Do the Dolphins have the best defensive line in football?
They certainly have the highest paid.
When the NFL’s 32 teams opened training camp in July, none had more dedicated in 2017 salary-cap dollars than the Dolphins ($45.2 million, according to Spotrac.com).
That’s not a huge surprise. Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake have been in the league’s upper class for years. The Dolphins used their first-round pick on Charles Harris and traded for veteran William Hayes.
But what made the budget really balloon at that position was Miami’s decision to re-sign Andre Branch to a three-year, $24 million contract in March.
The size of the contract left some scratching their heads, considering Branch has never had more than six sacks in his five-year career.
But for the Dolphins, it was a no-brainer.
“He’s our spark plug,” coach Adam Gase said. “He’s the guy that gets it going. A lot of the things you guys don’t see. He’s our energy. He makes sure that there’s not a dull moment. When he gets in that groove in a game, you know it’s just a matter of time [before] he’s going to make a play.”
Branch has been like that since the day he arrived in South Florida. While some Dolphins players in the past tip-toed around Suh, Branch feels emboldened to go right after the league’s highest-paid defensive tackle, when he needs to.
“We all cut-up,” Branch said of the defensive line meeting room. “We have a bunch of characters, a bunch of clowns in there. We have fun, but when it’s time to work, we work.”
Branch works well in Miami after four mostly forgettable seasons in Jacksonville. The Jaguars made Branch the 38th overall pick in 2012 but showed little inclination to keep him when his rookie contract expired. Instead, Branch hooked up with the Dolphins on a one-year, “prove-it” deal.
He proved to the Dolphins that he not only belonged in the league but also was one of the better players at his position.
The Dolphins will rotate as many as five defensive ends in games this year, and while all have specific skill sets, each will have one overriding responsibility: set the edge.
Run defenses simply don’t work if backs can scoot around the end, and Miami’s failure to stop that was a big reason the Dolphins allowed 2,247 rushing yards in 2016, third-most in the league.
Hayes is one of the league’s best run-stoppers and should make this a stouter group than it was a year ago. But if the Dolphins are going to make a quantum leap forward in defensive coordinator Matt Burke’s first season, Branch needs to make a similar leap.
“Get in where I fit in,” Branch said of his role. “I’m a player that just wants to be the best player he can be.”
As for the potential of Miami’s defense in 2017?
“Turn on that film,” Branch said. “You have 11 killers out there.”