Renewed DE Charles Harris ready to shine for Miami Dolphins

Charles Harris feels ready to max out his second season. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Charles Harris feels like a new man heading into his second season with the Dolphins, and it’s clear just by looking at his face that something is different.

After being selected No. 22 in last year’s draft, the transition to the NFL left Harris dazed at times. He had gone from being one of the biggest defensive stars in the SEC to a backup for the Dolphins, he wasn’t getting many sacks, he was unprepared for the financial windfall, work sometimes felt like drudgery and he was struggling to adapt to life on his own in a new environment.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact impact all of those factors had on Harris, but he was often downcast in the locker room after practice. He kept to himself mostly as he fought his way through what he now describes as “a dark place.” An offseason of prayer and reflection led to a renewed enthusiasm for Harris, and the change in his demeanor seems to have more to do with his personal life than anything football-related.

“Now I’m cool,” he said. “I understand that everything that happened the way it was, it was for the better of me and my family and everything like that. I understand that everything I do on the field and off the field affects everybody around me.

“I’ve got me a community down here being in Florida, being away from home, and that was a big thing. Now I have a community, I’ve got friends, I have everything I need to get to the top.”

Harris played all 16 games last season, but started just twice because he was behind Cameron Wake and Andre Branch. He played 47.5 percent of the defensive snaps and posted two sacks.

While no defensive end goes into the season targeting two sacks as an ambitious goal, he was satisfied with how he played. So were the Dolphins, who have several next-level statistics that indicate he was a strong presence as a pass rusher despite not racking up sacks.

There was still a constant feeling of confusion, and that often led him to treat football like merely a job. “I was just checking boxes every day; I came in, punched in, punched out,” he said. A lot of jobs are like that, but the NFL isn’t one of them. It takes a deeper commitment, especially for someone like Harris who aspires to be an elite defensive end, and his offseason soul-searching prompted a different approach to football.

“I feel like I just got better mentally, spiritually and things like that,” said Harris, who is a Christian. “Being able to take care of my family, get stuff done off the field and understanding grace and stuff like that. I’m better mentally. (That) is going to transition everything else.”

As for the direct effect that had on him football-wise, Harris said it motivated him to use his abilities to honor God: “This year it’s like I love it. I love it because I understand what it means to work. This is my work and use it as my worship.”

There’s an increased comfort level that comes experience, too. Not that he ever had trouble learning the playbook as a rookie, but he’s got a better handle on every aspect of the job now compared to a year ago.

“It’s less of a burden, for real,” he said. “It’s just free. Just playing free.”

With his mind in a better place on and off the field, Harris is heading into an amorphous opportunity this season.

The Dolphins are set on Wake and new trade acquisition Robert Quinn as their starting defensive ends, but the coaches have said multiple times the second wave of Branch and Harris will get ample snaps. The goal is spread playing time more evenly now that the team believes it has four starting-caliber defensive ends, plus veteran William Hayes and anyone else who emerges during the preseason.

That’s part of why Harris was undeterred by the team trading for Quinn, rather than simply let him battle Branch for a starting job. As accomplished as Wake and Quinn are — they’ve combined for seven Pro Bowl selections and 154.5 career sacks — Harris believes he’ll get enough chances if he shows he deserves them.

“Light is always going to shine,” he said. “I feel like you can’t contain nobody. You can’t keep anybody off the field. It’s the coaches that make sure … the best players are out there. That’s something they handle. I’m going to take it every single day and work as hard as I can, and we’ll see on game day.”

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Miami Dolphins DE Cameron Wake explains what it takes to be elite

Cameron Wake knows as well as anyone what it takes to enjoy a long NFL career. (Getty Images)

DAVIE — Cameron Wake is used to being asked the same questions about how he has stunningly maintained his physique at age 36 and given the Dolphins two straight double-digit sack seasons this late in his career.

He gets it everywhere. Young players in Miami’s locker room want to know how they can get there. He’s the most recognizable Dolphins player in public. The media is always curious.

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But the one question he’s tired of is when people want to know whether he ever takes a cheat day. Not only is that an indulgence he doesn’t take part in, he’s past the point of even wanting it.

“It’s a lifestyle,” he said this week. “I’ve decided many years ago that this is going to be my life if I want to be successful. To me, every week off that I’m taking is a week that some other guy is not, or a week that I’m stepping back or a sack that I’m going to miss or a play that I’m not going to get. It all comes down to what it’s worth.

