Rounding out my positional previews on the defensive side of the ball are the defensive line players.
What to expect: Before training camp has even begun the Dolphins have already lost a promising young DL player in Fred Evans after his trouble with the law. It's always tough to lose talented young players since they are the future of the team, but the front office did what it had to do in this situation. Fortunately, Miami has several other young talents on the roster to cultivate for the future. As for this coming season, the defensive line will again be an area of great strength. Leading the unit is, of course, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Jason Taylor. He is the focal point of a strong pass rush. In fact, 28 of the 47 sacks recorded by the Miami defense last season were tallied by returning DL players from last season (Taylor, Traylor, Holliday, and Roth). The 28 sacks recorded by those four players alone were more than four teams recorded by all defensive players combined (Washington, 19; Tampa Bay/Indianapolis, 25; Tennessee, 26) and tied with two other teams (Houston/Cleveland, 28)! When four returning players are outperforming the pass rushes of entire NFL defenses, you can be certain that the DL will once again be able to create havoc for the opposing quarterbacks. This unit also clogs running lanes extremely well. Opposing ball-carriers were held to a paltry 3.5 yards per carry and the defense allowed only 7 TDs on the ground all season. Additionally, the defense finished fourth overall in the NFL last season in yards allowed per game with only 289.1 yards. The defensive line played a crucial part in that success and it will continue to do so this season.
Here's a closer look at the individual defensive linemen currently on the roster and what can be expected of them this coming season:
Jason Taylor is similar to Zach Thomas in the fact that they are both approaching their twilight years, yet they only seem to get better with each season. Even at 32, it's arguable that 2006 was Taylor's best season as a pro yet, as he locked down the Defensive Player of the Year award. His numbers were just incredible: 62 tackles, 11 PD, 13.5 sacks, 9 FF, 2 FR, 2 INTs, and 2 TDs. Those are amazing stats, and they show that Taylor was contributing in every facet of the defense - pressuring the QB, stopping the run, and causing turnovers. Although it's a lot to ask for consecutive DPOY seasons, it's highly likely that Taylor will at least approach his numbers from last season by getting double-digit sacks and continuing to be a force against the run. The most tantalizing thing to watch in Taylor's game this season will be how he responds to playing opposite the blitz specialist Joey Porter. Having those two guys on opposite sides of the defense should open things up quite a bit for Taylor, freeing him from constant double teams and giving him an easier path to the QB. If that proves to be the case - watch out. He could very well approach his season-high mark of 18.5 sacks. Here's hoping that's how things play out.
Holliday had a big season last year, notching 7 sacks, and he was subsequently rewarded this offseason with a lucrative new contract. He will be one of the starting DEs in the 3-4 defense. It will be interesting to see whether Holliday keeps up the momentum he built last season, or if his new contract will make him complacent.
It's amazing to think that Traylor has been grinding away as an NFL player for 16 seasons and that he still has the ability to play at such a high level. Granted, he's only good for first and second downs and short-yardage situations, but he is the prototypical 3-4 nose tackle. There's no need for him to be on the field in passing situations. The team will need to be cautious that they don't overwork him, as he is a strong injury risk at 37 years of age. The youngsters Paul Soliai and Kevin Vickerson will be worked into the rotation as Traylor's backups and they will help to keep Traylor fresh for the long haul. At 340 pounds, Traylor clogs up running lanes and demands two blockers, allowing the linebackers to roam freely and move straight to the ball-carrier.
Roth improved significantly in his second season with the team last year, and his third season will be an important one. Will he be able to make another leap forward and erase any doubts that people may have about his ability to take over Kevin Carter's spot in the starting lineup? That is the question that must be answered and training camp will be his first opportunity to really settle into that starting role. He certainly has the intensity to do it. He may lack the physical tools of a Jason Taylor, but he gives 100% effort on every play. That kind of mentality should allow Roth to succeed as a full-time starter.
Wright had first-round potential coming out of college last season, but a shoulder injury caused him to fall. Miami might just have gotten one of the biggest steals in the draft with Wright. Now that he's healthy, it'll be time to show just what he can bring on the field. If he can approach his pre-injury potential, Wright should make a solid backup to Roth and Holliday.
Before Fred Evans got released, I thought that Vickerson would not make the roster. But now with Evans gone, I think Vickerson has a good chance of taking the spot that Evans would have held. Vickerson recently returned from a very good NFL Europa campaign in which he was named to the All-NFL Europa League team. If he makes the team, Vickerson will provide adequate depth throughout the D-line rotation.
If either of the NFL Europa DTs is going to make the team, it is going to be Vickerson. Fifita could land on the practice squad, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Most likely a camp body with some practice squad potential
In the future, I see Soliai as a perfect replacement for Keith Traylor at the nose tackle position. This season, he will probably be eased into the rotation, quickly becoming Traylor's primary backup. He has the ability to clog running lanes and he can easily take on two blockers. He's not a pass-rushing threat, but he wasn't brought in to be one. He clogs up the middle of the field, pure and simple. Because of Traylor's injury history, Soliai may even find himself starting a game or two throughout the season.
Bruce has tremendous size at 6'6", 268 lbs. He's not very fast, but he has a good motor and tackles well. With some work, he could become a pass-rushing threat down the line. He doesn't have much potential for this season, but his size and motor are rare qualities. He could be served well with a year on the practice squad.
Love has the size to be an interior linemen, but his last two seasons of college didn't inspire a lot of confidence in his ability to succeed at the NFL level. He doesn't have the drive to secure a spot on this roster or practice squad.
My predicted depth chart:
1. Jason Taylor
2. Vonnie Holliday
3. Keith Traylor
4. Matt Roth
5. Rodrique Wright
6. Paul Soliai
7. Kevin Vickerson
8. Mkristo Bruce (practice squad)
Training camp battle to watch: Rodrique Wright will have to prove that he is healthy and Kevin Vickerson will have to fight to hang onto that last spot against the likes of Page and Fifita.