SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
The Dolphins for years have become very defensive when anyone suggests their defense might not be as good as they would like us to believe. After watching the past three opponents obliterate Miami for a combined 661 rushing yards, coordinator Kevin Coyle defiantly disputed the notion that his run defense isn’t as good as advertised, and Cam Wake insisted this slump does not “all of a sudden turn us into a bunch of bums.”
The Dolphins claim that the critical times they unravel --- in the fourth quarter against Green Bay, Detroit, Denver, in the first half against the Jets and second half against Baltimore --- are an anomaly.
But this seems to be a more accurate portrayal of who they are: a defense that can play quite well at times, such as the San Diego shellacking (good enough for Miami to rank sixth overall in yards allowed and tied for seventh in points allowed); but often shrinks in key moments against quality offenses; and a run defense that can no longer be trusted, considering Miami was 24th against the run in 2013 and 22nd this season.
Perhaps this Dolphins defense gets its act together Sunday against a Patriots team that’s third in the league in scoring. But if they’re steamrolled Sunday, it’s time the Dolphins admit this defense needs more than tinkering.
A look at where this unit stands and looming personnel issues for whoever ends up in charge here (which is very much in question):
### Defensive tackle: It’s increasingly likely that Randy Starks won’t return on a contract that has a $6 million hit if he’s on the team, $1 million if he’s not. During the past three weeks, Starks has graded out poorly against the run and doesn’t have a single pressure as a pass rusher.
What’s more, it’s highly questionable if the Dolphins will pay Jared Odrick what he could command elsewhere as a free agent. It’s telling that in Pro Football Focus rankings, the Dolphins don’t have a tackle that ranks in the top 30 against the run. Among 79 tackles, Earl Mitchell (who’s likely to return next season) is 32nd, Odrick 38th and Starks 77th. Paul Soliai, who left for Atlanta, is 22nd.
If Starks and Odrick move on, the Dolphins figure to sign a run-stuffer from a free agent class that includes Arizona’s Dan Williams (sixth among tackles against the run, per PFF), Denver’s Terrance Knighton (ninth), Detroit’s Nick Fairley (14th) and Atlanta’s Corey Peters (18th), among others.
The Dolphins then could add a third tackle in the draft. Mel Kiper’s top four tackle prospects: Washington’s Danny Shelton, FSU’s Eddie Goldman, Oklahoma’s Jordan Phillips and Ohio State’s Michael Bennett.
### Defensive end: Except for restricted free agent Derrick Shelby, the other ends --- Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon, Dion Jordan and Terrence Fede --- are signed for 2015. The question is whether Miami will ask Wake to rework a contract that carries a $9.7 million cap hit next season.
### Linebacker: This staff likes Koa Misi, who has a $4.4 million hit if he’s on the team, $1.7 million if he’s not. But Misi played poorly against Baltimore and is at risk if Miami can upgrade, partly because of durability issues. Sunday would be the fifth game he would miss this season, – he’s listed as doubtful - and he hasn't been able to finish three others. Misi hasn’t played a full season since his rookie year.
The Dolphins’ other options in the middle? They could draft one high (Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney, UM’s Denzel Perryman and UCLA’s Eric Kendricks are Kiper’s top three) or pursue a free agent who excels against the run, such as Dallas’ Rolando McClain, Minnesota’s Jasper Brinkley or Buffalo’s Brandon Spikes.
Jelani Jenkins very likely will keep the weakside linebacker job ahead of Dannell Ellerbe, who has a $9.9 million hit if he’s on the team or $4.4 million otherwise. Ellerbe figures to take a pay cut or be cut.
The dilemma with Philip Wheeler --- who really needs to uplift a depleted linebacker unit on Sunday --- is that his cap hit is nearly as high if he’s cut ($4.2 million) as if he stays ($4.4 million).
The free agent class of 4-3 outside linebackers isn’t very good, but there are several high-end 4-3 outside linebacker draft prospects, including Clemson’s Vic Beasley and Oklahoma’s Eric Striker. Moving Jordan to Wheeler’s spot is an option, but Coyle has been opposed to that.
### Safety: Jimmy Wilson gets another shot as a starting safety over the next three games and it could be an audition. If Louis Delmas hadn’t suffered a torn ACL, there was a good chance Delmas would be asked back. Now, that’s in question, even though he should be healthy for training camp.
