This post is part of a series of posts that will break down and evaluate the Miami Dolphins position by position. If you haven't read up on how players are being classified (the number and letter that follow each player's name), you can read this post explaining the evaluation system. You can also read the previous posts in this series by clicking here.
It's time to begin our evaluation of the defense - a unit that improved dramatically in 2010 from 2009. Mike Nolan helped to turn this defense into the sixth ranked defense in the league. And it was the play of the Dolphins defensive line that really led the charge and made the greatest improvement over a year ago. It also might be the deepest unit on the entire roster.
So let's take a look...
Kendall Langford (2-C). This former third round pick had shown flashes in each of his first two seasons since being drafted in 2008, winning a starting spot from day one. But in 2010, Langford took the next step towards becoming one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league. Having just turned 25 years old, Langford should now be entering the prime of his career - with lots of good football ahead.
Randy Starks (2-B). Starks had an outstanding season in 2009 but was then asked to shift inside to NT last offseason. A season-ending injury to changed those plans. Despite playing at a slightly higher weight, Starks was effective at end once again in 2010 - though he probably wasn't as good as he was in '09. Assuming Starks goes back to focusing just on the DE position this year, I expect the big man and 2010 Pro Bowler to continue playing outstanding football as he enters the final two years of his current contract.
Tony McDaniel (2-B). Having just turned 26 years old, McDaniel is coming off of an impressive season as a key cog to Miami's defensive line rotation. He saw more playing time than most probably expected last year and he probably opened some eyes around the league. The question now is if he can live with being a key role player or if he wants to search for a starting role with another team.
Jared Odrick (3-D). No, we didn't get to see much of Odrick. But the fact remains that the Dolphins 2010 first round pick won a starting job out of camp and did not look in over his head during his brief stint before going down with a season-ending injury. Jared should be 100% for training camp and his return is like adding an extra first round pick in 2011.
Phillip Merling (3-E). Merling will be 26 in April and is coming off of a season in which he only played in five games due to injury. But Merling had played in all 32 games during his first two seasons. He's entering a crucial season in 2011. He'll be a free agent in 2012 and has been somewhat disappointing despite flashing at times throughout his three seasons in Miami.
Paul Soliai (2-B). As we've all discussed at length the past few weeks, Soliai's impressive 2010 turnaround really keyed Miami's defensive revival. The Dolphins put a lot of pressure on the big man after Jason Ferguson retired and Randy Starks shifted back to defensive end. Soliai responded far better than anyone could have expected. But now the question - will he remain as committed and work as hard after he gets his big pay day?
Ryan Baker (3-E). I probably like Baker more than most do. But I think the now 26 year old is the kind of player good teams have filling out the bottom of their rosters. His versatility to play both inside or outside on Miami's defensive line depending on the front Nolan goes with and his non-stop motor make Baker a guy who I can see as a valuable piece moving forward. But he will have to fight to keep his roster spot this season as this front office "turns over every rock."
Chris Baker (4-F). The big man out of Hampton was active for one game last year. He was a kid who some thought had a lot of upside coming out of school. But he's bounced around and is nothing more than roster filler.
Robert Rose (4-F). Rose spent part of 2010 on the team's practice squad after being released by the Seahawks in September. He signed a reserve/future contract in January after the season ended, essentially meaning he'll at least be with the team and take part in their training program - that is, if the team's offseason program ever actually begins in 2011.
Contract situations: Obviously the big story here revolves around two of Miami's key free agents - Paul Soliai and Tony McDaniel. Both are unrestricted free agents this offseason - whenever a new CBA is reached. It's also worth noting that both Kendall Langford and Phillip Merling are free agents following the 2011 season.
Outlook: I really believe the Dolphins must re-sign Soliai. He plays the most difficult position to teach on the defensive side of the ball and seemed to finally start "getting it" last season. I also do not believe his 2010 season was an anomaly. I see it as a sign of things to come. As far as the rest of the defensive line, the only question is really if McDaniel returns. If he does, this unit is pretty much set. If he doesn't, then the Dolphins could be in the market for a role player to fill his shoes.