Armando Salguero

Miami Dolphins top priorities for the April 27-29 draft

Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard (25) defends against the New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) on an incomplete pass in a 2016 game. Howard was the only defensive player the Dolphins selected early in the 2016 draft.
Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard (25) defends against the New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) on an incomplete pass in a 2016 game. Howard was the only defensive player the Dolphins selected early in the 2016 draft.

The Miami Dolphins coaching staff has not yet begun its deep dive into the college talent that will be available during the April 27-29 draft -- that is expected to begin later this week and early next. But there is already an understanding within the organization of what the looming draft will look like:




And preferably among that added defensive talent ... playmakers.

That from people familiar with the team’s current thinking. Indeed, one source said coach Adam Gase told some within the organization he expects the draft will be used primarily for the team’s defensive needs, with the only caveat that a highly prized offensive player unexpectedly falls to the Dolphins in one of the early rounds.

(Last year, offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, who the Dolphins had as the No. 2 player on their board, dropped to them at No. 13 overall in the first round).

The reason the Dolphins intend to focus this draft on their defense and not, say, a tight end or wide receiver or even an offensive lineman again in the first round of the draft?

Well, the 2016 defense was a problem. It struggled early in the year when the unit was relatively healthy. It was bad late in the season when injuries hit and the voids became as bleeding wounds that reserves failed to patch. The Dolphins allowed over 30 points in each of their final three games, including a 30-12 playoff loss to Pittsburgh.

The Dolphins were 18th in the NFL in points allowed, giving up an average of 23.8 points per game. That was an improvement from the 24.3 points per game the team allowed the previous year but obviously not any sort of championship number.

The Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, in the Dolphins division by the way, led the NFL in fewest points allowed, giving up an average of 15 points per game. It marked the fourth consecutive season the Super Bowl champion boasted one of the top five most stingy defenses in the NFL on a points basis.

The Dolphins’ intentions of concentrating on defense in the coming draft is a departure from the approach the team took in 2016 in the first year of the Chris Grier, Mike Tannenbaum, Adam Gase administration. The team picked four offensive players with its first five picks in the last draft, including Tunsil, running back Kenyan Drake and two wide receivers.

Cornerback Xavien Howard, picked in the second round, was the lone defensive addition early in last year’s draft.

The Dolphins have an obvious and pressing need at defensive end and linebacker -- all linebacker spots, by the way.

As to defensive end, which one source called “the team’s highest priority,” the Dolphins will be cutting Mario Williams before the fifth day of the league year which begins March 9. That will save the team at least $8.5 million in cap space. The team is also planning to cut defensive end Dion Jordan before the 2017 season begins. That will save approximately $3 million in cap space.

That leaves the Dolphins with Cameron Wake and Terrence Fede as the only defensive ends with significant experience on the roster. And while the Dolphins would like to re-sign pending free agent Andre Branch, that is not yet done nor is it a certainty.

Regardless of whether Branch comes back or not, the Dolphins need to add a pass rusher. The Dolphins want a player who can disrupt the quarterback and help protect a secondary that is still relatively young at cornerback with Howard and Tony Lippett, who is entering his third season.

The linebacker spot is the next most important priority.

The team suffered injuries to all three starters last year, with Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins missing the most time. Misi is reportedly wanting to return following neck surgery, but the Dolphins realize he has been an injury-prone player in the past and now is an injury-prone player coming off a delicate surgery. So there is no security there.

Jenkins has been injured the past several years. He started only seven games last season while nursing knee, hand and various other injuries.

So the Dolphins need both a strong side and weak side linebacker they feel comfortable starting. But because middle linebacker Kiko Alonso is versatile and perhaps just as suited to playing outside as in the middle, the team is comfortable with the idea of moving Alonso to an outside spot if the best available linebacker is a middle linebacker rather than an outside linebacker. So Alonso gives the Dolphins a valuable option.

What does this all mean?

Well, any listing of possible players the Dolphins might pick at this point is conjecture because, again, the coaches have not yet fully immersed themselves in the studying of all the draftable players. But at defensive end and linebacker, the positions the Dolphins are expected to zero in on, there are multiple candidates that might be available early in the draft.

At defensive end, Myles Garrett is considered the prize and he’ll likely be selected near the top of the draft well before the Dolphins are scheduled to pick. Other outstanding defensive end prospects include in no particular order FSU’s DeMarcus Walker, Michigan’s Chris Wormley, Missouri’s Charles Harris, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, Michigan’s Taco Charlton, and Stanford’s Solomon Thomas.

Among the linebackers the Dolphins will be studying more intently in the coming days and weeks you might include ... Alabama’s Tim Williams, Alabama’s Ryan Anderson, Louisville’s Devonte Fields, Vandy’s Zach Cunningham, UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley, Alabama’s Rueben Foster, Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan, Temple’s Haason Reddick, LSU’s Kendell Beckwith, and Northwestern’s Anthony Walker, and Florida’s Jarrad Davis.

These are all early-round types. Obviously, the Dolphins, like most teams, can and do try to find linebackers later in the draft and while those might not be instantly ready to start, many are able to immediately contribute on special teams while they learn the pro game.

Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero