Training Camp 2012: Defense Breakdown

With the Dolphins set to hold their first training camp practice in two weeks — July 27, to be precise — now is the time to take a comprehensive look at the various aspects of the team and what to expect this summer. This installment presents a position-by-position breakdown of the defense.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

Starters - LDE Cameron Wake, NT Paul Soliai, DT Randy Starks, DE Jared Odrick. Backups -- DE Olivier Vernon, DT Tony McDaniel, DE Jamaal Westerman, DT Kheeston Randall, NT Isaako Aautui, DT Ryan Baker, DE Derrick Shelby, DT Chas Alecxih, DE Jarrell Root.

The Dolphins' biggest move in free agency was retaining Soliai, who will anchor Miami's defense as it turns toward becoming more of a 4-3 defense. Soliai has started 26 of 32 games the past two seasons, totaling 66 tackles, four pass deflections and two sacks in that span. But Soliai's game isn't about stats. It's about clogging up the front line, and occupying two blockers. Last year, Soliai helped the defense finish third in the NFL against the run. Starks moves inside, returning to the position he played early in his career with the Titans, allowing Odrick to become a regular starter. That foursome gives the Dolphins a starting defensive line that averages 303 pounds. Vernon, a former Hurricanes standout the Dolphins selected in the third round, will serve as the team's pass-rushing specialist, coming on the field during obvious passing downs. Paired with Wake, that duo should help the defense generate more sacks than the 41 last year's team managed.

LINEBACKERS

Starters - WLB Kevin Burnett, ILB Karlos Dansby, SLB Koa Misi. Backups - OLB Josh Kaddu, OLB Gary Guyton, OLB Jason Trusnik, ILB Austin Spitler, ILB Shelly Lyons, OLB Jonathan Freeny, OLB Cameron Collins.

Dansby and Burnett are the team's top returning tacklers. Both contributed 100 or more tackles last season as the inside linebackers in the 3-4 scheme. Their roles will change slightly in the 4-3 scheme, but both have the instincts and versatility to handle the challenge. Koa Misi, a 2010 second-round pick, hasn't lived up to expectations so far, but the 4-3 scheme is a better fit for the versatile linebacker, who was miscast as a pass rusher by the previous regime. Misi will need to produce to prevent Kaddu, a rookie, or Guyton, a starter in New England the Dolphins added as a free agent, from leapfrogging him on the depth chart. Spitler and Trusnik need to flash some upside to extend their South Florida stay, and everyone else is realistically battling for practice-squad spots unless they consistently flash during camp, or the exhibition season.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Starters - CB Vontae Davis, CB Sean Smith, FS Chris Clemons, SS Reshad Jones. Backups -- CB Richard Marshall, CB Nolan Carroll, SS Jimmy Wilson, FS Tyrone Culver, SS Tyrell Johnson, CB Quinten Lawrence, SS Anderson Russell, CB Vincent Agnew, CB Marcus Brown, CB Trenton Hughes, FS Kelcie McCray, CB Kevyn Scott.

Davis and Smith are entering their fourth season as starters and the Dolphins hope to see significant growth from these two young and talented cornerbacks. Davis' combination of speed and power, and Smith's blend of length and speed make them a promising duo. Marshall is expected to serve as the nickel cornerback and should help Miami's cornerback trio play more physical. Marshall, who was added during free agency, played half his season at safety for the Cardinals last year. Jones has locked up one of the safety spots, and the Dolphins envision him replacing Yeremiah Bell as the secondary's top playmaker. But the coaches are struggling to find him a suitable partner. Clemons, a starter in 2010, will be pushed by Culver and Wilson for the other safety spot. The Dolphins are looking for a safety with the coverage skills to man center field and handle a receiver one-on-one, and the communication skills to keep the defensive backs on the same page.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K Dan Carpenter, P Brandon Fields, LS John Denney.

Carpenter returns after he finished seventh in the NFL with 29 field goals in 2011, including 11-of-12 made from 40-49 yards. He was 14th in accuracy, converting 85 percent of his field goal attempts, finishing the season 4-for-4, including a 58-yarder in a 19-17 win over the New York Jets. Fields will handle Miami's punts for the sixth straight season. Last year he averaged 48.8 yards per punt, with 32 of those inside the 20-yard line. Bess, who averaged 11.9 yards per punt return, likely will handle the role again unless Bush unseats him, or one of the newcomers proves he's a return specialist worthy of the job. Miller should push Gates for the role as Miami's primary kickoff returner.


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