There’s nothing wrong with a team sinking a huge chunk of its payroll into a ferocious defensive line. That’s the biggest reason the Jacksonville Jaguars, one of the most surprising teams in the league this year, are playing in the second round of the playoffs Sunday.
The problem comes when a team makes that large of a financial commitment, sacrificing in other areas to do so, and gets a defensive line that’s just OK. That’s one of the biggest reason the Dolphins are watching the postseason on television.
Miami dropped $36.2 million up front this year, representing 21 percent of its salary cap money, according to Spotrac’s database and finished 26th in the NFL in sacks. The other three teams that fell victim to being top-10 spenders and bottom-10 in sacks—the Giants, Buccaneers and Jets—are sitting home with a collective record of 13-35.
The team’s 30 sacks, 25.5 of which came from the defensive linemen, amounts to one for every 19 dropbacks. Jacksonville, meanwhile, got fantastic bang for its buck with second-highest sack total in the league at 55. In a game that’s pass-happier than ever, it was hard to get time to throw against the Jaguars, who were No. 1 in opponent passer rating, completion percentage and passing yardage.
In a relatively comfortable pocket, opposing quarterbacks put up staggering numbers against the Dolphins. While there were certainly other issues in the linebacker corps and secondary, management’s design was for the defensive line to make those units look better.
Instead, Miami ranked 28th in opponent passer rating (94.8), 26th in completion percentage allowed (64.2) and 19th in yards per pass attempt (7.2). The defense was also middle of the pack against the run.
The most expensive players on the Dolphins’ defensive line, Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake, were their best.
Suh maintained his status as a top-tier defensive tackle, putting up 4.5 sacks, 48 tackles, two forced fumbles and played 83.8 percent of the defensive snaps. Pro Football Focus ranked him No. 4 at his position.
Wake delivered a second consecutive double-digit sack season with 10.5. His $7.5 million salary cap ranked 14th among defensive ends, and he finished 15th in the league in sacks. Like Suh, he played up to his contract.
The trouble for the Dolphins is those contracts are large and restrict their ability to spend money around them. Suh’s cap hit for 2018 is slated to be $26.1 million, second-highest in the league regardless of position, and Wake is due to cost $8.6 million.
Miami is also one season into a three-year $24 million contract for Andre Branch, who had a frustrating season because of injuries and managed 4.5 sacks. His cap hit goes from $5 million to $10 million next year, then the Dolphins have the option to pay $9 million in 2019 or get out of it for $2 million.
While the team can try to restructure Suh’s deal, it’s currently forecasted to spend $50.8 million on the d-line, or 30.4 percent of its cap. That doesn’t include pending free agent William Hayes, who would still be an attractive run stopper at 33 if he comes back healthy.
What the Dolphins desperately need is for Branch to bounce back in a big way and for their cheaper players to outperform their contracts. Defensive tackles Jordan Phillips ($1.4 million cap hit in 2018), Davon Godchaux ($605,000) and Vincent Taylor ($594,000), plus defensive end Charles Harris ($2.5 million) are still on their rookie contracts. Undrafted defensive end Cameron Malveaux played his way off the practice squad by the end of the year and could put himself in the rotation with a strong offseason.
Essentially, the only way to rectify Miami’s disparity between cost and production is for the same group to find a way to play better next season. That responsibility falls firstly on defensive coordinator Matt Burke, who is charged with developing Godchaux, Taylor and Harris. It’ll also make a big difference if Branch can get back to the level of play that earned him the new contract last year.
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