So much attention has been paid to the Miami Dolphins‘ offense this offseason. And for good reason. The unit ranked 27th in total yards, 26th in points scored and gave up a league-high 58 sacks in 2013.
But the moves made by new GM Dennis Hickey in free agency and the draft to ensure improvement offensively shouldn’t overshadow the other side of the ball.
With enough talent to finish in the top 10 in most statistical categories, but enough uncertainty to potentially suffer serious regression, the Dolphins’ defense, led by coordinator Kevin Coyle, is, without a doubt, a boom-or-bust unit entering training camp.
The biggest reason for optimism, no doubt, is a high-ceiling pass rush. The Dolphins’ pass rush was solid in 2013, producing the 11th-most sacks in the NFL and finishing fifth in accumulative team pass-rushing productivity by Pro Football Focus’ estimate. But it hasn’t even scratched the surface of its potential.
Led by Cameron Wake, who somehow remains one of the most underrated players in the sport, the Dolphins will terrorize opposing passers in 2014 if everything falls into place, forming the league’s most dangerous pass rush.
First and foremost, expect Wake’s sack total to skyrocket, as he produced the fifth-most quarterback hits in the NFL last year despite finishing tied for 29th in sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Wake finished second only to Robert Quinn in pass-rushing productivity, which combines sacks, quarterback hits and hurries in relation to pass-rushing snaps played, among qualifying 4-3 defensive ends.
Wake manged to grade so efficiently even though he was hobbled for about a month early in the season with a knee injury. With better health this fall, there’s no reason why Wake can’t challenge and surpass his career high of 15.0 sacks he posted in 2012.
Opposite Wake is 23-year-old defensive end Olivier Vernon, who made a name for himself with 11.5 sacks last season. However, Vernon is still incredibly raw. He finished seventh in sacks among 4-3 defensive ends, but 36th in additional quarterback hits with six. He’s more than athletic enough to continue ascending, though, and if he does, the Dolphins will own one of the league’s most prolific one-two punches.
Vernon was especially effective when rushing from the interior rather than the edge, and that versatility will allow the Dolphins to move him inside while employing another edge rusher on passing downs. What was dubbed the “speed” package, which features three or four potent pass rushers on the field at the same time, last year, should become a more prevalent staple of Coyle’s philosophy in 2014.
And just imagine if Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2013 draft, ever materializes. Freakish athleticism is prolonging hope that Jordan becomes one of the game’s most dominant edge rushers, but a current four-game suspension has cast doubt on his ability to emerge in 2014. If the Dolphins can withstand his absence, though, he could be in store for big things upon his return.
With rare speed and explosiveness for an athlete of his size, Jordan finished as a top performer in the 40-yard dash (4.60), broad jump (122.0 inches) and 20-yard shuttle (4.35) at the combine last February. If he can harness that raw ability and utilize the 15 pounds he added to his frame this offseason, the coaching staff won’t be able to resist getting him on the field as often as possible.
Beyond the edge, the Dolphins possess two of the league’s most formidable interior rushers in Jared Odrick and Randy Starks. In fact, Odrick finished third among interior linemen last year with 13 quarterback hits and Starks finished sixth with 30 hurries.
The Dolphins’ much-maligned linebacker corps is even equipped to hunt quarterbacks. Despite his lackluster play in virtually every other aspect, Philip Wheeler produced the second-most hurries among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013 and Dannell Ellerbe, despite grading miserably against the run, finished a respectable 23rd out of 55 eligible inside linebackers in accumulative pass-rushing grading by Pro Football Focus.
Put it all together, and the Dolphins can become a nightmare matchup for opposing quarterbacks week in and week out. So much depends on Ryan Tannehill and the offense’s success or lack thereof under new coordinator Bill Lazor, but in a passing league, the Dolphins’ pass rush living up to its potential or not could be the difference between participating in the postseason and watching it from the couch.
The potential is there to possess the NFL’s most dangerous pass rush.
Cody Strahm is an NFL Senior Writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter.