Written by Alain Poupart of MiamiDolphins.com
The defensive line has been a strength for the Dolphins for several years now, and there’s reason to believe it could be even better in 2014.
The Dolphins have talent and depth at both defensive end and defensive tackle, led by three-time Pro Bowl selection Cameron Wake, two-time selection Randy Starks, and former first-round picks Jared Odrick and Dion Jordan. There’s also plenty of young talent on this unit, starting with emerging star Olivier Vernon.
For good measure, the Dolphins have an impressive collection of rookie free agents, a group Odrick called the most impressive of his Miami tenure.
The only significant change from last year was the arrival of rising defensive tackle Earl Mitchell as a free agent from Houston and the departure via free agency of Paul Soliai.
• DT Isaako Aaitui (6-4, 315) — A big run stuffer from UNLV, Aaitui has bounced on and off the Dolphins practice squad since 2011 and he got his first chance at NFL regular season action last October. He ended last season on the practice squad before being signed to a futures contract in January.
• DT A.J. Francis (6-5, 316) — Francis didn’t play a down as a rookie in 2013, but his potential still is obvious. He first attracted attention last summer with his showing at training camp as a rookie free agent, impressing enough that the New England Patriots claimed him off waivers after the Dolphins released him. Late in the season, the Dolphins brought him back by signing him off the Patriots practice squad. Francis is a big guy with good quickness who’s worth keeping an eye on.
• DE Dion Jordan (6-6, 266) — There are few players on the Dolphins roster with more intriguing potential than Jordan, and we’re more likely to see it being unleashed in 2014 now that he’s bigger and has had a full offseason of work. The biggest question with Jordan is finding a way to utilize his immense physical ability, although rushing the passer figures to be his calling card.
• DT Jared Odrick (6-5, 302) — Odrick quietly had a very solid 2013 season and there’s no reason he can’t be even more productive in a second consecutive season inside in the Dolphins’ 4-3 base defense. Odrick brings a nice combination of run-stopping ability and pass-rushing skills.
• DE Derrick Shelby (6-2, 280) — Shelby is the unsung member of the defensive line. Head Coach Joe Philbin made it a point during the spring to say that Shelby is the type of player who coaches appreciate more after watching film and seeing him deliver on his assignments. Shelby added some weight in the offseason, which should only help him at the point of attack.
• DT Randy Starks (6-3, 305) — The longest-tenured member of the Dolphins defense, Starks keeps producing year after year. Even though he’s been named to the Pro Bowl twice, Starks still probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves as one of the top 4-3 defensive tackles in the NFL. The Dolphins’ ability to re-sign him as a free agent ranks as one of their most significant moves of the offseason.
• DE Olivier Vernon (6-2, 268) — There were high hopes for Vernon when he was drafted in the third round in 2012 and he delivered in a big way in his second season. Vernon emerged as a pass-rushing force, giving the Dolphins a tremendous one-two punch with Cameron Wake. Now in his third season, it will be interesting to see just how far Vernon can take his game.
• DE Cameron Wake (6-3, 256) — What else is there to say about Cameron Wake? The former CFL star remains one of the most important players on the team. He’s coming off his third Pro Bowl season, a feat even more impressive when you remember he was bothered by a knee injury for a few weeks early in the season. Wake, pure and simple, is a difference-maker.
• DT Earl Mitchell (6-3, 300) — Mitchell joined the Dolphins after four seasons with the Houston Texans during which he did nothing but get better. Mitchell started 14 games at nose tackle in Houston’s 3-4 scheme last season but said upon signing with the Dolphins he felt more at home in a 4-3 scheme. Mitchell is a no-nonsense player whose best football still should be ahead.
ROOKIES OR FIRST-YEAR PLAYERS
• DE Terrence Fede (6-4, 267) — The seventh-round pick was the first player ever drafted out of Marist College in New York. Fede achieved that milestone because of his pass-rushing ability.
• DT Anthony Johnson (6-2, 308) — One of the most intriguing rookie free agents on the roster, Johnson was considered one of the top high school recruits in the country when he signed with LSU. Johnson flashed some of his vast potential during an impressive spring.
• DT Kamal Johnson (6-3, 305) — The rookie free agent from Temple showed good mobility for his size during the offseason practices.
• DE Tevin Mims (6-4, 260) — Another rookie free agent, Mims began his collegiate career at the University of Texas before eventually winding up at the University of South Florida, where he was named the team’s Defensive MVP in 2013.
• DT Garrison Smith (6-1, 294) — The rookie free agent from Georgia may a bit undersized, but he’s very active. That was evident last season when he finished with six sacks and it also showed up during the “spring game” that concluded the Dolphins’ offseason program when he had a sack and a fumble recovery.