Now that we've looked at who needs to step up for the Dolphins on offense, we move over to the other side of the ball and check out the defense. Obviously, the addition of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will make the entire defense as a whole function better with his ability to rush the passer from the middle and stuff the run, but that doesn't mean everyone else can take a day off.
With several veterans now departed, the time has come for the youngsters on the defense to show how good they can be. But who in particular needs to make the biggest jumps in order for the Dolphins defense to fire on all cylinders? We'll take a look now.
Cornerback Jamar Taylor
Back in 2013, the Miami Dolphins invested a second-round pick into the young corner out of Boise State, and he was being advertised as a potentially first-round talent that fell into the second round due to injury concerns. So far with the Dolphins, injuries have been the one thing that has kept us from seeing Taylor's true potential. When he's been on the field, Taylor's shown talent, but lack of experience has kept him raw.
Last season, Taylor had the opportunity to learn from veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who had won the job in training camp last year and also made it a point to take both Taylor and his fellow corner Will Davis under his wing and tutor them on how to play corner.
Both Taylor and Davis made it a point to say how much they had learned from Finnegan during his one year in a Miami Dolphins uniform, and now that they've learned, they're ready to show what they can do. Taylor is aggressive and isn't afraid to go in for the hard tackle, which has many fans excited about his potential. There's only one hurdle still standing in his way.
Taylor has speed, he has athleticism, he has all the tools he needs to be a successful corner in the NFL, and he's currently the favorite to win the starting job opposite Pro Bowl corner Brent Grimes. All Taylor needs to do is stay healthy, and the Dolphins secondary will be solid in 2015.
Linebacker Chris McCain
Truthfully, McCain shouldn't even qualify for this list, but not for the reasons one might think. The reasons I'm thinking of are more along the lines of how McCain has technically already stepped up, going from an undrafted free agent who signed with the Dolphins in 2014 as a long shot to make the roster, to the projected favorite to win the starting SLB spot. But despite this fact, McCain still has to step up even further.
With the loss of veteran linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler (can we really consider them a loss?), the linebacker position is once again in question since the depth at the position is mostly unproven, and the team is hoping that young players step up and show they can fill the void.
McCain is an incredible pass-rusher and playmaker, and is well-known among Dolphins fans for blocking a punt in the first game of the 2014 season against the New England Patriots, and he also earned his first career sack in that same game when he sacked Tom Brady, and everyone knows that sacking Brady earns brownie points in the hearts of all Dolphins fans.
Unfortunately, for one reason or another, McCain was unable to see the field much after that initial performance against New England, and his playmaking ability was stifled for the most part. It seemed common sense that McCain would be a better option on defense than Philip Wheeler (who WOULDN'T be a better option than Wheeler?), and yet the young linebacker out of California couldn't find a way to get playing time over Wheeler.
Now with Wheeler gone, McCain and his incredible pass-rushing ability has a real shot at making the starting lineup now that he's learned the defense and knows what's going on. If he can work on his coverage ability to add on to his pass-rushing prowess, McCain has the potential to become a star in the NFL, and he's determined to make that happen. If he does pull it off, offenses should watch out.
Defensive end Olivier Vernon
You might be wondering why I put an established starter on the "need to step up" list, but hopefully my explanation will make sense. See, we currently have Ndamukong Suh taking care of the middle, we have Cameron Wake rushing against the right tackle...so in order for the all out pass-rush to be complete, Vernon needs to show what he can do like he did in 2013 when he racked up a career high 11.5 sacks.
The Miami Dolphins strongest unit on defense is without a doubt the defensive line, and Vernon's ability to chase down players against the run and his pass-rushing ability is a big part of that, but now with Suh and Wake taking up most of the double team's, Vernon will have a lot of opportunities to go one-on-one with an opposing team's left tackle, and in a contract year, that should lead to a lot of sacks if he's truly who many individuals think he is.
But there are those who are still skeptical about Vernon's ability, those who feel that his numbers and ability to disrupt an offense are being highly overrated. Well, with Vernon now being viewed as the easy target for offensive line's he'll have a chance to prove what he's made of, and if he can step up and prove himself, he'll not only earn himself a big payday next season, but he - combined with Suh and Wake - will make the Miami Dolphins defense one of the most feared in the NFL. No QB likes being rushed, and if the QB is getting rushed from all three sides? Half the battle has already been won.
This column was written by Luis Sung. Follow him on Twitter: @FLSportDebater
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