With Paul Soliai earning a big-time payday with the Atlanta Falcons and Randy Starks expected to sign elsewhere, the Miami Dolphins were left with a huge void at defensive tackle on the first day of free agency.
The Dolphins’ defense finished 24th against the run in 2013 despite the stout play of Soliai and Starks in the trenches. Contrarily to how some may spin said statistic, that only increases how vital it will be for the Dolphins to find an adequate replacement or two. The team’s linebacker corps is beyond shoddy, as Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler graded as two of the league’s worst starting linebackers in 2013. Both drew harsh criticism for their ineffectiveness versus the run in particular.
Knowing that a further fall off in run defense could ensue without Soliai and Starks, rookie GM Dennis Hickey made signing a defensive tackle one of his top priorities as the new league year began. Shortly after a deal with left tackle Branden Albert was announced, the Dolphins pounced on 26-year-old defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, inking him to a four-year, $16 million contract with $9 million guaranteed.
With the Houston Texans, Mitchell manned nose tackle, but will switch to a three or one technique defensive tackle with the Dolphins. Mitchell is certainly much younger than Soliai and Starks, who are both 30, but he’s far from a sure-fire upgrade along Miami’s interior defensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, Mitchell graded as the league’s 51st overall defensive/nose tackle and its 57th most efficient versus the run this past season — a far cry from the top-20 standing both Soliai and Starks boasted in accumulative grading and run defense.
There’s legitimate reasons to believe Mitchell’s grades in Houston won’t be indicative of his effectiveness in Miami, though. It’s widely believed that Mitchell was playing out of position with the Texans. At only 300 pounds, Mitchell struggled to anchor Houston’s defensive line at times. Many nose tackles around the NFL exceed 320 pounds. Mitchell just doesn’t have the size to be one of the game’s better 3-4 noses; he’s a much better fit in a 4-3 scheme.
His ceiling is considerably higher in Miami, but regardless of how much potential he has to emerge in 2014, he isn’t the proven commodity Soliai and Starks were or that other quality options who were attainable, like Linval Joseph and Tyson Jackson, were either.
Mitchell may fare considerably better with the Dolphins, but his improvement is no certainty. Thus, the Dolphins still have work to do along the defensive line. After all, Hickey must replace two former Pro Bowl defensive tackles, not just one.
Before it can be determined what skill set the Dolphins should be seeking to complement Jared Odrick and Mitchell on the interior, it’s important to identify what exactly Mitchell brings to the table. According to ESPN’s Scouts Inc., Mitchell “has become a real inside force and one of the most productive penetrators in the NFL at generating consistent inside pressure.” If accurate, the Dolphins could still use a double-team demanding anchor seeing as Odrick is also a better pass rusher than a run defender.
Of the remaining free agents, Pat Sims fits the mold of what the Dolphins need the closest. Sims was Pro Football Focus’ 12th-most efficient run defender among qualifying interior defensive linemen in 2013. After the Dolphins just committed to Mitchell for four years and $16 million, though, Sims might be slightly out of Hickey’s price range.
Instead of adding another defensive tackle in free agency, the Dolphins may turn to May’s draft to solidify a quality three-man rotation. Perhaps no other draft hopeful fits what the Dolphins need more so than Notre Dame product Louis Nix III, a double-team eating force who should still be around when Miami is on the clock.
There are several other potential fits among the free agent and rookie classes, but that is a topic for another day. The point is, signing Mitchell was a high-upside move by Hickey, but it doesn’t compensate for losing Soliai and Starks. The Dolphins are still in need of another quality defensive tackle to complete their talented defensive line.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.