Miami Dolphins OTA Primer: Defensive Positional Battles

Joel Auerbach

Get ready for Dolphins OTAs with part two of my position battle breakdowns! This time I take a look at the defensive side of the ball, see who is in line to earn a starting position and how I predict it'll turn out this summer.

This is part two of my breakdown of the Miami Dolphins' positional battles. The defense is stacked with opportunities for players to win starting spots and interesting scenarios, a few of which I already highlighted in an earlier article (which you can read here).

Also, be sure to read my OTA primer on the offensive position battles. As you will see, I chose a bit of a different format for the defensive side of the ball.

 

Defense:

Cornerbacks:

 

The starting cornerback position opposite of Pro Bowler Brent Grimes is wide open (and a bit uncertain). The participants in the battle for the starting boundary position on the right side of the defense are:

 

  • Jamar Taylor, a 2013 second round pick who played sparingly in his rookie season due to a nagging groin injury. Taylor was highly regarded in his draft class and is reportedly has high expectations from the Dolphins organization. Taylor allowed every ball thrown his way to be completed in his rookie season, but a strong showing throughout OTAs and training camp could earn him the nod to start. If Taylor doesn’t earn the starting spot we can expect to see him as the nickel cornerback.

 

  • Will Davis, a 2013 third round pick who played also played sparingly in his rookie season, due to injury but mostly lack of strength, lack of discipline in coverage and simply not being better than Nolan Carroll or Jimmy Wilson. Davis experienced only two passes thrown his way fall incomplete in his very limited time on the field. However, Davis' ball-hawking skills flashed throughout training camp and the preseason in 2013. Davis could very well steal this position in a defense that preaches turnovers, but he will need to prove he can play more consistently and that he has built up the strength to not get pushed around by receivers.

 

  • Cortland Finnegan, a one time Pro Bowl cornerback who experienced a injury-laced fall from grace after signing a big free agent contract with the St. Louis Rams. Finnegan was cut this offseason because his play didn’t match his salary, but the Dolphins were not deterred from giving Finnegan, once regarded as one of the dirtiest players in the NFL, a two year, $11 million deal. Finnegan has a lot to prove, but he says his injuries are behind him and he is ready to return to his former Pro Bowl form. We'll see throughout the summer, but my bet is Finnegan is going to give the rookies a run for their money and will likely win this job.

 

Prediction: Finnegan will win the boundary position, but it will be interesting to see who mans the nickel position. Taylor, Davis and Finnegan can all play the slot, and it is possible that Finnegan would move over and cover the slot receiver, putting Taylor or Davis in the boundary spot. Jimmy Wilson can also play the nickel in the extremely unfortunate case that two of the three aforementioned frontrunners don’t pan out.

 

Free Safety:

 

Frontrunner: Louis Delmas. It seems that this South Florida native will own the starting free safety position, if he can stay healthy. That has been this former second round pick's dilemma throughout his NFL career, but Delmas played a full 16-game season in 2013 and the Dolphins are hoping the injury bug is behind him.

 

Challenger: Jimmy Wilson. Wilson is a dark horse candidate for the free safety spot. After yet another position switch, Wilson is back to safety. Wilson will need to prove he's comfortable at the new(ish) position, but I predict Wilson will make a few plays in training camp that could earn him some time with the first unit.

 

Prediction: Delmas will likely start because his skill set and size fits better into what the Dolphins want to do with their safeties, but Wilson will prove to be a solid backup free safety or cornerback if pressed into service.

 

Strong Safety:

 

This spot is manned by Reshad Jones and he presently has no challenger. If you are looking for an enticing battle, keep moving. Actually, this spot's lack of depth is a bit alarming with the only back-ups being Jordan Kovacs, a special teamer, and Michael Thomas, the hero of last season who provided the highest point in a season that dropped like a roller coaster.

