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A Look at the Dolphins' Roster-Defense
Last time I took a look at the Dolphins' offense, which is in a pretty sorry state at present. The good news is that the defense is in much better shape. Unfortunately, though, despite its high ranking, this unit is far from dominant, and they seem to play their worst in the most important games. Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that the defense simply isn't good enough to constantly pick up the slack for a sputtering offense through the course of a full season.
Here's a look at the Dolphin defense, with an emphasis on the talent-level at each position.
This is the area where the Dolphins' defense needs the most help this offseason, in my opinion. When Trace Armstrong left to join the Raiders as a free agent, the Dolphins pass rush left with him. The lack of a pass rush was never more evident than in the Ravens debacle, when the horrendous Elvis Grbac was made to look like Joe Montana, as he had all day to throw and literally picked apart the Dolphin D.
But don't blame Jason Taylor for this unit's shortcomings. Yes, his sacks were way down from last season, but that wasn't entirely his fault. JT was double teamed on nearly every play, as there was no one on the other side of the line to take pressure off of him. Taylor finished with a couple of INTs, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. More importantly, he had close to 100 tackles, which is astounding for a DE. Jason has become a complete player, and he is one of the hardest workers on the team.
Kenny Mixon and Lorenzo Bromell were supposed to pick up the slack with Armstrong's departure. Mixon even dropped about 15 pounds to increase his speed in an effort to improve his pass rush skills. Unfortunately, both Mixon and Bromell were non-factors for the majority of the season, and they are clearly not the answer. It's true that Bromell made some plays here and there, and Mixon's INT for a TD was one of the main factors in the victory over Denver. But neither player can consistently rush the passer, and that's what this team needs. Mixon and Bromell are average players at best. Both are free agents now; I'd let them both walk.
I called Adewale Ogunleye the wild card of the defensive line this offseason, as he was a talented pass rusher in college coming off a major knee injury. Well, we know nothing more about him today than we did then. The Dolphins rarely used Ogunleye at all, so it's difficult to have an opinion of him. I think he's young and talented enough to hold onto, and maybe he'll develop with another training camp under his belt.
The biggest surprise of the DE unit, to me, was the play of David Bowens, who was signed at about mid-season after drifting from team to team for a couple of years. D-Bo, in addition to being an absolute demon on special teams, showed excellent skill at the DE position. He often brought life to an otherwise dead group, and his enthusiasm was contagious. David made several big plays and displayed nice pass rush ability in the short time he played, and I'm looking forward to seeing him again next year.
Conclusion: Take Jason Taylor away from this group, and you've got a bunch of average players. In my opinion, DE is in need of a major overhaul, and I think it should be the priority on defense. Another pass rusher or two must be found so that Taylor can be freed up to wreak havoc again.
Much has been made of the negative impact Daryl Gardener's loss had on the Dolphins' run defense. But truth be told, the run defense wasn't all that great when Daryl was healthy either. For some reason, stopping the run was a big problem all year, and it all starts up front.
Gardener was having a real good year before his injury - although I think it's been a bit overrated by the media and fans alike. Unfortunately, after two herniated disc operations Daryl's career is in jeopardy. Even if he does come back next season, I don't trust that he'll stay healthy for a full year. I hope the Dolphins realize this as well and bolster the position in the offseason.
Tim Bowens had his typical up and down season. The last few games of the regular season, TimBo looked about as good as I've ever seen him play. But for the most part, he was unable to pick up the slack when Gardener went out, and he was absolutely dominated in the Ravens game. I'd like to see Tim remain a Dolphin, but with a reported cap value of $7 or $8 million in '02, it will be difficult.
Jermaine Haley and Ernest Grant split time inside to replace Gardener. Both are big, strong players with talent, but for some reason they couldn't get the job done for most of the season.
Conclusion: I think there's plenty of talent at this position, but inexplicably this unit played poorly more often than not. I don't know if it's the schemes or something else, but there's no reason these big boys should be getting blocked and pushed around so easily. Changes need to be made in the system, and another DT or two must be acquired in case Gardener can't play and Bowens doesn't return.
What more needs to be said about Zach Thomas? The man is a warrior, fighting through injuries and giving the clichéd 110% on every single play. He is the undisputed leader of this defense, and is in fact the heart and soul of the entire team. In my opinion, Zach is the only untouchable player on the entire roster - I wouldn't give him up for anything. That being said, I do sometimes have a problem with Zach's attitude when the team is losing. He appears to get frustrated easily, and he gets down on himself and his teammates when times are tough. Still, if the rest of the D played with his intensity, they'd be a much better group than they are now. You won't find a more dedicated, hard-working player in this league.
