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This is the first in a series of articles addressing each unit of the Dolphins, OL, DL, RB etc, strengths, weaknesses, possible solutions and outlooks. Since defensive coordinator is still up in the air, I will avoid DL and LB for the time being, hopefully that gets sorted out soon.
My first article in this series will be on the offensive line, a unit that has been a sore spot for this franchise for several years. Last year saw some signs of hope, also saw some areas of need, solidifying this offensive line should be priority number one this offseason.
Brandon Albert's health is the biggest concern at this position, after his ACL and MCL tears when will he be 100%? Will he be back to start opening day, or will it be a Pouncey like situation, where he sits half the year.
JaWuan James played well for a rookie, especially on the right side. When he moved to the left side after Albert was injured, his transistion wasn't as smooth, still you can see there's a good NFL tackle in the rookie.
This position is a major concern, who are the probable starters? The biggest hope of the current players at this position is rookie Billy Turner, hopefully in his second year he improves enough to earn a spot. Another dwindling hope is Dallas Thomas, but with each passing year it gets less likely, this is probably his last chance here. Journeyman Daryn Colledge is a stop gap at best, he is best used as depth. Shelly Smith is another player best used as depth, this is the problem with this position, we have back up players as our number ones, that has got to change.
Pouncey back in his spot is a good thing for the Dolphins, he is a high level center, this position is a strong point.
Depth here is suspect at best, it's not really worth getting into, except to mention that it needs to get better. You don't expect back up players to perform like starters but the drop off with this unit was ugly.
There are some good pieces and some potential pieces that could start to mould into a real line, a healthy Albert, James, Pouncey are a real good start, the ends and center. If Billy Turner improves well enough to earn a guard spot that would leave one guard spot to fill.
That brings me to the draft, this will probably be a very unpopular opinion, but I feel we should spend four picks on offensive lineman. My thought is, enough is enough already, starting guard is a mess right now, depth is bottom rung. Dedicate a draft to fixing this problem, while you have these three players, build a solid cohesive unit so that we can actually get a real good evaluation of Ryan Tannehill.
A 2nd round guard sounds about right, you can pick up a top guard in the 2nd round, that pick could possibly solidify the offensive line for years to come. I would then draft two more lineman in rounds 3-5, a guard and a tackle, and another tackle in the 6-7th. Fix the line and make sure it's fixed, it all starts in the trenches.
Q: Rich, you always seem to favor the 3-4 defense over the 4-3. Any reason why it would work better for the Dolphins?
RICH: I'm going to preface this by saying that in order for the 3-4 to work, you need a nose tackle that can eat up 2-3 blockers in the run game consistently. Otherwise, a 3-4 gets run over. But if you think about it, you probably still need a similar player in a 4-3 to accomplish the same thing. Right now, the Dolphins are fielding a 3 man rotation at DT with guys that are barely over 300 lbs and are more athletic and quick than strong. Teams had success running right at the Dolphins, right at their athleticism and quickness because they could get pushed back.
So in order to stop the run, whether we run a 4-3 or a 3-4, you still need to have that big guy eating up blockers and we don't.
Also, a 3-4 is a base defense and teams that run a 3-4 base run all sorts of variations and fronts. They don't line up in a vanilla 3-4 all the time or even half the time. In fact, most teams spend a lot of time in nickel and dime formations.
That being said, if you look at the teams that are most successful at stopping the run, you always seem to see a decent sprinkling of teams that run a base 3-4. I'm not talking about just 2014, but year over year. Jets, Ravens, Steelers, Texans, 49ers, Browns, etc.
Yes, there are plenty of good 4-3 defenses, but the fact is when the Dolphins were running a 3-4, it worked better, much better, against the run. That's because you have one big plugger at NT, two athletic defensive tackles playing DE, and enough size and speed at OLB to both rush the passer and contain the run. Also, a 4-3 front is more static than a 3-4 front, therefore easier to decipher and predict.
