Direction of the Defense This Off-Season

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The 2016 Miami Dolphins season ended Sunday in Pittsburgh at the hands of the Steelers in a 30-12 loss. For the first time in a long time, I actually felt good about the end of Dolphins season. Who really thought Miami was going to make much noise this postseason without Ryan Tannehill, Mike Pouncey, Reshad Jones, Isa Abdul-Quddus, along with a trio of banged up offensive linemen and a gaggle of bad players at linebacker? This season was a fun ride and in so many ways. Miami had so many guys improve their play from previous seasons – Ryan Tannehill, Kenny Stills, Dion Sims, Kiko Alonso, Byron Maxwell and Tony Lippett. Miami had their team MVP step up in week six and never look back as Jay Ajayi led the NFL in rushing from that point of the season on. Miami had unknown guys make plays like MarQueis Gray, Dominique Jones, Neville Hewitt. The draft class produced positive results from Laremy Tunsil, Xavien Howard, Kenyan Drake and Leonte Carroo and Jakeem Grant each contributed a touchdown. The past two classes have really improved their play and Miami’s got minimal work to do on the offensive side of the ball this offseason to keep that unit progressing. I mean, re-sign Kenny Stills and Dion Sims, get Tannehill and Pouncey back to full health and acquire a guard or two and your set. But, what about the defense?

Vance Joseph is heavily rumored to be the favorite to be named the Denver Broncos head coach and his rumored pick for Defensive Coordinator there is the current Broncos Secondary Coach Joe Woods. Many people have speculated that would mean Wade Phillips would be free for Miami to scoop up. I don’t see that happening. It’s already been leaked out there by Alex Marvez and others that Miami would promote their Linebackers Coach Matt Burke to Defensive Coordinator. While Matt Burke would be another first-time coordinator for the second consecutive year, I think it may prove to be a pretty fruitful move. Simon Clancy, or Boomer from ThePhins, put on Twitter that Adam Gase has leaned heavily on Matt Burke’s thoughts for game-planning purposes throughout the year. That, to me, is a damn good sign. So, what do we know about Matt Burke if in fact he does get the promotion?

***Editor’s Note – So, I started this article on Monday night and didn’t get a chance to get back to it until Thursday. Vance Joseph has been named Denver’s Head Coach. Miami has just named LB Coach Matt Burke Defensive Coordinator. With that in mind, based on what Adam Gase said in his season-ending media availability, expect the Wide-9 to be the “Miami Dolphins Defense” heading into 2017, and probably into the future thereafter. ***

Burke cut his teeth in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans, beginning there as an administrative assistant in 2004 after playing safety at Dartmouth (smart guy, right?). Burke was promoted to a defensive assistant after one year and remained with the Titans until 2008. He followed Jim Schwartz, one of the co-creators of the wide-9, along with Jim Washburn, to Detroit where he was a linebackers coach for the Lions from 2009-2013. He left Detroit when Jim Schwartz was fired and spent two years in Cincinnati as the Bengals Linebackers Coach until Miami hired him to the same position in 2016. Should be indeed be the guy I expect Miami to stay with the 4-3 wide-9 scheme they ran this season. I know, I know most people dislike it and it can’t stop the run. That’s where you’re wrong. The 2014 Detroit Lions finished first the league that year allowing 69.3 yards per game. They only allowed opponents over 100 yards twice that season, and held opponents under 70 yards nine times throughout that season. While Matt Burke wasn’t on that staff, the basis of Detroit’s wide-9 defense was kept in place by Teryl Austin and mixed with coverages he brought over from Baltimore; not all that dissimilar to what Vance Joseph tried to do this season for Miami.

So, what needs to happen for Miami’s defense to be more like the 2014 Detroit Lions? Well, a couple of things need to happen, most notably, the front seven has to be addressed. You can play virtually any type of coverage you want behind the wide-9, and Miami has a pretty good mix of talent in the secondary with Byron Maxwell, Xavien Howard and Tony Lippett all with a lot of experience playing on the perimeter; Bobby McCain is talented in the slot; and they’ll get both Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus back from Injured Reserve. I’m not too worried about the secondary as most pieces Miami would be adding would be ancillary.

