Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How the 4-3 scheme would change the Dolphins' defense

Reports from the Senior Bowl in Mobile this week say general manager Jeff Ireland is discussing a move to the 4-3 defense, and Bengals' defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle is the leading candidate to implement the scheme under new head coach Joe Philbin.

We first started to see a some 3-4 looks in Nick Saban's hybrid scheme in 2005-06, but the shift was full-blown upon the arrival of executive vice president Bill Parcells and the rest of his crew, largely made up of former Cowboys' assistants and other coaches from his past that had experience in his 3-4 scheme.

But now we might be heading back to the 4-3, and that means a handful of position changes for the Dolphins' front seven as well as a different set of targets in free agency and the draft. Linebackers become ends, ends become tackles, and some players that would previously be valuable might be expendable.

For a quick refresher, here's an over-simplified comparison of the 4-3 and 3-4 schemes:

  • The three-man defensive line is primarily tasked with clogging holes at the line of scrimmage to allow the linebackers space to work. This requires three "defensive tackle-like" linemen, despite the "defensive end" label.
  • The primary pass rush comes from the outside linebackers, who are often converted defensive ends. They are however also tasked with playing the run and sometimes dropping back into coverage.
  • The inside linebackers are your typical linebackers. First and foremost, they play the run and cover tight ends.
  • The interior defensive linemen are the bigger guys on the line, clogging up the middle and lining up between the center and guards.
  • The primary pass rush comes from the defensive ends.
  • The three linebackers play the run and work in coverage.
Although some players only fit into one scheme or the other (for example, a 3-4 team would have practically no use for an undersized defensive tackle or linebacker), Some guys easily translate to different positions between schemes. An oversimplified conversion would go like this:
  • 3-4 defensive ends = 4-3 defensive tackles
  • 3-4 outside linebackers = 4-3 defensive ends
  • 3-4 inside linebackers = 4-3 linebackers (middle or outside)
This isn't always exact, but it's generally a good guide to go by.

Now, let's take a look at how the Dolphins' current roster (and some of their free agents) would fit into the 4-3 scheme that will potentially re-debut in Miami in 2012...

Defensive Line

This is where the most significant changes will take place. In the 4-3 scheme, defensive ends like Randy Starks, Jared Odrick, Tony McDaniel, Ryan Baker and free agents Kendall Langford and Phillip Merling will practically all play defensive tackle. There is some talk that Odrick could stay at end with his athleticism and pass-rushing ability, but he's really better suited inside. From the looks of it, the depth is pretty good here—especially if Langford can be re-signed.

What's also interesting here is that the move to the 4-3 makes nose tackle Paul Soliai, who made over $12 million under the franchise tag in 2011, fairly expendable. While it's true that Soliai can play in either scheme, the need for a 360-pound behemoth is much less in the 4-3. Soliai will be much more valued by 3-4 teams because monster nose tackles don't grow on trees. With a rotation of Starks, Odrick and Langford inside, there's no reason to pay Vince Wilfork-type money to Soliai, regardless of how good he is or if he fits in the 4-3.

Perhaps the money saved on Soliai can go toward a contract extension for the Dolphins' newest 4-3 defensive end—Pro Bowler Cameron Wake.  The Dolphins' only quality pass rusher, Wake is entering the final year of his four-year, $4.9 million contract. He has plenty of experience with his hand in the ground from his time in the CFL and with Miami in 2009, when he racked up 6.5 sacks as a situational pass rusher. (The Dolphins' use a four-man front in those situations, so the rushers usually line up at defensive end even on a 3-4 team.)

Also moving to defensive end would be Jason Trusnik and Jonathan Freeny, although both profile as special-teamers and neither is guaranteed a roster spot. (Though the veteran Trusnik would be safer.) Free agent Ikaika Alama-Francis would move back to end as well, but I don't expect him to be re-signed.


