Breaking down the Dolphins' defense

August, 9, 2011
8/09/11
3:34
PM ET
I am enamored with the Miami Dolphins' defense this year. It is talented, productive and deep. And the entire unit is going to benefit greatly from the front three.

Like with any odd front, we need to start with the nose tackle. He is rarely mentioned among the best anchors in the NFL, but Paul Soliai deserves to be. A taller version of guys like Vince Wilfork and Casey Hampton, Soliai is a huge man. And he knows how to use his extreme girth to occupy offensive linemen and hold the point of attack against the run.

[+] EnlargePaul Soliai
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeNose tackle Paul Soliai is the often-overlooked anchor of a strong Miami defensive line.
He is exactly what you want at the position and the type of player who allows everyone around him to do their jobs more easily. Miami was wise to use its franchise tag on Soliai before free agency opened. He is someone the Dolphins could not afford to lose.

Ronald Fields was recently signed as a backup for Soliai. There would be a noticeable drop-off if Soliai were to miss time, but Fields is built for the position and does have starting experience. He is purely a run-stuffer, but the depth he provides is valuable.

Much like Soliai at the nose, Randy Starks is rarely mentioned when discussing the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league. He too deserves to be in that conversation. A power player who also has strong movement skills, Starks is a force against the run or pass. He has played some nose tackle in the past, but is much better suited at end. Starks is a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive lineman.

Kendall Langford will start at the other defensive end spot. He too had an exceptional 2010 campaign. Like the rest of this group, he is more or less the prototype at the position, but I see Langford as a little quicker and more athletic than Starks. He has slightly superior movement skills, but isn’t quite the power player Starks can be. Langford is the real deal, and he might only be getting better.

Last year’s first-round pick, Jared Odrick, also will be in the mix this season. Coming out of Penn State, Odrick looked ideal for this defense. He is well built with long arms and uses his hands to control his opponent very well for such a young player. Odrick is obviously quite talented, and with the wealth of options the Dolphins have up front, the team should be able to bring him along at his own pace instead of forcing him in when he isn’t ready.

The Dolphins were smart to re-sign Tony McDaniel. Like the rest of this line, the re-signing went largely unnoticed, but McDaniel is hitting his prime. He is a tall defensive end with a great wing span. McDaniel played very well for Miami last season and is about as good of a depth defensive lineman as you will find in the league today.

The odd man out, especially after McDaniels’ re-signing, could be Phillip Merling. As it stands today, the 26-year-old Merling probably will make the team, but injuries have plagued him and he might be a better fit as a more traditional base end in a 4-3 scheme. This is a pivotal year in Merling’s career, but as you can see from the above descriptions, getting playing time might not come easy for this former second-round pick.

The Dolphins added Jason Taylor to spell Koa Misi and Cameron Wake, while also providing great leadership. As pass-rushers, these outside linebackers should benefit greatly from all the attention Miami’s defensive line is sure to attract.

Behind this line, Miami added Kevin Burnett to start opposite Karlos Dansby at linebacker. Burnett replaces Channing Crowder and is a major upgrade in athleticism and versatility. Crowder is the better take-on linebacker, but Burnett is more like Dansby. Because of the exceptional defensive line in front of them, this is a great move, as it will allow these inside linebackers to get to the football more freely and will give the defense many more options on passing downs.

Burnett is also much better equipped to handle the variety of receiving threats that New England will throw at the Dolphins. Crowder simply isn’t equipped to keep up with guys like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead in coverage.

Miami’s defensive line is what makes this all possible.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.

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