The 2014 Miami Dolphins have begun the extensive process of taking shape. Rookie GM Dennis Hickey has been busy during his first free agency period, inking a Pro Bowl left tackle in Branden Albert and solidifying the defensive line by signing Earl Mitchell and retaining Randy Starks. He’s also expected to nab at least one or two more offensive linemen in an effort to reconstruct a front that conceded the most sacks in franchise history last season.
But there is one area where the Dolphins haven’t improved. In fact, they’ve arguably worsened. In 2013, the Dolphins’ run defense plummeted to 24th in the NFL after finishing 13th against opponents’ ground attacks in 2012 and third in 2011. The decline began when the Dolphins switched to a 4-3 defense two seasons ago and continued last spring when they swapped out two solid run defenders in Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett for Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler at linebacker.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dansby ranked 11th among inside linebackers and Burnett ranked sixth among 4-3 outside linebackers in run defense in 2012, but Ellerbe finished 53rd and Wheeler was slotted 34th in the same category, among the same positions in 2013.
Although the Dolphins have yet to make an addition to their linebacker corps, they acknowledged that they intend to by pursuing former free agent D’Qwell Jackson earlier this month. Jackson joined the Indianapolis Colts instead, but Hickey’s interest in the veteran linebacker suggests Miami will look to bolster its second line of defense at some point this offseason.
The Dolphins maintained a strong interior rotation by signing Mitchell and bringing back Starks, but they got worse on early downs by losing Paul Soliai to the Altanta Falcons. Mitchell is younger than Soliai and could potentially blossom in Miami’s 4-3 defense after playing as an undersized nose tackle for the Houston Texans, but he more than likely won’t be as dominant against the run.
Soliai graded as Pro Football Focus’ 16th most efficient run defender among defensive/nose tackles in 2013, but that standing doesn’t represent his true value. With the ability to hold the point of attack against double teams, Soliai opened up lanes for other defenders to make a plays. Mitchell, meanwhile, has a strong base that should enable him to anchor, but he’s more adept at producing penetration thanks to superb athleticism for his size.
However, Mitchell should be an upgrade from a pass rushing perspective, which essentially mirrors the philosophy of how Miami’s front seven is constructed. The pass rushing ceiling of the group remains sky high — like, lead the league in sacks high.
On the edge, Cameron Wake is dominant when healthy, Olivier Vernon registered a double-digit sack total in 2013. and Dion Jordan has elite traits that simply need to be polished. At defensive tackle, Jared Odrick and Starks graded as the seventh and eight most efficient pass rushers, respectively, among interior players in 2013 by Pro Football Focus. And at linebacker, Wheeler finished fifth in pass rushing efficiency for a 4-3 outside linebacker, according to the site, and tallied the second most hurries at the position, behind only Von Miller. Yes, the same Wheeler who seemingly couldn’t shed a block or make a tackle.
In an increasingly pass happy league, you can’t blame the Dolphins for fielding a front seven that is more equipped to get after the quarterback than stuff the run. But if the Dolphins are going to make the jump from an average defense to a good one, or even an elite one, shoring up the run defense will be in order.
There are some options on the market who could help that effort, most namely former New England Patriots middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who would come with off-the-field baggage, but also the No. 1 run defense grade among inside linebackers in 2013. He’s not a three-down player, but the Dolphins could devise a rotation that ensures he would primarily see the field on early downs. There are also potential answers in the draft, like C.J. Mosely and Ryan Shazier.
Hickey and company are off to a solid start tweaking the roster this offseason. No one should expect the Dolphins to fare any better defending the run in 2014 at this point though. In a pass happy league, Kevin Coyle‘s defense could live without improvement against the run, but not if it has any ambition of emerging as one of the game’s stingiest units.
Follow Cody Strahm on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.