The Miami Dolphins signed the biggest free agent on the market in 2015, adding defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to the roster. In signing Suh to a six-year, $114-million contract, Miami suddenly had one of the top defensive linemen in the game, and they had a player who could dominate the middle of the line of scrimmage at any time. Three years later, however, the Dolphins released Suh, eating $9.1 million in dead money while receiving $17 million in salary cap space - after June 1.
The Dolphins freed up a lot of salary cap space by releasing Suh, space they will use to sign their 2018 draft picks as well as keep emergency money for in season additions. They also opened a large hole on the defensive line that has to be filled. The Dolphins will look to Jordan Phillips, Davon Godchaux, Vincent Taylor, Akeem Spence, Gabe Wright, Jamiyus Pittman, and Anthony Moten to come up with the fill for that hole.
“We’ll see,” Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said of replacing Suh. “Obviously, I have a long history with Suh. He’s a good player and (an) organization has to make decisions on certain things. It’s always hard to move on from guys and obviously, on the field and guys you have relationships with; but that’s part of the business, so we’re prepared to do that. I’m excited about that room. We’ve got some young players in there with Jordan (Phillips) and Davon (Godchaux) that we’re expecting to make leaps from. Bringing in Akeem (Spence) was a nice piece for us. We feel, especially with his history with (Defensive Line Coach) Kris (Kocurek) … I’ve worked with Kris for a long time. I feel pretty strongly about his influence in that room and what he’s going to bring to the table.”
After not drafting a defensive tackle this year, the Dolphins added Pittman and Moten as undrafted free agents, hoping that at least one of them will be able to step up and become a depth option for the team. The team has regularly rotated defensive linemen - other than Suh - throughout games over the past few years, and will likely look to do that again this year. Phillips appears to be the number one player, but Spence, Godchaux, Taylor, Wright, and the two undrafted rookies all could factor into the playing time. Miami could also look to use defensive end William Hayes in a defensive tackle role more this season.
“Really, it’s going to be an open competition,” Burke said of the playing time in the middle of the defensive line. “In an ideal world, we’d play four tackles and rotate them through. The way we want to play and the style that we want to play, we want to keep them fresh and roll those guys. We’re asking guys to play full speed and chase the ball and attack and do those things. It’s hard to do that if you’re asking them to play 80 snaps or 60 snaps or whatever it is. So ideally, we’ll have four guys that we’ll feel comfortable rolling through there and all getting equal reps.”
He continued, stating, “Whoever earns the starting spots, earns the starting spots; but our two backup tackles are going to play football for us. Vincent (Taylor) played some football for us last year. Gabe Wright got in at the end of the year. We’ve got some guys we’ve added to the mix and like I said, it’ll be a good competition. Again, it’s early. It’s four weeks or whatever it’s been; but it’s been a good work ethic. Again, Kris has done a good job of kind of connecting with those guys and getting things started. I’m looking forward to that room. I think it’s going to be a surprise for people.”
Suh finished the 2017 season playing 83.8 percent of the defensive snaps for the Dolphins, fourth behind just Xavien Howard (97.2), Reshad Jones (97.1), and Kiko Alonso (96.4). He was second in 2016 at 84.6 percent (Alonso - 91.1), and he was second in 2015 at 85.2 (Jones - 97.0). Suh never came out of football games, and he ate up a lot of snaps in the defensive interior. The Dolphins are not looking for one player to fill Suh’s role. “It’s obviously a valuable piece to have – a guy that can perform at a high level and take those reps, that’s rare,” Burke said of Suh’s snap counts over his three seasons in Miami. “Obviously those are snaps that we have to replace and we think we have a pretty good plan moving forward to do that.”
The biggest concern for the Dolphins may be losing Suh’s ability to clog up the middle of the line of scrimmage, closing running holes. However, the team was not dominating against the run with Suh. They finished the 2017 season 19th in the league in rushing yards allowed, 15th in yards per attempt average allowed, and seventh in rushing touchdowns allowed. Could the Dolphins have an addition by subtraction situation, with fresher players rotating into the game throughout the contest, with no single player reaching Suh’s production, but the combined group able to improve the defense?
The Dolphins hope so. It is their only way of replacing Suh.