The Miami Dolphins’ defense once propped up the entire team, serving as the pillar of granite for South Florida’s NFL franchise for most of this decade.
But cracks in Kevin Coyle’s unit were present in 2013, and the defense cost the Dolphins as many games as they helped Miami win last season.
The Dolphins defense produced more turnovers (24) last season than in previous years, but the unit struggled stopping the run, allowing 1,998 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, and gave up 359.4 total yards per game, which ranked the defense 21st.
Here’s the Sun-Sentinel’s defensive breakdown of what new general manager Dennis Hickey inherits before free agency opens in March, and the 2014 NFL draft, which will take place in May this year.
Defensive end (4): Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon. Backups: Dion Jordan, Derrick Shelby
Defensive tackle (3): Jared Odrick. Backups: A.J. Francis, Isaako Aaitui (practice squad last year)
Free agents: DT Randy Starks, DT Paul Soliai
Breakdown: The Dolphins have flirted with the possibility of Starks and Soliai hitting the free agent market for a couple years now. Both defensive tackles have previously received the franchise tag from Miami, but slapping either with it again is unlike this offseason because of their age (both are 30). Miami will probably retain the cheaper option (likely Soliai), pairing him with Odrick. Francis and Aaitui, two former training camp standouts, have upside. But Miami will need re-enforcements on the defensive line to get back to the team's physical style of play if one, or both of the starting defensive tackles leave. Wake, Vernon, Jordan and Shelby, who collectively contributed 24.5 of the team’s 42 sacks, should provide the Dolphins enough pass rushers in 2014. Especially if Wake retains his Pro Bowl form, Vernon recreates his 11.5 sack season, and Jordan, the team’s 2013 first-round pick, earns more playing time by learning how to set the edge.
Outside linebackers (5) - WLB Philip Wheeler, SLB Koa Misi. Backups: WLB Jelani Jenkins, SLB Jonathan Freeny, WLB Jason Trusnik
Inside linebackers (1) - ILB Dannell Ellerbe
Free agent: ILB Austin Spitler
Breakdown: The Dolphins’ linebacker unit features plenty of decent athletes, but few have the instincts to read and diagnose plays quickly. And even fewer have the range to cover scatbacks and athletic tight ends downfield, which is why Jordan was forced to do it so often in 2013. Miami needs to upgrade the middle linebacker spot by finding an instinctive playmaker, which would allow Ellerbe to return to weakside linebacker, the role he thrived at with the Ravens. Wheeler led the team with 118 tackles, but the lackluster instincts he showed in 2013 got him rated by Profootballfocus.com as the worst outside linebacker in the entire NFL. Misi, who was rated by @PFF as the NFL's 15th best OLBer based on the limited 480 snaps he played, probably needs to have his role expanded. Jenkins showed flashes in his rookie season, and needs to continue developing, but every other linebacker is merely filler.
Cornerbacks (4) - CB Dimitri Patterson. Backups: CB Jamar Taylor, CB Will Davis, CB Jalil Brown
Free agents: CB Brent Grimes, CB Nolan Carroll, CB Chris Owens
Breakdown: Grimes' sensational play in 2013 earned him his second Pro Bowl berth, and pretty much guarantees he'll either receive a lucrative contract worth $30-plus million, or get slapped with the franchise tag, which would guarantee the 30-year-old a one-year deal worth approximately $11.2 million. Retaining Grimes should be the Dolphins' top offseason priority because without him the defense would be forced to rely on an injury-plagued starter (Patterson), or two unproven second-year cornerbacks in Taylor and Davis. Carroll, who started 26 games is his four seasons with the Dolphins, is also a free agent. While he had a solid performance in 2014 there is very little upside to Carroll, who will likely test the free market and sign with the highest bidder. At this point Owens is nothing more than a veteran minimum option if re-signed.
Safeties (5) - SS Reshad Jones, FS Jimmy Wilson. Backups: FS Michael Thomas, SS Don Jones, FS Jordan Kovacs
Free agents: FS Chris Clemons
Breakdown: Jones struggled in his third season as the Dolphins' starting safety. He was routinely exposed in coverage, which contributed to him being rated the NFL's 68th best safety by Profootballfocus.com. That's a drastic drop off from the 2012 season, when @PFF rated Jones the NFL's third best safety, and Miami gave him a contract extension worth $29.3 million. However, back in those days Miami utilized a scheme that minimized Jones' responsibilities, and coverage duties. To get back to that approach the Dolphins need to find a starting free safety with elite coverage skills, better ball instincts, and more range than Clemons, who has been an adequate starting free safety for three seasons. Wilson, who was used exclusively as Miami's nickel cornerback the past two seasons, has been groomed to replace Clemons, and might get his shot this offseason. Thomas, Jones and Kovacs are all developmental projects that could blossom, or fizzle out.
SPECIAL TEAMS (3)
Kicker - Caleb Sturgis
Punter - Brandon Fields
Long snapper - John Denney
Return specialists - Marcus Thigpen, Lamar Miller, Rishard Matthews, Michael Gillislee
Breakdown: Fields had a sensational season and was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season. Sturgis, a former University of Florida standout, struggled with his consistency (26-of-34 field goals made) as a rookie, but should improve this season because of his experience. The Dolphins need to find a way to jumpstart last year's stagnant return game because Thigpen, who scored twice as a returner in 2012, wasn’t much of a threat in 2013.
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