Dolphins scouts and front-office officials are in to Mobile, Ala., for the Senior Bowl this week, amping up the process of trying to upgrade what was, in terms of yards allowed, the worst defense in team history.
And one thing is becoming clear: The Dolphins, with the 22nd overall pick, are likely going to have a choice of a bunch of skilled front-seven defensive players that are similarly rated.
While ESPN’s Mel Kiper has the Dolphins selecting UF linebacker Jarrad Davis with the 22nd pick in his first mock draft, other evaluators are advocating Miami select other defensive players that are emerging as strong candidates for that selection:
• NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah has the Dolphins choosing 6-5, 243-pound Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt, who had 11.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss, one interception and two forced fumbles last season.
“Watt isn't as freaky as his older brother, [Houston Texans star J.J. Watt], but he is a very good football player,” Jeremiah said. “He is ultra-versatile, athletic and instinctive.”
• Pro Football Focus’ Steve Palazzolo, who covers the college game closely, has the Dolphins selecting 6-3, 255-pound Missouri defensive end Charles Harris (nine sacks, two forced fumbles last season).
“Harris adds a pass-rushing threat after finishing 12th among the nation’s edge rushers with an 88.2 pass-rush grade,” Palazzolo said. “Armed with the best spin move in college football, Harris has been one of the nation’s best pass-rushers the last two years, though there is some work to be done to improve his work in the run game.”
Among other front-seven defenders now emerging as possibilities at No. 22:
• UCLA linebacker Takkarist McKinley. Might not be there. Kiper has him 15th, noting “he took a big leap as a senior with 10 sacks, going from fringe prospect to first-rounder.”
• Michigan end Taco Charlton. Kiper has him 14th. “A big end with the versatility to attack off the edge with his hand in the dirt or standing up,” Miller said.
• Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham, who had 125 tackles and 16.5 for loss but no sacks last season after 4 ½ the previous year. Though ESPN’s analysts don’t consider him a first-rounder, some others do.
He’s 6-4 but needs to bulk up from 230 pounds.
“Cunningham loves to take on blockers and he sheds them well and his nose for the ball led to his 56 solo run stops that led all Power-5 linebackers,” Palazzolo said. “He has the skills to excel in coverage as well, it’s just a matter of getting better as a tackler where he’s missed 34 over the last two years.”
Miller: “Cunningham is a rangy, mobile attacker at linebacker. He's built in a similar mold to Benardrick McKinney and offers the same multitooled game. He's capable of running down quarterbacks, crashing rushing lanes and dropping into coverage to take away tight ends.”
• Alabama defensive end Tim Williams, who had nine sacks in 2016.
Kiper has him going one pick before Miami, noting he’s “a fantastic pass-rushing talent who can be unblockable at times. He had 19.5 sacks the past two seasons. Williams would have to put on some weight [he’s 6-2, 236] to play end in a 4-3, but his talent is undeniable.”
• Tennessee defensive end Derrick Barnett (13 sacks last season). Kiper has him going 31st and it will be interesting to see if he rises.
“Barnett (6-3, 265) is the eighth defensive end or outside linebacker to go in my first round -- this is a great class for pass-rushers,” Kiper said. “He is an all-around defender who beats double-teams and makes plays in the running game, and he's versatile enough to play in a 4-3 or 3-4.”
• Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas (8.5 sacks in 2016). The ESPN analysts don’t rank him as a first-rounder, but Palazzolo has him in Miami’s range. He graded out as PFF’s “best run defender in college football.
“Thomas played mostly on the interior for Stanford, even more impressive considering he’s only 270 pounds,” Palazzolo added. “That projects more to a 4-3 defensive end role on early downs where Thomas can add a strong run-stopping presence before kicking inside on passing downs to rush the passer where his 87.7 grade ranked fourth among interior defensive linemen.”
• FSU end DeMarcus Walker and Alabama end Ryan Anderson are considered more late first-rounders, with the ability to rise. Walker had 16 sacks last season, Anderson 8.5.
• Defensive tackles Montravious Adams (Auburn), Caleb Brantley (Florida) and Malik McDowell (Michigan State). All are possibilities, but ends or linebackers appear the priority.
Incidentally, NFL.com’s mock draft by Chad Reuter’s has Miami picking Alabama tight end O.J. Howard at 22. “Howard can be a safety valve for Ryan Tannehill and a good run blocker on the edge.”
QUICK LANDRY NOTE
• Eyebrows were raised this week when Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry posted on Instagram: “I feed my family with this. Don’t play with my money this year. I’m serious.”
But according to agent Damarius Bilbo, this wasn’t a case of Landry, who’s due to earn $1.1 million next season in the final year of his rookie contract, pressuring Miami for a new deal. Bilbo said Landry was referencing lyrics from a (Drake) song and not talking about a new contract.
According to a team source, the Dolphins are expected to offer Landry a multi-year contract this offseason.