While the most asked question this offseason by far centers on the competition at quarterback, and justifiably so, the next question I invariably hear regarding the 2019 Miami Dolphins has to do with the defense, specifically the pass rush.
Where is it going to come from?
My early answer: Everywhere.
It is an understandable concern for two reasons:
First, the pass rush wasn’t very good last season to begin with and the players that did enjoy some success are now long gone. Cam Wake is in Tennessee, Robert Quinn is in Dallas and Andre Branch and William Hayes are still searching for another team. Combined they produced 16 of the team’s 31 sacks last season.
Second, you look at the defensive ends remaining on the roster and there isn’t much experience, let alone impressive career sack numbers. The fact that the Dolphins didn’t draft a defensive end – though No. 1 pick Christian Wilkins can and will play some there – only feeds into that concern.
But you wouldn’t know it by listening to defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, or any of his assistants. You wouldn’t know it because they have a plan in place that has a proven track record, a plan predicated on coming at the quarterback in all sorts of directions from all sorts of positions.
No doubt they need production from the defensive ends on the roster, but it isn’t a make-or-break situation. The defense we’re going to see this season, specifically the pass rush, will be constructed with flexibility and unpredictability in mind. There will be an assortment of blitz packages designed to confuse the offense and take advantage of mismatches.
“The pass rush is going to come from us game-planning for it,” said first-year defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. “Just like anything we do on defense, we’re going to try to exploit the weaknesses of the offense. Then we’ll decide what we are going to deploy in different spots to work the pass rush. The beauty about the pass rush, and I’ve always said this, is it’s very fluid. You can take advantage of it in different ways, different shapes, different forms and different people.”
Or, as veteran linebacker Nate Orchard put it after his first few days learning this defense: “Blitzes come from every angle. You don’t know who’s coming, what’s going on.”
Get the idea? There will be very little vanilla in this defense. Each week the focus could very well change with new looks and formations. As a result, football smarts is imperative to make this work and that, in part, is what this coaching staff is looking to identify during these three weeks of offseason workouts.
With all of that in mind, here are five players I anticipate will play/could play a large role in making this pass rush work. There will be others, but these are the five, at least for now, I’m focusing most on.
- Christian Wilkins: His impact could be huge, even as a rookie. Wilkins looks like a defensive tackle, but showed at Clemson he possesses many of the talents of a defensive end. I imagine we will see him lined up all over the defensive line, hoping to confuse the blocking schemes and freeing him to get to the quarterback. Rest assured, he wasn’t drafted so high just for his top-tier run stopping skills.
- Jerome Baker: Entering his second season, Baker had three sacks as a rookie and with this speed and athleticism I expect this outside linebacker will be one of those interchangeable pieces. The dilemma here is that Baker is also solid in pass coverage, so this coaching staff will have some enticing alternatives. Still, I expect we’ll see him coming hard from the outside early and often.
- Minkah Fitzpatrick: This is a unique talent and it is already clear this coaching staff plans on taking that talent to perhaps another level. That means you’ll see Fitzpatrick just about everywhere – he’s even taking some snaps at linebacker -- and with that kind of diversity, you’ve got to believe he’ll have his own blitz package. Check what the Patriots have done over the years, how a defensive back invariably is near the top of their sack totals. This is the vision, I believe, with Fitzpatrick. He certainly has the skills to get it done.
- Charles Harris: His time is now. The former No. 1 pick has yet to play up to that draft day status, but this is a new staff with new ideas and I imagine you’ll see Harris utilized both in a three-point stance as a down lineman and as an outside linebacker coming off the edge. The path has been cleared for Harris with the offseason moves. Now it’s about seizing this opportunity.
- Andrew Van Ginkel: Yes, a second rookie is on this list. This one plays outside linebacker and put together a nice career at Wisconsin with 19 ½ tackles for losses over his two seasons there and that includes 12 sacks. He is a wild card in many respects: raw in experience yet intriguing with his upside. Watch his college tape. You’ll see a relentless player who often wins on effort and smarts. Just the type of credentials this staff seems to covet.
Let’s see how this plays out. Let’s see how the strategy changes from week to week. Certainly it’s not ideal having a defensive line with so little experience. But if you can offset that with the unexpected, if you can cause confusion with creativity, if you can utilize so many different parts, then you may just get what you’re looking for after all.