Miami’s front seven on the other hand, needs an infusion of both talent and bodies. Miami surprisingly cut Defensive End Jason Jones a few days before the Wild-Card game against Pittsburgh. Fellow Defensive Ends Mario Williams (salary cap) and Dion Jordan (myriad of issues) are expected to be released as well. Barry Jackson’s also indicated that Miami plans on cutting ties with DT Earl Mitchell and LB Koa Misi. Both have been injury prone players and both can save Miami dollars against the cap. Jelani Jenkins and Spencer Paysinger are sub-par defensive players and both are free agents. Mike Hull isn’t anything more than a special teamer and Neville Hewitt is developing, so bodies are needed at Linebacker as well.

cam-wake-stud
Cam Wake is still charge of this group even at age 35

So, with that in mind, I think I’d probably list out Miami’s offseason defensive shopping list as follows:

***Editor’s Note – I’m sticking with the front seven only for now. I think Miami could use some depth at safety and they could potentially try to upgrade on Bobby McCain at slot cornerback. ***

1a. Impact Middle Linebacker

1b. Starter-Quality Defensive End

  1. Rotational-Quality Defensive End
  2. Rotational Defensive Tackle
  3. Strongside Linebacker
  4. Developmental Defensive End.

Let’s address these needs one-by-one and go over some of the characteristics of what Miami ought to be looking for in addressing these needs.

  1. Middle Linebacker – Kiko Alonso had a tremendous season playing middle linebacker for Miami, but I think he’s best served playing at Weakside Linebacker. He’s got great speed and instincts, but doesn’t have enough sand in his pants (strength) to take on and stack-and-shed offensive linemen. In other words, Miami need their version of a Stephen Tulloch, Tahir Whitehead or Brandon Spikes; someone that’s big enough to play in the middle and deal with linemen while stuffing the run from B Gap to B Gap. If you look at the recent, successful vintages of the wide-9 in the NFL, you’ll notice that that the middle linebackers are either big, strong guys, or they’re solidly built guys with speed. Stephen Tulloch – 5’11’ 245lbs. Bandon Spikes – 6’2” 255lbs. Tahir Whitehead – 6’2” 241lbs, 4.70 forty, but plays MUCH faster. I think this is a position Miami is likely to address in the Draft as the current crop of free agents is pretty lackluster. Brandon Spikes is in there, but he’s on the downside of 30 and was relegated to a backup role with Buffalo this past season and did not play in 2015. Here’s some potential targets Miami may look at.

Draft Targets – Rueben Foster – Alabama, Jarrad Davis – Florida, Raekwon McMillan – Ohio State, Kendell Beckwith – LSU.

  1. Defensive End – I think Miami, having only Cameron Wake and Terrence Fede being the only presumed under-contract Dolphins expected to be on the roster at the start of the league year on March 9th, Miami needs to add three players here. I think Miami needs to add someone immediately who could start from day one. Whether that’s re-signing Andre Branch, looking at a free agent, or drafting someone in the first two rounds, I’m not sure. My gut tells me that Andre Branch may ask for too much and I think Miami need to prioritize re-signing guys like Kenny Stills and Dion Sims, tendering guys like Damien Williams, Kiko Alonso and Michael Thomas, and possibly extending Jarvis Landry and Reshad Jones. That’s a lot of cheddar to be spent in-house, and Branch may be the odd man out. He was better than pretty much everyone expected he’d be, but he only had 5.5 sacks and isn’t exactly a force against the run (he can’t set the edge well). For the wide-9 to be effective, you’re going to need bigger, strong, athletic Defensive Ends who can get to the quarterback but can also maintain the hand-fighting with Offensive Tackles throughout the game. That’s what Miami was going for when the signed Jason Jones and Mario Williams. That’s what you’ll see with Detroit having Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor. That’s what the Tennessee Titans had when they originated this offense with Jevon Kearse and Kyle Vanden Bosch. Big guys, usually over 6’4” and usually over 265 or 270lbs. That’s what you need to target if you’re the Dolphins front office. I also think that Miami needs to have an insurance plan in place. Cameron Wake will be 35 and in the last year of his contract and Terrence Fede has never developed the way Kevin Coyle foolishly thought he would. With Wake being a liability against the run, but a phenomenal pass-rusher, I think Miami need to have someone who can maybe eat 33% – 50% of the snaps from Cameron Wake; they need someone who can help stop the run and rotate with Wake to keep him fresh. I also don’t trust Terrence Fede that much, so I think it may be wise to add someone else to challenge him as a fourth Defensive End to help eat some snaps there as well. That’s a lot of bodies, but I think it’s almost a necessity at this point.