“If I told a rookie, ‘Listen, if you never drink a drink of alcohol throughout your entire career, you’ll have 15 more sacks for the years you’re playing. Is that worth it to you?’ Some guys say yes; some guys say no. ‘Never have fried food for your 10 years and you’ll make X more money.’ Some guys say yes, some guys say no.

“To me, even if it’s one sack, one play, it’s worth it. Because 10 years from now when I’m not playing, I can have all the cheeseburgers, all the beaches, all the everything, because I put the time in now to put myself in a position that I can have all those things. But if you try to do it the other way around, you won’t be in that position to even enjoy the stuff that you’re working towards… It’s 24/7. It’s just a lifestyle. It’s my life and it won’t change until I stop playing.”

Wake talked extensively this week after his final day of Organized Team Activities, and it was the first time he had spoken with the media since December.

A lot has changed around him since then, most notably the departure of Ndamukong Suh and the arrival of Robert Quinn, but Wake’s the same. He’s still incredibly fit, still set on being one of the league’s most feared pass rushers and looks poised for another big year.

Two seasons ago, coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon, Wake was shifted into a reduced role of coming in exclusively on passing downs. He quickly proved he was capable of much more, and coach Adam Gase restored him to full-time work. That paid off with 11.5 sacks, then Wake followed with another 10.5 last year.

There’s no reason to expect a drop off this season.

“I feel as good as I’ve ever felt,” Wake said. “As you get closer and closer to tapping out that battle with Father Time, I think you have to do whatever you can as far as the wisdom of the game. You maybe can’t physically work as hard, but you can definitely work smarter.

“There are more things I know now that I didn’t know when I was 25 years old, when I was out there running around with whatever God gave me. To be able to be as physically able as possible at 36, and still have that wisdom to put those two things together, I think you can still be successful. With a little bit of sacrifice, if it’s worth it, then I think the fruits of your labor will come to bear.”

That approach has served him well over his 10-year NFL career. Wake is a five-time Pro Bowl selection (all-pro in 2012) despite going undrafted and not making it into the league until he was 27. He is second in Dolphins history with 92 career sacks and could crack the NFL’s top 30 all-time by the end of this year.

If that’s somehow not convincing enough, consider that the upcoming season will push his career earnings to nearly $53 million.

As Wake alluded, a big part of the equation is preserving what he has left physically as much as he can. That’s why he’s so careful about what he eats and how he lives year-round.

He was asked specifically whether he calculates in the offseason whether one beer today might cost him a sack during the season, for example, and while he said beer isn’t a draw for him, he used it to illustrate his point.

“I said in 2005 that I’m not going to have beer, because it will make the days that come where it’s third-and-10 and (the opponent is) hurting or he’s tired or he didn’t recover — I know I have a step ahead of him no matter what it is. It could be one millisecond,” Wake said. “Even if it’s 10 years (of clean diet) for that one millisecond, that’s worth it for me… Beer is not going to change. Beer is going to taste the same in 10 years as it tastes tomorrow, yesterday. And that sack won’t. That opportunity won’t be there 10 years from now. So, I can get it now. I’ll have the beer later.”

He added, “Take it from me that whatever is pulling you on the outside of football — I don’t care if it’s the South Florida sun, fishing, golfing, girls, party — whatever that thing is, sacrifice now and put everything you can into this game, and it’ll reward you tenfold. A lot of guys who listen, you’ll hear their name someday. Some guys you won’t.”

Wake embraces the chance to share that wisdom with other players, particularly rookies like Charles Harris was last year, and he’s given this talk many times.

“This is not exclusive to me or to football or to anything — What is it worth to you?” Wake said. “Is one more sack worth five years of a clean diet? Some people are like, ‘That’s crazy. I love cheeseburgers.’ Some people would say, ‘Yes, I’ll do anything I can to have one more sack.’

“Like I said before, cheeseburgers aren’t going anywhere. Video games, women, partying — All of that stuff will be there, trust me. But you’re only going to have one Monday Night Football game. You’ll never get it again.

“I’ve had guys — veterans, rookies, people who work 9 to 5 — all come to me like, ‘You’re crazy.’ But I’ve also have people who’ve said, ‘You know what? I’m going to do whatever I can to make myself better.’ It’s a universal thing for anybody. What is it worth to you? Are you willing to pay the cost? Some are. Some aren’t.”

Wake had a unique answer when asked what motivates him to stay so disciplined. “Freedom is my ultimate goal,” he said. For him, the reward for everything he’s sacrificing while he’s in the NFL is the luxury of doing whatever he wants when he’s done.