The Dolphins ran a variation of the 3-4 defense this season in the form of a 5-2. The only real difference here is the two outside players out of the 5 man front were on the line of scrimmage rather than standing up, but it served the same purpose and it was probably the Dolphins most successful scheme against the run. The problem is they couldn't run it that often because they don't have a true nose.
But the Dolphins have enough players on the roster to shift to a 3-4 if they can find a nose. Starks and Odrick can play end in a 3-4. Wake was excellent as an OLB in a 3-4. I believe Olivier Vernon, while not ideal for it, can shed some weight and be an excellent "elephant" in the 3-4. Although given the sides he and Wake play, the defense would actually be inverted. I think Jenkins and Misi could be adequate ILBs in the 3-4. I know Jenkins doesn't have ideal size for the 3-4, but neither did Zach Thomas and he excelled in it when Miami ran it. It helped to have a much bigger ILB next to him in Channing Crowder. Misi could fill that role and Jenkins is bigger and faster than Zach was. You also have Dion Jordan, who IMO is a much better fit as a 3-4 OLB than whatever it is the Dolphins have him doing today.
The key again, and that player is not on the roster, is that nose tackle. Cannot run it without that bowling ball 320+ lbs guy that is hard to move.
Q: So in other words, the Fins currently have neither the players to run a 3-4 or 4-3. Which I totally agree. Seems like a lack of clear vision.
RICH: I think part of the problem is Coyle runs very complex schemes. His gameplans have too many what ifs and things are constantly changing on the field. Players have to think too much. Dan Quinn on the other hand runs a defense similar to what Wannstedt ran in Miami. 4-3, man to man with a cover 2 shell. Sometimes simpler is better.
Q: Is it difficult to find a good NT for the 3-4 defensive scheme?
RICH: And while I agree that finding a NT is hard, I wouldn't go as far as franchise QB. You've seen teams find good NTs late in the draft. That they took time to develop yes, you need to build A LOT of strength to play nose. But yes, they are top 5 as far as most difficult positions to fill because of the rare size and strength needed to play the position.
I also like a 3-4 more because of the number of tweeners that are coming out each year. You see a lot of 240-260 lbs defensive ends coming out of college and sliding them in at 3-4 OLB is a great way to get them on the field early without worrying about them being strong enough to set the edge against the run in a 4-3.
Back to my point about size though, remember when the Dolphins had Tim Bowens and ran a 4-3. He was essentially the "nose" in that defense and I think a guy like him would have fit in fine in a 3-4 as well. I think for either scheme, you need that big MFer to clog the middle. The one scheme that doesn't really heavily rely on big DTs successfully is the Tampa 2. But in that scheme your defensive ends can afford to cheat inside a little more because your corners usually play zones at the LOS to prevent short outside passes and outside runs.
Q: Can the Dolphins develop AJ Francis into a good NT? Can't say I've seen or noticed much of him but I've seen his name come up a quite a few times from the beat writers.
RICH: Francis is 6'5". That's a little tall for a NT. Soliai was also a little tall for a NT and he struggled at the position early on.
Ideally you want a 6'1-6'2 mountain of mass that can stay lower than offensive linemen. When you get a little tall offensive linemen can get under your pads more easily. Lowest man always wins.
Q: I don't necessarily agree with that. It's all about technique. A taller guy can be taught to play with better leverage. Daryl Gardener was one we had here.
RICH: I was referring to NT in a 3-4. Gardner was 6'6 295 lbs. In a 3-4, he would be a terrible NT. He was more of a penetrator while Bowens was more of the nose tackle/plugger. And Gardner was eventually moved from DT to DE because instead of using technique he relied on strength at DT and back issues started flaring up. His career was actually shortened because he relied too much on his strength and not enough on technique.
There's a reason most teams deploy guys 6'3 and under at the 3-4 nose tackle position. Because what I said holds true. Lower man always wins and when you're anchoring at the point of attack, getting lower is crucial.