Over the past three years, the Miami Dolphins defense has always been good, but never great. However, this could change in 2013 with the improvements made to the roster and a new defensive philosophy implemented by the coaching staff.
When discussing the Dolphins defense, it starts with All-Pro defensive end Cameron Wake. His 15 sacks in 2012 ranked 4th in the league and accounted for over a quarter of the team's total of 42. When Wake wasn't able to bring down the quarterback he was still wreaking havoc, evident in the 86 quarterback pressures he recorded. Although Wake has been a nightmare for the opposition, being forced to carry much of the load himself has resulted in being double teamed, limiting his success.
After trading up to select Dion Jordan in this year's draft, it appears the Dolphins have found a solution opposite of Wake. Jordan has had an impressive two weeks of camp, consistently beating the offensive line while showing his strength and athleticism. He has also proved his versatility as he has lined up at defensive end on both the right and left side.
If Jordan is to start, he will have to fend off Olivier Vernon who is also having an impressive camp. As a rookie in 2012, Vernon was mainly a special teams ace but also recorded 3.5 sacks. Despite the low total, he showed explosiveness as a pass rusher and the versatility needed to drop back in coverage.
Whether Jordan or Vernon win the starting job, some of the pressure will finally be taken off Wake as there will be a viable option rushing the quarterback opposite of him.
Vernon's experience playing linebacker can also be beneficial to the team and allow them to play Vernon, Jordan and Wake at the same time. With Jordan and Wake potentially lined up opposite of each other, Vernon can start at linebacker with the possibility of rushing or dropping into coverage. Using this trio accordingly could create a lethal pass rush.
With an apparent solution found at right defensive end, former first round pick Jared Odrick has been moved to defensive tackle where he recorded 6 sacks in 2011. While he didn't live up to expectations coming off the edge in 2012, he still showed the ability to get to the quarterback as he tallied five sacks.
Odrick joins former Pro Bowlers Randy Starks and Paul Soliai on the interior of the Dolphins defensive line. In addition to being stout against the running game, this group can also bring the heat and compliments Miami's defensive end core.
The main reason why the Dolphins are not yet in the conversation of elite NFL defenses is their lack of forced turnovers, despite being ranked 7th in the league in points against and in total sacks in 2012. As a result, Joe Philbin made creating takeaways the focus of the offseason, even electing to go younger and faster at the linebacker position with the additions of Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, to help accomplish the goal.
Along with the combined 7.5 sacks this duo brings – 4.5 for Ellerbe and 3.0 for Wheeler – they combined for 3 forced fumbles and eight passes defensed. They have stood out thus far in camp, consistently racking up sacks as well as interceptions. While these linebackers also record their fair share of tackles, they are playmakers, which is something the Dolphins desperately lacked last season.
In addition to the turnover margin, Miami also is looking to improve their pass defense which ranked 27th a year ago.
Several changes have been made in the secondary, starting with the signing of cornerback Brent Grimes. Many believe Grimes could be the steal of free agency, including myself. Despite returning from injury and not playing in a game in over a year, Grimes has looked sharp in camp. He has exceeded expectations thus far and his athleticism and insticts have been on display. If he can remain healthy, Grimes will provide the Dolphins with a huge boost in the secondary as the No.1 corner.
Once thought to be a candidate for release due to his high salary, Dimitri Patterson looks to have the inside track as the starter opposite of Grimes. In two games with the Dolphins last season, Patterson quietly turned in solid performances which has carried over to training camp.
Safety Reshad Jones was the lone bright spot in the secondary in 2012 when he hauled in four interceptions and forced two fumbles. Expect that to continue in 2013 with Jones in a contract year and entering the prime of his career.
We know the Dolphins will get pressure on the quarterback more consistently this season as they have surrounded one of the best pass rushers in the league with additional assistance. Now, if the offseason additions make plays and force turnovers like they are capable of doing, it will only be a matter of time until the Dolphins defense joins the conversation of "elite" and becomes a top 5 unit.