Barry Jackson

Tough defensive choice is looming for the Dolphins in draft. Some points to consider

Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea kisses the Apple Cup trophy after Washington beat Washington State, 45-17, on Nov. 25. Vea is among possibilities for the Dolphins’ pick at No. 11.
Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea kisses the Apple Cup trophy after Washington beat Washington State, 45-17, on Nov. 25. Vea is among possibilities for the Dolphins’ pick at No. 11. AP

The Dolphins would have interest in drafting a quarterback if one of the top four (Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen) is available at No. 11.

But they don’t expect any of those four to be there at 11, and the decision with which they’ll be left could present one of their toughest choices in years.

We’re told the Dolphins like three front seven defensive players at need positions who could be available in that spot: Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea.

With the team’s draft meetings ongoing, the challenge in the coming days is deciding which of those three to prioritize if all three are available at 11. And that doesn’t even take into account the possibility of selecting FSU safety Derwin James at that spot; the Dolphins appreciate his skills, too.

The Dolphins view linebacker as a bigger need than defensive tackle — according to someone who has spoken to the front office — but they also believe Vea is going to be an excellent pro and he would give them a first-round talent to replace Ndamukong Suh.

But they also are impressed with Smith’s all-around skills (including his ability in coverage) and Edmunds’ playmaking and high ceiling (14 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season). And remember, linebacker is viewed as the bigger need by Dolphins officials, so that would give Smith or Edmunds an edge over Vea and James.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper has Smith going 10th, Edmunds 12th and Vea 13th in his latest mock draft, with James his pick for Miami.

“Smith is the type of sideline-to-sideline player that every defensive coordinator covets,” Kiper said. “Smith can play all three downs, and he also could pitch in and rush the passer. … I think what affects Edmunds is that he’s such a freakish talent, you’d expect more dominant play week in and week out. I don’t think teams necessarily saw that, even though he had over 100 tackles and made a lot of plays. He shows a lot of versatility. Vea is a strong and athletic tackle who also can get after quarterbacks.”

I wouldn’t discount three defensive backs at 11, should any of them fall: James, Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward (Kiper has him seventh and he’s visiting the Dolphins in the coming days) or Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick (ninth).

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

Miami believes there is room to upgrade at cornerback and safety and all three of these players can do that.

But if it’s a Smith/Edmunds/Vea choice, you can expect plenty of internal debate. My sense is that Miami might lean toward Smith or Edmunds in that scenario; Todd McShay told me that Smith is the epitome of a modern day linebacker because of his exceptional coverage skills.

But two longtime evaluators told me this week that Edmunds has the higher ceiling than Smith and they would pick Edmunds over Smith.

Here’s how Pro Football Focus assesses each:

Smith: “Elite coverage skills. Has incredible speed and burst. On just 54 blitzes this season, had eight sacks and 22 total pressures, showing top level burst to finish pass rushes.Ranked sixth among 145 linebackers in run-stopping percentage. A player that excels in all areas.”

Edmunds: “Physical monster with an athletic profile unmatched by any other linebacker in the draft, and at just 19 has plenty of room to grow as well. His production has been outstanding at Virginia Tech and the flaws in his game are easily rectified with some more experience and coaching at the next level. Needs to show he can maintain speed and skills in coverage at that size in the NFL. Pro Bowl level potential in any scheme.”

Vea: “There’s no denying that he could step in and be a force at nose tackle from day one, but how much will be offer as a pass rusher and how many snaps can he play? He’s only played 50 percent of his team’s snaps in one season in college. It’s going to be tough to get first-round value if he’s only going to be a two-down player in the NFL.”

Regarding that point, keep in mind that Gase has suggested the Dolphins want to rotate eight defensive linemen. So playing first and second down would suffice for Vea in this system.

As we’ve reported, Miami scheduled a visit with Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans, but the 11th pick is higher than he’s projected. The Dolphins also have visited with Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is projected by some to go in the mid-teens.

▪ We’ve reported the Dolphins plan to host Mayfield on a private visit — one of 30 permitted per team — and ESPN’s Josina Anderson said that visit will be Thursday at team headquarters.

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