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How is the Dolphins defense developing?

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Miami Dolphins v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins are heading into their Week 17 contest against the New England Patriots with a 4-11 record after a season in which the team started a rebuild by completing a tear-down. The Dolphins defense has been stripped down to the bare bones, both by design in the offseason leading into 2019 and through injuries that have decimated the team - especially the secondary.

But, where are the highlights for the defense this year? Where are there players who have caught the coaches’ eyes and could become key pieces of the rebuild moving into 2020? Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and head coach Brian Flores discussed some of the growth among these key players this week, using the Patriots game to highlight the players.

Raekwon McMillan, linebacker

The first name Graham brought up in a player who landed on injured reserve this past week. McMillan, who missed his entire 2017 rookie season after sustaining an ACL tear in the preseason, has played in 13 games this year, recording 72 tackles on the season. He has taken a hold of the Dolphins’ middle linebacker position and, while Jerome Baker has worn the signal caller helmet all season, McMillan has been making sure players are lined up correctly as well as leading the charge into the hole to stop the run.

Graham’s thoughts on McMillan focused on the linebacker’s leadership in the locker room and on the field. “One of the players that stood out – and he didn’t even play last week – was Raekwon McMillan (and) his leadership,” Graham said. “I think he’s improved as a leader. Again, I think he had those leadership qualities before I ever met him but I think he’s improved there. “

McMillan has looked more comfortable this year, likely trusting his knee more as the injury fades further into the past. Hopefully he will be ready to resume this level of play when he comes back next season.

Christian Wilkins, defensive tackle

Miami’s first-round pick this year, Wilkins has been a solid member of the defense, playing better than some fans have given him credit for playing. He has developed into a solid factor in the middle of the line of scrimmage, and should continue to develop into his second season.

Graham stated, “I think in terms of some of the younger guys, Christian Wilkins in terms of how his play has improved over the year, and now we’re starting to see the fruits of his labor in terms of what he’s been working on in practice. That’s the thing that’s most telling for me.”

Graham added later about Wilkins, saying, “I’ve told you all every week that when you all ask me about him, what I say to him every day until he gets sick of it – since I’ve met him – is your hands have to improve, and his hands have improved – getting his hands in front of his eyes. Once you’re able to do that, you’re able to control the blocker. To me, that’s what you’re looking for in terms of block destruction upfront. You have to be able to control the blocker by getting your hands on him.”

Montre Hartage, safety

Hartage was signed as an undrafted free agent this spring and has bounced back and forth from the practice squad to the active roster this year. He has appeared in three games on the year, recording five tackles.

“When you talk about somebody like Montre (Hartage) – we’re going to need his best because of who we are going against in terms of New England and all of the guys they have – in terms of how his tackling has improved,” Graham explained. “Those are the things you start to feel happy for all of those guys because they’ve worked so hard at it, and seeing how they work at it.”

Vince Biegel, linebacker

Biegel has been impressive for Miami this year, and will clearly continue with the team in 2020. After being the throw-in player for the Dolphins in the trade of Kiko Alonso to the New Orleans Saints, Biegel has played in all 15 games so far this season, recording 59 tackles with 2.5 sacks, and one interception.

“I think Vince’s athletic ability, his work ethic – I knew him a little bit from when I was with Green Bay,” Graham stated. “I think that his improvement over the year has been good. What he’s going to be able to do this week, we’re going to need his length, because they have good guys on the edge there whether it’s the tackles or the tight ends. We’re going to need his physicality in the run game because (Sony) Michel is one of the best backs in the league.”

“He’s tough, he’s smart, he works hard and football is important to him,” Flores said of Biegel. “He just wants to improve and get better on a daily basis. He does everything that he can from a preparation standpoint, from a meeting standpoint, from a film study standpoint, to try to become the best player he can be. That’s really all you can ask from any player.”

