It's clear now that Vic Fangio will not be the new Dolphins head coach, but this does not mean that the team is suddenly incapable of changing up the base defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4.
Whoever the new head coach is, there's no telling who their defensive coordinator is going to be or what their preferred defensive philosophy is going to be, so let's take a brief moment to best estimate what adjustments the Miami Dolphins will need to do in order to adapt to that particular scheme; particularly after operating under a 4-3 for so many years.
I think everyone who watches the team as a fan would appreciate a change of pace, after all.
The main difference between a 4-3 and 3-4 is the versatility of defensive alignments. In a 4-3, the defense is more predictable; two DEs, two DTs, and three linebackers lined up behind them with, with two corners and two safeties in the defensive backfield. This is the scheme Miami has been utilizing for years now, and it seems to have lost its effectiveness.
In a 4-3, all four defensive linemen must be solid pass rushers, and in run defense, this requires the middle linebacker (in this case, Raekwon McMillan, to be able to run from sideline to sideline and make quick reads to stop the run).
McMillan improved somewhat near the tail end of the season, but struggled overall in what was essentially his rookie season as a result of missing all of 2017 with a knee injury he sustained in the team's preseason opener.
This limitation was then exacerbated by the team's utilization of the Wide-9 alignment, which was built to give pass rushers Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn a favorable position to rush the quarterback; not only did that fail to increase the number of the sacks throughout the season - the team finished 29th in the league in sacks with a measly 31 - but it made the team vulnerable to giving up mountains worth of rushing yards per game, a whopping 145.3, only better than the Arizona Cardinals who gave up 154.9 rush yards per game.
Arizona finished the season in last place in the NFC West with a 3-13 record, and fired head coach Steve Wilks after only one season.
Needless to say, things need to change, and perhaps the time has come to switch to a 3-4 defense and mix things up a little. However, there are certain things the team will need before they can effectively make that transition, not the least of which is an honest-to-goodness nose tackle, something the team hasn't had since Paul Soliai.
Would Ndamukong Suh have qualified? Perhaps, he's playing the position now for the Los Angeles Rams. But he hasn't really stood out this season, particularly with the shadow of Aaron Donald looming over him, who's getting to shine as a 3-4 defensive end, lined up between an offense's guards and tackles.
As a matter of fact, according to those who cover the Rams, Suh has not done well at all as a nose tackle, with most of the offensive line still keying in on Aaron Donald and doubling him, preferring to ignore Suh. His most effective instances are when he's shifted to 3-4 DE, which is where he's suited.
Suh's skill tree would not have been enough to flourish as a true nose tackle, as insane as that sounds on paper.
Typically, a 3-4 nose tackle needs to be someone who can eat up blocks and not give up any ground, which is what Soliai was so good at while the Dolphins ran a 3-4, allowing the likes of a then young Cameron Wake to rack up 14 sacks in his second year in the league in 2010 as an outside linebacker on the edge.
Soliai last weighed in at 6-foot-4 and a massive 344 pounds, that should give you some idea of what Miami needs for an effective nose tackle.
Another example, Vince Wilfork, made a name for himself playing nose tackle before the Patriots switched to a 4-3 defense in 2011. His size? 6-foot-2, 325 pounds.
And quite frankly, he looked like a bowling ball, and he played the part he was built for.
So this leaves the Miami Dolphins in a predicament. As of now, the team has no such player who can effectively fill that role. The best candidate at this point is veteran Sylvester Williams, who was signed later in the 2018 season after injuries started to pile up and is not expected to be retained. Williams stands in at 6-foot-2, 328 pounds.
No other defensive tackle on the roster even weighs in at 320.
So if the Dolphins want to run an effective 3-4 defense, they will need to invest in an actual nose tackle. With this upcoming draft filled with defensive line prospects, they might be able to find a candidate in the early rounds, which leaves the other positions to look at.
Frankly, things aren't as bad as they seem at the other positions.
For defensive ends, since we've already eliminated the team's current DTs (Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor) as potential nose tackles, we consider them for the 3-4 DE spots...and they fit the mold pretty well. While heavier than Aaron Donald (who weighs in at 6-foot-1, 280 pounds), they better fit the mold of Ndamukong Suh, who - again - finds most of his 3-4 success when lined up as a DE. Seems like a perfect fit.