Now for the bad news - the rest of the Dolphins' LBs…well…how can I say this…OK, they basically suck. Derrick Rodgers ended the season on IR with a shoulder injury, but he was his usual invisible self prior to that. After all the time he's spent in this system, you'd expect Derrick to be a big-time playmaker by now. That is far from the case. Half the time I barely remember he's on the team, because he so rarely makes plays. I don't know what the cap ramifications are, but if possible I'd cut Derrick and upgrade the position.
Rookie Morlon Greenwood started most of the season on Zach's other side, and wasn't much more visible than Rodgers. The main knock against Greenwood at Syracuse was that, despite being prolific, he never made the big play. That was certainly the case in his first NFL season. In Greenwood, I saw a player that was frequently out of position and missed tackles by the bunch. Honestly, it looked like he was just learning the LB position for the first time - which is ridiculous after starting for 4 years at `Cuse. To his credit, Morlon slightly improved toward the end of the year, but I see nothing to justify giving up a 2002 2nd round pick for him.
Twan Russell began the season in Greenwood's place, and though he did an admirable job, he is a far better special teams player than he is a LB. The same is true of Scott Galyon, who took over for Rodgers after he went down. I must admit, though, that Galyon was a much better LB than I had expected, and he may be worth re-signing for depth purposes.
The back-up LB that impressed me the most this season was Tommy Hendricks, despite the fact that he barely played LB at all. Hendricks, like Russell and Galyon, is a special teams stand-out, and he did a great job filling in for Zach in the middle against Buffalo. In my opinion, Hendricks deserves to compete for a starting job on the outside in the offseason.
Someone to keep an eye on is Corey Moore, the former Virginia Tech standout. The Dolphins signed him late in the season, and he didn't play at all. But Moore is a talented young player that could blossom if he gets his act together.
Conclusion: Beyond Zach, there's not much happening at LB for Miami. Changes need to be made, and talent needs to be added.
Safety is a strong position for Miami, led by veteran Brock Marion. Brock started the year off pretty poorly, but he was absolutely dominant in the second half of the season, and took home AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors in December for his efforts. Unfortunately, Brock's cap value is high for the coming season, and if his deal can't be re-structured he may be gone. I think the Dolphins should make every effort to keep Marion in Miami where he belongs.
Brock's counterpart at Safety, Brian Walker, is also questionable to return to the Dolphins in '02, as he is an unrestricted free agent. Brian had an amazing '00 season, but his play definitely leveled off this year. Walker did not make a lot of big plays at all, and in my opinion he's expendable. If we can keep only one of our starting Safeties, I think it should be Marion.
Arturo Freeman is waiting in the wings, and he deserves to be a starter in '02. Arturo played very well in the dime package, and he did a good job at Safety when called upon. He's quick, smart and talented, and I think he's got a bright future.
Shawn Wooden excelled on special teams, but saw very little time at Safety. Still, he's a solid, experienced player, and together with Freeman should be able to pick up the slack if Marion or Walker depart.
Conclusion: The Dolphins have a lot of talent here; the only question is what will happen with Marion and Walker? Fortunately, Arturo Freeman is ready to step in if one of the starters does leave.
CB is by far the strongest position on the Dolphins' roster, led by stars Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain. These guys are at the top of their game, and they're among the league's best at their position. They're so good, in fact, that most QBs don't even bother attempting to pass on them.
Terry Cousin was a pleasant surprise as a nickel back, and the unheralded DB may have been the Dolphins' top free agent signing. He was a model of consistency, and his tight coverage and pass break-up skills really shored up the secondary. Had Coach Wannstedt known Cousin would be this good, he never would've drafted Jamar Fletcher with his first pick back in April.
Ah, Jamar Fletcher. In the Dolphin dictionary, Fletcher is the new definition for the word "bust". Despite an outstanding college career, Fletcher showed absolutely nothing as an NFL rookie. Fletcher was so bad that he couldn't even win a job in the dime package, and in fact he rarely played at all. I know he's young and shouldn't be written off so quickly, but thus far Fletcher is a complete waste of time.
Conclusion: The Dolphins are set at CB with the trio of Madison, Surtain and Cousin. There's as much talent in this group as you'll find on any team. If Fletcher miraculously develops into the player he was at Wisconsin, look out!
That wraps up my take on the talent-level on the Dolphins' roster. I'm of the opinion that big changes need to be made on both sides of the ball, both in terms of personnel and schemes. I think that the Dolphins' biggest needs in the offseason areas are as follows, in no particular order:
Offense - QB, RB, OL, WR
Defense - DE, DT, LB
As you can see, that's a tall order to fill, especially with the Dolphins' poor salary cap situation. But I think some roster trimming can be done to free up cap space, and hopefully Wannstedt and staff can bring an influx of talent to the team. It's time for this team to take the next step - stop nickel and diming us with third-tier, mediocre players. If the Dolphins are to get to the promised land, they must add talented players across the board. This will involve creativity and boldness, and the organization must be willing to take risks. Let's hope they're up to the task. Here's to an interesting offseason…