Friday, August 21, 2009

Training Camp Roster Breakdown 2009: Defensive line

Today I'm beginning my look at the defensive side of the ball with the defensive linemen. I'm going to switch up the order in which I list the players and simply go alphabetically by last name.

As a unit, however, the defensive line took great strides forward last season in terms of shutting down the run. After being the NFL's second-worst run-defenders in 2007 with an average of 4.47 ALY allowed, the team finished 2008 allowing an average of 4.11 ALY, good for 14th in the league. Now a lot of that had to do with Matt Roth taking over for Jason Taylor at OLB, but the young defensive ends played their part in this success as well.

Now on the individual players.

Ryan Baker
Baker was signed as an undrafted free agent this year, but the front office definitely loves his size at defensive end (6'5, 295). I've heard some good things coming out of camp about him, but the numbers game along the defensive line probably make the practice squad the most realistic option for Baker, at least to begin this season. You can never have enough big run-stuffing DEs in a 3-4.

Joe Cohen
Cohen finished the season last year on Miami's practice squad. He's been serving as a nose tackle prospect, but thus far he hasn't really shown anything to make the front office think he could eventually replace Jason Ferguson.

Lionel Dotson
As a seventh-round draft pick, it was pretty impressive that Dotson made the team's roster for every game last season, even if he was inactive for 14 of them. Dotson played DT in college, so much of last year was spent transitioning him to play DE in Miami's 3-4 scheme. He seems to have gotten more comfortable this training camp, and should find a way on the roster as a reserve player.

Louis Ellis
Interestingly enough, Ellis is the only player on Miami's roster listed as a nose tackle. The team signed him as an UDFA this year and he seems like a good bet to make the practice squad, as the front office is always looking for future NTs. He was named the CIAA Defensive Player of the Year the past two seasons. Coming from a small school (Shaw), he'll need a lot of technique and conditioning work, but it's easy to see the potential there.

Jason Ferguson
The trade for Ferguson worked out great for Miami, as he was able to stay healthy for the most part and allowed the 3-4 to function as the coaches envisioned. However, he'll be turning 35 this season, and even if he makes it through the whole season, he needs a solid backup who can hold down the middle of the line while Ferguson takes a breather on the sideline. Randy Starks filled that role capably last year, but he is in the running for the starting right defensive end spot this year. Just to demonstrate the need for a quality backup NT, Ferguson was only directly involved in 21 plays last year (tackles, passes defensed, etc.) or 2.7% of the team's total defensive plays. Now compare that with other NTs like Vince Wilfork (67 plays, 9.1%), Kris Jenkins (54 plays, 6.5%), or Jay Ratliff (55 plays, 7.2%). So while Ferguson may be a great run-stuffer when he's in there, the amount of plays he's actually available for is dwindling.

Kendall Langford
Langford turned out to be a tremendous selection last year, earning the starting LDE job as a rookie and holding it down for the entire year. As expected, he was a monster against the run, allowing a paltry 1.8 yard average on the 29 runs he made tackles on. Furthermore, the team allowed an average of only 3.13 ALY over right end, good for 11th in the NFL. His 86% stop percentage on runs was tied for best on the team with Vonnie Holliday. Langford does need to improve his pass rush, however. He started the season off strong with two quick sacks, but those would be his only two of the year. He finished with zero QB hits and only four hurries. Those numbers have to go up.

Orion Martin
Martin is listed as a DE on the team's roster, but he's been practicing as a linebacker. An UDFA out of Virginia Tech, I expected Martin to get drafted and was quite pleased to see him end up in Miami as a free agent. He's a bit of a 'tweener right now, as he transitions from DE to LB, but he has top notch intangibles and is a great special teamer. He is a prime candidate for the practice squad, where he can refine some pass rush moves from a stand-up position and help this team down the road.

Tony McDaniel
Miami traded a seventh-round pick for McDaniel this offseason. He's seen some starting reps in practice at defensive end, but his ultimate role will probably be as a utility lineman who can play any of the three positions when needed, much like Randy Starks was last year. He already has three seasons of NFL experience under his belt despite being only 24 years old. The major issue with him has been his ability to stay on the field during those three seasons, having already missed 23 games in his short career due to injury. He has said that he is willing to play some DT and NT, although his height (6'7) may make that a tough task. Still, he had a respectable 79% overall stop percentage last season and should make for useful rotation player.

Phillip Merling
Merling actually got outplayed by Langford last year by a wide margin, despite being drafted with the 32nd overall pick in the draft. His overall stop percentage of 57% was atrocious, but it was his 68% stop percentage on runs that really stood out as needing immediate improvement. Only Jason Taylor had a worse rate last season (among players on Miami this year). That's a bit odd since he was such a good run-stuffer in college, and I'd expect him to get things turned around. Merling did show some promise as a pass rusher though. He finished with 3 QB hits and 6 hurries. Unfortunately, he is continuing with his habit of not always playing all out in practice, which makes it difficult for the coaches to properly evaluate him. It may lead to Randy Starks taking the starting job from Merling. Even if that happens though, Merling is going to play a key role in the line rotation.

Paul Soliai
Whenever it seems like Soliai is in danger of playing himself off this team, he turns things around and flashes that tremendous potential that made him one of my favorite picks of his draft class. He's really the only true NT that can help back up Ferguson right now. Sure, Starks, McDaniel, and others could probably do it as well, but that would take them away from the DE rotation. After flaming out in a big way his rookie year, he finally seemed to turn things on in the second half of 2008. And, realistically, it takes a long time to fully develop as a nose tackle. I think if Soliai can get his weight under control once and for all and get over whatever issues caused him to get suspended by the team twice last season, he will finally start to prove that he is a serious option for this team's future at NT.

Randy Starks
Starks was a great free agent addition last season. He turned out to be a jack-of-all trades along the defensive line, playing some DE, DT, and NT. Even though he wasn't a starter, he made 32 plays, which was the third highest total on the team among defensive linemen. He was good against the run (79 St%) and great against the pass (88 St%). He also finished with a D-linemen high of 8 QB hurries and 3 QB hits, tacking on 3 sacks as well. Starks is still just 26 years old and there is definitely untapped potential remaining. He is on his way to winning a starting DE job, and with that he may take another step forward in his game.

Rodrique Wright
Wright was inactive for all 16 regular season games in 2008, but he did see some playing time in the playoffs against Baltimore. He seems to be at the point in his career where his great upside may just be turning into unrealized potential. If he hasn't shown anything up to this point in his career, it may be time to cut ties and move on. He'll have an opportunity to battle with Dotson for the final DL spot on the roster, but I think Dotson has more to offer at this point.


Here's my predicted depth chart:
DE - Randy Starks
NT - Jason Ferguson
DE - Kendall Langford

1. Phillip Merling
2. Tony McDaniel
3. Paul Soliai
4. Lionel Dotson

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