Free agency is approaching fast and the writing on the wall of Pro Bowl NT Paul Soliai’s locker indicates he’ll be signing a fat new contract in March – that won’t be from the Miami Dolphins.
Soliai and his agent David Canter will be looking for a multi-year deal north of $30 million. Given the holes that need to be filled on the Dolphin roster this offseason, a contract like that is out of Miami’s price range. Jeff Ireland has expressed interest in keeping both Soliai and DE Kendall Langford, but admitted it’s unlikely the team will be able re-sign both. Letting Soliai walk is the right move.
Soliai deserves to be paid. He’s 355 pound mountain who’s blossomed from a criticized, out-of-shape, 4th round draft pick to an elite, Pro Bowl caliber nose tackle. He’s the lone bright spot of the Cam Cameron disaster, and one of the few people walking the planet that can comfortably anchor the middle of a 3-4 defense. But, the Dolphin defense is changing. The new regime of Joe Philbin and Kevin Coyle come from systems that run the 4-3 defense, and suddenly a nose tackle is the odd man out. Especially if that man costs an arm and a leg to keep on the roster. Philbin has said the team will run a “hybrid” defense, using a combination of 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. That is nothing new. The Dolphins have used mixed fronts in the past. The difference moving forward will likely be a tipped scale towards the 4-3, which is opposite of what’s been favored recently in Davie. I expect less 3 man fronts as the Dolphin defense evolves.
The good news is that Miami’s defense doesn’t need a complete overhaul. The pieces are already mostly in place for a 4-3 transition, but re-signing Kendall Langford is key. Langford and fellow 3-4 DE Jared Odrick both have the flexibility to shift inside during 4-3 looks, and outside when a 3-4 front is called. Meanwhile, 305 pound Randy Starks can plug the nose when called upon to replace Soliai. Once upon a time, it was Starks who was thought to be the heir apparent to NT Jason Ferguson, not Soliai. It’s interesting that he may be called upon once again.
The linebacker corp may not need significant tweaking either. Cameron Wake can still be a pass rusher when moved down to DE. Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett have both played in 4-3 fronts in the past, with Burnett in the middle and Dansby weak side. Koa Misi remains a perpetual question mark. The former second round pick has struggled as a pass rusher his entire career. We may soon find out how well he can drop into pass coverage in the 4-3. It may save his job. The missing link is the pass rusher, to-be-named, opposite Wake. This is a hole that needs to be patched regardless of the defensive scheme and will most definitely be addressed somewhere in the draft.
Given the transition, it looks to be a good time for big Paul to move on. There’s no other year that losing an elite talent at a critical position would hurt less. It’s beginning to look like the franchise tag placed on him last year, instead of a long and pricey contract extension, was a good call.