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Defensive draft options emerge for Fins; Dolphins, Heat, Canes, Marlins news

SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN

Upgrading the offense must and will be the Dolphins’ priority this offseason, but they also realize they could use more playmakers on a defense that ranked 21st in yards allowed (down from 15th in 2011), 27th against the pass and generated the league’s fourth-fewest takeaways (16).

And keep this in mind: There are far more defensive players (especially in the front seven) than offensive players considered worthy of selection in the top half of the first round of April’s draft.

So a strong case could be made for picking a defensive player 12 and addressing receiver through free agency or with one of Miami's two second-round picks. But if you trust the evaluation of ESPN's Mel Kiper, the Dolphins shouldn’t expect to find a No. 1-caliber cornerback at No. 12.

Alabama junior Dee Milliner, the only consensus first-round corner if he turns pro as many expect, “is not a shutdown corner,” Kiper said. “He is a solid, reliable player, but he’s not a Patrick Peterson coming out with elite skills. He’s a No. 2 corner, not a No. 1 corner. He’s a mid-to-late first, not an early first.”

So what does Milliner do well? “He’s excellent in zone, strong in run support and has good top-end speed and short-area quickness,” ESPN’s Todd McShay said.

The draft’s No. 2 corner, Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks -- considered a late-first or early-second rounder -- not only needs to buy a vowel for his first name, but also was beaten for two long passes in his regular season finale (against Mississippi) and “is not elite in man to man coverage,” McShay said. He “has some trouble versus smaller, quicker receivers.”

Cornerbacks who could be options in the second round include FSU’s Xavier Rhodes, Rutgers’ Logan Ryan and Oregon State’s Jordan Poyer. North Carolina State’s David Amerson had 13 interceptions in 2011 and five in 2012 but was burned numerous times, by UM and others, so some scouts are leary.

 ### The best talent on the board at No. 12 might be a front-seven defender. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones (12.5 sacks), Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o (103 tackles, seven interceptions), Utah tackle Star Lotulelei (five sacks, stout run stufer), and Texas A&M defensive Damontre Moore (12.5 sacks) are projected to be gone by No. 12. Kiper ranks them as his top four, in that order.

 FSU’s Bjoern Werner (12 sacks) would be very tempting if he's available at No. 12, but nobody would be surprised if he's taken earlier. LSU defensive ends – Barkevious Mingo also would in the discussion if he's there at No. 12.

So would Oregon end Dion Jordan and BYU end Ezekiel Ansah, if Ansah rises in pre-draft workouts as expected. Georgia inside linebacker Alec Ogletree (98 tackles but just 1.5 sacks) is projected in that range, but that’s not a Miami need.

“Werner has a lot of Chris Long in him,” Kiper said. “Mingo has tremendous potential as a pass rusher. He wasn’t dominant [four sacks in 2012] but has the talent to be that in the NFL. [But] there’s a little boom or bust feel with his right now."

Another LSU defensive end, Sam Montgomery, is projected to go in the late teens or early 20s and "is a great college player [seven sacks in 2012]," Kiper said. "He might not be that in the NFL because he doesn’t have an exceptional skill set." Like Mingo, Montgomery hasn't announced if he's turning pro.

Ansah, an accomplished sprinter before trying football, "has Jason Pierre-Paul potential," Kiper said, calling him "a potentially dynamic 4-3 defensive end pass-rusher.”

### Among several first-round caliber defensive tackles, Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson would make more sense for Miami than Ohio State’s Johnathan Hankins and North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams, whose skills are similar to Paul Soliai’s.

Richardson (75 tackles, 4.5 sacks) would be worth considering if Randy Starks leaves in free agent. He's “a quick penetrator who plays physical and piles up tackles,” Kiper said.

UCLA junior Anthony Barr (13 sacks), who would have projected for Miami’s range, decided last week not to turn pro. And another highly skilled Los Angeles-based pass rusher, USC’s Morgan Breslin (13 sacks) also might return to school, though he hasn't made a formal announcement.

Asked if he believes the team’s pass rushing is good enough, coach Joe Philbin said: “With the sack numbers (44; 10th in the league), you’d say it’s satisfactory, but we need to examine it a little more in detail.” The Dolphins privately were disappointed with the pass rush at times.

And McShay said it’s clear “Miami needs another pass rusher opposite Cam Wake [15 sacks], who turns 31 in January.”

