The Dolphins know they need to add at least four more rotation players in their front seven on defense, and they’re expected to look to both the draft and free agency to find them.
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Miami hasn’t begun a serious discussion of potential targets, but here’s an early look at free-agent front seven defensive options:
• Linebacker: The Dolphins would like to add two, to replace Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi, but as we reported here in December, they also believe they could move Kiko Alonso to weakside linebacker and add a middle linebacker if one emerges.
The free agent class at inside linebacker is not a great or deep group, with New England free agent Dont’a Hightower the best of the 4-3 inside linebacker options. (Miami has suggested it’s sticking with a 4-3.)
Signing Hightower not only would improve the Dolphins defense but weaken a division rival. But New England could place the franchise tag on him, preventing him from hitting the open market.
Hightower had 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble in 13 regular-season games. He played 86 percent of the defensive snaps in those 13 games.
Other inside inside linebacker free agents of note: Pittsburgh’s Lawrence Timmons (114 tackles in a 3-4 defense), Buffalo’s Zach Brown (147 tackles in a 3-4, took a Twitter shot at Alonso recently), Arizona’s Kevin Minter (82 tackles, 4 sacks) and the Giants’ Keenan Robinson (82 tackles).
Keep an eye on AJ Klein, Luke Keuchly’s well-regarded backup in Carolina. He is expected to draw interest around the league.
The Dolphins, who had the NFL’s 30th-ranked run defense, are intent on finding linebackers who are skilled at stopping the run and also hold up in pass coverage.
Purely from a run-stopping standpoint, Pro Football Focus this season rated Brown 27th against the run among 89 qualifying linebackers, Hightower 29th, Minter 45th and Timmons 83rd.
Among Dolphins linebackers against the run, Neville Hewitt was 42nd, Alonso 49th, Jenkins 72nd and Donald Butler 80th of 89.
Keeping Alonso in the middle might make the most sense, considering the limited number of 4-3 middle linebacker options.
Though Jamie Collins is expected to re-sign with Cleveland, there’s a decent class of free agent outside linebackers, including San Diego’s Melvin Ingram (eight sacks, four forced fumbles), Green Bay’s Nick Perry (11 sacks and an interception in 14 games) and Arizona’s Chandler Jones (11 sacks, four forced fumbles), as well as Raiders starter Malcolm Smith (113 tackles, two forced fumbles but undersized at 6 feet and 225 pounds), Indianapolis’ Erik Walden (11 sacks), Buffalo’s Lorenzo Alexander (12.5 sacks and three forced fumbles but 33 years old), Houston’s John Simon (51 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Pittsburgh’s Jarvis Jones (42 tackles, one sack).
But not all of those fit the 4-3 defense that likely will be run under new coordinator Matt Burke.
For example, Ingram and Perry and Jones have thrived as linebackers in a 3-4. But Ingram and Jones also have played some defensive end in a 4-3 in the pros, and Perry did it in college.
There are also a few aging neon names: James Harrison (unlikely to leave Pittsburgh and 38 years old), Denver’s DeMarcus Ware (15 tackles, four sacks but age 34) and Green Bay’s Julius Peppers (23 tackles, eight sacks but age 36).
• Defensive end: The Dolphins will explore keeping free agent Andre Branch, but they are also expected to eye potential upgrades. They know they must add at least two defensive ends, to replace Jason Jones and Mario Williams, and potentially a third if they don’t re-sign Branch.
The Dolphins view end as every much as big a need as linebacker, if not bigger. Once Williams is cut (inevitable), the Dolphins for 2017 have only Cam Wake (turns 35 on Jan. 30), Terrence Fede, Nick Williams and Dion Jordan under contract, and Jordan isn’t in the plans, according to a Miami Herald report.
Beyond Ingram and Chandler Jones (who, as noted, can play end in a 4-3), three interesting names with South Florida roots are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents: Calais Campbell (who can also play defensive tackle), Jason Pierre Paul and Jabaal Sheard.
Campbell, 30, had 53 tackles, eight sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception this past season. The former UM standout is unlikely to return to Arizona, according to one published report.
Deerfield Beach native Paul (53 tackles, 7 sacks, three forced fumbles in 12 games for the Giants) wants a multiyear contract. The Patriots’ Sheard, a Fort Lauderdale native, had 33 tackles and five sacks in 15 games, including eight starts.
Among others also available: Tampa’s William Gholston (50 tackles, four sacks), Carolina’s Mario Addison (10 sacks) and Charles Johnson (four sacks, three forced fumbles), Washington’s Chris Baker (five sacks, two forced fumbles), Detroit’s Devin Taylor (28 tackles, five sacks) and New England’s Chris Long (35 tackles, four sacks).
Only Campbell, Pierre Paul and Addison had more sacks than Branch’s six among free agent defensive ends.
But from a purely run-stopping standout, among edge defenders, Pro Football Focus rated Branch 66th and Wake 73rd among 109 qualifiers.
Conversely, PFF rated Perry 10th as a run stopper among edge defenders, Ingram 12th, Pierre-Paul 20th, Alexander 26th and Jones 31st and Sheard 34th among 109 qualifiers.
Campbell was rated sixth among all defensive tackles as a run stopper, one spot ahead of Ndamukong Suh.
Though Branch gave the Dolphins a huge lift, the run-defense metrics suggest it might not be wise for Miami to return with the exact same starting defensive end tandem (Wake and Branch).
Wake, obviously, will return, and is coming off a splendid 11.5-sack season. But if Wake starts, a top run stuffer might be needed on the other side.
• Defensive tackle: The Dolphins will keep Suh and Jordan Phillips, but Earl Mitchell appears at risk; Miami would create $4 million in cap savings by cutting him.
Besides Campbell, defensive tackles scheduled to become unrestricted free agents include Carolina’s Kawann Short (PFF’s No. 2 run-stopping tackle and pricey), Detroit’s Nick Fairley, Jacksonville’s Tyson Alualu and Abry Jones, the Giants’ Jonathan Hankins, Kansas City’s Dontari Poe, Cincinnati’s Domato Peko, Denver’s Sylvester Williams, Detroit’s Tyrunn Walker, Dallas’ Terrell McClain, New England’s Alan Branch, Tennessee’s Karl Klug, Atlanta’s Jonathan Babineaux, Baltimore’s Brandon Williams, Philadelphia’s Benny Logan and Buffalo’s Leger Douzable.
But with a significant need at defensive end and linebacker, the Dolphins might be judicious in how much they spend at defensive tackle.