnik. The Dolphins may also elect to keep some of their more versatile defensive ends as linebackers, while also experimenting with Misi on the defensive line. Kaddue and Freeny hold two of the top three spots in tackles through the first two games, but in a limited subset of snaps this is anyones ballgame as to who sticks.
Misi’s hold on the outside appears to be tenuous, and with his skillset lending itself more to setting the edge against the run, his move to the defensive end could be a lasting one, opening the door to players like Freeny, Kaddu, Vernon, Spitler or Trusnik to step in. There is also potential that Miami looks to slide either Vernon or Dion Jordan back to outside linebacker if Misi is shifted long term.
Given the strength of the defensive line, this could turn into a field day for the defensive secondary this season. The pressure that Miami gets up front should alleviate pressure in the secondary to hold their coverage longer, as well as maximize rushed/bad throws by opposing quarterbacks. Miami has a stud in a healthy Brent Grimes at left corner, and a heated position battle going on for the right corner spot between Dmitri Patterson and Richard Marshall, with Will Davis making a case to steal playing time and Jamar Taylor expected to compete soon. What initially looked like a very weakened secondary is suddenly shaping up as a position of strength, with longtime Dolphin Nolan Carroll looking to possibly be an odd man out in the secondary. Keep an eye on RJ Standford as well, as he is another player that made some plays when given the opportunity and is second on the team in tackles through the first two preseason games. The competition for the second cornerback slot could turn into one of the most heated contests on the team over the next several weeks, and could carry over into the season with four potential candidates to start opposite Grimes.
Will Davis looks like he could turn into an absolute terror in punt coverage as well, maximizing his versatility as the Dolphins groom him. He needs to do a better job of breaking down to make the tackle once downfield, and if he does so he could turn into one of the top punt “fliers” in the game.
Miami’s starting duo returns, with Chris Clemons and Reshad “Brand New Contract” Jones, who I have a tremendous man crush on since Miami snagged him in the draft. Reshad is shaping up to be one of the best safeties in the league, and Clemons quietly has improved each season. Behind them, Jimmy Wilson is no slouch and has the versatility to play corner and see some time if Clemons is exposed. Kelcie McCray provides unproven depth at the position as well.
Long snapper John Denney is an obvious lock to make the team at this point, as well as punter Brandon Fields, as they are two of the underrated better players at their positions amongst the league.
At Kick Returner, barring injury we should see Marcus Thigpen stick as the primary punt and kick returner, though the versatility of other players such as Chad Bumphis and De’Andre Presley will be tested to determine if they are able to handle this role effectively. Being able to handle this role, either as a backup or to spell Thigpen, could play a large role in making the decision for a roster spot amidst the fourth and fifth wide receivers as well as amongst a deep field of young defensive backs.