Miami Dolphins Training Camp Primer: How will the defensive line shape up?

So far we've looked at the receiver position and the tight end position in our 2009 training camp primers.  Today we'll flip to the defensive side of the ball for the first time and focus our attention on the defensive line.

Despite the large number of defensive linemen currently on the roster and the mix of veterans and rookies that make up the defensive line at the moment, I think that how the position will shape up entering the regular season is as cut and dry as any position on the team.  There probably won't be too many surprises when all is said and done.

THE QUICK BREAKDOWN

Virtual locks to make the roster: Kendall Langford, Phillip Merling, Jason Ferguson
Likely to make roster: Randy Starks, Paul Soliai
On the bubble: Tony McDaniel, Lionel Dotson, Rodrique Wright
Long shots: Ryan Baker, Joe Cohen, Louis Ellis

THE QUESTIONS

Much of the attention on the Dolphins' defensive line during camp will be focused on two players.  One is second-year defensive end Phillip Merling.  Merling will be asked to replace Vonnie Holliday in the starting lineup at defensive end opposite fellow second-year end Kendall Langford.  Merling showed some flashes last year as the top backup at defensive end.  But consistency was reportedly the main issue with him.  In particular, he didn't practice as well as he played - and that explain why he disappeared at times on gameday.  Will Merling effectively take the next step and up his performance to a new level as he replaces the effective veteran as a starter?

The other player who will have the heat on him is nose tackle Paul Soliai.  We all know that the 3-4 defense doesn't work without effective play from the nose.  Jason Ferguson is still a very good player and does his job well.  But he's got a lot of mileage on his body.  He'll need to be rested more in 2009.  There's also always a higher risk of injury with an aging defensive lineman.  Can Soliai step up this year and prove he's a capable alternative to Ferguson at the nose?

THE NUMBERS GAME

Last year, the Dolphins carried eight defensive linemen into the regular season.  Six of them were defensive ends and two were nose tackles.  I'd expect a similar breakdown this year once the final 53-man roster is set.  Like I said above, Langford, Merling, and Ferguson are locks.  All three are penciled in to be starters.  Merling could play his way out of a starting role with a bad camp.  But the other two are probably locked in to their starting roles.

This leaves potentially five roster spots for reserves.  At least one will go to a nose tackle.  Tony McDaniel, who the Dolphins acquired from the Jaguars in a trade this past offseason, could potentially play both nose tackle and defensive end.  His versatility could mean the Dolphins aren't necessarily locked into the previously described 6:2 defensive end to nose tackle ratio.

Also note that the Dolphins tended to dress six defensive linemen on gameday and leave two inactive.  Four of the active defensive linemen were ends and two were nose tackles.  Again, McDaniel's potential versatility could make their 45-man gameday roster more flexible if Tony can impress the coaches and make the team.

WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?

Everything above basically means that we have eight players fighting for just five roster spots.  But like I said at the beginning, I don't expect too many surprises from this unit in terms of which five reserves make the roster and which three fall short.  Perhaps Joe Cohen or Louis Ellis could surprise and win the backup nose tackle job.  But more realistically, those two young potential nose tackles could be battling each other for one practice squad spot.

The interesting storyline to watch in terms of the five reserve linemen will be how they position themselves within the defensive line rotation.  With Phillip Merling moving from top reserve linemen to starter, the role of top reserve will be open to battle.  Randy Starks, Tony McDaniel, and Lionel Dotson will likely all be fighting it out.

Rodrique Wright is entering what is likely his final chance to prove his worth to this regime once camp begins.  He spent the 2008 season on the 53-man roster but was inactive for all 16 regular season games. As it stands now, he's probably the eighth defensive linemen on the depth chart.  But we know that this regime is not afraid to constantly turn over the bottom portion of the roster - meaning Wright's time in Miami could definitely be winding down.

THE KEY BATTLE

I quickly touched on it above, but I wanted to focus on it here.  I think the key battle among defensive linemen will be the battle to take Merling's old role as the top reserve at end.  Randy Starks probably enters camp as the favorite.  He received a lot of playing time off the bench himself last season and is a very versatile player.  He could line up at defensive end or defensive tackle depending on if the Dolphins use three or four down linemen.  He even played a little nose last season.

Lionel Dotson will certainly be in the mix for this role as well.  He spent all of his rookie season last year on the 53-man roster, but was inactive for 14 of the team's 16 regular season games.  However, it's believed that the coaching staff really likes this kid.  It's also been reported that some of Miami's offensive linemen that had to face Dotson in practice day in and day out last year said he had the best pass-rushing moves among all of the defensive ends.

Tony McDaniel will the the third player in the battle to be the primary backup at defensive end.  He's a massive man - measuring in at 6'7, 305 pounds.  He's got long arms and the kind of frame that is well suited for the defensive end position in a 3-4.  But he'll also get some looks at nose tackle as well.  He's also converting from spending most of his time in a 4-3 defense, so he'll need time to adapt.  But certainly don't count him out.  He'll be in line for some role within Miami's rotation.

THE PREDICTION

Merling, Langford, and Ferguson are all safe.  Despite his potential legal trouble, Starks is probably safe as well.  Soliai needs to show improved conditioning - but it seems like he is probably going to make the team.  I'd also say both Dotson and McDaniel will make the roster, though I'm not sure who will be ahead of the other.  Right now, Wright probably eeks out that final roster spot along the defensive front.  But like I said, it wouldn't be surprising if the eighth defensive linemen heading into the regular season isn't even on the team yet.

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