SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
The deficiency that might be trickiest for the Dolphins to solve this offseason is the one that perhaps most disappointed and surprised them: their failure to consistently stop the run.
The Dolphins, third against the run in 2011 and 13th in 2012, plunged to 24th this season; allowed 203 and 154 yards rushing against the Bills and Jets to close the season; and relinquished at least 133 yards rushing in 11 games.
The primary culprit was easy enough to diagnosis: Dreadful play against the run from two of the starting linebackers. Dannell Ellerbe ranked 53rd of 55 inside linebackers against the run, according to Pro Football Focus, and Philip Wheeler ranked 35th of 35 outside linebackers. The men they replaced, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, ranked 14th and second, respectively. At least Koa Misi was 11th against the run.
What’s more, none of the Dolphins’ defensive ends ranked in the top 15 against the run, with backup Derrick Shelby the best (20th of 52 in a 4-3 defense) and Cameron Wake the worst (34th).
Among the challenges with fixing the run defense:
### Though none of Miami’s defensive ends are extraordinary against the run, it’s unrealistic to expect any major addition to a group including Wake, much-improved Vernon, Shelby and Jordan (31st against the run). So the Dolphins must hope that Vernon and Jordan simply improve against the run.
### If the Dolphins released Wheeler, they would take a $6.4 million cap hit for 2014 if he’s cut with a post-June 1 salary cap designation, $10.4 million without one. His cap number is $6.4 million if he’s on the team.
Cutting Ellerbe appears far less likely; if the Dolphins surprisingly did, they would take a 2014 cap hit of $7.4 million, $11.6 million or $14.6 million depending on when they cut him. His cap number is $7.4 million if he's on the team.
The Dolphins are comfortable with Jelani Jenkins playing in third-down passing situations. So if they cut Wheeler, they could add a linebacker to play either outside linebacker on first and second down or a middle linebacker to play early downs, with Ellerbe shifting to an outside linebacker position.
In that scenario, free agents who graded out well against the run this season and would be worth considering include two former UM middle linebackers --- Jon Beason (19th of 55 against the run, and he played pretty well after an October trade from the Panthers to the Giants) and Houston’s Darryl Sharpton (ranked No. 2 against the run), as well as others: Cincinnati’s Vincent Rey, Buffalo’s Arthur Moats and Kansas City’s Akeem Jordan.
Pittsburgh outside linebacker Jason Worilds (15th against the run and eight sacks) would be more expensive. Washington outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (11 sacks and third against the run) would be even more expensive. And Dallas’ Anthony Spencer, who had 11 sacks and was No. 1 against the run among outside linebackers in 2012, played in just one game in 2013 because of knee surgery. Orakpo and Spencer are best as 3-4 linebackers or 4-3 ends, and the Dolphins seem inclined to stick with a 4-3.
Releasing Wheeler and adding a skilled run-stopping linebacker seems the best solution. In retrospect, how regrettable was the Dolphins’ decision to swap out Dansby and Burnett for Ellerbe and Wheeler? Besides performing better against the run, Arizona’s Dansby and Oakland’s Burnett combined for more sacks than Ellerbe/Wheeler (9 to 1.5), more forced fumbles (4 to 0), more interceptions (5 to 2), more tackles for loss (23 to 8) and fewer missed tackles (28 to 32).
Not everyone was surprised. One Dolphins player said early last August that it was clear the new linebackers were no upgrade over the former ones; and a former NFL Executive of the Year told us in August he was flabbergasted Jeff Ireland made those moves, especially Wheeler.
By the way, Wheeler wasn't any better against the pass, allowing 47 of the 65 passes in his coverage area to be completed for 483 yards, which amounted to a 108.7 passer rating against.
### Here’s the final issue with stopping the run: The Dolphins’ defensive tackle rotation will be weakened if they can re-sign only Randy Starks (ranked fifth against the run among 69 defensive tackles) OR Paul Soliai (17th). Re-signing both might be cost prohibitive.
