INDIANAPOLIS — The goal, of course, is to draft Jason Taylor. And not Dion Jordan.
The goal, and surely Miami’s top goal entering the 2017 NFL Draft, is to identify one of those sculpted, strong, fast, heat-seeking missiles who strike fear into opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.
Because the Miami Dolphins need them. They particularly need defensive ends.
They need someone who can eventually replace Cameron Wake. They need someone who can do the things Mario Williams and Jason Jones and yes, draft bust Jordan, were unable to last season.
They need an infusion of youth. They need a great (ideally first-round) reason for fans at Hard Rock Stadium to chant D-Fense!, D-Fense! on third down and not be disappointed so often.
And here comes the kicker. The best news about all you’ve just read is what you’re about to read.
This 2017 NFL Draft is one of the historically-great, all-time-best, deepest drafts for pass-rushers, particularly defensive ends.
“I try to get after every (offensive) lineman and put the fear of God in them and make a play,” Stanford defensive end/tackle Solomon Thomas was saying at the NFL Draft Combine on Saturday. “I’m just trying to get to the quarterback every play and be destructive and wreak havoc.”
“The thing that sets me apart is I’m versatile,” Michigan defensive end/tackle Taco Charlton was saying Saturday. “I play a little bit of every position, inside, outside. I’ve played heavy, I’ve played light. The thing about me, too, is look at my pass-rush moves, I’ve done a little of everything. My arsenal is wide, I can stab, I can bull, I can spin, I can speed rush. So, the arsenal I have and the combination of all the positions I’ve played: three-tech, four-tech, five-tech, weak-side end, all of those things kind of add up to separate me a little bit.”
There were too many questions here (they’ve been asking them for more than a decade now) about how a player fits into a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. Miami runs a 4-3 defense and so, yes, admittedly, some players may transition more smoothly into Miami’s scheme than others.
If you play defensive end for the Dolphins, ideally you can both pass rush, set an edge and tackle running backs. But the point of all of this, and no point is as important, is that Miami needs players who can pursue, attack, disrupt, and change games at the critical moments in which they did not last season.
“Nowadays, defensive end, all the guys are getting paid are guys who can rush the passer,” Dolphins general manager Chris Grier said at the NFL Scouting Combine this week.
The Dolphins draft 22nd. And surely there will be the temptation to select a linebacker like Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham (or Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster, if he somehow falls in Laremy Tunsil-like fashion) or perhaps a safety/linebacker like Jabrill Peppers or even an offensive guard like Forrest Lamp.
But if one of these stud defensive linemen (there are perhaps 10 first-round worthy pass-rush talents) is available, Miami owes it to new defensive coordinator Matt Burke, head coach Adam Gase, Wake, Ndamukong Suh and, well, the fans, to suit one up in aqua and orange.
“I think it’s a good draft in terms of defensive end,” the general manager Grier said. “There’s a lot of guys that come out that have been productive players. There are a lot of guys who have been one-year producers. I think, in terms of athletic ability, size and potential down the road, it’s a good class.”
Other experts go further.
“I think it’s one of the best defensive drafts I’ve seen,” NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock said. “This defensive draft at edge is outstanding.”
Mayock suggests Tennessee’s Derek Barnett (who missed Saturday’s workouts due to illness). Barnett is 6-feet-3, 265 pounds, consistent and constantly drew penalties in college.
Mayock also likes Thomas of Stanford (6-feet-3, 273 pounds) and Charlton of Michigan (6-feet-6, 272 pounds). Thomas’ ability to play inside and out is appealing. Charlton is strong against the run and can pressure the quarterback.
Then there are pure speed rushers like UCLA’s Takk McKinley (6-feet-2, 265 pounds) and Missouri’s Charles Harris (6-feet-3, 255 pounds).
McKinley has the alpha-male approach scouts, general managers and coaches love.
“I’m here to get the quarterback,” McKinley said on Saturday. “I feel I’m the best pass-rusher here.”
The Dolphins haven’t selected a defensive end higher than the seventh round in the last three years. Jordan was selected third overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, in what could be one of the biggest busts in history.
The Dolphins thought they had found themselves another Jason Taylor. Not so much.
Terrence Fede was the second defensive end Chris Grier mentioned when asked about depth at the position here at the NFL Scouting Combine.
In fact, beyond 35-year-old Wake, Fede and Julius Warmsley, there aren’t any other defensive ends on the roster likely to be back next season.
Miami has already cut Mario Williams and Jason Jones and Jordan could be gone in the near future. Andre Branch is an unrestricted free agent who may be out of Miami’s price range.
“I think extending Cam was good and Terrence Fede is a good piece for us there on the back end,” general manager Grier said. “We need to add pieces there obviously. It’s a position we’ll have to address in the draft and free agency.”
In executive news conference after news conference here in Indianapolis, the number of teams who seem to be seeking pass-rushers is staggering. Other than quarterback, it may be the most critical position.
“I think more and more, everyone realizes the importance of having one, two and three pass rusher that can affect the quarterback as we are very aware of that,” Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.
The Bengals feel pass-rushers are among the hardest players to project.
“Are you willing to take an undersized guy?” Cincinnati director of player personnel Duke Tobin said. “Do you want to take a full-sized guy? How often is he going to play? Is he going to be in the linebacker room or the defensive end room? Is he on the line of scrimmage or is he off? Is he going to be off the field on first down and on the field on third down? Or is he an every-down player? Ideally, the higher you take a guy you want them to be an every down player.”
Miami could really use a long-term answer for an every-down defensive end to come from this draft. And because the depth of pass rushers is so good, it could possibly come in the second or third round, too.
Everyone agrees. This is a special group of defensive ends.
“There’s a lot of talented guys,” Seahawks general manager John Schneider said. “I think it’s all the way through. There are some really unique, cool talents with guys all the way through.”
Added Thomas of Stanford: “It’s crazy, It’s ridiculous. Just look at the film.”
Grier concedes there is a prototype for the Miami Dolphins defensive end.
Let’s say that protoype looks like Mario Williams did when he was drafted (then 6-feet-6, 290 pounds).
But Grier understands there is much more to evaluating a pass-rusher than the oohs and aahs he may elicit at the NFL Scouting Combine weigh-in.
There are plenty of less-obvious attributes that separated Jason Taylor and Cameron Wake, for example, from Dion Jordan.
“For us, we all always talk about the prototypes, but Cam Wake is not a prototype player, but he’s an elite player in this league,” Grier said. “For us, it’s the production, the athletic ability, the passion. Does the guy compete, play hard? The ability to play against the run is also important.”
Like any franchise, the Dolphins plan to take the best available players in the April NFL Draft.
But if they happen to play defensive end, they are likely to be pushed up the list.
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