Another losing season in 2010 was disappointing to say the least considering expectations were so high heading into the year. It was a season to forget, but there was still one thing fans could hang their hats on. The defense’s emergence as nearly a top five unit under Mike Nolan and the optimism surrounding that side of the ball heading into 2011 and beyond has kept morale stable for this franchise and its fan base.
Two key offseason acquisitions- Mike Nolan at defensive coordinator and Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker- were huge factors in the drastic turnaround. But it was the breakout performances of Cameron Wake and Paul Soliai that really put the Dolphins’ defense over the top.
Miami could surely use another breakout performer or two this season if they want to make the jump from mediocre to the playoffs in 2011. Here are five players that could be primed to do just that.
Koa Misi: Misi proved to be a worthy second-round investment last season, setting the edge decently as a rookie on the strong side opposite Cameron Wake. But one of the biggest things the Dolphins were missing on defense last season was another consistent pass rusher. Protections really only had to worry about Wake and could get away with sending double and triple teams his way.
That means the Dolphins will look to free agency for some help. While the market will offer a few capable options, it’s going to lack any sure fire solution. Koa Misi emerging as a legitimate threat is what the Dolphins really need. Many will argue that Misi doesn’t have much upside as a pass rusher, but with a non-stop motor like his, he could be dangerous with some refined technique.
Nate Garner: Who knows how 2010 would have shaped up if Nate Garner didn’t go down for the season with a broken foot? He was penciled into the starting lineup on an interior offensive line that went on to struggle mightily without him, after all. Garner is a valuable commodity to the Dolphins, as an extremely versatile player that could play every position along the line if he needed to.
There’s no place he’s needed more than guard in 2011. It’s a position I wouldn’t mind seeing addressed in free agency, but with the money that’s going to likely be invested in running back, quarterback, and outside linebacker it may be wishful thinking to foresee Miami adding a proven veteran guard. Maybe it’s John Jerry who emerges as the quality starter in his second season, but based on his poor play as a rookie, I’m realistically assuming it’s going to have to be Garner. The Dolphins’ remolded running game may not rebound without him stepping up in a big way.
Kendall Langford: This one is a little bit of a reach for my liking, largely because Langford has been so solid for three years now. But this is the last season of Langford’s rookie contract and if he wants to be paid like Pro Bowl caliber defensive end, a dominant 2011 campaign may be in order.
The Dolphins are far from desperate for more production out of Langford. Langford and Randy Starks providing the solid one-two punch at DE they have for three years now will be more than adequate enough for the Dolphins to continue their ascent as one of the league’s best against the run. Add in the depth that Phillip Merling and 2010 first-round pick Jared Odrick bring to the position and defensive end is easily the class of the roster.
But Kendall Langford emerging as one of the most dominant 3-4 defensive lineman in the league could go a long way in the defense being the most dominant in football. Both may be a reach, but it wouldn’t have even been justice to say the same about Paul Soliai a year ago.
Chris Clemons: Besides getting another pass rusher to emerge, a quality starter surfacing at free safety is probably next in order. Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones are projected to battle it out for the opportunity, but its Clemons that is probably the most capable of emerging as a star as a blanket over the top for Smith and Davis.
He’s going to have the make the most of every opportunity in 2011, though. He saw his fair share of chances to make game changing plays a year ago, but often failed to capitalize. He’s faster than Jones, which is why I predict he’ll win out in camp as a more reliable last line of defense, but like he told us yesterday, “I think I have to come down with more balls especially the deep balls. I think I have to take more chances when I have the opportunity.”
Chad Henne: For all the talk about which veteran quarterback the Dolphins will acquire when the lockout is over, realistically the best option may be Chad Henne when it’s all said and done. The potential has always been there. Henne can make any throw in football. He has the tight spiral and arm strength to be an elite quarterback in this league. Nobody is really questioning his ability.
It’s what’s between Henne’s ears that’s held him back thus far. Failing to properly read defenses, staring down receivers, and folding down the stretch of games is why so many are calling for his head in Miami. But who’s to say it’s too late for the light bulb to finally come on?
The curious case of Drew Brees is what keeps my hope for Henne alive. In Brees’ third season with the Chargers, he threw for 11 TD’s and 15 picks. The next year, he finally broke out and became a franchise quarterback, tossing 27 TD’s and only 7 interceptions. Brees is obviously a different breed than Henne. If you’ve ever seen him rally the troops with a war cry like he does before every game in New Orleans you would be well aware of that.
But the potential to be special is there. Now if he can only match that with a little confidence and the ability to consistently read a defense, he would be the key to the Dolphins turning the corner in 2011.