If the Dolphins move on from Delmas (who is ranked 47th of 86 safeties by PFF), they could turn to Wilson or free agent options such as New England’s Devin McCourty (ranked fourth; very pricey and could get the franchise tag), the Jets’ Dewan Landry (16th), the Colts’ Sergio Brown (22) and Denver’s Rahim Moore (35), among others.
### Cornerback: The Dolphins have gotten by despite injuries, but this needs to be addressed longterm. Beyond needing a reliable starter opposite Brent Grimes (Cortland Finnegan says he will play Sunday but is unlikely to be back in 2015), they also would be wise to at least give thought to the nickel corner spot.
Wilson has had some good moments as a nickel corner, but his passer rating against, during his snaps at cornerback, is 114.4, 95th among 113 corners.
It would be risky projecting Jamar Taylor or Will Davis as starters unless Taylor shines the next three weeks.
There’s a good group of free agent corners, and though the Patriots’ Darrelle Revis isn't a realistic option for Miami, there are others available, including San Diego’s Brandon Flowers (seventh), Houston’s Kareem Jackson (13th), Arizona’s Antonio Cromartie (21) and the 49ers’ Chris Culliver (12) and Perrish Cox (32), among others…. Kiper’s top cornerback prospects: Oregon’s Ifo Ekpre Olomu, Washington’s Marcus Peters and Michigan State’s Trae Waynes.
### The Marlins have been dangling Nathan Eovaldi in a trade for a first baseman, and entering the weekend, they were still exploring several first base options: free agent Michael Morse or trades for Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez (whose power they really like), Arizona’s Mark Trumbo, Colorado’s Justin Morneau and Baltimore’s Chris Davis.
They have continued conversations with Morse in recent days, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if a deal is struck. He appears to be the best realistic option.
The Marlins love Morneau, but declined Colorado’s initial request for Henderson Alvarez or Jarred Cosart.
### Pitcher Dan Haren hasn’t told the Marlins which way he’s leaning about retirement and the Marlins haven’t given him a deadline. But Haren did tell the Marlins they have a "great" young team.
### The Marlins were willing to part with top prospect Andrew Heaney in the Dodgers trade because they had lost some level of conviction about him after his seven big-league appearances.
“His confidence and mound presence were not there in the big leagues; he kind of looked like a deer in the headlights,” one Marlins official said.
### Though the Dodgers flipped Heaney to the Angels for All-Star second baseman Howie Kendrick, the Marlins preferred the offer of Haren (and $10 million from the Dodgers to pay Haren or somebody else) and All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon (with the Dodgers agreeing to cover his salary, too).
### Shabazz Napier, who was sent to the Heat's D-League team in South Dakota on Saturday, shot 8 for 26 in his past eight games and went scoreless in three of his past four. Though he had no turnovers in four of his past five games (a problem earlier in the season), he has struggled defensively. What's more, his minutes were dwindling (3, 13 and 9 the last three games).
The stint with the Sioux Falls team will allow him to play regular minutes and work on his game. Napier and Hassan Whiteside, who was also sent to Sioux Falls, will still count against the Heat's 15-man roster limit, as will guard Andre Dawkins, who was dispatched to South Dakota two weeks ago.
Whiteside's re-assignment suggests Chris Andersen is very close to returning from an ankle injury.
### The need for Luol Deng to play well for the Heat is underscored by the huge disparity in his play between wins and losses. He’s averaging 17.4 points and shooting 59 percent in wins, 11.1 and 39 percent in losses.
“Trust me, I know, and it’s upsetting,” he said. “My worst games are really our low assist games when we haven’t moved it as well. I barely do anything with the ball. Most of my stuff is without the ball and cutting and moving. It’s something we really need to address as a team.”
### Kiper said running back Duke Johnson should turn pro (which many expect) but left tackle Ereck Flowers would benefit from another year at UM.
Kiper projects Johnson going in the second or third round “because running backs fall down; that is the nature of the position.” As for Flowers, “he has tremendous ability. He’s a second or third round pick who could be a first by coming back.”
### Al Golden said he didn't plan to watch The U Part 2 with recruits on Saturday night because they had other planned activities... Offensive coordinator James Coley cleverly tweeted out The U Part Tres and a logo during the movie tonight.
### Golden, speaking Saturday on receiver Rashawn Scott, who redshirted this season because of a shoulder/clavicle injury: "He is starting to understand who he is as a receiver --- play bigger, be a threat in the red zone, be a slant catcher. Hopefully he's going to settle into who he is. We missed him this year; he was a starter when he went down. I think he'll have a good contribution for us" in 2015.