Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Season in Review: Defensive Line

Throughout January, I'll be reviewing each position's performance for the Dolphins during the 2013 season, noting the good and the bad play and looking ahead at where the position stands for the 2014 season and beyond. Check out the archives for past entries in the series.

Second-year defensive end Olivier Vernon experienced
a breakout season in 2013 with 11.5 sacks.
Relevant 2013 Ranks:
Points/Game: 20.9 (8th)
Yards/game allowed: 359.4 (21st)
Rush yards/carry allowed: 4.1 (18th)
Rush yards/game allowed: 124.9 (24th)
Rush touchdowns allowed: 14 (t-18th)
Quarterback sacks: 42 (t-11th)

Current Depth Chart:
LDE: Olivier Vernon, Dion Jordan
LDT: Jared Odrick, A.J. Francis
RDT: Isaako Aaitui
RDE: Cameron Wake, Derrick Shelby

Free Agents:
DT Paul Soliai (UFA)
DT Randy Starks (UFA)

As expected with a group of quality, proven veterans, the Dolphins' defensive line performed its job fairly well in 2013 despite often being let down by the linebackers playing behind them and the referees who have never called a holding penalty induced by Cameron Wake in the history of the world. (Note: may not be entirely accurate.)

While Wake amassed "just" 8.5 sacks in 2013, matching his career lowest total as a full-time starter, Wake was once again one of the most consistent and possibly underrated pass rushers in the game. You also can attribute a lot of Olivier Vernon's success (11.5 sacks) to the attention Wake draws on the other side.

From a pass-rushing perspective, my only disappointment is the lack of consistent playing time for No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan, who certainly has the physical tools to be an impact player and should have been given a bigger stage to show what he can do. I have a lot of issues with the coaching staff's performance in 2013 and the under-utilization of Jordan is one of them.

Moving inside, the Dolphins went three-deep with high-quality starters in Randy Starks, Paul Soliai and Jared Odrick. While only a two-down player, Soliai proves to be a quality nose tackle with surprising range. Starks continues to be one of the most well-rounded players at his position from run defense to pressure, while Odrick had what I'd easily consider a breakout season.

The one negative at the interior defensive line position was a swing-and-a-miss by Jeff Ireland, who inked tackle Vaughn Martin to a two-year, $4 million contract only to see him released on Nov. 8 with an injury settlement.

2014 Outlook

The defensive line is certainly something to watch this offseason for a number of reasons. The Dolphins seem quite set in the pass rush department with Wake, Vernon and Jordan, although Wake turns 32 later this month, Vernon has to prove he's not a one-year wonder and Jordan has to prove himself entirely.

The good news is that Jordan is a tremendous physical talent and Cameron Wake is signed to a pretty team-friendly deal and is easily the hardest worker on the team that is always in peak physical condition, so his drop-off with age shouldn't happen rapidly.

Defensive tackle is where a lot of changes could happen as both Starks and Soliai are free agents. Odrick will return as a quality starter at one spot, but right now the only other tackles the team has are journeyman Isaako Aaitui and 2013 undrafted free agent A. J. Francis.

I suspect the 30-year-old Starks will get a pretty solid payday elsewhere, while it's no lock that Soliai returns either if his agent David Canter is to be believed. That being said, I expect Soliai to be back as there's never been a huge market for him and he only plays about half a team's defensive snaps. The Dolphins would be wise to do another two-year deal with Soliai and explore an extension with Odrick, who is entering the final season of his rookie deal.

Should the Dolphins fail to retain Starks and Soliai, the 2014 starter alongside Odrick is almost certainly not currently on the roster. Linval Joseph (Giants), Jason Hatcher (Cowboys), Pat Sims (Raiders), Tyson Jackson (Chiefs) and former Dolphins lineman Tony McDaniel (Seahawks) are some of the better names available in free agency. Louis Nix (Notre Dame), RaShede Hageman (Minnesota), Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame) and Timmy Jernigan (Florida State) are first-round draft options, although the team certainly has bigger needs to fill at No. 19.