Armando Salguero

Miami Dolphins’ case for a defensive end in the NFL draft’s first round

The Miami Dolphins need an elite pass rusher who can get to the passer and Florida State defensive end DeMarcus Walker (44) has been that for the Seminoles.
The Miami Dolphins need an elite pass rusher who can get to the passer and Florida State defensive end DeMarcus Walker (44) has been that for the Seminoles. ehyman@newsobserver.com

This marks the first in a series of Dolphins In Depth posts explaining why the Miami Dolphins must address various positions during the upcoming April 27-29 draft. Today: Defensive end.

Some of you don’t get me. It’s not that I’m speaking my native Spanish. I really am trying to communicate in the language I learned second. It’s not that I don’t make sense. I think there’s logic behind what I’m trying to say. It’s just that, well, you are football fans.

So you’re not quite right.

Up there.

In the head.

You don’t do logic very well.

So sometimes you do not get me because I’m logical.

I suppose that’s the reason some of you write me to scold me when I say the Miami Dolphins must draft a defensive end in the first round of this coming draft -- and thus that’s the position that leads off this annual series of posts. I suppose you don’t get me because you reply to my twitter post with snark when I say no mock draft can be taken seriously unless it has the Dolphins taking a defensive end in the first round.

I suppose you don’t get me when you call radio shows or write letters to the editor or send smoke signals or loose carrier pigeons with messages suggesting the Dolphins should draft a guard, or a linebacker, or a cornerback or a safety, or even pick a quarterback in the first round (seriously, folks?)

Defensive end, my friends.

Defensive ends.

That has got to be the pick early and perhaps often for the Miami Dolphins in the 2017 draft.

So, why?

Fine, let’s walk through the exercise:

The Dolphins have multiple defensive ends on the roster and defensive ends is the position the team has addressed the most so far this offseason. The club extended Cameron Wake through the 2018 season. The club signed Andre Branch to a four-year, $24 million contract. The club re-signed Nick Williams. The club traded for Williams Hayes.

That’s a lot of work at the position to add to Terrence Fede.

So, I understand why some folks think that’s good enough.

I’m not some folks. I believe to ensure long-term success, which is what the Dolphins are trying to establish, one needs a long-term plan. And none of what I just wrote feels long-term.

Recall that Wake is signed through 2018, but today, right now, he’s 35 years old. That means he is a freak of nature in that he’s still very good and perhaps even elite at an age most defensive linemen are thinking of their second career. But it also means Wake’s not just fighting offensive tackles but time every time he steps on a football field.

To believe he’ll be fine in 2017 is not a stretch, given Wake’s work ethic and recent production. But to believe he will be able to keep it up another three-to-five years is utterly absurd. That’s not a plan, that’s a wish.

So the Dolphins need a plan to replace Wake with an equal or better talent along the edge of the defense.

And here comes the Branch people saying signing their guy takes care of the issue. And no, it does not.

Andre Branch last season was a solid 49-tackle, 5.5-sack defensive end. He turned in a good year, if not his best season, in a contract year after being cut by Jacksonville. You know what that makes Andre Branch?

He’s likely a 5.5-sack a year player. That is, in fact, better than his average because he has 19.5 career sacks in five seasons.

So the Dolphins have him slotted in as their No. 2 defensive end, the Ying to Wake’s Yang, or Yung, or whatever. I think that’s asking too much of Branch, who I see as more a No. 3 type guy that comes in fresh off the bench in passing situations and takes advantage of tackles who have been worn down.

Either way, Andre Branch is not 2005 Julius Peppers. Or 2016 Julius Peppers. To expect that he would perform like that is unfair to Branch. So he doesn’t fill the need for a dominant playmaker at defensive end -- a need the Dolphins urgently must fill before Wake leaves or declines.

William Hayes was a solid addition and I initially liked that he had two years left on his contract. The Dolphins restructured the deal so now Hayes becomes a free agent after one year with Miami. So he’s a rental. And even at that, Hayes has made his NFL living as a run-stopper more than an edge rusher.

That means he’s not the long-term edge-rushing playmaker the Dolphins eventually will need.

So, you see, all these defensive end moves the Dolphins have so far made do not meet the team’s longterm need at the position.

That’s why the draft must meet that need.

And its understandable none of this means the Dolphins must find that elite rusher in the first round. The team didn’t find Wake in the draft’s first round. The team didn’t find Jason Taylor in the draft’s first round.