Wake intends to walk away from this — not anytime soon, it seems — in position to live however he pleases. That will make it all worth it.

“Probably no different than most of the guys in here, whether it’s the newspaper business or football, you want to have freedom,” he said. “I want to say in 10 years I will be able to do whatever I want. If it’s skiing all year round in the Swiss Alps, I sacrificed so that I could do that. Or if it’s teaching boys and girls how to pass rush, I can make that choice.

“But like I said earlier, if I’ve been drinking beers for the last 10 years, I might have to go do something for the next 40 years. I couldn’t go skiing and drink beer all day and sit on the beach, whatever it may be. To me, freedom is happiness and that’s what my direction is.”

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Dolphins DE Cameron Wake saw ‘missed opportunities’ for sacks in 2017

Cameron Wake isn’t fixated on sack statistics, but he knows the Dolphins’ numbers should be better. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — One of the Dolphins’ biggest problems last season was that they were in the top 10 in defensive line spending and the bottom 10 in sacks.

That’s not Cameron Wake’s fault. He had another double-digit year (his third straight healthy season doing so) with 10.5, but the rest of the team had just 19.5. Only five teams had fewer than Miami’s 30 sacks last season (25.5 from the defensive line), and that’s part of why opposing quarterbacks lit up the Dolphins on a weekly basis.

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“There were a lot of missed opportunities sometimes,” Wake said this week. “I’m not a sack counter. I think you guys know that about me. I honestly couldn’t even tell you where we ranked. I know as a defense and as a team, we didn’t get to where we should’ve.”

The Dolphins were counting mainly on the starting duo of Wake and Branch, which combined for 17 sacks the year before, as well as a significant contribution from first-round pick Charles Harris.

Branch, fresh off signing a three-year, $24 million contract, had three sacks in the first four games before injuries derailed his season. He was hurt most of the year and finished with 4.5 in 14 games.

Harris had a lot of close calls in the backfield, but managed just two sacks.

“If you look at the guys we had and our expectations, we weren’t there,” Wake said. “If we were to have success as a team… I just want to get everybody on the same page as far as winning the game on Sunday and us reaching our potential.

“Obviously potential to be at the top of the sack numbers should be there, but I think that comes with all of the other pieces of the puzzle, whether it’s stopping the run, third-down numbers, some things offenses are going to do or not do. All of that ties into what you get to do as far as getting to the quarterback.”

Miami’s disappointing defensive line play led to major changes this offseason. The team cut Suh, absorbing the biggest dead salary cap hit in league history, and traded for former all-pro defensive end Robert Quinn. The plan this year is to balance snaps at defensive end among a first unit of Wake and Quinn and a second unit of Branch and Harris.

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Dolphins DE Cameron Wake: Robert Quinn ‘a bear’ for opposing offenses

The combination of Quinn and Wake should be scary. (Los Angeles Times)

DAVIE — Cameron Wake didn’t complain about the Dolphins’ existing group of defensive ends, but he was happy to hear they were trading for former all-pro Robert Quinn this offseason.

Wake hasn’t had a running mate of this caliber since Olivier Vernon in 2013, so this sounds pretty good to him.

“Pleasantly pleased,” Wake said of his reaction to the Quinn acquisition. “I can’t say I knew him personally before now, but knew of him. Obviously watched his body of work. Tremendous, tremendous football player. I can say he’s a great man and a great teammate. I’m actually smiles all around for that acquisition, for sure.”

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Wake, 36, is coming off his second-straight double-digit sack season. He had 10.5 last year, but the rest of the team combined for just 19.5. The total of 30 put Miami sixth-worst in the NFL.

Quinn is three years removed from being an elite pass rusher for the Rams, but the Dolphins are optimistic he can get back to that level. He’s only 28, and they believe two of the factors working against him the last few seasons (health and scheme) aren’t an issue anymore.

Quinn put up an incredible 19-sack season in 2013 and followed with 10.5 the year after. Over the next three seasons, he missed 16 games and managed just 17.5 sacks.

Now that he’s healthy again and playing a more comfortable role as a conventional defensive end, rather than working at outside linebacker like he did in Los Angeles, Quinn has been wowing coaches and teammates during offseason practices.

“It’s probably a combination of (genetics), hard work, flexibility and just that wisdom of where the quarterback is going to be,” Wake said. “(There are) things that he’s probably repeated and done through repetition 10 million times throughout his career. It’s one of those things where it’s looking across, I see it and I know for an offensive lineman, that’s a bear. I’m going to enjoy watching it on Sundays. I’m sure you guys will, too.”

