As much as we want to talk about the pass rush, the young secondary, and Mike Nolan’s first year as defensive coordinator, is there any doubt the biggest make or break factor on this defense is Randy Starks’ ability to move inside to nose tackle? After all, a 3-4 defense is only as good as it’s nose allows it to be.
Considering Starks has only seen limited action at the nose tackle position, and that his size indicates he is a prototypical defensive end in the scheme, there’s always the possibility this move tanks, which would all but guarantee the defense as a whole has another mediocre season at best.
Given the track record of this regime’s prior nose tackles, though, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. First of all, in Dallas, Parcells enlisted the undersized Jay Ratliff (6’4, 303) to anchor the defensive line, and he is now considered by many one of the better noses in the game. Secondly, the recently retired Jason Ferguson, who played an instrumental role in enabling Miami to switch to the 3-4 with relative ease two years ago, weighs in at 310 pounds- a mere five pounds heavier than Starks.
So, while Starks’ switch carries some uncertainty and has to be considered somewhat of a gamble, there’s no reason to think Parcells and company are taking a shot in the dark here. It just seems like the Parcells’ mold for nose tackle is a bit smaller than the rest of the league, which is not consistent at all with how he typically views every other position, but nonetheless, is something that has been successful in the past, and surely can be again, given the caliber of player Starks has become.
Randy Starks: Given how well Starks played last season at defensive end, this regime must really be sold on his ability to play nose tackle to sacrifice that production for a transition inside. Pro Football Focus ranked his 09′ performance second among all 3-4 defensive ends, and his 7 sacks was tied for the most at the position. If he can be just as successful at the nose, although his stats are sure to decline, the switch will be a smart one considering nose tackle is more valuable to the 3-4 than defensive end.
For the 3-4 to be successful, you need a double team commanding nose freeing up space for the linebackers to make plays on the ball carrier. Mike Nolan, however, reportedly will shake things up a bit. Instead of lining up directly over the center, some expect Nolan to place Starks in the gap to the right or left in order to produce some interior penetration and pass rush.
Given Starks’ athleticism for his size, that philosophy would make a lot of sense, even though it’s difficult to predict how that would hold up against some of the better rushing attacks in the league. In the event things get ugly, though, you can’t put much blame on Starks. While a guy like Albert Haynesworth has thrown a fit over the Redskins’ switch to the 3-4, despite being a $100 million man, Randy Starks has handeled the Dolphins’ wishes to move him inside with nothing but class.
Paul Soliai: When Jason Ferguson went down last year with a quadriceps injury, Soliai had a golden opportunity to earn the starting nose tackle job for years into the future. Soliai had his fair of struggles, though, often times being single blocked with relative ease, and failed to give the front office any reason to believe he can ever be anything more than a backup. He could be forced back into the starting role in the event Starks’ switch doesn’t go over as smoothly as anticipated.
Travis Ivey: The undrafted rookie out of Maryland faced improbable odds of making the 53-man roster before Ferguson retired, but now, actually has a legitimate shot. He possesses the prototypical size of a true nose tackle, and could push Soliai for the final roster spot if he demands more than one lineman’s attention during camp and the preseason.
Ryan Barker: Barker reportedly turned heads during OTA’s, but once again, I’m not buying any of that as legit until we see it during camp, when the pads come on. It seems like every offseason someone shines during two-hand touch workouts, but pull a no show when it actually counts. Also, considering Barker is underisized like Starks, the Dolphins should probably look at keeping a bigger nose(s) as a backup for insurance purposes.
1. Randy Starks
2. Paul Soliai
Countdown to Camp: 4 days