Miami Dolphins State of the Franchise: Defensive Line

Cameron Wake is the biggest reason why the Dolphins have one of the better D-lines in football

With Memorial Day weekend in the books, summer is upon us; albeit unofficially. Summertime means training camp is right around the corner.

The Dolphins will kick off the 2013 NFL season in less than two months when they open up camp at team headquarters in Davie. Two months can go by in the blink of an eye. But when you’re anxiously anticipating the start of football season, time seemingly begins to crawl.

We’ll do our best here at Dolphins Gab to hold you over, continuing with our state of the franchise series today as a part of that effort. So far we’ve taken an in-depth look at the Dolphins’ secondary, linebackers, offensive line, and running backs.

The linebacker corps could be very good in 2013 with the additions of Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. But we’ve touched on some of Miami’s weaker positions thus far. That all changes today when we break down the defensive line- arguably the strongest unit on the entire roster.

PROJECTED STARTERS

Defensive end: Jared Odrick

Defensive tackle: Randy Starks

Defensive tackle: Paul Soliai

Defensive end: Cameron Wake

Drafting defensive end Dion Jordan with the third overall pick will put pressure on the Dolphins to play him early. We know Jordan isn’t jumping Cameron Wake on the depth chart. He was drafted to complement Wake, not replace him.

Jared Odrick figures to be the odd man out, especially considering he’s not a natural fit on the outside. But Odrick is a former first-round pick himself and he’s been very solid against the run.

If Dion Jordan proves physically and mentally ready to start as a rookie, one of the starting defensive tackles may be the victim as Odrick moves inside.

Paul Soliai is a blocker-occupying anchor on the line. He definitely needs spelled often. And he won’t see much action on passing downs. But he likely isn’t going to lose his starting spot.

Randy Starks, meanwhile, has been a consistent force for the Dolphins’ defensive line since 2008. He’s been dominant at times against the run and he’s sacked the quarterback 22 times as a Dolphin, providing a much-needed interior rush. But he’s in the midst of a mild contract dispute. The Dolphins placed the franchise tag on Starks in March. Starks wants a long-term deal, though, and he’s sitting out OTAs as a protest.

Jared Odrick has been the beneficiary of Starks’ absence, moving inside to his natural position at defensive tackle. If Odrick dominates like he’s capable of on the inside and Dion Jordan is ready to start, a first-team line of Jordan, Odrick, Soliai, and Wake would be a possibility.

But then again, Starks will be making $8.5 million this season under the tag. The most realistic scenario is still Odrick starting at defensive end and rotating inside frequently. And in 2014, when Soliai and Starks are scheduled to hit free agency, Odrick will likely switch to defensive tackle exclusively, paving the way for Dion Jordan to be an every-down starter on the outside.

TALENT EVALUATION

Elites: Cameron Wake DE

Solid starters: Randy Starks DT, Paul Soliai DT, Jared Odrick DE/DT

League average: Dion Jordan DE (R)

Backup material: Olivier Vernon DE, Vaughn Martin DT, Kheeston Randall DT, Derrick Shelby DE

Camp bodies: A.J. Francis DT (R), Chris Burnette DT (R), Emeka Onyenekwu DE (R), Tristan Okpalaugo DE (R)

Cameron Wake is not only one of the league’s best defensive ends, he’s one of the best players in the entire NFL, period. Pro Football Focus recently released a list of the top 101 players in football. Wake ranked 8th. Quite the contradiction to the embarrassingly low ranking he received on NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2013.

Mindbogglingly, the NFL players voted one of the league’s top pass rushers 89th. But anyone who actually watches the Dolphins play knows Wake’s true value as Miami’s best player and a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2013.

Outside of Wake, the Dolphins have a trio of interior defensive lineman who aren’t quite elite but still are some of the league’s best. Randy Starks and Paul Soliai have both made trips to the Pro Bowl. And Jared Odrick has the potential to once he’s converted to a position where his skill set can be appreciated.

