Friday, July 25, 2008

Training Camp Positional Preview 2008: Defensive Line

Today I'm beginning my look at the defensive side of the ball with the defensive linemen.

What to expect: First off, since Miami is transitioning to more of a full-time 3-4 defense as opposed to last season's hybrid 3-4/4-3, it's still unclear whether certain players will be transitioned to the linebacker spot or remain as defensive ends. Certain players may see time at both spots. To bypass this confusion in my previews, I'm simply going to use the position designations that the team's official website uses to classify the players. So some players listed as DE may in fact play more at LB, but this method works for now.

Of course, the biggest change this season will be the departure of Jason Taylor. He's most likely losing a step at this point in his career, but he was still Miami's best player and one of the league's best pass rushers. It will be impossible to replace his production, but an improved defensive line could go a long way in helping whoever replaces him at outside linebacker in getting to the quarterback. Miami spent three draft picks upgrading the defensive line and they brought in a couple free agents to bolster the league's second worst run defense last season (average 4.7 Adjusted Line Yards allowed). Miami should certainly improve in defending against the run this season, but pressuring the passer is another question. No defensive lineman currently on the team had more than 3 sacks last season, and only one (Vonnie Holliday) had more than 5 QB hurries (8).

Here's a closer look at the individual defensive linemen currently on the roster and what can be expected of them this coming season:

Vonnie Holliday
Holliday has been a pleasant addition in Miami since he came over in 2005. Unfortunately, this team is fully rebuilding now and Holliday is already 33 years old. He should make it through this season, but his age and bloated contract may mean that this is his last year in aqua and orange. Still, Holliday was one of the team's better run-stoppers last season, and he is one of the few leaders left on this defense. The team will need him to mentor the youngsters who will inevitably take over his spot.

Jason Ferguson
Miami traded for Ferguson quite simply because the 3-4 defense does not function without a great nose tackle. Ferguson has been a great nose tackle throughout his career, but he is now 33 years old and is coming off a season-ending biceps tear. The Dolphins need to hope and pray that Ferguson is completely healthy, because they have very little depth behind him at NT. If he is healthy, Ferguson will greatly help the run stuffing capabilities of the defense and occupy multiple blockers, allowing the linebackers a clear path into the backfield.

Matt Roth
Roth has generally been a disappointment since Miami drafted him in the second round of 2005's draft. He made some progress from his first year to his second but seemed to lose that momentum last year, actually regressing a bit. He was quite bad against the run. When Roth was credited with making a stop in run defense, the opposing offense gained an average of 3.0 yards, which was second worst on the team behind Jason Taylor. Roth simply may be too small and physically unsuited to play DE in a 3-4 defense which requires larger bodies that can occupy blockers and collapse the pocket. The coaching staff began to give Roth some work as an outside linebacker in minicamps, and that transition may be Roth's best hope of securing a future with this team. In any case, this is probably Roth's last chance to prove he deserves a spot on this team.

Randy Starks
Starks was an intriguing free agent addition from Tennessee. He will be a valuable addition to this line because he can play any position, be it in a 3-4 or in 4-3. That versatility is rare and it should help the depth of the defensive line rotation. Starks played sparingly last season, but he has great size and is probably one of the best run-stoppers Miami has. He will be the top backup to Ferguson at NT, and he should also see some snaps backing up both DE spots. He's also only 25 years old, so he can still get better.

Phillip Merling
Assuming Merling is fully recovered from his sports hernia, Miami got good value by selecting him with the first pick in the second round of this year's draft. It's unfortunate that Jason Taylor won't be around to teach him the tricks of the trade, but Merling has all the tools to succeed. Merling is not an elite pass rusher like Taylor, but he is a much much better run-stopper, and that's what a 3-4 DE needs to be above all else. He may have to put on some weight in order to hold up against double teams, but he has the frame to do it. His non-stop motor helped him to record 27 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. Merling probably won't start right away, but it would not surprise me to see him take over for Roth as the season progresses. As it is, he will see plenty of snaps as a key part of the line rotation.

Kendall Langford
Like Merling, Langford is a prototypical 3-4 DE. However, Langford is coming out of Hampton, a smaller school, so he is not used to playing against top competition. Because of this, he'll need some grooming time behind Holliday. Still, he's excellent against the run (56 tackles for loss in his four-year college career), and he should see plenty of time as part of the line rotation. He should be a starter in the future, but he's not ready for that role this early.

Rodrique Wright
Wright had first-round potential coming out of college in 2006, but a serious shoulder injury dropped him all the way to the seventh round where Miami snatched him up. He played well enough last year in limited time, but with all the new additions that have been brought in, it seems like Wright no longer has a place on this team. If that's true, it's unfortunate, because at only 24 years old this kid still has a lot of untapped potential in him. I really hope Parcells and Ireland can find a place for him on the roster.

Paul Soliai
When Miami drafted Soliai in the fourth round last year, I said I thought he represented the best value pick in the Dolphins' draft class and that he could be a perfect replacement for Keith Traylor at nose tackle. Well after one season, it looks like I was completely wrong. Soliai was a huge bust in his first year. The coaching staff has been considering moving him from NT to DE. I think he'd be more valuable as a NT, but he still needs a lot of work if he's going to succeed there. He played so sparingly last year that he is still eligible for the practice squad. It would be a big risk trying to get him on the practice squad without another team picking him up, but with the amount of deserving defensive linemen ahead of Soliai, it may be the only choice.

Quentin Moses
Moses was a rare third-round pick who got cut before the season began last year. Miami eventually picked him up, and in limited action he showed a decent pass rush ability. Miami will probably use him more as an outside linebacker, possibly replacing Jason Taylor, but he can put his hand on the ground and take linemen head on as well.

Lionel Dotson
Miami used its final seventh-round draft pick this year on Dotson, a college defensive tackle who will probably have to be converted to DE at the pro level. He made great strides in his senior season, recording 50 tackles (9 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks. He needs to bulk up and he needs to refine his technique. Due to the numbers crunch, Dotson will probably land on the practice squad to begin the season.

Anthony Toribio
Toribio made the team as a tryout during rookie camps and the coaches seemingly haven't stopped praising him since. He could be a potential project at NT, but he will have to fight for a spot on the practice squad.


Here's my predicted depth chart:
DE - Vonnie Holliday
NT - Jason Ferguson
DE - Matt Roth

1. Phillip Merling
2. Randy Starks
3. Kendall Langford
4. Quentin Moses (moreso a LB, and could start at OLB)
5. Rodrique Wright
6. Lionel Dotson (practice squad)
7. Paul Soliai (practice squad)

Training camp battle to watch: Roth vs. Merling for the starting DE spot

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