As the article name implies, we'll be taking a look at our roster position-group by position-group to see how they've done so far this year. Instead of starting with any positions that would be controversial, I figured that after the sad news of the past few days, I'd start us off with a position group that is indisputably doing very well. Without further ado, I present the Dolphins defensive tackle rotation, which features 3 players ranked in the top 20 of their position by Pro Football Focus (PFF).
Speaking of which, the PFF Grading system is fully explained here, but in short, they have analysts watch every player every play of each game and assign them a grade. Grades are standardized so a grade of 0 translates to average, with any positive grades meaning above average, and any negative grades meaning below average.
Traditional Stats: 21 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 4 terrible rookie hair-dyeing attempts.
Snaps per game/Percentage of snaps: 39.9 snaps/game; 52.4% (279 of 532 snaps in games he didn't miss)
PFF Ranking: #19 out of 67 tackles who play at least 25% of their team's defensive snaps
PFF Grades Summary:
Contract Status: Free Agent in 2014
Background - Soliai was drafted in the fourth round of the 2007 draft by the Miami Dolphins. The scouting report on him was that he was a guy with great physical talent but had inconsistent effort. He spent 3 seasons as primarily a backup before a surprise retirement at nose tackle and an injury to rookie Jared Odrick forced him into action as a full-season starter in 2010. He was franchise tagged for 2011 before signing a team-friendly 2 year deal in 2012. Throughout his tenure with the Dolphins, Soliai has been a consistent run-stopper who has sometimes flashed pass-rush ability. He's primarily been a 2-down player in our 4-3 defense, but he has seen more time this year rushing the passer than last year.
2013 Season summary - As shown in the PFF grading, Soliai has been a remarkably consistent player, particularly against the run, where he's ranked as the 11th best defensive tackle in the NFL against the run. However, one thing that stands out is Soliai's poor grade in 1 game, the one against the Patriots. Late in the fourth quarter, he was one of our defensive linemen who were getting blown back as the Patriots ran the ball to close out the game (Mike Sherman should take notes...) Prior to that game, he was ranked 11th overall and top-10 against the run. Soliai is a respectable #19 rushing the passer this year after seeing limited snaps last year on passing downs, with 6 QB hurries, 1 QB hit, and 1 QB sack this year.
Traditional Stats: 25 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 middle finger flashed at teammates on the sidelines.
PFF Ranking: #6 out of 67 tackles who play at least 25% of their team's defensive snaps
Snaps per game/Percentage of snaps: 47.5 snaps/game; 62.8% (380 out of 605 - hasn't missed a game)
PFF Grades Summary:
Background - Starks was a former 3rd round 2004 draft pick of the Tennessee Titans who was signed as a free agent in 2008 by the Miami Dolphins. He's been extremely versatile, capable of playing as a 3-4 DE or 4-3 DT at very high levels. He's been very durable and has never missed a game in his 5.5 seasons with the Dolphins. He was franchise tagged for this season. Throughout his tenure with the Dolphins, Starks has been a good run-stopper and a force as a pass-rusher, hence him earning the franchise tag. He's a 3-down player in our 4-3 defense, but he has seen his snap burden reduced this year due to the emergence of Jared Odrick as a full-time defensive tackle.
2013 Season summary - As shown in the PFF grading, Starks has had a bit of an inconsistent 2013 season but has usually been good with a few elite performances. He's ranked as the 8th best defensive tackle against the run AND as the 6th best defensive tackle at rushing the passer this year, with 20 QB hurries, 6 QB hits, and 3 QB sacks, demonstrating why he is a 3-down player and starter. Starks' effectiveness noticeably went down in week 3 (the game that Soliai missed due to injury) and week 4 (the game that Soliai played limited snaps after coming back from injury). Starks also had a tremendously good start to his 2012 season before fading down the stretch with a few poor performances in the final few games. Because Starks has been such as durable player, he's played in 148 games in his NFL career, and at age 29, perhaps he's begun to wear down a bit. In interviews, he has admitted to feeling fresher later in games due to him playing fewer snaps per game this year (only 63% of snaps, down from over 72% last year). It'll be worth watching whether Starks' limited snaps help him perform better in the final 8 games this season.
Traditional Stats: 23 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 2 Pee-Wee dance celebrations over a crumpled Tom Brady
PFF Ranking: #11 out of 67 tackles who play at least 25% of their team's defensive snaps
Snaps per game/Percentage of snaps: 54.1 snaps per game; (71.5%, 433 of 605 - missed no games)
PFF Grades Summary:
Contract Status: Free Agent in 2015
Background - Odrick was drafted by the Dolphins in 2010 late in the first round after playing 4-3 DT at Penn State. He missed his rookie year due to a foot injury landing him on IR. As a sophomore, he played 3-4 DE as a backup, and he played well enough that the team didn't try to keep Kendall Langford, who now plays for the Rams, in free agency. As a third year player, Odrick was asked to play as a starting 4-3 DE with some time spent as a 4-3 DT on passing downs, and in that role, he was solid but unspectacular against the run and inconsistent rushing the passer. This year is the first time he's been able to play his college position (4-3 DT) full time, and he has thrived. He's been a 3-down player in our 4-3 defense, and he started a few games early in the season before Starks re-gained the starting job.
2013 Season summary - As shown in the PFF grading, Odrick has been a consistent player despite having a big lead over his fellow DTs in snaps (over 70% of defensive snaps per game). Against the run, he's ranked as the 31st best defensive tackle in the NFL, mainly due to poor games against the rushing attacks of Atlanta and New England. While Odrick is still above-average against the run, Starks is elite against the run, and that's likely one reason why Starks regained his starting job a few games into the season. However, Odrick is only 1 spot behind Starks at #7 in terms of rushing the passer this year, with 15 QB hurries, 9 QB hits, and 4 QB sacks, which is why he's ranked so highly despite being only "above average" instead of "great" against the run.
Background - Aaitui is one of the players that Dolphins fans were introduced to in HBO's Hard Knocks. He was among the final Dolphins players cut and was a favorite of defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers, who wanted him back on the practice squad. However, he was claimed off waivers by the Jets and later suffered an ACL injury in practice. The Jets waived him using a provision in his contract that stipulated that any injury to that particular knee voided his contract due to a history of injury in that knee. He rehabbed his way back from that injury and was recently signed by the Dolphins after spending some time with the Saints. He's established himself as our #4 DT. He's only played 36 snaps, so the sample size is too small to draw any conclusions, but it's worth watching to see if his role increases in the future.
One final note: One way to get an idea of how good our defensive tackles have been is to remember how before the season began, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle revealed a plan to utilize pass rush packages featuring 3 or even 4 defensive ends instead of the traditional 2 defensive ends/2 defensive tackles group as the 4 down-linemen. After heavily using that "speed package" against the Browns, we haven't seen those packages as much recently. One likely explanation is how productive our defensive tackles have been rushing the passer from the interior. When you have guys like Odrick and Starks wrecking havoc, it makes sense to keep them on the field as much as possible since they're capable of holding their own against the run and creating pressure in the interior. However, because we're not using our "Speed" package anymore, that leaves fewer defensive end snaps to go around, which is something we'll discuss in my future writeup of our DEs.