Among free agents, no tackle ranked better against the run than Starks except, coincidentally, Tony McDaniel, who left the Dolphins for Seattle. No impending free agent tackle graded out better against the run than Soliai except Starks, McDaniel and the Giants’ Linval Joseph.
Other productive free agent tackles available if Miami cannot re-sign either Starks or Soliai include Henry Melton (received the Bears’ franchise tag in 2013 but sustained a torn ACL in September; Bears have concerns about that and a recent off-field issue), Atlanta’s Jonathan Babineaux and the Giants’ Mike Patterson.
### Dolphins owner Stephen Ross entered the weekend still trying to decide what changes to make. A decision is expected at any time.
### Something to keep in mind if Al Golden stays at UM instead of going to Penn State [UPDATE: UM SAID SUNDAY GOLDEN IS STAYING AT UM, WHICH GOLDEN ESSENTIALLY CONFIRMED]: Even though several UM defensive players have praised coordinator Mark D’Onofrio publicly, some have expressed frustration privately because they want to play a more attacking style.
What’s more, several Board of Trustees members also have complained about D’Onofrio, and the administration is well aware of that.
A key UM oral commitment, cornerback Nigel Bethel, wants to see changes in the defensive approach and announced: “I want a new scheme.” He is now considering other schools, as well as UM.
D’Onofrio and Golden like to blitz some but prefer to rush four and not give up the big play.Some players would like to play more man-to-man and less zone. Make no mistake: Golden is very much involved in the schemes this defense plays. He and D'Onofrio share similar philosophies.
One UM football staffer privately expressed a concern that D’Onofrio’s system might be too complicated. But even before Penn State started pursuing Golden, the UM administration wasn't inclined to try to force him to make staff changes.
### Please see the last post for a Saturday evening update on the Golden/Penn State situation, including Donna Shalala's uncertainty about what Golden will do.
### Remember Kevin Durant saying in September that James Harden, not Dwyane Wade, belonged in the list of the NBA’s top 10 players? Wade remains the clearly more efficient player --– first in ESPN’s shooting guard efficiency ratings, ahead of Harden.
Though Harden averages more points (24 to 19.6), that’s the result of taking more shots and playing five minutes more per game. Wade shoots much better (54.1 – highest by a shooting guard in this century - to Harden’s 44.2), averages more rebounds, assists and steals per 36 minutes, and makes more fields goals than Harden despite taking fewer shots.
### The Heat has been very pleased with Greg Oden’s progress recently – he has looked good in workouts --– and Heat people would be surprised if Miami pursued Andrew Bynum if the Cavaliers cut him, barring an Oden setback. A Heat official noted Miami had no interest in Bynum last summer.
### Sad to see: Not only has Udonis Haslem slipped to 77th and last among power forwards in NBA efficiency ratings (and 324th of 327 players overall), but the Heat has been outscored by 77 points with Haslem on the floor; every other Heat player has a positive plus/minus. It's difficult to see him cracking the rotation again, barring injury, but don't count out Haslem; his grit, work ethic, tenacity and commitment have enabled him to forge a career much better than anyone expected... Please see the last post for several more Heat notes from Saturday night.
### An MLB source who has spent time with Giancarlo Stanton this offseason said he seems increasingly smitten with the Dodgers and the Hollywood lifestyle and part-time owner Magic Johnson and has buddied up with Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp. The Dodgers are the front-runner to land him when he becomes a free agent after 2016. The Marlins very likely would consider dealing him next winter if he rejects an expected multiyear offer in the coming months.
### The lighter side: Thursday marked the 30th anniversary of UM’s first national championship, against Nebraska. And you know where the game-deciding play –-- Kenny Calhoun knocking away Turner Gill’s pass on a two-point conversion –-- is most often discussed these days? Inside Central Florida's Polk County Jail, where numerous inmates have asked Calhoun, a county sheriff’s office employee, to talk about the play.
### Twitter: @flasportsbuzz