Free Agent Targets: Chandler Jones – Arizona, Alex Okafor – Arizona, Devin Taylor – Detroit, Jason Pierre-Paul – New York, Mario Addison – Carolina

Draft Targets: Taco Charlton – Michigan, Charles Harris – Missouri, Derek Barnett – Tennessee, Carl Lawson – Alabama, Jordan Willis – Kansas State, Tanoh Kpassagnon – Villanova, Deatrich Wise – Arkansas

  1. Defensive Tackle – Everyone will be up in arms about this being ahead of another linebacker spot, but in truth the Strongside Linebacker or “Sam” is nowadays the Fullback equivalent on defense. It’s a guy who plays somewhere between 8-10 and 15-25 snaps at most during a game. Your third Defensive Tackle is probably going to play more than the SAM in just about every game with the way teams rotate D-Linemen to keep them fresh. Ndamukong Suh is a freak of nature in that he played more than 85% of Miami’s defensive snaps, but I think Miami needs a better option to rotate with Jordan Phillips. Phillips was downright dominant at times. Inconsistency is his weakness and if he can get that ironed out a little more, he’s going to be a true force next to Suh. Earl Mitchell came back last year and played like a man on fire his first two games back against San Diego and Los Angeles. But then, much like the start of the 2014 season, he fell off a cliff. I think Vance Joseph was a little behold to him and he played a lot of snaps ahead of Phillips (wrongly, in my opinion) down the stretch, including starting the final five games of the regular season ahead of Big 97.

With Defensive Tackles in the wide-9, you’re looking for big, solid guys who are athletic and can penetrate. You don’t have to 2-gap or hold point against double-teams all day (Suh does that because offenses have no choice but to double him). You want guys with active hands who can club, rip, bull, and shoot gaps to create havoc in the backfield. The first free agent target has been a guy that I’ve banged the drum for Miami to sign each of the past two offseason, and they’ve promptly not even had him in for a visit, but he’s a guy who was part of the outstanding Detroit Lions defense in 2014 with Ndamukong Suh.

Free Agent Targets: Nick Fairley – Detroit, Domata Peko – Cincinnati, Stefan Charles – Detroit, Tyrunn Walker – Detroit, Brandon Thompson – Cincinnati (if healthy).

Draft Targets: Malik McDowell – Michigan State (could be a DE for Miami), Chris Wormley – Michigan, Jaleel Johnson – Iowa, Dalvin Tomlinson – Alabama, Montravius Adams – Auburn, Larry Ogunjobi – Charlotte

melvin-ingram
Adding a disruptive force off the edge like Melvin Ingram would go a long way towards turning the defense around.
  1. Strongside Linebacker – Koa Misi looked like he was going to be a nice fit in the wide-9, but a neck injury probably has seen him play his last down as a Dolphin. Pulling Donald Butler off the waiver wire was a nice surprise for a few weeks, but ultimately, he was below average for what Miami was looking for having played inside in a 3-4 defense his whole career. He might be worth bringing back at a very team-friendly rate, but I suspect Miami will look for new blood here. In the wide-9, both of your Outside Linebackers are somewhat interchangeable. You’re not going to ask your “Sam” to play on the line of scrimmage a whole bunch, and if you do, it’s going to be WAY out wide instead of over a TE. He doesn’t need to be a massive 6’3” 250-260lbs behemoth like you’d see in a 3-4. Instead, you want someone who can run and hit and be able to cut off outside run plays while also being able to key and read and fill a gap and wrong-arm opposing linemen to make a play. Detroit and Buffalo both used a variety of guys here: Tahir Whitehead, before shifting inside, Kyle Van Noy, Manny Lawson, and Preston Brown. That’s all shapes and sizes. Philadelphia this year used Mychael Kendricks who is relatively smallish at 6’0” 240lbs, but he can. Miami’s probably going to be looking for someone of similar size and abilities, and perhaps even someone that can play DE in nickel and sub-packages so you don’t have change personnel as much.

Free Agent Targets: Melvin Ingram – San Diego, John Simon – Houston (may be a DE for Miami), Josh Bynes – Detroit, Michael Morgan – Seattle

Draft Targets: Ryan Anderson – Alabama, Tim Williams – Alabama, Takk McKinley – UCLA (could be a DE for Miami), Tyus Bowser – Houston, Vince Biegel – Wisconsin, T.J. Watt – Wisconsin, Ejuan Price – Pittsburgh.

Beefing up the front seven is the first step in what needs to happen. Travis and I will be releasing a major string of podcasts soon where we’ll get into offseason plans and “Dream” Free Agency and Draft Class Scenarios. As a follow-up to this article, I’ll take a look at some of the things Miami needs to clean up schematically as it relates to the front seven.

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