Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Countdown to Free Agency Part II: What to Watch for on Defense

In the second part of my review of possible free agency moves available to Miami, I'll look at the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive Line: This will be a very interesting unit to keep an eye on come free agency. The moves that are made will most likely tell a lot about the players currently on the roster. There is no doubt that the defensive line has been a strong point for Miami for some time, but with that expertise has come undeniable age. DTs Vonnie Holliday, Keith Traylor, and Jeff Zgonina will all be unrestricted free agents unless the team re-signs them before March 2. It is uncertain whether Traylor and Zgonina will even choose to come back for another NFL season or hang up their cleats after a long career. If they do decide to come back, it will be a tough decision for Miami whether they want them back. Keith Traylor would be 38 years old and entering his 16th NFL season with recurring knee problems, but when on the field he was such a dominating run-stuffer and lane-clogger at 340 pounds that it wouldn't be a bad idea to bring him back as part of a rotation. Zgonina had much less of an impact, and with his age I would not expect Miami to bring him back. Holliday, on the other hand, finally showed signs of why he was a first-round pick, notching 7 sacks in 2006. Of course, that number will likely attract several suitors willing to pay him the money that Miami simply can't afford. It would be great if Miami can find a way to retain Holliday for a reasonable price. The most important decisions, however, will concern the progress of Miami's bountiful group of youngsters on the D-line. Through free agency, we should get a good sign of whether the coaching staff believes the young talent on the roster will make an impact or if it is necessary to bring in new talent. With guys like Kevin Vickerson, Manny Wright, Rodrique Wright, and Fred Evans, I would think that at least one of these guys can step up and find a way to contribute as part of the rotation. If Miami doesn't go after anyone in free agency, that probably means that Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers is ready to unleash the youth along the D-line and get them more experience. If we do go after some guys that may mean that the young talent has not matured as hoped. So, lacking the insight into these young players' development that is necessary to judge what moves should be made, I will wait until free agency starts to analyze the situation further.

Linebackers: Zach Thomas and Channing Crowder are proven starters, that much is for sure. But with Miami running more 3-4 schemes, at least one more bonafide talent must be added to this unit. Donnie Spragan has been a solid starter, but he tends to get lost in the action, and he certainly has not shown the ability to make the big play. He doesn't seem best suited for the 3-4, so it's probably best to part ways with him. With Lance Briggs being franchised by the Bears, Adalius Thomas is the best LB on the market. His price will be high, but it will be worth it. He brings an unparalleled utility that makes it difficult for opposing teams to game-plan for. I believe that Miami should look seriously into acquiring Thomas. They should also look to pick up a solid depth LB in free agency - someone who can blitz well out of the 3-4, and who could possibly contribute on special teams.

Secondary: After losing his job to Yeremiah Bell, I don't think Travares Tillman will be re-signed by Miami. The play-making ability of Bell was crystal clear once he took over the starting safety gig. That is the kind of game-changer that Miami desperately needs in the secondary. Bell will be a restricted free agent, and Miami should make every effort to retain him. Renaldo Hill was solid opposite Bell, but hopefully this season Jason Allen will prove he deserves Hill's starting role, with Hill transitioning to the nickel or dime package. Corner back is a position of need, although free agents like Nate Clements will be far too overpriced for Miami to consider. It would be better if Miami addressed this position through the draft.

So, come free agency, I expect the Dolphins to make mainly depth acquisitions with hopefully one or two signings of high-end players like Adalius Thomas, or as I talked about yesterday, Kris Dielman. There's no sense in Miami breaking the bank on a mediocre player, who then causes cap woes in subsequent seasons. This is especially true this offseason, since the new labor agreement has produced a glut of money for some teams while the available talent is shallow. Many undeserving players will most likely be overpaid, and the Dolphins should try to avoid following that trend.

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