But it’s hard to argue any of the three are truly elite. At least not anymore when it comes to Starks. And at least not yet when it comes to Odrick.

Rookie Dion Jordan gets a league average grade simply on talent and potential alone. His ceiling is much higher. But as a raw prospect who is currently underweight for a 4-3 defensive end, his floor is lower as well.

UNIT EVALUATION
(Scale: Super Bowl caliber, playoff caliber, middle of the road, below league average, poor)

Defensive end: Playoff caliber

Possessing one the league’s fiercest pass rushers in Cameron Wake could be an argument that the Dolphins are Super Bowl caliber at the position. But until another legitimate pass rusher develops, I have to stick with playoff caliber for now.

Dion Jordan surely has the tools to eventually surface as Wake’s complement and another rusher for opposing offenses to game plan for. But he’s only a rookie. And he’s raw. And he’ll miss most of the team’s offseason work with a shoulder injury while league rules prohibit him from participating in OTAs because he is still taking classes at Oregon. So my expectations for Jordan in his first year are tempered.

Don’t sleep on Olivier Vernon taking significant strides in his sophomore season. Vernon’s impact was minimal as a rookie, but he flashed raw ability on occasion. With Jordan out and Odrick moved inside to defensive tackle, Vernon has been soaking up the reps during OTAs with the first team.

Assuming Jared Odrick eventually moves back to end when Randy Starks returns to the practice field, the Dolphins will have a run stuffer on early downs opposite Wake. Odrick isn’t inept as a rusher, but rushing the passer is far from his forte. He’ll move inside to defensive tackle on obvious passing situations. It’ll be up to Dion Jordan and Olivier Vernon to assist Wake in getting after the quarterback.

Defensive tackle: Playoff caliber

The Dolphins’ starting defensive tackle tandem of Randy Starks and Paul Soliai has been as solid as it gets. They’ll be free agents in 2014, though, making this a huge year for both players as they look to cash in with Miami or elsewhere next offseason. I expect the Dolphins to keep one and let the other walk as Jared Odrick’s permanent move inside to defensive tackle will be long overdue.

As far as the outlook for 2013, the Dolphins will have an excellent rotation. They like to keep their defensive lineman fresh, so expect to see plenty of combinations featuring Starks, Soliai, and Odrick on the inside. Kheeston Randall and the newly acquired Vaughn Martin should work in to the cycle as well.

Defensive tackle is arguably the deepest position on the roster. I expect the Dolphins to return as a top ten defense against the run this season and it all starts up front at tackle.

Defensive line: Playoff caliber

The Dolphins have the pieces to boast one of the league’s top defensive lines and a unit that can certainly grade out as Super Bowl caliber in the future. But a lot depends on how much of an impact Dion Jordan will have as a rookie.

If Jordan emerges as a double-digit sack artist right off the bat just like Von Miller and Aldon Smith did as a rookies, this will be a stacked Dolphins’ D-line with virtually no weaknesses.

They’ll rush the passer. They’ll stuff the run. They’ll make the linebackers’ jobs much easier. They’ll even help mask any remaining deficiencies in the secondary.

Stopping the run should be no problem. The Dolphins have three stout run defenders in Starks, Soliai, and Odrick. Even Cameron Wake is solid at setting the edge. But in a passing league, how much pressure the line is able to produce will be the key measuring stick in 2013.

Outside of Cameron Wake, the Dolphins didn’t have a pass rusher that was able to consistently disrupt any opposing team’s passing attack last season. First-round pick Dion Jordan and second-year defensive end Olivier Vernon can change that. If they do, their production could be the final piece of the puzzle to an outstanding Dolphins’ front seven.


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One Response to “Miami Dolphins State of the Franchise: Defensive Line”

  1. Ryan says:

    Starks is the best DT in football. Dolphins need to pony up the $$$ to keep him around for the next five years

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