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2002 Defensive Preview
The 2001 Miami Dolphins' defense often resembled Jeckyll and Hyde. The team fielded one of the league's top pass defense units, with Defensive Backs Sam Madison, Pat Surtain, Brock Marion and Terry Cousin putting forth excellent performances. The run defense, however, did not fare as well, and was at times atrocious (see the playoff game against the Ravens for instance). Key injuries along the Defensive Line and at Linebacker contributed to a run defense ranked in the bottom half of the league - definitely uncharacteristic for a team that has taken so much pride in stopping the run in recent years.
Free agent losses and signings have changed the complexion of the Dolphins' defense for the coming season. Gone are familiar faces Kenny Mixon, Lorenzo Bromell, Daryl Gardener, and Terry Cousin. The new faces include Larry Chester, Rob Burnett and Jay Williams.
Can these newcomers help bring this unit back to its former glory? Only time will tell…
Here's my look at the Dolphins' defense, position by position, along with grades. Bear in mind that my grades refer to the position as a whole, not just the starters - and I don't hand out A's too often.
Tim Bowens returns as the anchor of the Miami defense. Bowens struggled with injuries in '01, but is now healthy. Bowens should return to form, playing the role of "immovable object" in the middle of the defense.
Free agent Larry Chester was signed to replace injury-plagued Daryl Gardener, who was switched to DE and then released. Chester is returning from a broken leg, but should be 100 % before the start of the season. Chester is one of the strongest players in the NFL; he reportedly benched 680 lbs. with ease while on the Colts. Larry is considered a talented run stuffer who is just starting to come into his own. He should be a force playing next to Bowens, and I think they'll be a fun tandem to watch.
Despite the presence of Bowens and Chester, I gave this unit a B grade due to the depth. Back-ups Jermaine Haley and Ernest Grant battled nagging injuries last year, and their play suffered as a result. Both players have a lot to prove and they must step up their game if the run defense is to improve. Keep an eye on Henry Taylor this pre-season - he may challenge for a roster spot.
Jason Taylor has developed into one of the league's best all-around Defensive Ends. His sack total dropped significantly last year as a result of facing constant double teams, but he still managed to apply consistent pressure on the QB. Taylor was simply amazing in run support, flying all over the field to make plays and tallying nearly 100 tackles - an astounding number for a DE. Jason is a true playmaker.
I had hoped that Daryl Gardener would provide the consistent pass rush that was sorely missing from the right DE position in '01, and expected him to attract double teams and free up Taylor to wreak havoc from the left. Obviously, that didn't pan out. Unfortunately, I don't see another DE on the roster that can fill that role, and I think it's a major area of weakness.
The DE position is loaded with question marks after Taylor. Jay Williams is the projected starter opposite Taylor, but after 8 mediocre NFL seasons, how much can be expected of him? And the fact that Jay lost his starting job last year on one of the league's worst teams (Carolina Panthers) doesn't get me too excited either. I think it's a reach to think that he'll suddenly become a better player simply because he's on a better team. I'll certainly root for him on Sundays, but I have a hard time believing that he was worth a 4th round pick.
I'm much more excited about former Raven Rob Burnett. Despite the fact that he's 35 years old and coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued '01 season, I have high hopes for Burnett. I'd prefer to see him start, but due to his age the coaches feel he'll be more efficient and have more of an impact in the old Trace Armstrong pass rush specialist role. Burnett has always been strong defending both the run and pass, and I think the coaches will have a hard time keeping him off the field. Still, Rob must be considered a question mark due to his age and lack of productivity last year.
David Bowens is a player I really like. I may be going out on a limb since he hasn't done much in his career, but I really liked what I saw from him in limited action last year and expect him to be one of the surprise players in `02. David appears to have a knack for getting to the QB and disrupting plays, and he gives all-out effort on every play. He's also a monster on Special Teams. Bowens may be unproven, but he's definitely a player to watch.
Adewale Ogunleye is a talented young pass rusher who has yet to distinguish himself. I think he can be a very good DE, but unless he steps up and starts making plays soon he'll remain buried on the depth chart.
Zach Thomas remains one of the top LBs in the league, but he's been slowed by injuries in recent years and is coming off a disappointing season (at least by his standards). Despite matching a career high with 180 total tackles, Zach missed more tackles down the stretch than I've ever seen. No doubt his injuries contributed, and keeping Zach healthy is a big key to any success the Dolphins will achieve. Zach's performance will also be determined in part by the health of the DTs in front of him. Zach struggled in '01 when Gardener and Bowens were off the field, but the acquisition of Chester and a healthy Bowens should get him back on track.
