The Dolphins defensive line was one of their strengths in 2012 however not without room for improvement. The line is fairly young as a whole, but Cameron Wake is starting to near his declining age and is currently alone in terms of pressuring the quarterback on every play.
Even as strong as the line was this past season, it could be the first unit addressed in the April draft as the DE position is deep with talent this year and it will go quickly as teams try to add edge rushers. Here is a look at the defensive line for Miami, reviewing their 2012 season and their prospects for the future.
MDD Staff Writer: Chad Pullen
Wake was the MVP of the Dolphins in 2012 and easily the biggest playmaker on the team. Wake notched a career high 15 sacks, and did so with opposing offenses gearing up to slow him down every week as the Dolphins could not find a suitable pass rusher to line up on the opposite side of him. Wake has also held up well against the run game and not become just a one dimensional lineman. Although he is now into his 30’s, Wake does not have the mileage that most 30 year olds do in the NFL, so there should be no drop off for at least a couple more seasons, and if the Dolphins can draft a top shelf pass rusher in the first couple rounds, it should lessen the burden on Wake even further, as well as create fear in opposing offensive lines. Having two solid pass rushers would also help the secondary tremendously no longer having to cover for over four seconds at a time.
Odrick is the offensive equivalent of Anthony Fasano. Solid, dependable, consistent, but by no means a game changer. He would be best served as a versatile rotational player at either DE, or DT. He was second on the team in sacks with 5, and has always been a key cog against the run, but he is hardly living up to his first round status with that performance. He typically shifts inside to DT on passing downs and he could possibly shift there full time if Randy Starks is not re-signed in the off-season. Personally, I hope that Miami takes a top flight DE with the 12th pick of the draft, re-signs Starks and use Odrick as the versatile backup he is. If Odrick is once again the starting DE in 2013, Cam Wake will be all alone pursuing the quarterback again and the Dolphins defense will remain decent, but not elite. Odrick embodies that more than anyone on this Dolphin roster.
Soliai deserves a lot of the credit for the success the Dolphins have had the past few years stopping the run. He consistently draws double teams and still gets penetration into the offensive backfield to disrupt the timing and spacing of the running game. To put it simply, he’s a space eater and allows the Dolphin linebackers or other defensive lineman to make tackles. Soliai is not as well-known as in-division rival Vince Wilfork is, but he is equally important to the success of the team’s defense. Soliai has one year left on his deal and will be playing for a new contract in the upcoming season. This bodes well for Miami especially if they are able to get some more pass rush at the DE position, it will create nightmares for opposing offenses having to deal with Wake, Soliai and whichever player the Dolphins can land in the draft to address the pass rush further.
A lot of dominoes start here with Starks and he becomes a key part of this most important off-season in Dolphin history. If Starks re-signs at a reasonable price, the Dolphins can maintain the same defensive line while trying to add speed and youth to the pass rush on the end, and shift Odrick in and out at either position. If Starks leaves, Odrick will move inside full time, and the Dolphins will be forced to look at DE and not have the backup that Odrick would then become and be one injury away from a glaring hole on the DLine. Starks was very strong early in the season but tailed off a bit late. He also had a lot of issues off the field with his family life that caused him to miss some practice and this may have affected him in ways many would not understand. He is a great fit next to Soliai and if the price is right, would be a wise idea for the Dolphins to bring back. The key to this off-season is plugging the holes that need to be filled, not creating even more holes to fill and letting Starks go would do just that.
The last domino to drafting a DE early in 2013, Vernon would then be allowed to grow at his own pace, rather than at the pace the Dolphins need him. Vernon was only 21 when he was drafted, and clearly was not ready to be an impact in year one. He likely won’t be ready to make a big jump in 2013 either, hence the need for Miami to take a pass rusher early. Vernon does however have talent, and a lot of it is untapped. If he could develop over the course of 2-3 years like Soliai and Safety Reshad Jones did, then Vernon would be able to give the Dolphins value on their third round investment in 2012. And when that time comes, Wake may be on the downside of his career, and Vernon would be able to slide in seamlessly to handle the job along with whichever DE they take this April. In the meanwhile, Vernon can contribute on special teams as he blocked a couple of kicks this season, as well as scoring a touchdown on a blocked punt and was in on several coverage units. So he can give the team something and also serve as a rotational player when injuries strike or preferably in blowout wins to help give him some on field learning.
Shelby is a project that backed up Wake for most of the season when he was not on the practice squad. He has good skills, however was involved in almost no plays of any kind this past season. He merely gave Wake a rest when he needed it. Vernon has the much higher upside and if it comes down to them, Vernon should easily be the one to stay. If for some reason Miami does not address an additional pass rusher, Shelby may be able to hang on the roster a little longer and possibly improve enough to contribute someday.
Randall was a seventh round pick in 2012 and played a few snaps this season as a rotational tackle. He has good size, but needs to add bulk to his frame to be the space eater that Soliai is. There is no guarantee that he will be in the mix next season, but he could earn a spot next year with a solid offseason and good work next preseason. If the Dolphins do re-sign Starks and switch Odrick inside with the presence of another defensive end likely to be drafted, it is possible that Randall could get squeezed. Best case for him would be similar to Vernon and be allowed to develop during the season in practice and maybe try to earn playing time for the 2014 season and beyond.
McDaniel always seems to be plagued by an injury of some sort and when he comes back from that injury, another one always seems to follow. When he does play, he is very adept in the run stopping game and at his height is fairly good at batting passes down at the line of scrimmage. At this point in his career however he is best suited for rotational duties only and will never be a starter or impact player on a top tier defense. He could also be a casualty this offseason and if it came down between he and Randall, I would choose Randall based on his younger legs and much less injuries to worry about in the future. If the Dolphins were in win now at all cost mode for 2013 however, McDaniel probably would be a bit better value.