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2014 Positional Breakdown: Defensive Line

Posted Feb 7, 2014

Deepest position group on the team delivered in a big way.



Miami’s defensive line was without a doubt the deepest position group on the team last season, which is why rookie defensive end Dion Jordan had such a difficult time cracking the starting lineup. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, especially when you had three-time Pro Bowler Cameron Wake on one side.

As soon as the Dolphins traded up to the third overall pick of last April’s NFL Draft to take the pass rushing specialist out of Oregon, people wondered how he’d get significant playing time. A shoulder injury slowed his progress early on, but the emergence of Olivier Vernon at the other end position had more to do with Jordan’s limited snaps and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Vernon, a third-round draft pick in 2012 out of the University of Miami, had a breakout season and with 11.5 sacks became the first Dolphin not named Wake to lead the team since 2009. He and Wake combined for half of Miami’s 42 sacks on the season, with Wake adding 8.5, and were part of a unit that accounted for 34 total sacks.

Both Wake and Vernon were the first to credit the interior linemen for opening up those pass rushing lanes for them, led by tackles Paul Soliai, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick. Those three got to the opposing quarterback 9.5 times and combined to make 126 tackles (89 solo) in an intimidating rotation against the run and the pass. Jordan and second-year defensive end Derrick Shelby proved to be effective in spurts, with Shelby filling in admirably for Wake when he was bothered by a knee injury. Undrafted rookie defensive tackle A.J. Francis rejoined the team late in the season after being stolen by the New England Patriots before the regular season and has a lot of upside.

BREAKING DOWN DOLPHINS DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

• Cameron Wake (6-3, 250) — Though he failed to reach double digits in sacks this season, Wake solidified his place as one of the league’s most feared pass rushers and expanded his game to become a stalwart against the run and sometimes in pass coverage. Just in case anyone had forgotten how much of an impact he can make, Wake reminded them on Halloween night at Sun Life Stadium when he stunted inside and blew up Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the end zone for a sack (his third of the game) and a safety in overtime to give Miami a 22-20 victory. It was only the second time in league history that a game had ended with a sack/safety in overtime.

• Randy Starks (6-3, 305) — Starks was coming off of his second trip to the Pro Bowl and picked up right where he left off with two sacks in the first two games of the season (1.5 at Cleveland and a half sack at Indianapolis). His interior pressure and ability to occupy double teams made it easier for Wake, Vernon, Jordan and Shelby to find room off the edge and he also had one forced fumble and one pass breakup to go along with his four sacks.

• Paul Soliai (6-4, 345) — Nobody drew more attention from opposing centers and guards than Soliai, yet he was able to bring the heat despite sometimes being triple teamed and got his hands up quick enough to deflect five passes. Soliai’s toughness was evident throughout the season as he battled through the pain of a nagging knee injury that forced him to miss the home opener against Atlanta. He started 15 games and was again a force in the middle

• Olivier Vernon (6-2, 268) — Vernon found another gear in training camp and the preseason to hold off the talented Jordan for the starting right defensive end position and found his groove four games into the schedule after a slow start. Twice during the season he put together streaks of four consecutive games with a sack and earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week in honors in Week 13 after registering three sacks and 10 tackles (eight solo) in a 23-3 road win at the New York Jets. Vernon’s 57 tackles (46 solo) were the most by any defensive lineman and sixth overall on the team.

• Jared Odrick (6-5, 302) — Considering the fact that he was drafted as a defensive end back in 2010, Odrick has made the transition inside to defensive tackle look seamless and has proven to be a mismatch for opposing guards because of his length and athleticism. He was playing at a Pro Bowl for a good chunk of the season, leading all interior linemen with 4.5 sacks and forcing one fumble to go along with two passes defensed. Odrick started five of the 16 games he played and sometimes rushed from the edge because of his versatility, which is certain to be exploited again in 2014 by defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle.

• Derrick Shelby (6-2, 270) — Shelby was the picture of consistency going back to his rookie season as an undrafted rookie out of Utah and gave Coyle the confidence to make situational substitutions with him. He had two sacks in the first two games (one each at Cleveland and Indianapolis) and finished the season with 2.5 to go with 34 tackles (23 solo) as Wake’s backup.

• Dion Jordan (6-6, 248) — A lot of hype surrounded Jordan’s rookie campaign because of his draft position and comparisons to Dolphins great Jason Taylor because of his similar build. He showed flashes of the talent that convinced Miami to trade up in the draft for him with two sacks and his biggest play came against the Baltimore Ravens when he beat his blocker around the edge and swatted Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s just as he released the ball. That led to an interception by safety Reshad Jones that was returned for a touchdown and Jordan has pledged to put in the work in the offseason so that he can take the next step in his development.

• A.J. Francis (6-5, 316) — Francis was a locker room favorite because of his personality and bonded immediately with Wake and the others during training camp. He was expecting to stay in Miami on the practice squad after being one of the last players cut but the Patriots poached him and eventually put him on their practice squad. The Dolphins brought him back for the last month of the season, signing him to the active roster, and he is expected to provide depth at the tackle position, especially if the team ends up losing Soliai or Starks.

Isaako Aaitui was the only defensive lineman the Dolphins had on the practice squad at the end of the season and the 6-4, 315-pounder out of UNLV is a viable player at the defensive tackle position. The group in front of him was just too talented for him to be able to break through this season but he is someone to keep an eye again in training camp.

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