Miami Dolphins Training Camp Preview: Defensive Line


This should be the week, ladies and gentlemen. The long awaited end to the NFL lockout is upon us, with an agreement expected to be announced in the next 48 hours or so.

It’s all but official now that the Dolphins will kick off training camp as scheduled a week from Wednesday. We started our training camp preview by taking a look at the receivers last week, but with camp fast approaching I’m going to start previewing units instead of each and every position.

The Dolphins’ defensive line made huge strides in 2010. By season’s end, they were forcefully establishing themselves as a brick wall against the run.

We know the defensive ends will likely be one of the strongest positions on the roster once again as the deepest position on the team regardless of whether or not Tony McDaniel bolts for a possible starting role as expected in free agency.

Nose tackle is far from deep, but after Paul Soliai’s breakout campaign in 2010, hopes are high that he’ll stay motivated and dominate as the anchor of the D-line once again in 2011.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN FREE AGENCY
You hate to let quality players walk in free agency, but the Dolphins probably don’t have any other choice with defensive end Tony McDaniel. McDaniel quietly had a breakout season of his own last year, but with Randy Starks and Kendall Langford solidified as the starters, 2010 first-round pick Jared Odrick returning from a broken leg, and with Phillip Merling looking to get back in on the rotation after missing most of 2010, the Dolphins would be wise to spend the cash it would take to retain McDaniel on a position of need.

As far as nose tackle goes, there isn’t much depth behind Paul Soliai. The Dolphins won’t have the cap room to invest in a proven veteran to provide it, so they would likely move Randy Starks back to the nose if Soliai goes down with an injury. The Dolphins may sign an undrafted rookie or a low-demand free agent to compete with Chris Baker and seventh-round pick Krank Kearse for the lone roster spot up for grabs.

DEFENSIVE ENDS

SAFE

Randy Starks: You have to admire the way Starks willingly moved inside to nose tackle after a stellar 2009 season at defensive end. The Jared Odrick injury early in the year forced Starks back to his prototypical position where he continued his emergence as one of the finest 3-4 ends in the league with his first Pro Bowl appearance.

His dominance against the run will go a long way in helping Mike Nolan’s defense reach elite status in 2011. The Dolphins hope a full year at DE will lead to more pass rush production this season as his sack totals dipped from 7.0 in 2009 to 3.0 in 2010.

Kendall Langford: Motivation will come easy for Langford this season. The 66th overall selection of the 2008 draft is entering a contract year and is hoping for a dominant campaign that leads to a big payday in the offseason. Some have made the comparison that he can be this year’s Paul Soliai. But Langford has been very solid in his first three seasons, which is contrary to Starks who was considered far more likely to be a camp causality than an eventual franchise player before the year.

Langford may not be well known around the league, but he’s nearly been as stout against the run as Randy Starks. Maybe more production in the pass rush department to bolster his 7.5 career sack total will drive up the price for the Dolphins. I think he gets his money in the offseason regardless, though, as he’s turned out to be quite the mid-round gem for Miami’s defense.

Jared Odrick: This might as well be Odrick’s rookie season all over again. The Dolphins’ 2010 first-round investment only played in one game, registering only one tackle before breaking his leg and missing the rest of the season. We still don’t have any idea what the Penn St. product can bring to the table, but he was considered the top 3-4 defensive end prospect in the 2010 draft, so hopes are high that he’ll significantly strengthen the rotation and pick up the slack of the likely departure of Tony McDaniel.

Phillip Merling: I’ve been less critical of Merling in his first three seasons than most of the fan base. Some are quick to label him a bust because he’s failed to establish himself as a starter after being selected with the 32nd overall pick in 2008. With Starks and Langford producing so well ahead of him, though, it’s hard to place too much of the blame on Merling.

He’s simply been buried by superior talent. But in ’08 and ’09, Merling actually performed fairly well in the rotation for the Dolphins. With Odrick now in the mix, Merling will have his hands full sustaining a similar role this year, but he’s at least a reliable insurance policy if the D-line is hit with the injury bug again.

POSSIBLE CUTS

Ryan Baker: Has begun the past two seasons on the practice squad before being signed to the 53-man midway through the year because of injuries. The Dolphins usually keep five defensive ends, so Baker’s chances at making the team right out of camp are stronger than ever.

Lionel Dotson: The 2008 seventh-round pick has spent the past three years jumping back and forth between the practice squad and the 53-man roster. He’s only accumulated five tackles in three seasons in Miami.

Rob Rose: Spent the majority of 2010 on the practice squad after seeing time on the active roster in Week 1 and again in October. Unlike Baker and Dotson, though, Rose never had the opportunity to suit up on game day.

PREDICTIONS

Depth Chart
1. Randy Starks
2. Kendall Langford
3. Jared Odrick
4. Phillip Merling
5. Ryan Baker

Cuts
Lionel Dotson
Rob Rose

NOSE TACKLES

SAFE

Paul Soliai: Soliai was monumental in the Dolphins turning the corner as a defense. The 3-4 doesn’t succeed without a double-team commanding cog in the middle of the defensive line that frees up lanes for the linebackers to make plays. Soliai was that and more in 2010, often creating havoc with disruptive penetration as well.

If the Dolphins want take the next step defensively and be mentioned in the same breath as the elite defenses in the league, they can only hope Soliai isn’t a one-year wonder. Complacency shouldn’t be much of a factor. Soliai was rewarded handsomely with the franchise tag, but he’ll need another dominant year if he wants to earn a lucrative multi-year deal in 2012.

POSSIBLE CUTS

Chris Baker: Having only been active for two games in his career, one with the Broncos in 2009 and with the Dolphins last year, Baker doesn’t provide much confidence behind Soliai. It will be interesting to see if Baker is pushed hard by rookie Krank Kearse for the backup job and final NT roster spot.

Krank Kearse: Kearse was a standout defensive tackle at Alabama A&M, registering 14 tackles for loss in 2010. He’s a little tall for nose tackle at 6-4, but he has the bulk to play the position (315 lbs). As a small school product, though, there’s just too much uncertainty with this kid to really project how much of a fight he’ll put up in camp.

PREDICTIONS

Depth Chart
1. Paul Soliai
2. Chris Baker

Cuts
Krank Kearse

COUNTDOWN TO CAMP: 9 days 

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