When analyzing the Dolphins’ impressive defense, it would be easy to overlook the contributions of the defensive line. That would be a huge mistake. And Miami’s front three has an excellent chance of being even better next season.
Randy Starks is the best player on this line. He has filled in at nose tackle, but I think he can be one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league. Few realize just how good Starks is, especially as a pass-rusher. He is powerful, agile and can line up effectively at several different spots along a defensive front.
But Starks isn’t the only defensive end of prominence for the Dolphins. In fact, this is very much a position of strength for Miami. A year ago, the Dolphins used their first-round pick on Jared Odrick, a player whose skill set fits perfectly in Miami’s scheme. A broken leg derailed his rookie season, but that year spent learning the system and being in a professional environment could pay off in 2011. Odrick played defensive tackle in a 4-3 at Penn State; Miami can bring him along slowly in its scheme. He should be a part of an excellent rotation with Starks, Kendall Langford and Phillip Merling, who also was unable to help Miami’s cause during the first few months of the season because of an Achilles injury. Langford is quite a good player in his own right and has progressed very nicely at the NFL level. He has the long body type you look for at end and blends the ability to pressure the passer with the ability to hold the point of attack. Tony McDaniel was also a very pleasant surprise and should have earned himself a permanent role even with everyone healthy.
Nose tackle is obviously an extremely important position in a 3-4 scheme, and Paul Soliai is up for free agency. Soliai is a massive human being and exactly what you are looking for on the nose from a run-stuffing perspective. Miami needs to get him locked up, and I wouldn’t object to using the franchise tag to keep Soliai. In a pinch, Starks could handle this role again -- and probably will get some snaps there either way in their different packages -- but Soliai would be a major loss. Drafting a nose tackle in the middle rounds might also be a good idea even if Soliai does return.
Miami’s defense is one good free safety away from being one of the elite units in 2011. The Dolphins already were one of the best defenses against the run and at rushing the passer. The defensive line is a major reason why.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.