Zach Sieler, defensive tackle

Miami claimed Sieler off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens on December 5 and he was on the field three days later for the Dolphins. He has now played in two games, with eight tackles, one sack, and two passes defensed, with seven tackles, the sack, and both passes defensed coming in last week’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

“The thing with him – and you saw it on the tape – is he plays with his hands in front of his eyes,” Graham said, tying back to his discussion of Wilkins. “I know it’s small stuff and this is coach speak, but this is how I talk. I’ll be talking like this at Christmas with my brother. It’s the same thing. Hands in front of your eyes. I keep it simple. That’s what he does. Because he was able to get his hands on the blocker and use his length, he was able to make plays. And especially this time of year – December, when you’re months away from training camp – who is working on their fundamentals? Who is working on their pad level, hands in front of their eyes? That’s where you start to see the play in terms of guys getting better as the year progresses. It’s the guys that are able to focus on the fundamentals. That’s why we preach it so much. That’s why we focus on it every day.”

“He plays hard,” Flores added. “He plays with good technique. He tackles well. He made some big tackles for us in the game. I’d say in overtime, they did a good job of blocking. There was some space there for (Joe) Mixon and if Zach doesn’t make that play, we probably don’t win the game to be honest with you. I thought he played well. He had production in a lot of areas – breakups, tackles, he had a sack early. I thought he played a really good game.”

Tae Hayes, cornerback

The Dolphins claimed Hayes off waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars on December 13, then, after he was inactive in Week 15, he made his NFL debut on Week 16. He tallied three tackles and a pass defensed against the Bengals.

“The effort, the ability to tackle,” Graham said when asked about what he has seen from Hayes. “For a guy that hasn’t been here for a long time – just able to go out there and execute the game plan, which was key. It was good, it was good. Obviously we’ve got a lot more to go. We’ve got a big challenge this week, a big challenge this week based on the people, based on the scheme, based on everything. So we’re going to have to tackle, we’re going to have to be able to play our leverage in coverage and compete on special teams and hopefully we’ll give ourselves a chance for Sunday.”

Calvin Munson, linebacker

Munson was poached off the Patriots’ practice squad on December 18, then had him on the field on December 22 against the Bengals. He recorded five tackles in the game.

“Calvin Munson, I hate to do it to you guys but he’s smart, tough, disciplined, he tackled and he competed on special teams,” Graham said. “That’s what I saw. We’re going to need that this week because you’re dealing with one of the best special teams units in the league with the Patriots. They are disciplined, they attack your weaknesses, your strengths. They do a good job there. We’re going to need his tackling in the run game, his block destruction in the run game, his coverage. Tom (Brady) is one of the best at working guys, zone defenders, man defenders – so it’s a big challenge. Hopefully all of that stuff shows up again on Sunday.”

Patrick Graham, defensive coordinator

“I’ll tell you this – this is what I do in terms of coaching, being a father, being a husband – I just try to get better every day,” Graham replied when asked to take a look at his own development this year. “I’m never satisfied. Thankfully I have people around me that challenge me to get better every day, so there is a laundry list of stuff. But right now, I’m trying to be better at preparing for New England, to take care of the run game, to see if we can help stop (Sony) Michel, to see if we can affect Tom (Brady) in the passing game, to see if we can limit Julian (Edelman) in the passing game and the other weapons they have. My whole goal is to always get better every day at everything I do. I learned that a long time ago and that’s helped me get to where I’m at now. I can’t think too far back, ahead, or whatever it is; but I try to get better every day, I can promise you that. I try. Whether it happens or not, I do try.”

He continued looking at things he has done this year to improve, “I throw work at it, effort at it. I just watch more tape, talk to more people, get insight, listen. Let’s start there. I listen. I listen, and it was not always the case like that when I was younger as a coach. I can tell you that. I listen. I’ve learned that you learn a lot more by listening as opposed to waiting to talk. I used to be one of those guys. I used to wait to talk all the time. Now I listen, even if it’s uncomfortable. That’s the number one that has changed in my life – not necessarily this year, but over the last few years – is I’ve learned to listen more as opposed to wait to talk, so I’ve been able to grow and that helps me. Especially right now, going through this year and working through it. Learning how to listen.”