McShay advocates Miami taking Jordan – who has 12.5 sacks in his past 20 games - because “he’s long (6-7, but lean at 243), athletic, has explosive initial power and the versatility to play multiple roles along the front seven.”

Texas end Alex Okafor (12.5 sacks) is another pass-rusher gaining steam as a late first-rounder – but likely not as high Miami’s pick.

The Dolphins could move Jared Odrick to tackle to replace Starks and draft a pass-rushing end such as Werner or Jordan, though defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said he’s not sure playing Odrick full-time at tackle is the best way to use him. Odrick had five sacks.

CHATTER

### ESPN’s Scouts Inc. ranks only five offensive players among the draft’s top 20 prospects, and all five are offensive linemen: Alabama guard Chance Warmack (3), Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel (4), Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan (13), North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper (14) and Western Michigan tackle Eric Fisher (20).

Lewan and perhaps fast-rising Fisher (rated Kiper’s 12th-best player overall) could be options for Miami at 12 if Jake Long leaves. Though the Dolphins could usually a more athletic right guard than John Jerry (preferably in the mid-rounds), fans would storm the Dolphins facility with pitchforks if they picked at guard at No. 12. It's very difficult to envision that happening. 

### Not only is the Colts’ second-round pick lower than Miami expected when it traded Vontae Davis, but Miami won’t get Indy’s conditional sixth-rounder because Davis didn’t meet playing time requirements due to injury. The Dolphins believe they can find another Davis in the draft. The Colts believe otherwise.

“Can I get Vontae in the draft? Hell no,” Colts GM Ryan Grigson told The Indianapolis Star. “He nearly went to the Pro Bowl in 2010.”

Did Miami keep the right corner? Consider: Sean Smith allowed fewer of the passes thrown against him to be completed than Davis (54.9 to 70.7) and fewer yards per catch (11.8 to 12.5).  And Smith played in every game, while Davis missed six.

But Davis had more interceptions (three to two) in 462 fewer snaps. And Smith allowed eight touchdowns, Davis two. Whereas Smith is a free agent, Davis is cheap in 2013, at $1.36 million.

### Asked last week if he misses taking so many shots per game, Dwyane Wade surprisingly admitted: “Yes, every day. Every day, I wish I could go back to that… [But in] 2010, I decided to give it up. I gave it up for… the good of winning. I find other ways to dominate.”

Though Wade’s 20.7 scoring average and 15.3 shot attempts per game are significantly down from his first season playing with LeBron James (25.5, 18.2), his 51.0 shooting percentage is a career high and “he’s more efficient now than he was as a primary threat,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.

### Ray Allen tells us he won’t decide whether to exercise his opt out clause until the summer, but he  has really liked it here. He admits coming off the bench, as a shooter, has been “an adjustment because your body is tighter. I run off the bench to trick my body into thinking I haven’t been sitting there.”

### What puzzles the Heat about its rebounding woes (23rd in rebound differential) is that mostly this same team (without Allen) finished sixth in rebounding differential last season. But Miami played two "bigs" together more in 2011-12 than this season.

### A UM official said interim athletic director Blake James has a decent chance to get the permanent job, but UM people want to see how effectively he raises money. Baseball coach Jim Morris, a skilled fund-raiser, tells us he would consider the A.D. job if president Donna Shalala asked him.

Michael Kelly, who was a finalist before Shawn Eichorst was hired, is no longer interested after being hired as COO of the new college football playoff system. Eichorst left for Nebraska in October.

### The Marlins have unsuccessfully tried to trade for several third-base prospects in recent months because they’re not convinced Zack Cox is the longterm answer. Cox, who will start 2013 in the minors, hit .253 with one homer and seven errors in 23 games at Double A after the Marlins acquired him from St. Louis.

### Agent Alex Esteban told the Marlins that multi-position Yuniesky Betancourt, who averaged 15 homers and 73 RBI as the Royals shortstop in 2010 and 2011, wants to play for the Marlins and is fine being their top reserve infielder, backing up at second, third and shortstop. But Miami – which showed interest before signing Placido Polanco – has been non-committal.

### Good luck to ex-Marlin Dontrelle Willis, only 30, on his comeback attempt; the Cubs on Saturday signed him to attend minor-league camp in spring training. He retired last summer after allowing six runs in eight innings with the Orioles' Triple A affiliate.

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