Barry Jackson

A position-by-position look at the Dolphins' defense: camp battles, concerns, outside help available

Miami Dolphins defensive ends Andre Branch and Cameron Wake celebrate after sacking Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in 2017. Defensive end should be a strength of this unit.
Miami Dolphins defensive ends Andre Branch and Cameron Wake celebrate after sacking Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in 2017. Defensive end should be a strength of this unit.

A look at where the Dolphins’ roster stands on defense after two months of free agency and the draft:


The locks: Jordan Phillips, Davon Godchaux, Akeem Spence.

The likely: Vincent Taylor. Would be very surprising if he doesn’t make the team.

Others competing for jobs: Gabe Wright (has appeared in 13 NFL games during the past three seasons — seven for Detroit, five for Cleveland and one for Miami), UCF undrafted rookie Jamiyus Pittman and UM undrafted rookie Anthony Moten.

Comment: The Dolphins also plan to use William Hayes some at tackle…. Miami brought in former Cowboys starter Terrell McClain during the weekend. He left without a contract but a deal remains a possibility. He visited the 49ers on Monday...

The Dolphins decided trading with Detroit for Spence made more sense than signing a free agent such as Jonathan Hankins, Cedric Thornton and Pat Sims.... Pro Football Focus rated Spence 65th among 122 defensive tackles last season but just 75th against the run.... Spence, who started 11 games for Detroit last season, will be given a chance to compete to start, but Miami would be comfortable starting Phillips and Godchaux, too.


The locks: Cameron Wake, Robert Quinn, Charles Harris, Andre Branch, William Hayes.

Others competing for jobs: Cameron Malveaux (impressed the staff last season), Jonathan Woodard (former Jaguars’ seventh-rounder has spent time on Atlanta’s and Miami’s practice squads), Fairmont State undrafted rookie Quincy Redmon, Notre Dame (Ohio) undrafted rookie Claudy Mathieu

Comment: This could be Miami’s best and deepest position. And don’t discount the Dolphins making room to keep Malveaux if he keeps developing.


The locks: Kiko Alonso, Raekwon McMillan, Jerome Baker.

The likely: Stephone Anthony.

Competing for jobs: Terence Garvin, Chase Allen, Mike Hull, seventh-rounder Quentin Poling, Michigan undrafted rookie Mike McCray, North Carolina undrafted rookie Cayson Collins.

Comment: There’s still no obvious strong-side starter on the roster in terms of a first- and second-down thumper who’s better against the run than pass. But against pass-happy teams, the Dolphins could open some games with two linebackers on the field or Baker as the third. Alonso could play on the strong side in a lineup with McMillan in the middle and Baker on the weak side. …

The Dolphins want to take a long look at Anthony, who cannot be discounted as a potential starter. The team did not pick up his fifth-year option for 2019 but still could re-sign him if he plays well this year…

Allen and Garvin might have the best chance to stick among those competing for jobs, but keep in mind Hull has considerable value on special teams, and Miami wants to see what it has with its three rookie linebackers — Poling, McCray and Collins… GM Chris Grier said the defensive coaching staff will determine if T.J. McDonald will work some at linebacker…

Adding a veteran free agent isn’t essential, but there are still more than 20 veterans left if the Dolphins go in that direction, with NaVorro Bowman, Connor Barwin, Brian Cushing and Sean Spence among notable names still unsigned. Some of these 20-plus players should be on the market deep into the summer.


The locks: Reshad Jones, Minkah Fitzpatrick, McDonald.

The likely: Walt Aikens (can also play corner; core special teams player). Would be surprising if he doesn’t stick.

Competing for jobs: Mo Smith, Trae Elston, Jordan Lucas.

Comment: It would be surprising and disappointing if Fitzpatrick isn’t an immediate starter…. The Dolphins could play some lineups with Jones, Fitzpatrick and McDonald all on the field at once…

Aikens played just 13 defensive snaps last year, and it’s difficult to see that changing…. Smith played well against Oakland when the team installed a package for him and finished the year with 22 defensive snaps before an appendix issue in December ended his season…. Elston had 18 tackles and interception in 13 games for Buffalo last season, including one start, before joining Dolphins off waivers.


The locks: Xavien Howard, Bobby McCain, Cordrea Tankersley.

The likely: Tony Lippett, Aikens.

Competing for jobs: Rookie sixth-round Cornell Armstrong, undrafted Utah State rookie Jalen Davis, second-year Torry McTyer, Tracy Howard, Taveze Calhoun and Lucas (a combo corner/safety).

Comment: Lippett, off last August’s Achilles injury, will need to beat out Armstrong and Davis to keep his job but also can make a case to start if he outplays Tankersley this summer. Remember, Lippett had four interceptions and was on the ascent in 2016 before last season was wiped out…

Howard, the former Miami Hurricanes cornerback, told me in December that the Dolphins were moving him to safety, though he’s listed as a cornerback on the official team roster. He played 15 games and started three for Cleveland in 2016… Davis, who was highly productive at Utah State, could be this year’s Mo Smith or McTyer — an undrafted rookie who earns a roster spot… Calhoun, 6-1, has appeared in one NFL game (for the Saints, in 2016).

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