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NFL Miami Dolphins

Where Will Miami Dolphins Turn At Defensive Tackle If Paul Soliai And Randy Starks Walk?

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

For the majority of the young offseason, Miami Dolphins fans have been under the impression that the team’s new GM Dennis Hickey would re-sign either Paul Soliai or Randy Starks. As we inch closer to free agency, though, it appears that the two former Pro Bowlers could both test the open market.

The Miami Herald’s Adam Beasley reported on Monday that the Dolphins have yet to extend an offer to Soliai or Starks. It’s no surprise that the Dolphins have yet to offer Starks, who will likely demand top dollar, but Soliai, who has been deemed the most likely for a return to Miami given his estimated cheaper price tag and lower mileage count, has surprisingly set his sights on free agency by moving out of his South Florida home.

Even if the Dolphins are secretly hoping to retain one of the two, it appears that Hickey is willing to risk losing both by allowing Soliai and Starks to entertain offers from other teams. Hickey, who is undoubtedly looking to mold the roster in his image, may have reservations about committing long-term to either 30-year-old defensive tackle. Still, he would be taking a risk by letting both walk.

Thanks in large part to the infamous linebacker swap Miami conducted last offseason, the Dolphins’ run defense plummeted to 24th in the league in 2013. One key reason it didn’t fare worse was the stout play of Soliai and Starks in the middle. The Dolphins could become even more susceptible to the run in 2014 if the two are donning new colors. Unless, of course, Hickey is able to sign or draft adequate replacements.

Free Agency

Believe it or not, there could be potential upgrades at defensive tackle on the open market. The two names Hickey should consider are Linval Joseph and Pat Sims.

Joseph was a second-round pick in 2010 and has quietly emerged as one of the league’s better run stuffing defensive tackles over the past two seasons with the New York Giants. At 323 pounds and only 25-years-old, Joseph would be a better long-term signing than Soliai, whose skill-set is similar to what Joseph brings to the table.

According to Pro Football Focus, Joseph ranked as the league’s 21st-overall defensive/nose tackle in 2012 and 2013. He particularly excelled against the run where the site slotted him as the 15th-most efficient, but he also contributed three sacks, eight quarterback hits and 11 hurries as an interior pass rusher.

Joseph is likely only going to get better unless he becomes complacent after earning a multiyear deal, whereas Soliai and Starks’ play could begin to regress any season now. The former East Carolina Pirate would be an upgrade at the position. Of course, the Giants would like to bring Joseph back, but according to ESPN’s Dan Graziano it’s becoming “evident” that he’s “determined to hit the market.”

Sims, meanwhile, is a little older than Joseph at 28 but still two years younger than Soliai and Starks. Like Joseph, Sims is more of a run stuffer than a penetrating pass rusher. He graded as Pro Football Focus’ 17th-overall interior defensive lineman this past season and its 12th-best run defender.

The Oakland Raiders have the most cap space in the NFL but could still part ways with Sims in a rebuilding effort. If he hits the open market, the Dolphins should give him a look.

NFL Draft

As for May’s draft, Pittsburgh‘s Aaron Donald will certainly be discussed as a possibility with the No. 19 overall pick. Donald followed up his dominant senior campaign with a jaw-dropping Senior Bowl and NFL Combine. Once considered to be a day-two pick, Donald’s name will almost assuredly be called during the first round. If he’s available when the Dolphins are on the clock, which is becoming a bigger IF by the day, Hickey should consider him.

Donald has the potential to develop into one of the best interior pass rushers in football. He doesn’t have the size to consistently hold up at the point of attack, though, which means the Dolphins’ run defense would potentially suffer. Like Donald, sure-to-be starter Jared Odrick is a better pass rusher than run defender. Although Donald would be an excellent get, the Dolphins may need a defensive tackle who can clog up the middle.

Two other tempting first-round options will be Notre Dame‘s Louis Nix III and Florida State‘s Timmy Jernigan.

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