Quinn and Wake are projected to be Miami’s starting defensive ends, with Charles Harris and Andre Branch coming in the second “wave” as the team looks to balance out playing time among its linemen.

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Mentoring Dolphins DE Charles Harris incredibly rewarding for Cameron Wake

Charles Harris is Cameron Wake’s protege. (Bill Ingram/The Post)

DAVIE — No one from the Dolphins had to ask Cameron Wake to take on a teaching role when they drafted defensive end Charles Harris last year. Not threatened by the team spending a first-round pick on someone at his position, Wake was eager to be a mentor if that’s what Harris wanted.

It’s hard to come up with a better role model for Harris than Wake, who is going into his 10th season and seems as dangerous as ever at age 36. It helps that he’s willing to take that on and do everything he can to help.

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“I probably enjoy that (almost) as much as playing football,” Wake said. “There’s so much that you gain playing this game and being in the locker room and just going through life as an NFL player that no teacher can teach you, no pamphlet, no seminar. Most coaches don’t understand and don’t know.

“You’d have to have been in the mix. A lot of the lessons I learned early on in my career were from guys who played 10-plus years in the league and said, ‘Listen, this is how you get to the quarterback. This is what to look for on Sunday. This is what to look for off the field. Don’t do this. This is how you’re going to get that second contract.’

“To me, I want to see everybody win. I want you to make the most money, get the most sacks.”

Wake hasn’t decided what he’ll do when he retires, which could still be a long way off, but he’s mentioned his love of coaching a few times.

Harris came in as the No. 22 overall pick last year and played behind Wake and Andre Branch. He finished his rookie season with two sacks, two pass breakups and 19 tackles.

This year, he is currently slated to be a reserve again, but could get a bigger opportunity. The Dolphins appear to be going with Wake and Robert Quinn as their starting defensive ends, followed by Branch and Harris, but defensive line coach Kris Kocurek said the plan is to balance their snap counts in order to keep them as fresh as possible.

As Harris continues his progression, Wake will be there for him.

“Whatever you need, whether on the field, off the field, anything, I am completely open,” Wake said. “I want to share that wisdom because it’s not like I can go to other (jobs) and tell them, ‘This is how you do this pass rush,’ or, ‘This is how to work as an NFL player.’ I can only speak to a certain group who has the ability and who will be able to implement the things that I’m saying.

“It’s kind of that use it or lose it. I’m not going to take it with me and give it to anyone else. I’ve got to give it to the Charles Harrises of the world to hopefully apply the same way the Jason Taylors of the world (did) for me.”

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Miami Dolphins believe DE Charles Harris poised for big jump in 2018

Dolphins defensive end Charles Harris will get a bigger chance in 2018. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — There’s a striking difference between the way Charles Harris’ rookie year was viewed inside the Dolphins’ building and how it was seen by the public.

On the surface, it wasn’t great. Despite Cameron Wake pushing into his mid-30s and Andre Branch fighting injuries most of the season, Harris got just 47 percent of the defensive snaps and had two starts. The basic numbers — two sacks and 19 tackles — weren’t amazing either. People usually want more from a guy who was selected No. 22 overall.

But the organization saw a guy who came in with uncommon maturity for a rookie and did everything right. Harris immediately established himself as a worker, and that track record is why Miami has high expectations for him within its remodeled defensive line.

“He’s one of the guys I’m least worried about,” coach Adam Gase said.

There was production, too, just not the kind everyone readily recognizes. According to statistics the organization tracks, Harris was among the best on the team in causing opponents to commit holding penalties, batting down balls at the line of scrimmage and registering quarterback hurries.

This year’s depth chart would seem to present even less of an opportunity for Harris now that the Dolphins have traded for Robert Quinn, but the new philosophy of rotating defensive ends to keep them fresh could work in his favor.

Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek plans to “roll guys through” each game, and Harris said they’ve got names like Alpha and Bravo groups. The top line is certainly going to be Wake and Quinn, but Harris is in line for significant opportunities in the second wave.

“We’re just rolling,” Harris said. “In practice we’re going hard, we’re going fast. It’s just crazy. There isn’t any drop off.”

Kocurek, by the way, was quickly impressed by Harris when got on the field with him this spring. He said, “It’s hard to outwork Charles,” and it’s clear he’s serious about becoming a big-time pass rusher in the NFL.

