WHAT NOW AT DEFENSIVE END?

The Dolphins decided on Friday they would be better off without Daryl Gardener, but just how does Gardener's departure affect the defensive line?

Gardener was expected to start at left defensive end, with the idea being to switch him inside in obvious passing situations. With Gardener gone, it figures now that newly acquired Rob Burnett will start at defensive end opposite Jason Taylor, with Tim Bowens and Larry Chester starting at defensive tackle.

Let's start by saying that at his best Gardener could be a dominant force at defensive tackle. His play in the first half of last season had him headed for the Pro Bowl, but he missed the second half of the season because of his back problem.

Gardener probably would have made a very solid run-stuffing defensive end, perhaps an upgraded version of Kenny Mixon, who wasn't much of a pass rusher at end but was solid against the run.

This is where the signing of Burnett becomes huge. Make no mistake, he wasn't going to start if Gardener were still around, but he's definitely starter-caliber. Remember, this is a guy who had reached double digits in sacks twice in his career.

He's a nonstop player who is equally adept against the run or rushing the passer.

The Dolphins also have good depth at defensive end, particularly after the acquisition of Jay Williams from the Carolina Panthers. Williams isn't a Pro Bowl defensive end, but as a backup you could do a lot worse.

The Dolphins also are expecting big things from young pass rushers David Bowens and Adewale Ogunleye.

Over at defensive tackle, the starting tandem of Tim Bowens and Larry Chester should be just fine. Both of them are space-eaters who are very good against the run.

The key here is getting a contribution from one of the backups, whether it be Jermaine Haley or Ernest Grant. Haley battled injuries last year, but he's healthy again and looked very impressive during the offseason minicamps.

The bottom line is simple: The Dolphins will miss Gardener at times during the 2002 season, but they have more than enough dependable players on the defensive line than cutting him won't come back to haunt the team.


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