Armando Salguero

Miami Dolphins defense keeps core players, but is unit any better?

Lawrence Timmons was last seen getting two sacks against the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs. Now, he’s the cornerstone to the Dolphins offseason improvement plans for their defense.
Lawrence Timmons was last seen getting two sacks against the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs. Now, he’s the cornerstone to the Dolphins offseason improvement plans for their defense. AP

This fundamental truth first: The offseason is the time of year when NFL teams are trying to improve. If the seeds of that improvement reveal themselves in 16 bursting blossoms during the regular season, then it is in the offseason when that harvest was sown.

So this is the planting season.

And this planting season the Miami Dolphins wanted to grow a crop of good defense because last year their defense -- not very good when everybody was healthy early in the year -- was downright bad at the end of the season and into the playoffs after it was ravaged by injuries.

Thus the Dolphins defense finished ranked 29th in the NFL. (This is a stat the NFL goes by that measures a unit based on yards allowed per game. This statistic is bogus).

The important stat is points allowed because games are ultimately decided by, well, points. And the Miami defense gave up 380 points last season and that was 18th most overall.

The Dolphins were 30th in the NFL in rush defense. This is also important because if you cannot stop the other team from running the football, you cannot win in the NFL.

Interestingly, the Dolphins were solid on third down defense -- maybe because they played some terrible QBs but it is what it is. They were No. 4 in the league in third down conversion percentage and so that was good.

And Miami was good in the give away/take away department, particularly because their defense had 25 take aways, which was 11th most in the NFL.

So to recap, the Dolphins defense was good on third down and in the take away departments ... and lacking in most everything else.

So the assignment this offseason must be getting that everything else stuff addressed.

Now, here we are with the meaty part of free agency having passed and the draft a mere five weeks away. And ...

The Dolphins defense doesn’t exactly scream improvement right now.

I mean, I don’t look at this unit and think, “wow this revamped group is going to cause problems for people in 2017.”

Why?

Because the Dolphins have taken the approach that if they are going to improve on defense, it will be done mostly by personnel already on the roster from a year ago and by draft picks not yet on the roster because they haven’t been drafted yet.

That’s right, this looming draft is going to be defense intense for the Dolphins. That’s what I’ve been told and that came as no revelation to me because I have eyes and see there is significant need on this defense.

But let me get this out of the way first: I am reporting, per sources, that the Miami Dolphins will be conducting a defense intense draft in 2017. There. Now you know the folks who are going to be “reporting” this two or three weeks from now didn’t exactly arrive early to the story.

(I know this is going to be a disappointment to you folks who want the Dolphins to draft a guard in the first round. Or the second round. I don’t see that, barring a huge surprise. Sorry).

I see a defensive end in the first round, if the board falls right for the Dolphins. I see a linebacker. I see a defensive back, either a free safety or cornerback. That’s how I see the most important parts of the coming draft shaking out.

But, again, the draft and the hope of a defensive upgrade in that draft is five weeks away.

In front of our eyes right now? Today?

It can be argued the Miami defense is merely treading water on its offseason improvement goal.

Why do I say that?

Well, the Dolphins believe they are better in the linebacker corps with the addition of Lawrence Timmons. I don’t quibble with that. The folks know more about football than I do, who willed that roster to 10-7 last year, get the benefit of the doubt -- even if the Steelers don’t often make a mistake on linebackers they let leave their organization.

So linebacker is better at that one position.

But is the linebacker corps good?

Not yet. It is incomplete. The Dolphins seemingly need a strongside linebacker. Now, that’s not a huge need because that guy plays maybe 40 percent of the downs and comes out of the game in nickel situations. And NFL defenses are in nickel about 60 percent of the time now.

But if you’re going to improve that awful run defense from a year ago, you need a strongside backer who can actually find the ball and tackle with little wasteful nonsense in between. So the job at linebacker is so far incomplete.

(I can hear the Dolphins now, yelling at me that we’re only two weeks into a free agency and can I please give them a moment to actually finish putting their team together. I get it, guys. Just updating my hundreds of thousands of readers and your fans).

Moving on ...

The Dolphins today are actually weaker at defensive tackle and free safety than they were much of last year.

The team made a decision on Earl Mitchell that perhaps needs some second-guessing because he was solid, although not great. And he cost only $4 million. The Dolphins cut him because he was hurt last year (calf) and didn’t play to the level he had before and there were worries he might be on the decline.

Except that when he was released, five teams chased him like he was a juicy turkey on the last week of November -- including the Denver Broncos, which are now coached by Vance Joseph. Joseph was Miami’s defensive coordinator last year.

Anyway, with Mitchell gone, the Dolphins haven’t been able to fill the vacancy. They have starters Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Phillips but they need another solid guy to back up and account for 20-25 snaps a game.

So that empty space at defensive tackle does not at this stage signal upgrade. The opposite, actually.

The Dolphins are also seemingly weaker at free safety through no fault of their own. Isa Abdul-Quddus was cut because he wasn’t going to help the team in 2017 based on a significant shoulder and neck injury he’s dealing with. So a player that brought solid play to the field and a good attitude to the locker room is gone.

He’s being replaced by free agent Nate Allen. Allen, cut by the Raiders after only one season, signed a one-year deal worth $3.4 million. He is filling the void at the position. It would be great if he were the answer. But the Dolphins don’t believe that is the case. He’s a stopgap to get to perhaps a draft pick whenever that youngster is ready to play.

As Abdul-Quddus was good and Allen is a question mark, the free safety position has not been upgraded. Indeed, the opposite is probably true.

That’s it.

Those are the big additions and subtractions for the defense.

William Hayes? Backup. It’s going to be hard for him to be as good filling the role the Dolphins had Andre Branch in last season.

And now the interesting part: The Dolphins are banking that they will improve their 18th ranked scoring defense mostly by simply keeping the group together.

And not just keeping the group together but paying more for the group, too.

The Dolphins had Kiko Alonso on the team last year and controlled him as a restricted free agent this year but they signed him to a contract extension worth $28.8 million.

The Dolphins re-signed Branch to a four-year, $24 million deal with $16.8 million guaranteed. He made $2.7 million last year.

The Dolphins had safety Reshad Jones signed through the end of 2017 but they extended him with a five-year, $60 million deal that included $35 million in guaranteed money. That’s a lot. Jones is now signed until he’s 34 years old.

Cameron Wake extended his deal with a two-year, $16.125 million deal that included $10.875 million in guaranteed money.

(Yes, the Dolphins are paying a lot of guaranteed money as a large percentage of their deals).

My point is the Dolphins spent a lot of money on players that helped the defense allow 380 points last year.

And I get it, much of it is the price of doing business.

But that doesn’t change this central fact: The Dolphins are paying way more this year for mostly the same guys on defense. At least that’s how it looks so far.

And that raises the question ... How does a unit that wasn’t great last year improve if you’re basically keeping the same guys together?

Now, please don’t misunderstand this to be a criticism of what the Dolphins have done. No, I wouldn’t have done it quite that way but I’m just telling you what happened rather than criticizing.

I know the great football philosophers who have won multiple Super Bowls in their fantasy leagues love advocating for signing your own free agents and killing the draft as a way of making great strides year over year.

And then life intervenes. The draft comes and there are busts. And then the actual games come and sometimes guys who are 35 start to play worse than when they were 34, and guys who just got paid don’t deliver their requisite 5.5 sacks, and getting rid of some guys you thought were trending downward draws tons of interest in free agency other teams and you have a hard time replacing him.

Bad stuff sometimes happens to good plans.

The point is the Dolphins have a plan to reward their core players and they’ve done that.

But do not lose sight they’ve rewarded core players on a defense that wasn’t good.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter @ArmandoSalguero

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