One of the biggest questions facing the Miami Dolphins and new GM Dennis Hickey this offseason is what to do at defensive tackle — more specifically, what to do with the expiring contracts of Paul Soliai and Randy Starks.
Both Soliai and Starks have provided the Dolphins with stout play in the trenches for over five years. When Miami had a quality linebacker corps in place, the duo’s impact could be seen in a stingy run defense that annually ranked in the top half of the league. In 2013, however, thanks in large part to the addition of Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler at linebacker, the Dolphins’ run defense plummeted to 26th in the NFL.
Soliai and Starks didn’t skip a beat, but Miami’s second line of defense struggled to disengage from blockers, fill the right lanes and consistently make tackles. Without improvement from the linebackers, the Dolphins’ run defense probably won’t fare much better in 2014, but without at least two solid defensive tackles up front it may regress even further.
Hickey could take a chance by letting both Soliai and Starks walk in free agency to replace them with a high-draft pick at the position like Pittsburgh‘s Aaron Donald. There’s no guarantee a player like Donald will fall to Miami, though, and Hickey shouldn’t gamble when it comes to the team’s run defense — which was the defense’s Achilles heel in 2013.
The wise move would be retaining one of the two. Bringing both back would be a hefty financial investment for two 30-plus-year-old defensive tackles. If the Dolphins didn’t have so many holes along the offensive line and several other impending free agents who should also be re-signed — like cornerback Brent Grimes — maybe keeping Soliai and Starks would be a realistic possibility.
The Dolphins just don’t have the resources to do so, though. Thus a difficult decision awaits. So, which defensive tackle should the Dolphins re-sign?
If the debate was to be decided by performance alone, there’s no question that the answer would be Starks. Unlike Soliai, who only played 526 snaps in 2013, Starks is an every-down player. Besides frequently providing penetration to stop the run, Starks is one of the NFL’s best interior pass rushers.
According to Pro Football Focus, a mere seven defensive tackles/nose tackles in the entire league graded more efficiently as a pass rusher than Starks in 2013. In addition to tallying 4.0 sacks, he hit opposing quarterbacks six times and hurried them 30.
There’s also a misconception by some that Soliai is the better run defender between the two. That wasn’t the case in 2013. Starks finished fifth among qualifying interior defensive linemen in run defense by Pro Football Focus whereas Soliai was slotted 16th. Starks’ 35 stops, which constitute making a tackle that establishes a failure by the offense, ranked seventh at the position.
Starks is the complete package. He’s also 30-years-old with 10 accrued seasons already under his belt, and he would also absorb more cap space.
Soliai is only 16 days younger than Starks as both veterans will turn 31 in December, but he’s been a pro for three less seasons. And when you factor in how Starks is an every-down player it’s quite clear that Soliai owns a considerably lower mileage count.
There are no guarantees in the NFL, but it’s logical to assume that Starks will begin to decline before Soliai does. Should any GM feel comfortable handing Starks a lucrative, multiyear contract knowing his play could begin to taper off any season now?
The truth is Soliai’s play could begin to do the same in the near future, but re-signing him is less of a risk.
Starks was a better defensive tackle than Soliai was in 2013. He’ll likely be better in 2014 as well. But given how much modifying Hickey must do to the roster this offseason and the coin it will likely take to do so, going with the cheaper option of the two seems to be the better choice.
Soliai should be retained by Hickey while Starks should be allowed to hit the open market. It’s a tough decision, but it’s the right one.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.