The Miami Dolphins are expected to move to a hybrid defense this year, with additional emphasis on a 3-4 system, with three defensive linemen and four linebackers. The coaching staff would like to see a defense that can line up in a 4-3 on one play and a 3-4 on the next, keeping offenses guessing as to where players will align and from where the pass rush could come. It is a scheme that could allow the Dolphins to create mismatches against opponents while masking some of their own deficiencies.
It could also have another huge benefit. With the 22nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Dolphins selected Missouri edge rusher Charles Harris. In 27 career games played with the Dolphins (16 as a rookie and 11 games last year), he has 38 tackles with three sacks and two passes defensed. As a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, Harris was swallowed by a depth chart that included Cameron Wake, Robert Quinn, and Andre Branch. He has struggled to find his role in the defensive front, and he has had a disappointing start to his career.
Enter, the hybird defense.
“Multiple. That’s what we’re going to do,” defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said back in February as he explained the style of defense Miami would be running. “We’re going to do whatever Coach Flores wants us to do that week and what we’re going to try to do is try to teach the guys the concepts of the defense, what the coverage is, what the rush is – whether we’re rushing three, four, five or six, it doesn’t matter. How we deploy those guys in different spots and the outside looking in, you guys see it, it’s going to look multiple. It is going to be multiple. Are we talking in terms of 3-4 or 4-3? It’s just going to be multiple. We’re going to do what we’ve got to do that week and that game. We’re going to try to win that situation, whatever we have to do. If it requires all 11 guys to be on their feet, it requires all 11 guys to be on their feet. If it requires all 11 to be down in a three-point stance, it’ll look weird, but we’ll do it if that’s what we think is going to win the game.”
At Missouri, Harris played outside linebacker. He was able to move freely and get after opposing quarterbacks. He had space with which to work, and he flourished in that style. He played with his hand in the dirt as a traditional 4-3 defensive end as well, but he has not been able to reach the potential that made him the 22nd overall pick working solely as a 4-3 end at the professional level.
But in a hybrid defense, where he could be a defensive end or a rush linebacker on any given play, that could be exactly what Harris needs. It could allow him to show the pass rush skills the Dolphins want. It could also open up a part of his game that does not get mentioned much - his coverage ability. While Harris is a pass rusher with a great spin move and an ability to use his athleticism to get around blocks, he also does have the ability to keep up with tight ends and running backs in coverage. In their draft preview of Harris back in 2017, Sports Illustrated wrote:
He was brilliant in linebacker coverage drills [at the NFL Scouting Combine]. He covers a lot of ground with his stride, and he has natural movements dropping and turning. Harris showed a decent baseline when asked to drop at Missouri.
Harris did not have the greatest Scouting Combine, coming in with a slow 40-yard dash time (4.82 seconds) and small for a typical defensive end (6-foot-2, 256 pounds, 32-3/8” arms), but that could play to his strengths as a linebacker.
The Dolphins will still ask Harris to be a 4-3 defensive end, and he will have to show that he can have success there, both as a pass rusher and in anchoring against the run, but they may find a breakout season coming from Harris just because the defense is changing. Asking Harris to stand up and become an outside linebacker could play perfectly into his strength as a player.
Harris could find the freedom to perform this year, starting to reach the potential that led Miami to select him in the first round back in 2017. Training camp and the preseason may allow us our first glimpse of Harris playing like the team envisioned with that pick.