In Sunday’s post, we took a look at the offensive unit for the Miami Dolphins coming into the new season. Today, it’s time to give the defense their time in the spotlight. Defense has always been a point of pride for this franchise. From the days of the “No name” defense, led by Nick Buoniconti and Manny Fernandez, that was instrumental in Miami pulling off a perfect 1972 season, up through the “Killer Bees,” a moniker resulting from the fact that 6 of the 11 starters had a last name beginning with “B,” in the early 80’s, all the way to the defenses I grew up with featuring Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas.
This year, thanks to a huge free agent acquisition and some stellar play by some surprise names so far in training camp, looks to be no exception. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the 2015 Miami Dolphins defense.
Defensive line: If the offensive line is the clear-cut weakness of the team, then conversely, the defensive line is far and away the strength of this team. Anchored by perennial All-Pro defensive end Cameron Wake, the defensive line once again looks to be one of the more dominant units in the NFL. Though the group was solid last season, we stand to be vastly improved this season, thanks to our front office being able to land the prized free agent of the off-season, Ndamukong Suh.
During his time in Detroit, Suh made a name for himself, for better and worse, with his incredible play on the field. In his five seasons in a Lions uniform, Suh amassed 239 tackles (180 of those solo) and 36 sacks, numbers that are nearly unheard of for a defensive tackle. Few inside linemen in the history of the game have been as dominant as Suh, conjuring memories of a young Warren Sapp.
Conversely, few inside linemen have been in as much trouble for their play as Suh. Suh’s ferocity occasionally crosses the boundaries of acceptable play, and he has been fined and suspended several times for crossing this line. If Suh is able to reign in his emotions and avoid suspension, his addition alone stands to vault our defense into the upper echelon. Pairing Suh with his inside counterpart, fellow defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, along with Wake and Olivier Vernon on the outside promises to give offensive coordinators nightmares.
From everything that I’ve been hearing so far coming out of the Miami Dolphins training camp, look for second year player Terrence Fede to have a major impact as well. Fede is a small school guy, coming to us in the 7th round of last year’s draft out of Marist, who unsurprisingly struggled in his rookie year with the significant rise in talent. The buzz out of training camp this year, however, is that Fede is figuring things out and has really impressed the coaching staff. If Fede is really ready to be an impact player, putting him in a rotation with Wake and Vernon to keep everyone fresh will be a huge help to this team come December and hopefully into January.
Linebackers: Linebacker is another weak position for this year’s team. I wouldn’t put them on par with the offensive line (though that stance my change if the front office decides to go out and sign Evan Mathis, as they should), but make no mistake about it, this is not a solid group by any stretch of the imagination. Nothing that I’ve heard coming out of training camp eases my trepidation about this group, either, and in a time where everyone is “making an impact,” that scares me.
Weak-side linebacker Jelani Jenkins is probably the most athletic of the bunch. Coming out of Florida, the kid had a level of athleticism that would lead people to think he could be something special in this league. Unfortunately he just hasn’t been able to put it together, and I don’t see that changing anytime in the near future. If Jenkins is going to make a jump, this is the year to do it. To his credit, his sophomore effort last season was a vast improvement upon a disappointing rookie campaign. But that being said, his season wasn’t anything special. He did have over 100 tackles, which is a nice number, but when I watch him drop back in pass coverage, he seems like a lost puppy. He was given the green-light at Florida to rush the passer, and coverage was an after-thought, but after two years in the system, it still seems like an after-thought, and that is troubling.
The team’s middle linebacker, Koa Misi, has been nothing short of a disappointment in his five seasons with the Dolphins. He has failed to live up to the storied history of Dolphins middle linebackers, and would probably be better suited to play one of the two outside linebacker positions, but someone has to play the middle, and that responsibility falls on him. To go along with his sub-par play in the middle, there are also some significant injury concerns that accompany Misi. He has only played a full 16-game season once in his career, and that was in his rookie campaign. He missed five games last season with ankle, hamstring, and knee injuries. The depth chart is thin at linebacker, especially in the middle, and another injury to Misi could prove disastrous.