For outside linebackers, Cameron Wake could still rush the quarterback even if his hand isn't in the dirt, he did get 14 sacks in his second year in that role, as previously mentioned. Using him as a weakside rusher in the 3-4 sounds intriguing. As for the other side, that might be the chance that former first round pick Charles Harris needs to finally shine.
Quick reminder, Harris actually played plenty of outside linebacker during his time at Missouri, moving around as needed from edge rusher as a linebacker to a defensive end as needed with the Missouri Tigers running a hybrid defense that incorporated a lot of 4-2-5 elements (four linebackers, two defensive tackles, five defensive backs). But he was converted to a full-time 4-3 defensive end. We all know how that went for Dion Jordan, who was supposed to revolutionize the team's pass rushing for years to come and become the next Jason Taylor.
At least Harris doesn't come with "other" issues. So for depth's sake, finding another player who can act as an edge and can spell Cameron Wake in downs that aren't obvious passing downs is crucial. This is, of course, assuming Wake is brought back on a new contract and doesn't go elsewhere in the offseason as the team rebuilds.
As for the secondary, coverage schemes don't necessarily have to change much based on which base defense is used, the Cover 2 would still work just fine, and unless the new defensive coordinator is inspired by having both Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald to pair with Minkah Fitzpatrick to switch to a Cover 3 (assuming the aforementioned veterans are still with the team by the start of the 2019 season), it stands to reason the new man will stick with the Cover 2.
Although he should seriously consider using three safeties, making McDonald a hybrid linebacker type.
Xavien Howard is a building block type player and has emerged as an elite corner. As the team rebuilds, Howard should be extended to a long-term deal unless they feel they can get a huge payday from a team looking for a stud cornerback: either a first round pick or a package of picks which includes a second rounder. He would easily lock down one corner spot, but then Miami has to go on the hunt for another corner who can handle the starting spot beside him.
Regardless of whether it's a 4-3 or a 3-4, they'll need to do this. Neither Cordrea Tankersley, Torry McTyer, Bobby McCain or Cornell Armstrong could handle the responsibility effectively in 2018, so barring a huge developmental jump for one of those guys, the Dolphins need another starting cornerback.
Safety is set unless they jettison both Jones and McDonald, and even then, there are always young players that can be given an opportunity, such as Maurice Smith, who plays hard and if given a fair shot, could impress some folks.
Now the tricky part...inside linebackers. Can the Ohio State duo of Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker effectively handle the responsibilities associated with 3-4 middle linebacker duties?
Maybe they can.
McMillan would likely be given the role of the SAM linebacker, which means that they line up on the strong side of the offensive formation, aka wherever the tight end is. Traditionally, the SAM's job is to make quick reads and stop the run, be the bruiser linebacker on the defense going downhill; given that McMillan is better as a run stopper, that seems like a job he could handle.
That leaves Baker as the WILL, the guy who goes in to clean up the mess and takes advantage of not having blockers on him so he can make plays. Baker's fast and he can go from sideline to sideline in a hurry, if he doesn't have to shed blockers, he's shown he can make those plays when given the chance.
Things are starting to look up for the hypothetical 3-4 Dolphins defense.
The main quid pro quo at this point is we don't know who on the Miami defense will remain as the team is set to presumably clean house. As previously mentioned, Wake could be gone, and most of the team's 4-3 DEs seem set to follow. That means no Robert Quinn (who struggled in a 3-4 anyway), no Andre Branch (overpriced and overrated), and no William Hayes (good player but old and often-injured).
At linebacker, the team could part ways with veteran Kiko Alonso, who can also make plays against the run but is a liability in coverage. And of course, there's no telling if the team will trade away their secondary players to stockpile draft picks as a result of their rebuild.
However, even if they do clean house of veterans, the Dolphins still have the basic pieces - on paper - needed to effectively run a 3-4 defense if whoever does get hired as the new head coach opts to bring in a coordinator who likes a 3-4 defense. Retain Howard, find another starting corner, an edge rusher, and a nose tackle.
Do that, and Miami's 3-4 starting lineup is set.
This story was written by Luis Sung. Follow him on Twitter: @LuisDSung
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