 

Weakside Linebacker:

 

This is an interesting battle to watch as the incumbent starter, Philip Wheeler, played poorly last season after receiving a large free agent contract so his spot is up for grabs. The contestants in the competition for WLB, which requires athleticism to play in space, are:

 

  • Philip Wheeler, one of many disappointing moves made by former Jeff Ireland in a his final season calling the shots in Miami. Wheeler led the Dolphins in tackles in 2013 but most of them came after a large chunk of real estate had been collected by the opposition. Wheeler must improve in all facets of his game to keep his position and it is very possible that Wheeler will be kicked over to the strongside linebacker spot if he loses the WLB competition (or before a competition even takes place as Wheeler is best suited at SLB).

 

  • Jelani Jenkins, a 2013 fourth round pick who began to steal snaps from Wheeler towards the end of the season. Jenkins main problem in his rookie season, like other 2013 rookies, was his lack of ideal strength, in Jenkins' case to deal with NFL offensive lineman. Jenkins was the Dolphins best coverage linebacker by the end of 2013, but being washed away by blockers was a consistent problem for him. A full offseason in the Dolphins program should enable Jenkins to seriously contend for the starting WLB position.

 

  • Jordan Tripp, a 2014 fifth round pick from Montana. Tripp is known for his aggressive style and play-making ability, but he needs to become more discipline and technically sound to be anything more than a special teams player right now. Strength is also an issue with Tripp, who feasted on lesser talent at a smaller school. Tripp did only 22 reps of 225 at the combine while Jenkins, who struggled with strength issues in his rookie year, did 27.

 

Prediction: Jenkins wins the job in my bold projection of the week. I just can’t see how you can put Wheeler back out there at WLB when he is so obviously not suited to play the position. Also watch for Dion Jordan as a dark horse in this competition. You can read more about that in the link at the top of this article.

 

 

Middle Linebacker:

 

Right now it seems cut and dry that Dannell Ellerbe, who was inconsistent last year in his first season the Dolphins' defensive signal caller, will start at this position, but Tripp was receiving work at MLB during rookie camp. Tripp would really struggle at MLB with his strength issues, but a linebacker needs to be groomed at this position in case Ellerbe either gets hurt or continues to struggle. Koa Misi is also rumored to be in the mix to switch to MLB, but the same person who spewed that rumor said that Misi was unwilling to commit to the position change.

 

Strongside Linebacker:

 

There isn’t much of a competition here unless Wheeler is added to the mix. As of now it's Koa Misi's job and he has no challengers. This isn’t good as Misi's play was unspectacularly average in 2013 and competition always elevates the play of those ready to rise to the challenge (if they aren't you don’t want them on your team anyway).

 

Prediction: If Wheeler is added to the mix then this suddenly becomes a very intriguing competition to watch, but as it stands now Misi has a clear path to retaining his position, unless of course that dark horse Dion Jordan comes along….

 

Defensive End:

 

This contest will be between Olivier Vernon and Dion Jordan for the starting spot opposite of Cam Wake on the right side of the defensive line. This one is so fascinating because of the projection of what will happen to Jordan if he doesn’t win the starting spot. Does he then fall into a Von Miller-like role in which he is a linebacker during the first two downs then switches to defensive end to rush the passer on third down in Miami's speed package? Having a plethora of pass rushers is never a problem, Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle just has to be creative enough to use them correctly.

 

Prediction: Vernon will win the job and force the hand of coaches to use Jordan in a creative way to get him on the field.

 

Defensive Tackle:

 

This competition takes place between two of the better players on Miami's roster, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick. Earl Mitchell was signed to replace Paul Soliai as the run stopper in the middle of the line so he will play in the base defense most of the time. Both Starks and Odrick play the 3-technique on the defensive line and play it well, providing inside disruption and hassling opposing guards. There will be a rotation, but seeing who gets the nod to start, especially with this being a contract year for Odrick.

 

Be sure to keep an eye on undrafted free agent Anthony Johnson from LSU. Johnson was considered a fourth round prospect by some but went undrafted due to off the field troubles. Johnson could not only demand a spot on this team but also a spot in the defensive tackle rotation.

 

Also, don’t be surprised to see AJ Francis or Isaac Aaitui provide competition for Mitchell at the nose guard spot. I don’t see either overtaking him, but both are solid prospects who will warrant playing time.

 

Prediction: Mitchell will start at the nose guard and Odrick will start at the 3-technique, but there will be a deep rotation which will keep this defensive line fresh throughout games.

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