The Miami Dolphins’ defensive line–a unit comprised of three former Pro Bowlers and two first-round picks–is poised for a dominant campaign in 2013.
Expectations should be sky-high for a group that now owns the personnel to stuff the run and harass the quarterback and has the depth and versatility to give opposing offensive lines fits.
But while the Dolphins’ defensive line is one of the league’s most talented, questions still abound.
Will Jared Odrick remain the starting defensive tackle? How much of an impact should Miami expect from third-overall selection Dion Jordan? Can the line as a whole cross the bridge few have traveled and progress from a very good defensive line to an elite one?
Training camp, which opens a week from Saturday for veterans and rookies, should provide some answers.
Cameron Wake, DE: There’s no doubt that Cameron Wake is one of the NFL’s top-tier pass rushers. The only question is: How long will he be able to maintain that status?
Wake is so fast, so explosive off the edge and plays the game like an animal pursuing its prey, with a non-stop motor that proves taxing to even the league’s best right tackles. But at 31 years old, Wake’s prime may be fleeting.
He’s shown zero signs of slowing down and there’s no reason to believe this year’s squad will be victim to a decelerating player. The future is little more uncertain. The Dolphins can only hope Wake’s longevity proves as astonishing as his arrival.
Paul Soliai, DT: The big ones never seem to get the credit they’re due. At 6’4”, 340 pounds, Paul Soliai has been a blocker-occupying force on the interior of the Dolphins’ defensive line for the past three seasons.
Soliai was a late bloomer, starting only five games in his first three years with Miami after being selected in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL draft. Since then, a Pro Bowl berth in 2011 has been Soliai’s main recognition for being such a key cog in a solid run defense.
Soliai will be a free agent in 2014, though, as will partner-in-crime Randy Starks. Both tackles turn 30 in December and the Dolphins are unlikely to sign both to multi-year deals next offseason.
It will be a crucial summer and season for Soliai, as he tries to prove to the coaching staff that he should be a part of the team’s long-term plans.
Randy Starks, DT: The offseason has been a bit of a whirlwind for Randy Starks. The Dolphins slapped him with the franchise tag in March, guaranteeing the 29-year-old veteran $8.45 million.
Starks protested that decision by sitting out the team’s offseason conditioning program and OTAs, requesting a multi-year deal to remain in Miami beyond 2013.
He returned to the practice field for mandatory minicamp, only to assume a role on the second team as Jared Odrick continued to work as the starting defensive tackle next to Soliai.
I do expect Starks to recover his starting spot, especially considering he’s being paid a pretty penny to play under the tag. But like Soliai, the 2013 season will serve as a future tryout for Starks.
He should be motivated to perform at a high level this season in order to cash in with a multiyear contract and to dispel any notion that his play is beginning to taper off.
Jared Odrick, DE/DT: Jared Odrick is perhaps the most polarizing player on the Dolphins’ defensive line. He’s a bit of a tweener in the Dolphins’ 4-3 scheme, not having the pass-rushing prowess to be a high-impact player on the edge and is likely the odd man out at a stacked position inside.
Odrick served as the starting defensive tackle all offseason with Randy Starks sitting out most practices, but head coach Joe Philbin has indicated that he’ll maintain a hybrid role.
The most-logical scenario still seems to be Odrick starting opposite Cameron Wake at defensive end and rotating inside to tackle on passing downs. Then, next season, when the Dolphins presumably part ways with either Soliai or Starks, there will be a vacant defensive tackle spot for Odrick’s full-time move inside.
All that could change, though, if first-round pick Dion Jordan proves to be too valuable of an asset to keep on the sideline.
If Jordan does have somewhat of a learning curve, as expected, he’ll benefit from having Odrick in place to set the edge on early downs. But if the rookie can bulk up and is ready to consistently provide pressure, he could certainly move into the starting lineup, replacing Odrick on the right side.
Dion Jordan, DE: The third-overall pick in this year’s draft has a lot of catching up to do. Dion Jordan missed all of the Dolphins’ offseason work after rookie minicamp–when he was sidelined with a shoulder injury–because he was still taking classes at Oregon.
