Football is finally back, and the Dolphins — thanks to a series of high-profile offensive upgrades — are a dark-horse pick to unseat the Patriots in the AFC East.
Exciting times? Sure. Merely the prospect of scoring points is fun for Miami’s long-suffering fan base.
But when the Dolphins kick off their make-or-break 48th season Sunday in Cleveland, try to keep this in mind: The strength of this team remains its front seven.
It’s where the Dolphins have the best players, and where their front office has invested the most resources. They continued that trend early Saturday, agreeing on a four-year contract extension with outside linebacker Koa Misi. Fox Sports reported Saturday the deal is worth $17million in new money.
“We’re trying to carry this team,” defensive tackle Paul Soliai said. “I can see it, it’s the backbone of the team.”
Added star pass-rusher Cameron Wake: “I’d like to be part of that group that’s leading the way.”
With the big money and high draft picks dedicated to the unit, nothing less is expected.
Of the roughly $108 million the Dolphins have in 2013 salary-cap commitments, more than 30 percent is dedicated to the seven players expected to start at defensive line and linebacker, plus top contributors Randy Starks and Dion Jordan.
Their collective job Sunday is simple: Stop Trent Richardson and sack Brandon Weeden.
They certainly have the players to do it. Jeff Ireland has hoarded front-seven talent in his time as general manager, and puts such a premium on the group that he’s paying Starks more than $8 million to be a part-time player
Here’s how the group came together:
• Soliai: A fourth-round pick by the Dolphins in 2007, Soliai is in the last of a two-year, $12 million contract. He’ll get paid this offseason, if not sooner.
• Defensive tackle Starks: The Dolphins franchise-tag designee will make roughly $8.5 million this fall. He signed with the team as a free agent in 2008.
• Defensive end Wake: After two years in the CFL, Wake joined the Dolphins in early 2009. He’s under contract through 2016, thanks to a $49 million deal.
• Defensive tackle Jared Odrick: The 28th overall pick in the 2010 draft has two years left on his rookie deal, which will pay him $13 million over the course of five seasons.
• Misi: Prior to Saturday’s contract extension that keeps him in Miami through 2017, he was one of the few values in the Dolphins’ front seven. Misi was a second-round pick in 2010, and is in the final year of a $4.7 million contract.
• Defensive end Olivier Vernon: The Dolphins’ starting right defensive end is even more of a bargain. He’s in the second year of the four-year, $2.8 million deal he signed as a third-round pick in 2012.
• Middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe: Arguably the biggest defensive prize in the 2013 free agent class, Ellerbe signed a five-year, $35 million contract in March.
• Outside linebacker Philip Wheeler: Joined the Dolphins just hours after Ellerbe signed, accepting a free agent deal worth $26 million over the next five seasons.
• Defensive end Jordan: The Dolphins traded up from 12th to the third overall pick to draft Jordan in April. He’s signed to a four-year, $20.6 million deal.
Said Wheeler: “We’re not oblivious to the fact that we have a lot of good players up front.”
An added bonus: The group is as versatile as it is talented.
Jordan played standup linebacker at Oregon. Wake can drop into space. Wheeler and Ellerbe are excellent blitzers. And Odrick plays every position on the defensive line.
It’s Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle’s job to make it all work. Past history — plus the arsenal of weapons — suggests he’s not going to have his team sit back in a Tampa 2 alignment.
Instead, expect exotic fronts lining up players where you would least anticipate. Don’t discount the Dolphins putting Wake, Jordan and Vernon all on the field at once on passing downs.
“I think it makes us very unpredictable, and it gives the offense a lot of things to work on,” Wheeler said. “[It] may overload them, hopefully. They’re worried about something we’re going to do here, there, and we’re doing [something different].
“Hopefully, we can work it out to our advantage.”
The Dolphins’ season is probably riding on it.