One player I didn't mention in the conversion to defensive end is 2010 second-rounder Koa Misi. Although he was an end at Utah (and actually played some tackle) and stood up in the Dolphins' 3-4 scheme, I question whether he has he pass-rushing abilities to move back to defensive end.

The 250-pound Misi is probably a little light and lacking in athleticism or power to be a true pass rusher, and the numbers seem to show that. Misi totaled 4.5 sacks as a rookie, but failed to record a takedown over the final 10 weeks of the season and record just one sack in all of 2011.

Misi's biggest strength now comes against the run, so it makes sense that he stays at linebacker and move away from a pass-rushing role that he's clearly not cut out for. Some people see him moving to middle linebacker in the 4-3, but I'm not sure he has the instincts or the overall ability.

As for Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, both have previously worked at outside linebacker in 4-3 schemes, although both are versatile guys and both have experience in either scheme. I would project them to start opposite each other at outside linebacker in the 4-3, though with no starting-caliber middle linebacker on the roster right now, you'd probably have to play one there if the team played tomorrow.

The Depth Chart

If the Dolphins shifted to the 4-3 scheme and put out a depth chart of their current roster, this is roughly how it would look: (Obviously, lacking a full roster would some guys to play slightly out of position.)
  • LDE Cameron Wake, Jonathan Freeny
  • LDT Jared Odrick, Tony McDaniel, Ryan Baker (RFA)
  • RDT Randy Starks, Phillip Merling (RFA), Isaako Aaitui
  • RDE Jason Trusnik
  • LOLB Karlos Dansby
  • MLBKevin Burnett, Austin Spitler (ERFA)
  • ROLBKoa Misi
    • Starters in italics

Looking Ahead

Obviously, re-signing Langford would move Odrick back to the role he's in now as more of a No. 3 rotational guy, although all of them would see significant playing time. As much as I like Soliai, I just don't see him being worth the money in this scheme, and that might be a good thing. McDaniel is also a potential cut for salary cap reasons.

Trusnik hasn't played end since college and is not a starting talent, so like Misi he's solely a start here due to lack of other options under contract. A starting linebacker (probably in the middle) and a starting defensive end are musts this offseason.

As you can see, the need for a pass rusher looms as large as ever despite the switch—the only thing different is the name of the position, which becomes defensive end rather than outside linebacker. The Dolphins need to extend Wake and find a quality rusher opposite him, whether it's a big free agent like Anthony Spencer or Mario Williams, or someone like UNC's Quinton Coples in the draft.

 Coples probably has the athleticism to stand up and play in the 3-4 as well, but he primarily profiles as a 4-3 defensive end and a top-15 talent, making him someone the Dolphins will certainly consider at the No. 8 or 9 pick in April. The Dolphins have already expressed heavy interest in Coples at the Senior Bowl.

Others players that either played 3-4 outside linebacker (like Alabama's Courtney Upshaw) or 4-3 college ends like Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, USC's Nick Perry, and Marshall's Vinny Curry are also early-round options.

Just as they were with the 3-4 scheme, the Dolphins are really one linebacker away and that's really due to the lack of development of Koa Misi. If you put Dansby and Burnett in their natural outside positions, you could find a middle linebacker in free agency like Atlanta's Curtis Lofton or Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson, or go the cheaper route in the draft.

In summary, the Dolphins' needs don't really change with a shift to the 4-3 scheme. They still need a pass rusher and they need an upgrade over Misi in the starting lineup. Those statements are true in either scheme. The only changes were were a few of the Dolphins' starters line up and in some cases what their position is called, but their roles are largely the same and most of the personnel translates to the scheme well.

I have to admit I'm a little bummed about the shift, but we all remember the days of Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor, Tim Bowens, and Daryl Gardener in the 4-3 scheme in Miami. I'd also point out that both of this year's Super Bowl teams run a base 4-3, so there's certainly no right or wrong answer in what scheme you run. All that matters is finding the right personnel, finding good coaches, and executing on the field.

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