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How Will Holdover Defenders Fit Into New Scheme?

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Miami Dolphins v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

As the Miami Dolphins approach the annual college draft, and eventually, the Summer training camp season and accompanying waiver wire scramble, we can now begin to conjecture how some of the defensive players still remaining on the roster might be used in the various schemes and defensive fronts that the team reportedly plans to use going forward.

Contrary to popular belief, head coach Brian Flores’ old team, the New England Patriots, only used a base 3-4 alignment a relatively small percentage of the time in recent seasons, often opting for a 4-2-5 or 3-2-6 personnel grouping much of the time, to counter the wave of quick hitting, short passing offenses that has sprouted up across the league the past few years. If we assume that the Dolphins plan on adopting a similar approach with Miami’s defense, this sets up the same ‘good news/bad news’ equation that every team faces when going with larger, heavier down linemen and taller, rangier outside pass rushers.

As many of our readers know, I’ve always been a staunch supporter of the base 4-3 defense. Why? Because it’s the simplest and easiest to employ, and it’s generally much easier to plug and play younger, less experienced guys, including late round draft picks and undrafted free agents. Before they invested four first round draft picks in what is arguably the finest linebacking unit in the NFL (they now run a 3-4), the Chicago Bears were known for having a stingy 4-3 defense that routinely saw second and third string players step in, with hardly a drop off in efficiency. The other reason for my having been a proponent of the 4-3 is because I watched the Dolphins squander Dan Marino’s best years without ever really being able to stop opposing teams, when they ran a horrible version of the 3-4 in the mid to late 1980’s. When legendary defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger left the Dolphins after the 1983 season, any real chance of Miami being able to parlay Marino’s passing prowess into a championship went with him.

As the Dolphins’ AFC East counterparts, the Jets and Bills have rightly figured out, if you’re going to go with a base 3-4, you had better make sure you have the players to make it work. Just as their inability to field a competent 3-4 unit during much of the 80’s led to long stretches of mediocrity, Miami’s stubborn insistence on sticking with a finesse based, zone blocking offensive style has doomed them in recent years, having to go up against the physical defensive fronts of the Jets, Bills and Patriots.

So, what kinds of physical attributes are required for a base 3-4 defense, and do the Dolphins currently have any of those guys on the team? NFL teams will often take guys who were DT’s in college and transition them out to 3-4 defensive ends in the pros, and take players who were defensive ends in college and project them out to outside linebacker in the NFL. The Dolphins did this in 2010, with their first two draft picks, Jared Odrick and Koa Misi. Misi played for the Dolphins for seven seasons, and was generally regarded as the more consistent of the two. Odrick played five seasons in Miami, his best year coming in 2011, when he notched six sacks. The primary job of the down linemen in an odd front is to tie up blockers and allow the linebackers to flow to ball and make plays. The main weakness of a base 3-4 is that the outside linebackers have to be exceptional athletes, and be able to do several different things. They have to help set the edge against the run, rush the quarterback and be able to at least show some ability to cover the shorter receiving routes run by the backs and tight ends. This is why so many edge rushers are selected early in the draft every year, many of whom don’t pan out. It’s a boom-or-bust, high risk/high reward position. For every Von Miller or Willie McGinest drafted, there are two or three Eric Kumerows or Aaron Maybins.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, challenging though it may be to find outside linebackers who can flourish in a base 3-4, this defense is widely known for taking mediocre middle linebackers and turning them into good inside linebackers and taking good middle linebackers and turning them into great inside linebackers. Players like Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan could really shine as ILB’s in this new defense. The three main traits needed for a dominant middle linebacker are instincts, range and the physicality to shed blockers and stone ballcarriers at the line of scrimmage. Neither Alonso nor McMillan possesses superior instincts, while Alonso has the speed but not the physicality, and vice versa for McMillan. Put them both on the field together as ILB’s, though, and you just might have something special.

I honestly don’t know whether the Dolphins will keep any of the defensive linemen currently on the roster beyond this season. Fan favorite Davon Godchaux probably has the best shot at sticking somewhere; perhaps fellow line mate and 2017 draftee Vincent Taylor makes it at one of the defensive end positions. At this point, though, you’ve got to figure that both of these guys are probably little more than cheap stopgaps until the Dolphins can find someone better. We shall see. Expect the Dolphins to add defensive linemen and outside linebackers early and often in the draft the next couple of years, while they try to sort out what they have at inside linebacker, in terms of who stays and who goes. That’s the wrap for today, have a great week, everybody.