Previously, I've talked about the Dolphins' needs along the offensive line and at wide receiver. And Nicky did an excellent job talking about Miami's needs at outside linebacker. So now let's stay on the defensive side of the football and talk about arguabley the most important position in a 3-4 defense - nose tackle.
2008 Key Contributors: Jason Ferguson (22 tackles, 5 tackles for loss), Paul Soliai (3 tackles)
At 34 years old, Jason Ferguson didn't have his best season ever. But when you consider how Miami's defense simply wouldn't have worked without him, Ferguson was a solid performer week in and week out for the Dolphins. And one could argue that the acquisition of Ferguson by Bill Parcells and Jeff Ireland is the main reason why the Dolphins' rush defense improved from dead last in the NFL in 2007 to 10th in 2008. And never was Ferguson's value exemplified more than in the regular season meeting between the Dolphins and Ravens. The Dolphins were able to contain Baltimore's rushing attack until Ferguson was forced to leave the game with an injury to his midsection. In the 2nd half, without Ferguson or backup NT Paul Soliai (who was suspended by the team for the game), the Ravens ran right down Miami's throat. So make no mistake about it - Jason Ferguson, despite being 34, can still play and still has gas left in the tank.
But he does need some help. He needs a guy that can spell him more often during the course of the game. Paul Soliai has the body type to be an effective nose tackle, measuring in at 6'4 and 355 pounds. But he has been a disappointment through his first 2 seasons as a Dolphin. His play has been inconsistent at best while he has reportedly shown flashes of immaturity off of the field - likely the reason why Soliai was suspended for a game 2 seperate times in '08 by this coaching staff.
But Soliai really did look like he was coming on strong late in the season - providing a surprising push up the middle. And he was the guy who made that early big play against the Ravens in the playoff game - forcing that fumble that Joey Porter receovered.
It'll be interesting to see what the Dolphins do with Soliai this offseason. He has the potential to be a decent nose tackle. But he must become more consistent on the field and more mature off the field. But with just a $550,000 salary in 2009, he'll likely have every chance to prove he belongs on this roster.
The versatile Randy Starks also played a little bit at the nose - specifically when Ferguson went down against the Ravens. But despite his measurables being very similar to those of Ferguson, Starks isn't really a nose tackle and likely will not see action at the nose except for emergency situations. He's too valuable as a versatile DE/DT combo as a reserve.
Help Wanted, But Who?
It's no secret that the Dolphins will at least look long and hard about finding a potential long-term replacement for Jason Ferguson. He'll be 35 in November and is going to begin to wear down sooner rather than later. But where will the Dolphins turn for help?
Find nose tackles is a tricky thing to do. The draft rarely has more than a handful - and even that's pushing it - of players who could play the nose. And free agency usually isn't packed with them, either. After all, teams who need nose tackles know how hard it is to find a good one and rarely let one go once they have one.
Potential Free Agent Targets
Colin Cole - Cole, who measures in at 6'1, 330, has spent his first 4 years in the NFL in Green Bay, primarily as a reserve defensive tackle. And Cole recently turned down a 3 year, $7 million deal from the Packers. With their defense expected to switch to a 3-4 in 2009 with Dom Capers running their defense now. But Cole, for what I've seen of him, is stout at the point of attack and could very well be an effective nose tackle.
Gabe Watson - At 6'3, 332, Watson is an idea nose tackle. But he's a restricted free agent in 2009 and the Cardinals will likely try hard to re-sign this young stud lineman. He generates a very good push from wherever he lines up and, from what I can tell, is a terrific run-stuffing force. But the Cardinals will definitely place some kind of high qualifying offer on him which will make it hard for another team to sign him away without giving up unreasonable compensation. But could another team possibly tempt the Cardinals enough with some kind of trade package?
Tank Johnson - Weighing in at just 300 pounds, Johnson might not be the ideal fit for this regime at nose tackle. And his off the field issues make him a risk. But what if he was willing to come to Miami on the cheap? Eh - I still think it's unlikely.
Ryan Sims - Sims will be 29 this offseason, but doesn't have too much tread on his tires. He has the measurables, coming in at 315 pounds. But he's never played the nose before. And from what I've seen of Sims, he doesn't get as much push as you'd like out of your nose tackle. But might he come on the cheaper side?
Potential Draft Targets
The draft, as usual, doesn't offer too much in the way of potential nose tackles. Boston College's B.J. Raji is the best NT prospect, but will be long gone by pick #25. However, his college teammate, Ron Brace, is probably a guy who will project as a 2nd rounder and he very much has the ability to be a top nose tackle. Measuring in at 6'3, 323 pounds at the Senior Bowl, Brace is big and strong. The knock on him, though, is his conditioning - which may not be up to par. However, this regime and the South Florida heat would likely fix that quick. He's a guy who could be on Miami's radar.
Terrance Taylor, out of Michigan, is the only other lineman that I could see possibly playing the nose. He weighs in at 308 pounds according to most reports. And he hold his ground well. But he doesn't necessarily have the ideal size Bill Parcells usually looks for in a nose tackle. However, should he fall into the 3rd or 4th round, Taylor could very much be a possible selection by the Dolphins.
I'd love for the Dolphins to pass on all of the free agents and simply draft Ron Brace with their 1st 2nd round pick. But the Dolphins could very well decide to hold off a year on taking a nose tackle. It depends on how much importance this regime is placing on finding Jason Ferguson's future replacement. But man, Brace would look damn good in aqua next year.