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2010 Training Camp Primer: A defensive line in flux

I'm officially back from vacation and it's time to move full speed ahead towards 2010 training camp. The first practice is scheduled for Friday at 2 pm. Between now and then, the Dolphins have some work to do - they still have their top two draft picks to sign. I'd be surprised if either was to miss any practice time. But it's getting late quickly.

Somewhat related, last week was an eventful week for the middle of July, wasn't it? Just when I thought mid July would be a good time to take a week off, wouldn't you know a potential starter suffers an injury that will cause him to miss the entire season. That's where we'll start.

Merling goes down
Though it's unclear if Phillip Merling suffered his injury participating in a team-sanctioned activity or not, we do know (via various media outlets) that Merling suffered a torn Achilles tendon last week that will sideline him for all of the 2010 season - the final straw of what has been a very rough offseason for Phillip.

While many Dolphin fans might not see Merling's loss as a major issue, it's never good when a player who was penciled in for now as a starter is lost for the season. Yes, Merling has underachieved through his first two seasons in the league. But now the Dolphins, who created the hole Merling was going to fill by moving Randy Starks to nose tackle, will have to find an alternative solution to their hole at defensive end.

Veteran added to compete with young and inexperienced
Replacing Merling as the starting defensive end opposite Kendall Langford in Miami's base defense will be one of the more important camp story lines beginning on Friday. Most fans instantly thought of first-round pick Jared Odrick upon learning of Merling's injury. But Odrick himself admits that it's going to take some time for him to adjust to playing in a 3-4 defense after spending his college days starring in Penn State's 4-3. Odrick isn't even signed yet and you have to imagine Odrick's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, will use this latest development as leverage.

Perhaps the in-house favorite to immediately replace Merling as a starter is Tony McDaniel. The 6'7, 305 pound veteran saw action in all 16 games last year in his first year with Miami and, more importantly, his first year in a 3-4 defense. With one year of experience in a similar defensive scheme to that of what Mike Nolan will run, Merling's misfortune might have just opened a door for McDaniel. After all, McDaniel only played roughly 50 fewer defensive snaps in 2009 than Merling.

But the Dolphins obviously weren't comfortable with any of their in-house options. If they were, they wouldn't have signed the 33-year old Marques Douglas to a two year, $2.5 million contract after reportedly working out "several players" last week. Douglas spent 2009 with the Jets, starting 12 games for Rex Ryan's team. Douglas has also played for Mike Nolan in the past and has extensive experience in a 3-4 defense.

The good news about this move - one man who watched Douglas play all season last year believes he still has something left to offer. Jets radio analyst Marty Lyons told the Miami Herald that Marques is "steady and will be there to shut down the run." The Herald also has a stat from ESPN stat guru K.C. Joyner that says Douglas had a 12.3% win percentage at the point off attack on runs in his direction last season. Merling's win percentage was just 6.8% last year.

Opportunities for two young guys
With injuries, opportunities arise. I'm sure many of you can think of instances when a player who was buried on the depth chart got an opportunity thanks to an injury to a starter and never looked back, thriving with his increased playing time. Starting Friday, there are two Dolphins who might have an opportunity to make a name for themselves and carve out increased roles in this defense.

Lionel Dotson was a 2008 seventh round pick but has managed to stick with the Dolphins for two seasons, seeing action four games in his career. In past training camps, his teammates have spoken highly of his ability to get to the quarterback as a 3-4 defensive end. But he hasn't stood out enough to earn much playing time. This season is probably Dotson's final chance to show something before the Dolphins cut ties with him and spend their time developing other defensive linemen.

One of those other linemen could be Ryan Baker. He's personally one of my favorite "sleepers" on this roster because of the flashes he showed during his very limited playing time last year. He was an undrafted free agent who seemingly came out of nowhere to earn a practice squad spot last year. Then Baker was activated in late November, making his NFL debut on November 29 against the Bills, registering a half sack when he and Jason Taylor converged on Ryan Fitzpatrick. What makes Baker so intriguing is that he is versatile enough to play any spot on the defensive line. Versatility is something this coaching staff puts extra emphasis on. If Baker can build on his strong OTA and mini-camp showings, he's going to earn a roster spot.

Final Thought
It's going to be interesting to see who begins camp on Friday working as the first team defensive end opposite of Kendall Langford. But keep in mind that whoever that is who starts off camp as a starter isn't necessarily going to be who ends camp as a starter. Last year it was Merling who began camp as a starter before Randy Starks won the job.

Still, it'll be fascinating to see who gets the nod. Will it be the rookie (assuming he gets signed in time)? Will it be the veteran who was just signed last week? Or will it be one of the guys who have worked all offseason long with Mike Nolan?