Dolphins positional analysis: Defense

At least you could call it an overachieving unit.
The Miami Dolphins only have one player on their defense ever taken in the first round of the draft. And that guy, defensive end Jared Odrick, barely was a first-rounder, going 28th in 2010.
Still, the Dolphins have managed to carve out a solid unit. They were seventh in the NFL in scoring defense last season, giving up 19.8 points per game.
So, as March 12 free agency approaches, defense is less of a priority than offense. Still, the Dolphins have several key free agents on that side of the ball in defensive tackle Randy Starks, cornerback Sean Smith and safety Chris Clemons. So there will be a focus on either retaining them or finding replacements.
Here’s a look at Miami’s defense heading into free agency and the April 25-27 draft:
Defensive line
Cameron Wake — The defensive lineman made his second Pro Bowl in three years and was named All-Pro. He was fourth in the NFL last season with 15 sacks. Wake is epitome of an overachiever, having been undrafted and entering the NFL in 2009 after playing in Canada.
Jared Odrick — Despite being the only first-rounder on Miami’s defense, he wasn’t a key  contributor. More was expected out of Odrick in 2012 after he had six sacks and seven starts in 2011. He got 12 starts in 2012, but just five sacks.
Oliver Vernon — The defensive end had a solid rookie season after being a third-round pick following his junior season at the University of Miami. Vernon had two of his 3.5 sacks in an October 17-14 win over St. Louis, including a late one that helped cement the win.
Randy Starks (free agent) — The defensive tackle has been solid for the Dolphins even if he hasn’t built upon making the Pro Bowl in 2010 as much as some might have thought. The Dolphins will look to keep him, but he could get a more lucrative offer elsewhere.
Paul Soliai — The massive defensive tackle doesn’t blow anybody away with his stats. But he’s very solid against the run. He didn’t miss a beat as he adjusted last season to the 4-3 after previously having been the nose tackle in the 3-4.
Tony McDaniel (free agent) — The defensive tackle is a competent backup. He could be kept around by the Dolphins if his price is reasonable.
Final analysis: The Dolphins have a solid defensive line but might have to do some tinkering in free agency. With Wake and Soliai under contract, the line still should be good next season.
Karlos Dansby — Dansby told FOX Sports Florida before last season he expects to make the Hall of Fame. That’s not going to happen, but Dansby still had one of the best seasons of his nine-year career in 2012, leading the Dolphins in tackles.
Kevin Burnett — Burnett isn’t flashy, but he’s a good pass defender and he’s durable. He’s started all of his team’s games the last three seasons, including the past two years with Miami.
Koa Misi — After suffering a bit of the sophomore jinx in 2011, Misi bounced back to have a solid season in 2012. The only drawback was missing two December games due to a sprained ankle.
Jason Trusnik — Started two December games in place of the injured Koa Misi. He’s a solid backup although he did start 15 games for Cleveland in 2009 and 2010.
Final analysis: Linebacker is one of the few areas on the team in which the Dolphins don’t need to do much work with during free agency. It might not hurt, though, to pick up a linebacker in the draft considering Dansby is 31 and Burnett is 30.
Sean Smith (free agent) — The cornerback generally has been regarded as the top player in a weak secondary. The Dolphins would like to retain him, but won’t break the bank to do so. He’s a candidate to get the franchise tag.
Reshad Jones — A star in the making, some thought the safety might be named to the Pro Bowl after a breakout second season. He had a banner afternoon in the next-to-last game against Buffalo, recovering two fumbles and making an interception.
Chris Clemons (free agent) — The Dolphins would like to keep the safety around. But he is expendable if they are able to find somebody better in free agency.
Richard Marshall — The cornerback was lost for the season due to a back injury after starting the first four games. The Dolphins are intrigued to see what he can do when healthy. He was good enough before last season to beat out Vontae Davis, resulting in Davis being traded to Indianapolis.
Nolan Carroll — The cornerback started 10 games last season. But he’s a marginal NFL starter and probably will return to the bench with Marshall back.
Jimmy Wilson — He is a solid reserve. He’s also effective on special teams, including having blocked a punt that led to a touchdown in a 30-9 October win at the New York Jets.
Final analysis: The secondary clearly was the weak spot on Miami’s defense last season. The Dolphins ranked just 27th in the NFL in passing yards allowed and in interceptions, having picked off just 10 (nine by defensive backs). Improvements to the secondary will be sought in free agency and the draft.
Special teams
Punter — Brandon Fields — Despite leading the NFL in punting with a 50.2 average, Fields somehow didn’t make the Pro Bowl. He’s a key weapon for the Dolphins due to his ability to pin teams deep.
Placekicker — Dan Carpenter — Shook off some troubles early in the season to to have a strong finish. While Carpenter made the Pro Bowl in 2009, he’s now closer to being an NFL middle-of-the-pack kicker.
Punt and kick returner — Marcus Thigpen — After arriving from Canada, was a pleasant surprise in his first NFL season. Ranked fifth in NFL with an average of 12.2 on punt returns and was eighth in kickoff returns with an average of 27.4. Returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown.
Long snapper — John Denney — Had a bad snap in December against New England, which resulted in the Patriots scoring a first-quarter touchdown. Still, the long snapper was good enough to make his second Pro Bowl in three seasons.
Final analysis: The special teams generally are solid. But, in the interests of job security, Carpenter might not want to repeat last season’s start, when he made just five of his first nine field-goal attempts.
The Dolphins have more concerns with their offense than their defense. Still, the Dolphins have some key free agents on defense and must put a premium on improving the secondary.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at or on Twitter @christomasson