Barry Jackson

Miami Dolphins better hit on draft picks because defensive concerns remain

adiaz@miamiherald.com

Whereas the Dolphins’ offense has no major concerns aside from perhaps guard and very few unresolved issues, the same – regrettably – cannot be said about Miami’s maligned defense.

The acquisitions of Lawrence Timmons, William Hayes and Nate Allen should make you feel a little bit better about a Dolphins defense that gave up the most yards in franchise history, ranked 29th overall and finished 30th against the run.

But that’s like feeling a little better when you discover that the chance of rain during your beach vacation has diminished from 90 percent to 70 percent.

The good news: The defensive depth in this draft is very good, and most of Miami’s picks figure to address that side of the ball. Also, free agent Pro Bowl linebacker Zach Brown continues to consider the Dolphins.

Dolphins general manager Chris Grier discusses Kenny Stills' contract, Ryan Tannehill's knee and more at the NFL Scouting Combine.

In the meantime, Miami’s defensive issues can be categorized into three concerns and two questions.

The concerns:

Has enough been done in the front seven to shore up the run defense?

Adding Hayes – one of the NFL’s better defensive ends against the run – will help. But he’s probably going to play only about half the downs, or fewer.

And while replacing Jelani Jenkins with Lawrence Timmons is an upgrade – Jenkins was Pro Football Focus’ 87th and lowest-rated linebacker, Timmons 70th - the issue is whether Timmons will show wear and tear.

Pro Football Focus, which consistently rated Timmons one of the best inside linebackers for several years, said his play has been “in steady decline” for two years. His 21 missed tackles were third-most among all linebackers in 2015 and his grade against the run last season was fifth-worst among all linebackers.

PFF also has criticized his pass coverage, though the web side blamed the Steelers for leaving him in vulnerable spots, sometimes matched up against slot receivers.

“Timmons is now on the wrong side of 30, so even if he has a bounce-back, it’s unlikely he returns to his previous production levels,” PFF asserted.

Then there’s the defensive tackle issue, where a quality third player is needed to push Jordan Phillips or at the very least share snaps with him opposite Pro Bowler Ndamukong Suh.

Phillips admitted he didn’t dominate his opponent nearly enough last year, and the concern is that playing more snaps will sap his energy.

Koa Misi, the projected strongside linebacker, has missed 28 games in the past six years. Brown would solve this problem, but a compromise is needed on money.

At least one defensive end, perhaps more, and at least one linebacker figure to be added in the draft. But counting on a rookie is a risky proposition.

Is Nate Allen a legitimate starting safety?

He was in Philadelphia for five years but missed 11 games in 2015 with a knee injury and was a Raiders backup last season.

The good news: He’s only 29. And he received good marks when filling in as a starter for four games last season, picking off two passes in those games and making 25 tackles.

The bad news: Quarterbacks had a 106.3 rating in his coverage area in his final year as an Eagles starter (2014) and 101.3 last year. PFF graded him at 68.0 (75th among safeties), while the player he’s replacing, injured/released Isa Abdul Quddus had an 80 grade (35th).

The Dolphins are expected to look for a safety in the draft who could be developed behind Allen and play opposite Reshad Jones, whose return to health will help this unit. (But remember: The Dolphins defense struggled at times even when Jones was healthy.)

Can cornerback Bobby McCain be trusted in the slot?

McClain had a stretch last season where he was very competent but also struggled at times. He allowed a 112.7 passer rating in his coverage area, and that’s way too high.

What’s more, PFF rated him 93rd among 100 corners in stopping the run and 68th overall. He had one interception and one forced fumble but more big plays are needed for a player who was a ball-hawk in college at Memphis.

The questions, which aren’t worries as much as issues that need to sort themselves out:

When to play Hayes.

The Dolphins are paying Andre Branch like a starter and already have said Cam Wake will start – one year after they privately told Wake they wanted to transition him into a pass-rush specialist role before changing their minds just before the Dolphins (not coincidentally) reeled off nine wins in 10 games.

But here’s the thing: Hayes, on paper, is by far Miami’s best run-stopping end. Among edge defenders last season, PFF ranked Hayes 11th against the run, Branch 66rd and Wake 73rd among 109 qualifiers.

So shouldn’t Hayes be starting and playing a lot on base downs? This is something coaches will need to work out.

Who starts at corner opposite Byron Maxwell?

This is not a problem, but it will be an interesting competition.

The Dolphins believe Xavien Howard can be a Pro Bowl caliber player. But Tony Lippett was the slightly better player last season. Lippett had four interceptions (tied for 11th most in the NFL) in 917 snaps and quarterbacks had an 87.6 passer rating in his coverage area.

Howard, who missed time with a knee injury, had no picks in 582 snaps and a 104.5 rating in his coverage area. Howard was drafted with the Dolphins convinced he will become a longterm starter and potential No. 1 corner.

But Lippett, who has been training very hard instead of taking vacation, told me recently that starting is very important to him.

Bottom line: The Dolphins better hit on their defensive draft picks (or sign Brown) or this defense could again lag in the bottom half of the league.

Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase speaks with reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine.

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