But the truth of the matter is neither Wake nor Taylor were typical additions. The typical NFL edge rusher is not much less valuable than a quarterback. Teams put a premium on the position because the men who fill it are so hard to find. And that premium shows when the top edge rusher prospects get selected quite early in the first round.

Peppers?

Von Miller?

Khalil Mack?

Chandler Jones?

Joey Bosa?

Vic Beasley?

Jason Pierre-Paul?

Cameron Jordan?

All are elite pass rushers. All got drafted in the first round.

Yes, there are others such as Cliff Avril and Danielle Hunter (good job, Rick Spielman), who didn’t get unearthed until later in the draft. But that is the exception, rather than the rule.

So if the Dolphins are smart and indeed are looking at first-round defensive ends, they are studying ....

Stanford’s Solomon Thomas. Great bowl game against North Carolina, but that was way better than what he showed during his two years as a tree. He has a very good motor. He reminds me of Olivier Vernon although he’s probably stronger than Vernon was coming out of the University of Miami. Thomas will be gone well before the Dolphins draft.

Tennessee’s Derek Barnett. Love his consistency throughout his college career. I believe if a player is great in high school and great in college and does this while in the SEC, he’s likely going to be pretty good in the NFL. I especially like that Barnett is said to be a high character guy and has an excellent motor.

Michigan’s Taco Charlton. Personnel men I talk to ding him for not being strong enough at the point of attack. But, my gosh, he still looks the part at 6-5 and 277 pounds.

Michigan State’s Malik McDowell. So Dolphins executive vice president of football operation Mike Tannenbaum was joking at the recent owner’s meeting about the Dolphins taking McDowell because he’s from MSU like head coach Adam Gase. Nobody laughed because Tannenbaum is operating at a higher comedic level than reporters. But here’s the thing, the 6-6 and 277 pound McDowell looks the part. He sometimes plays the part. But there is that troubling question about McDowell’s motor. And all I can say is the Dolphins already have a defensive lineman in Jordan Phillips who plays three plays and then cruises for six or seven plays. Do they take another chance at adding a player with similar red flags?

Temple’s Haason Reddick. He’s a great athlete and no one I talk to denies that. He can play in the 3-4 at OLB because he can play in space, according to these scouts. He is a good edge rusher on passing downs. He tested great in the offseason. But ... he’s 6-1 and forgive me but I’ve seen Elvis Dumervil play and this guy is no Elvis Dumervil. He isn’t a scheme fit as a traditional 4-3 defensive end.

Missouri’s Charles Harris. Look, um, either the Dolphins can find a 6-4, 270-275-pound guy who can rush the passer or they might have to alter their scheme to fit imperfect bodies. Harris is not exactly traditional 4-3 DE size. He’s 6-2 and 256 and the Dolphins already have a couple of undersized defensive ends who sometimes struggle against the run. I think Harris is a solid prospect. I don’t see him as a first-round pick.

UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley. Another 6-2 guy. Nothing against 6-2 guys but they’re just not 6-4. He’s also 250 pounds. Nothing against 250-pound guys but that means there has to be something extraordinary about the guy to make it as a defensive end in the NFL. Again, not a first round pick in my view for a 4-3 team looking to fill a DE slot.

Alabama’s Tim Williams. Another undersized guy at 6-3 and 245. Do you see why 6-4 and 280-pound guys get overdrafted? Not too many of them around. Anyway, Williams had a productive season with nine sacks but it was actually a disappointing campaign because he started only two games and his sack total was down from the year before. There were questions about a suspension prior to a 2016 game against Kentucky that raised off-field issues. Look, Nick Saban knows defensive talent (except for Jason Allen) and if this kid cannot break Alabama’s starting lineup, he’s not a first round pick.

Michigan’s Chris Wormley. Great character. The owner loves him because Michigan. He’s functional but not spectacular, having collected only six sacks in 2016. Great size. Can’t decide if he’s a 4-3 DE or a five technique in the 3-4.

FSU’s Demarcus Walker. Ding, ding, ding!!!! He’s on the all-airport team because at 6-4 and 280 pounds so the man screams NFL defensive end when he walks through an airport. Watch his tape against Mississippi if you’re wondering why he’s on this list. Just ... watch.

No, I did not mention Myles Garrett. You should know the reason for that once you remember the Dolphins are scheduled to pick at No. 22 in the first round.

Honorable mentions but not early-round picks: Villanova’s Tanoh Kpassagnon, FAU’s Trey Hendrickson, Arkansas’s Deatrich Wise, South Carolina’s Darius English, Utah’s Hunter Dimick.

Thursday: Guards.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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