Last season was an important step forward for the Miami Dolphins. A new head coach and staff, together with a restructured front office, helped to usher in a new culture and way of working that yielded the team’s first playoff berth since 2008. They accomplished this despite having the 29th ranked defense crippled by a slew of injuries to key players.
The challenge of real winning is making it a consistent thing instead of an occasional thing. The Dolphins understand this, which is why they prioritized improvement to the defense. Improvement involves two things: 1) Acquiring better talent, and 2) Molding that talent into a cohesive unit.
The front office was aggressive. For the first time in team history the Dolphins spent their first three draft picks on defense. Top choice Charles Harris, a defensive end from Missouri, has already shown a lightning quick first step and burst with a penchant for getting to the QB. He’ll be a big help, at least situationally, until he can prove he has the strength to stand up to an NFL running game. Second rounder Raekwon McMillan is already getting some first team snaps at MLB to see how he handles the deep end of the pool. Third rounder Cordrea Tankersley has received a heavy dose of reps early on, and has already discovered that he must pay better attention to his hydration if he is to stay on field as a regular contributor.
Free agency was judiciously shopped for upgrades. LB Lawrence Timmons (PIT) was the key signing and he looks like a lock as a starter. S Nate Allen is doing his best to stake his claim to the job opposite Reshad Jones, which was vacated when Isa Abdul-Quddus was abruptly forced to retire due to a serious spinal injury.
All of these new pieces plus a lively competition at CB and DT means that there could be as many as six new positional starters come opening day. Factor in a rookie defensive coordinator in Matt Burke, changes to the defensive staff, plus adjustments to the system to take better advantage of the talent on hand and the Dolphins have a bonafide rebuilding job on their hands - even if the team’s spin doctors won’t tell you that in explicit terms.
In all fairness, there really was no choice given the team’s complete inability to stop anyone last season. The situation was exacerbated by a rash of key injuries (e.g. Jones, Koa Misi) together with key talent losses such as DE Olivier Vernon (Giants) and CB Brent Grimes (Buccaneers). It certainly didn’t help that 2013 first round DE Dion Jordan never made it on to the field (since waived). No amount of coaching genius was going to compensate for this dearth of talent. This is why the Dolphins desperately needed to add new starters and key situational contributors to fortify the depth chart and provide better game planning options.
For Burke, getting his staff and all of his players on the same page will a major undertaking. He must make sure everyone knows their jobs and trusts their teammates to do theirs. It’s called “chemistry”, and it takes time to develop - more time than the Dolphins have before opening day arrives versus the Bucs on September 10. But before chemistry can be developed, Burke and head coach Adam Gase must settle on the starting 11 and key rotational people - the sooner, the better.
The defensive line is mainly set, with Cam Wake and Andre Branch starting at End with Ndamukong Suh at one DT position. The other DT position will be a battle between Jordan Phillips and a slew of rookies and 2nd year players, plus veteran Nick Williams.
Two of the three starting linebackers are locked in, with Kiko Alonso and Timmons penned in. The premature loss of Koa Misi for the 2017 season means that a third starter must now be identified. Thus far McMillan and Mike Hull are making the best cases for the job, but don’t sleep on Neville Hewitt; his game is on the rise.
At CB, one would think Byron Maxwell is a lock for one of the two jobs. But there were some rising young talents last season that will press him, including Xavien Howard, Tony Lippett, and Lafayette Pitts. Tankersley will also strive to get into the mix, though it seems he is destined to see heavy special teams duty as a rookie. Burke will sort them out, though he must be happy to have the luxury of quality depth here together with slot man Bobby McCain. A team can never have enough quality CBs.
Finally, a starter opposite Jones must be found at safety. The Dolphins use their safeties interchangeably, so it will be important that this man be able to defend in space as well as step into the box and tackle. Allen, Michael Thomas, Walt Aikens, and newcomer TJ McDonald will fight it out.
If Burke can get his starters set by the middle of the exhibition season, then he will have a chance to build the chemistry and trust his players will need in order to have the confidence to go out and stop people on opening day. While we don’t yet know what that version of this unit will look like, we do know it will be improved over last year as it’s a more talented and deeper group of players.
Fortunately the Dolphins will likely face nothing better than middle of the road offenses in the month of September (Bucs, Chargers, Jets) before facing the top two 2016 units in October (Saints, Falcons). That’s when we’ll know if the slew of offseason of personnel and coaching changes will pay dividends.