We have previously looked at the four offensive players that will be critical to the success of the Dolphins in 2017. It’s time to look at four defensive players. Last season, Miami made the playoffs after a long drought, but they did so with a bad defense. Miami was 30th in run defense allowing 140.4 yards per game. Only the 2-win 49ers and 1-win Browns were worse. Miami was mid-pack in pass defense, ranking 15th with 242.4 yards per game allowed. Miami was 18th in scoring defense, allowing 23.8 points per game. Of course, that stat was aided by playing bad offenses in 2016, such as the Rams, 49ers, Browns, and Ravens. In 2017, the Dolphins have 4 games against the top 3 scoring offenses from 2016 (Saints, Falcons, and Pats*2). They have 4 more games against top ten scoring offenses (Chargers, Raiders, Bills*2) and only have 4 games against teams ranked 17th or lower in scoring from 2016 (Buccaneers 18th, Broncos 22nd, and Jets*2, 30th). If Miami’s defense was getting skewered by lesser offenses, then how will they fare against better offenses?
Miami went into this offseason with two objectives: keeping their own and building up the defense. The draft was defense heavy, with only 2 offensive players taken and none before round 5. The Dolphins will lean on the rookies to help out. But for 2017, there are four veteran players that will need to step It up a notch so Miami can bee successful.
Branch was a 2nd round flop in Jacksonville and they let him leave in free agency. He signed a one-year deal in Miami and had his best career season. Having started only 12 career games in 4 years in Jacksonville, Branch started 11 for Miami. He was a half-sack shy of matching his season best 6.0 from 2013 and he had a career best 49 combined tackles. These numbers aren’t spectacular by any means however and they will be put into contrast with the contract that Miami signed him to.
Regardless of the numbers, the Dolphins signed Branch because they wanted him to return. And he will do so as the expected starter. However, the Dolphins will need more from him. Cameron Wake is a star pass rusher on the other side, but he cannot do it all. The Dolphins used their first round draft pick on pass rusher Charles Harris. Branch will need to step up his game to not only stay on the field, but keep opposing QBs under pressure. 5.5 sacks is not a bad total, but as a starter with a new contract, he will need to get more. He will also need to play better against the run. The Dolphins acquired run stuffing defensive end William Hayes from the Rams with
a coffeemaker and a stapler sixth round pick. If Harris proves he can be a pass rushing terror and Hayes stuffs the run well enough, snaps might go down for Branch.
The Dolphins have a Hall of Fame caliber defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh. His defensive tackle running mates have been much less so in the 2 seasons that Suh has been in Miami. The Dolphins spent a 2nd round pick on Jordan Phillips in 2015 hoping he could develop into a solid running mate for Suh. At 6’6", 335 lbs, and with enough athleticism to do a backflip, Phillips has all the tools to become a very disruptive defensive tackle. But his motor runs hot and cold. He can show up on the highlight reel with a powerful burst into the backfield. But then he can fail to show up and get washed down the line of scrimmage too easily for a player of his stature. The Dolphins apparently value defensive tackles that can penetrate more than players that just absorb blocks. Phillips can do that, but he just doesn’t show it often enough. The Dolphins had a solid tackle in Earl Mitchell to fill in last season, but now, it’s all on Phillips. The Dolphins drafted two late round tackles, but they appear to be just depth at this point. As mentioned, the run defense was awful last season and the Dolphins will look to Phillips to help shore that up. If he can, the Dolphins defense will vastly improve. If not, it could be more of the same.
The Dolphins linebacker unit has been barren for several years now. The Dolphins got rid of a solid LB duo in Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett for two free agent flops Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler. They were gone after 2 seasons. Koa Misi is a holdover from the 2010 draft, but he cannot stay healthy. They drafted Jelani Jenkins in 2013, but like Misi, couldn’t stay healthy. Everyone else on the depth chart was undrafted free agents. The Dolphins acquired Kiko Alonso in a trade with Philadelphia last offseason. He was a gem of a find for Miami as he solidified part of the LB unit. But the weaknesses were still evident.
The Dolphins added some toughness by signing former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons this offseason. His role is obvious: stop the run. Timmons is on the downside of his career and he is not a long term answer; the Dolphins drafted Raekwon McMillan for that. However, it will be on Timmons to show that toughness and prowess in helping Miami stop the run. His position has not yet been defined, as the coaches have not said where he’ll line up. But wherever he lines up, he will be expected to make sure Miami doesn’t give up so much ground on the ground.
The Dolphins have addressed every area every area of the defense this season. The expectation is for the run defense to greatly improve. However, the pass defense will need to improve as well, particularly if the run defense forces teams to pass more. The pass defense should see an immediate upgrade with the return of Reshad Jones. However, the Dolphins will be relying on sophomore cornerback Xavien Howard to become a top caliber cornerback to polish off the pass defense.
First of all, he needs to stay healthy. He missed significant time in camp and during the season due to injury. Secondly, the Dolphins are expecting him to become a long term starting option. Howard flashed the talent last season, and now it’s time to turn those flashes into consistent play. His development will be key because teams will target him over veteran Byron Maxwell. If he can step up his game, then teams will be forced to target two good corners.
The Dolphins defense was on the field for well over 1100 snaps last season and that is way too much. They have added piece after piece both in free agency and the draft to help the cause. The good news is the rookies can be brought along slowly and won’t be relied upon to immediately generate an impact. But that will only happen if the four players above can raise their level of play and have big impacts this season.