The Miami Dolphins defensive line had been expected to be a team strength in 2013.
Not only did Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake highlight a veteran-laden unit, Miami had used its first-round draft pick to select Oregon edge rusher Dion Jordan.
But unforeseen challenges developed. Wake and defensive tackle Paul Soliai missed games due to injuries. Jordan didn’t progress and contribute as had been hoped.
Overall, Miami’s defense finished 21st overall after allowing 359.4 yards per game. The Dolphins were 24th (124.9 ypg.) against the run and 16th (234.5 ypg) against the pass.
If the defensive line’s ability to rush the quarterback gets credit for helping the passing defense — the line accounted for 34 of the team’s 42 sacks — it also deserves some blame for defending the run so poorly.
There are questions about the line heading into 2014. Soliai and fellow tackle Randy Starks will be free agents. Will one or both return? And, can Jordan develop into an every-down player?
Cameron Wake, DE — The 32-year-old veteran suffered a knee injury in Week 3 against Atlanta that caused him to miss a game and hampered him the rest of the season. He earned a place in the Pro Bowl after finishing with 28 tackles (9 solo), 8.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. His season highlight — and perhaps the team’s — was an overtime sack of Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton in the end zone for a game-winning safety. It was only the second time in league history a game ended with a sack/safety in overtime.
Randy Starks, DT — Played in all 16 games with 14 starts. He sat out the spring’s organized team activities to protest being hit with the team’s franchise tag. The 30-year-old free agent to be had 36 tackles (13 solo), with 4 sacks and a forced fumble. Probably the Dolphins’ best interior lineman against the run — but will he return?
Paul Soliai, DT — The 30-year-old Soliai missed one game due to a knee injury and was knocked out of another with a hurt ankle. He finished with 19 tackles (15 solo), a sack and a forced fumble.
Olivier Vernon, DE — Emerged this season as an effective pass rusher opposite Wake. The 23-year-old former Miami Hurricane finished with 11.5 sacks, including a sack in four straight games. He also had 46 tackles (11 solo). He earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week in honors in Week 13 after getting 3 sacks and 10 tackles (8 solo) in a win at the New York Jets.
Jared Odrick, DT — Odrick played well after a preseason move from end to tackle, where he had played at Penn State. His end-like athleticism gave some offensive linemen problems. The 26-year-old had 34 tackles (9 solo), 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Likely will start next year, since it’s unlikely Miami will re-sign both Starks and Soliai.
Dion Jordan, DE — He missed the OTAs due to school and then was bothered by a shoulder injury at the start of training camp. He played in all 16 games, compiling 2 sacks and 19 tackles (7 solo). Still, it was a disappointment the third overall player in the draft did not contribute more. The 23 year old will have to hit the weight room and improve on pass coverages if he’s to be used standing up on the edge.
Derrick Shelby, DE — The 24-year-old second-year Dolphins filled in for Wake, whose snaps were limited some due to the knee injury. Shelby was ahead of Jordan on the depth chart and played in all 16 games. He finished with 23 tackles (11 solo), 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
POSSIBLE FREE-AGENT TARGETS
Among the first decisions new Miami general manager Dennis Hickey must make is to decide if the team can afford to pursue Starks and Soliai, or just one of them. Soliai has less mileage on him — he has started the past four years — than Starks, a starter 6 of the past 9 seasons.
If Soliai and Starks both bolt, Miami could look for a tackle on the free-agent market. Chicago’s Henry Melton could be there. The former All-Pro missed most of the 2013 season with an ACL injury. But he also was arrested in December for assault and public intoxication. Not the type of history coach Joe Philbin goes for.
More appealing for the Dolphins could be the New York Giants Linval Joseph, just 25, or Dallas’ Jason Hatcher.
BEST DRAFT OPTIONS
It’s difficult to see Miami going for a defensive linemen in the first two rounds with other more obvious needs (e.g. offensive line). After that, they could consider a defensive tackle. If so, third-to-fifth-round possibilities could include LSU’s Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, Arizona State’s Will Sutton, California’s DeAndre Coleman, Penn State’s DaQuan Jones, South Carolina’s Kelcy Quarles and Virginia’s Brent Urban.
The Dolphins have more serious needs heading into 2014 than on the defensive line. Still, quality line play is a must for a good defense. Miami needs Jordan to emerge as an impact player and make sure it gets a tackle (Soliai, Starks or a free agent) who can start.