Miami Dolphins 2014 Free Agency Preview: Defensive Line
Dolphins Free Agency Preview: Defensive Line
The Miami Dolphins are currently in the midst of some dark times. The Ted Wells report, which was released last Friday, accused three players -- most notably the notorious Richie Incognito -- and one assistant coach of wrongdoing in light of the club's embarrassing bullying controversy.
And that debacle followed what was a collapse of epic proportions on the field this past December when the Dolphins were flat out dominated by two mediocre division rivals despite only needing one win to reach the postseason.
Optimistically for the franchise, change is on its way. Change comes with no guarantees, as Dolphins fans should be well aware of by now, but it does provide hope. Said change began with swapping GMs -- Dennis Hickey for Jeff Ireland -- and it will culminate with Hickey reconstructing a new offensive line and attempting to nab upgrades elsewhere on the roster. That process will begin with free agency.
The Dolphins' main priority will be finding at least four new starters along the offensive line, but on the other side of the ball, the team's defensive line will also require some difficult decision-making. Randy Starks and Paul Soliai, who have been mainstays as clogs in the middle of Miami's defense, are both scheduled to hit the open market, and the Dolphins likely only possess the resources to re-sign one of the two.
Let's preview the decisions Hickey faces along the Dolphins' defensive line in free agency.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.
For all of the talent the Dolphins owned up front, 2013 was a bit of an underwhelming year for the defensive line. Cameron Wake failed to record a double-digit sack total, Dion Jordan wasn't the instant-impact rookie he projected to be and the Dolphins struggled to defend the run despite three stout defensive tackles.
Wake was still an elite pass rusher, finishing second among 4-3 defensive ends in overall efficiency according to Pro Football Focus but a knee injury slowed him down for nearly a month early in the season. Meanwhile, Jordan flashed some raw ability, but was limited to just over 21 defensive snaps per game. Many blame defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle for using Jordan so little; the Dolphins point to a shoulder injury that prevented him from bulking up in the weight room last offseason. Either way, Jordan's unimpressive rookie year isn't expected to derail his future at defensive end or with more of a hybrid role.
The defensive end position did feature a breakout performer, however. Olivier Vernon drastically improved during his sophomore campaign, tallying 11.5 sacks. There is good reason to believe that sack total was a bit inflated as Vernon only hit the quarterback an additional five times (36th among 4-3 defensive ends) and graded negatively as a pass rusher by Pro Football Focus. Still, his spike in production was huge considering Wake's injury and Jordan's slow development.
At defensive tackle, all three of the Dolphins' regulars -- Randy Starks, Jared Odrick and Paul Soliai -- graded in the top 20 of Pro Football Focus' interior defensive linemen rankings. Soliai specialized in eating up blockers against the run, Odrick excelled at rushing the passer and Starks routinely provided penetration versus the run and pass. Even with the three's effectiveness, though, the Dolphins stumbled to a 24th overall standing against the run.
Overall, the Dolphins' defensive line performed well in 2013 but maybe not quite as well as its talent level suggests it should have. It will be interesting to see how different the group looks after the offseason is complete.
Position: Defensive tackle; Age: 30; FA type: Unrestricted; Priority: High
Position: Defensive tackle; Age: 30; FA type: Unrestricted; Priority: High
Re-Sign, Let Walk or Tag
If the decision to retain Starks or Soliai came down to production alone, Starks would almost assuredly be the choice. He graded better than Soliai as a pass rusher and a run defender in 2013 according to Pro Football Focus.
But both tackles are now 30 years old. Re-signing either to a multiyear deal would be a risk. And when it comes to taking risks on 30-year-old veterans, the money better be right. As a more one-dimensional player, Soliai will be the cheaper option to re-sign. Therefore, it seems likely that the Dolphins will let Starks walk.
Verdict: Let Walk
Like I mentioned above, Soliai isn't better than Starks but he's more affordable. The Dolphins enter the 2014 offseason with nearly $32 million of cap space, which ranks as the fifth most in the entire league, but with so many players to replace along the offensive line and potentially as much as $11 million to invest in cornerback Brent Grimes, they must spend their money wisely.
Although Soliai would likely be the choice over Starks, there's no guarantee that he'll be brought back. There are several quality defensive tackles projected to hit the open market and the draft could turn up a starting-caliber option to pair with Jared Odrick as well.
Given how leaky the linebacker corps is, Hickey might not be comfortable letting both Starks and Soliai walk, though. The Dolphins finished 24th against the run 2013, but could finish even worse in 2014 without at least two quality defensive tackles in the middle.
Keep, Cut or Renegotiate
The Dolphins' defensive line doesn't feature any contracts worth restructuring or cutting ties with. Cameron Wake's $7.28 million cap hit is the third-highest on the team in 2014, but he's worth every penny. Yes, Wake recently turned 32 years old and saw his sack total drop from 15.0 in 2012 to 8.5 this past season. But he's still on top of his game.
Pro Football Focus graded Wake as the second most effective 4-3 defensive end in the entire league. Besides, thanks to over $10 million of dead money on his deal, cutting Wake would give the Dolphins nearly $3 million less in cap space. He's earned the right to be compensated like one of the game's best pass rushers, because that's what he is.
Potential Free-Agent Targets
Position: Defensive tackle; 2013 team: Seattle Seahawks; Age: 29
After four solid years as mostly a reserve with the Dolphins, McDaniel signed with the Seahawks last offseason and had his best season as a pro in 2013. In 15 starts, McDaniel provided 53 tackles and two sacks. He also graded as Pro Football Focus' 15th best interior defensive lineman and fourth best when it came to stopping the run. If the Dolphins choose to part ways with Soliai and Starks, they would likely welcome back McDaniel with open arms -- assuming of course that the Seahawks let him walk, which is far from a sure thing.
Position: Defensive tackle; 2013 team: Chicago Bears; Age: 27
Melton could come at a discount in free agency after tearing his ACL in Week 3 this past season. He's only 27 years old and was Pro Football Focus' seventh overall defensive/nose tackle in 2012.
Position: Defensive tackle; 2013 team: Oakland Raiders; Age: 26
Walker played 791 snaps for the Raiders this past season and has been an effective interior pass rusher for the club. At only 26 years old, Walker could be targeted by the Dolphins in free agency.
Position: Defensive tackle; 2013 team: Oakland Raiders; Age: 28
Sims may be two years older than Walker, but he was more stout defending the run in 2013. According to Pro Football Focus, only 11 interior defensive linemen graded higher against the run than Sims did.
Position: Defensive tackle; 2013 team: New York Giants; Age: 25
At only 25 years old, Joseph could become one of the hottest names on the market at the position this offseason. He has graded very well against the run by Pro Football Focus and has recorded seven combined sacks over the past two years.
Position: Defensive tackle; 2013 team: Chicago Bears; Age: 32
Ratliff wouldn't be a long-term fix, but could be a temporary band-aid on the inside if the Dolphins chose to let Soliai and Starks sign elsewhere.