It may be a bit unfair to harshly criticize strong-side linebacker Chris McCain after only one season, but the fact of the matter is that it was a highly disappointing rookie season, by any standards. He was hampered by injuries that led to him missing six games. In the ten games that he did appear in, he was only able to manage a total of five tackles, one sack, and no interceptions. While you don’t expect your strong-side linebacker to contribute much in the passing game, only ten tackles and one sack is completely unacceptable.
The glimmer of hope in this group could come in the form of either A.J. Francis or Mike Hull. I’ve been hearing a lot of good things coming out of the first week of camp regarding Hull. He seems to understand the game, has a fiercely competitive streak, and the athleticism necessary to make a contribution in this league. He won’t unseat anyone as a starter, but if there’s an injury, he might be able to play his way into a starting role in the future.
As for Francis, this is just my own personal opinion, but I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t cut some weight and compete for a position at linebacker. He’s currently toiling away on the bench behind Vernon, Wake, and Fede. Between those three players, there doesn’t seem to be a place for Francis as a defensive end. If he’s able to make the switch to linebacker (if that’s even something the coaches have approached him about, I do not know), then there just might be a place on this team, and in this league, for Francis. The ability is there, he’s just currently stuck being guys who are bigger, stronger, faster, and better than him. It’s an unfortunate situation, but that’s the NFL.
(As a note to the non-football fans reading this post: The terms “strong-side” and “weak-side” are references to which side of the line contains the offense’s tight end. The side without a tight end would be the defenses’ “strong side,” and would be where a blitz would come from. Conversely, the side with the tight end would be our “weak side,” as he would be the one most likely to cover the tight end.)
Secondary: The state of the Dolphins secondary and how much trouble we’re in at this position largely depends on who you talk to. There are some people who follow this team that think it’s a position of great concern for us beyond Brent Grimes. Then there are others, myself included, who take the opinion that, while we are weaker at cornerback than is ideal, we’re strong at safety, and the additions we’ve made to the defensive line should be able to cover up a lot of the cornerback’s mistakes. The best friend of a weak secondary is a strong pass rush.
If the rush isn’t able to get to the quarterback, I really don’t think we’re in as much trouble at this position as writers such as Omar Kelly and James Walker would have you believe. Brent Grimes, in his third season as a Dolphin after coming from Atlanta in free agency, is still an elite corner. Jamar Taylor is still learning the position, but he wasn’t a second round pick for nothing. The kid has a lot of talent and I’m not ready to give up on him just yet. With that being said, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk out of camp the last day or two about Brice McCain. McCain, initially slated as our Nickel, or fifth, corner seems poised to take Taylor’s role as starter.
To complement Grimes and Taylor (or McCain), Miami has possibly the best strong safety in the NFL with Reshad Jones. Since his breakout season in 2012, Jones has approached 100 tackles each of the last three seasons, in spite of missing the first four games due to suspension. He has also accounted for eight interceptions, and even contributed 3.5 sacks. Alongside Jones is free safety Louis Delmas, who has been a great asset to Miami since coming to the team from Detroit. Being reunited with former teammates Suh and back-up defensive tackle C.J. Mosley should only lift his spirits and lead to better play.
While offense and defense get the lion’s share of the publicity, and rightly so, I wouldn’t be doing this series of articles justice if I didn’t conclude with a note about the special teams. While we have a solid punter, and one of the most dynamic returners in the entire NFL in Jarvis “Juice” Landry, the kicker position might be a thorn in our side all year. With the number of games that are decided by a touchdown or less, if you don’t have a dependable kicker, your chances of success are slim. Caleb Sturgis has struggled with injuries and consistency, and his back-up isn’t doing any better in camp by all accounts. If the front office doesn’t do anything about our weakness at guard, then I sincerely hope they do something about the weakness at kicker. We can’t go into the season with weaknesses at both positions when there are plenty of free agents still available who would be a significant upgrade.
Welcome! My name is Chris Spooner. I am an overly-passionate Dolphins fan who has many opinions about his team, and the sports landscape as a whole. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy voicing them.