Derrick Rodgers and Morlon Greenwood return to start at the Outside LB positions. Rodgers wins the team's leadership award nearly every season, but unfortunately he doesn't do much on the field to distinguish himself. The best thing I can say about Derrick is that he's consistent. He's not great by any means, but he's at least steady. Much will be expected of Greenwood in his 2nd NFL season. He played very poorly early in '01, but started to contribute by season's end. Hopefully, he'll continue to improve. But regardless of how good he turns out to be, I'll always believe that trading a 2nd round pick in order to draft him was an awful move.
The back-up LBs will likely be the same as last year - Twan Russell, Tommy Hendricks and Scott Galyon. All are Special Teams stand-outs, but unfortunately none are very good LBs. All three are OK filling in here and there, but I'd be worried if any of them had to start for an extended period of time. Hendricks probably has the most upside of the group.
The LB position is one of the most baffling mysteries surrounding this team. Why has Dave Wannstedt ignored the depth at this position since he took over as Head Coach/General Manager? Zach is starting to put on mileage and has missed a few games the last couple of seasons, yet there's still no legitimate back-up for him. Derrick Rodgers assumes the role of the invisible man more often than not on game day, yet no one is ever brought in to compete with him or at least provide a challenge. I just don't understand!
Despite losing Brian Walker to free agency, the Safety position remains a strong point for Miami.
Brock Marion is back, and he has become one of the better Free Safeties in the league. The last two seasons Brock has displayed an uncanny ability to make big plays at crucial moments, and he is the glue that holds the secondary together.
Arturo Freeman will replace Walker at Strong Safety. Freeman is an athletic, quick defender with strong cover skills. I expect him to mature into a great player. The only question about Arturo is his ability in run support. He's not very big, and he lacks the hitting power that made Walker such a force. That's definitely something to keep an eye on.
The depth at Safety is fairly strong. Shawn Wooden is a former starter, and his experience provides a comfort level should one of the starters go down. He's not great by any stretch, but he is a solid player. Special Teams demons Trent Gamble and Scott McGarrahan round out the position, and both will likely contribute in the dime package.
I can already see the message board filling up with posters questioning my sanity for giving such a (relatively) low grade to the Dolphins' CBs. Let me explain myself before you pass judgment.
Sam Madison and Pat Surtain make up what is arguably the best CB duo in the NFL, and they are the sole reason I even graded the position in the B range. Not much needs to be said about Sam and Pat - if they remain healthy, they're as good as it gets.
The problem starts when you scan the names of the other CBs on the Dolphins' roster. Omare Lowe? Ray Green? Zebbie Lethridge? None of these players have any real NFL experience, and none were highly touted coming out of college. Major question marks abound.
And last but not least, there's Jamar Fletcher. Fans will question the decision to spend a first round pick on a 5' 9" nickel CB till the end of time. Jamar is expected to handle nickel duties and serve as the primary back-up for Madison and Surtain. Last season, Fletcher played so poorly that he couldn't even earn playing time in the dime package. And he started two games when Madison was injured, but was so bad that Terry Cousin started over him in the third game. With the Dolphins employing the nickel package about 60 % of the time, Jamar is being asked to quickly become a major contributor. Is he up to the task? He was awesome in college, but can he translate those skills to the NFL? Who knows? Early reports have not been encouraging so far. Of course, CBs often take time to develop, but this team is supposedly built to win now - they don't have time to wait for Fletcher to blossom.
This is yet another Dolphins' mystery. Why is there no veteran depth behind Madison and Surtain? Cousin was stellar last year, and he was a big reason the pass defense was so great. What if Fletcher doesn't perform up to expectations? We can certainly try to acquire a veteran CB in the next few weeks as rosters get trimmed, but there's no guarantee that anyone good will be available.
So there you have it - the 2002 Miami Dolphins' defense. There are some new faces, and some tweaking will be done to the playbook (for example, the Safeties will reportedly play a larger role in run support), but overall this group is not much different than those of the last few years. The Dolphins are hoping to finally have a running game with Ricky Williams in the offensive backfield, and the hope is that he will help the offense control the clock and keep the defense fresh. That would certainly be a welcome change, and would go a long way toward turning a good defense into an excellent defense. There are certainly some areas of concern, but if the top players can stay healthy, I still believe this defense can be among the league's best, and there's no doubt that the D remains the backbone of the Dolphins.