He’s considered undersized for a 4-3 end and needs to bulk up in order to defend the run. As a result, expectations for Jordan in his rookie season have been diluted to a degree. Patience seems to be the theme regarding his development and although he’ll still be expected to assist in the pass-rush department, a full-time starting role might not come to fruition until 2014.
But Jordan is the defensive line’s biggest wild card. If he’s able to show the coaches during training camp and the preseason that he’s ready to be an every-down player, he’ll shake up the entire defensive line, relegating a solid, perhaps even Pro-Bowl caliber starter to the second team.
Olivier Vernon, DE: Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Randy Starks’ absence during OTAs was Olivier Vernon, who filled in for Jared Odrick at first-team defensive end while Odrick played on the interior.
Vernon isn’t likely to seriously compete for a starting spot during camp, but he could earn himself plenty of snaps by fine-tuning his pass-rushing ability.
He’s a phenomenal athlete who made his presence felt on special teams and even spent some time standing up at linebacker a year ago. But the Dolphins hope he can develop into a real threat getting after the quarterback. In a pass-first league, a defense can never have enough pass rushers.
Vaughn Martin, DT: The Dolphins hope they’ve found their replacement for Tony McDaniel, who signed with the Seahawks this offseason, in former San Diego Charger defensive lineman Vaughn Martin.
Martin brings plenty of veteran experience to the Dolphins’ interior rotation, having started 27 games over the past two seasons in San Diego. Martin won’t necessarily be handed a roster spot, as there is plenty of potential behind him on the depth chart, but I suspect he’ll be difficult to beat out for one.
Kheeston Randall, DT: The Dolphins nabbed Randall in the seventh round of last year’s draft in hopes of adding to the defensive line’s depth. Randall provided just that as rookie, making enough plays last preseason to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
He appeared in 12 games last season, tallying eight tackles. The competition will be fierce for Miami’s seven or eight available spots on the defensive line, but assuming they keep four pure tackles, Randall should avoid cuts for the second consecutive year.
Derrick Shelby, DE: The undrafted rookie out of Utah was good enough to make the team last season. And he’ll likely be good enough to be on the 2013 Dolphins as well. But, unfortunately, a numbers crunch could spell the end of his tenure in Miami.
I don’t see the Dolphins keeping more than eight defensive linemen. It’s also possible that the Dolphins could keep five defensive ends and only three defensive tackles being that Jared Odrick essentially serves as a fourth tackle.
But Shelby will need another strong camp to induce that action. If he’s cut, another franchise would likely claim him off the waiver wire, though.
Tracy Robertson, DT: The former Baylor Bear has spent time on the Houston Texans, Detroit Lions and New England Patriots since going undrafted in 2012. He’ll have to show the Dolphins more than he showed his previous stops if he stands a chance of making the team.
Chris Burnette, DT: A standout career at Old Dominion wasn’t enough to hear his name called in this year’s draft. But Chris Burnette’s dream of playing in the NFL could still become a reality with a stellar training camp in Miami.
Tristan Okpalaugo, DE: The Fresno State product will attempt to transition from playing outside linebacker in college to defensive end with the Dolphins.
A.J. Francis, DT: Francis became a hit on YouTube when this video of him announcing his signing, then getting engaged in front of friends and family went viral. I imagine a similar celebration would take place if he can beat the odds and make the team.
Emeka Onyenekwu, DE: Onyenekwu shone at the University of Louisiana for the Ragin’ Cajuns. He’ll need to do the same in practice to stand out from the pack in Miami.
1. Cameron Wake*
2. Jared Odrick*
3. Dion Jordan (rookie)
4. Olivier Vernon
1. Paul Soliai*
2. Randy Starks*
3. Jared Odrick
4. Vaughn Martin
5. Kheeston Randall
* denotes starters
Derrick Shelby, DE
Tracy Robertson, DT
Chris Burnette, DT (UDFA)
Tristan Okpalaugo, DE (UDFA)
A.J. Francis, DT (UDFA)
Emeka Onyenekwu, DE (UDFA
Countdown to camp: 11 days