There’s also the possibility that Harris could cut into Wake and Quinn’s playing time. Wake had double-digit sacks each of the last two seasons, but he’s 36. Quinn is a former all-pro, but injuries and other struggles limited him to 17.5 sacks in 32 games over the last three seasons.

At the NFL Combine in February, days before the Dolphins struck a deal with the Rams to land Quinn, Gase made clear he and the staff believe Harris was a contributor last year and expected him to compete for a starting job this season.

“It’s always interesting that first year when d-ends come in from college, that transition from play-action passes or the run game, then have to transition to a pass,” Gase said. “It’s not as easy as you think. When it’s third down, you can see that’s really where he’s more comfortable.

“The more football he plays, the better he’s going to get. I thought he had a pretty good year this year. He did a lot of good things and we’re excited about what he showed us.”

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Dolphins ‘thought it was a joke’ when presented with chance to trade for Robert Quinn

The Dolphins got defensive end Robert Quinn (94) for a fourth-round pick. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — The sequence in which the Dolphins landed former all-pro defensive end Robert Quinn literally unbelievable to the people at the center of it.

This was not a possibility the team had thought much about and it came as quite a surprise in February when the Rams offered him for the mere price of a fourth-round pick. Miami defensive coordinator Matt Burke, who has enjoyed a fortuitous offseason, thought Adam Gase must have been messing with him when he called and said, “Take a look at Robert Quinn and let me know.”

Robert Quinn? Really?

Take a look at his film? Really?

“Yes, I’m good,” Burke replied. “Absolutely, 100 percent. I’m on board.”

Still, Gase insisted they do their due diligence anyway, so Burke went to freshly hired defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and told him they needed to watch Quinn’s film from last season to make sure there weren’t any red flags. It’d have to be a quick review because Mike Tannenbaum, Gase and Chris Grier didn’t want this opportunity to get away from them.

Much like his boss, Kocurek was slightly suspicious that this was some kind of prank. Not having worked there long, perhaps this was some kind of hazing. Maybe the next request would be for him to look over J.J. Watt’s film just for a laugh. The first words out of his mouth were, “Come on, now.”

“(Burke) came into my office and … he thought it was a joke to begin with,” Kocurek said. “I kind of said the same thing when Coach Burke said he wanted to watch Robert on film.

“And then I figured out we were possibly going to get him. Obviously, I got excited about it. He’s been a guy that going all the way back to North Carolina that I’ve had my eye on. I liked him coming out of the draft.”

Kocurek and Burke went through five or six Rams games, and everything they saw validated their initial thoughts on Quinn.

It’s been three years since he was a Pro Bowler, but his overwhelming talent was still evident. Los Angeles was using him as more of an outside linebacker, and when Kocurek and Burke envisioned him moving back to a traditional defensive end role opposite Cameron Wake, they believed the perfect fix to their defensive line issues had landed in their laps.

Burke called Gase back and said, “Hey, my answer is still the same: 100 percent, yes.”

The deal got done during the NFL Combine — it couldn’t officially be processed until the start of the new league year mid-March — and everything fit perfectly on Miami’s end. The team had an extra fourth-round pick (No. 130) from trading Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia, so parting with this one (No. 111) wasn’t devastating.

It also set them up to revamp a defensive line that needed a fundamental change. After shelling out for the fourth-most expensive d-line in the NFL and finishing 26th in sacks, as well as 28th in opponent passer rating, the new plan is to go all-in on guys who make quarterbacks nervous. Quinn was the type of guy they hoped to get but didn’t think would be realistic.

With Quinn and Wake as the top two defensive ends, and two of the five costliest players on the roster, the Dolphins accepted an NFL-record $22.1 million dead money salary cap hit in order to release star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and eventually free up $17 million in space for this season.

Now they have Quinn and Wake, plus $10 million man Andre Branch and 2017 first-round pick Charles Harris at defensive end and they’re putting far less of an investment into the tackle position.

The Dolphins weren’t the only ones stunned to see the Quinn trade materialize.

Quinn, who sounds like he had been hoping to get out of Los Angeles, had the bad luck of being without his phone when this all went down. He was searching all over for it when his brother pulled up the news on his own device.

Miami? Really?

“Well, let me go finish finding my phone and I’ll figure the rest of life out from there,” Quinn told his brother. “I was pretty much shocked, honestly.”

Once he got to Davie and got a taste of what his new team was like, he felt rejuvenated almost immediately. That’s a good thing for the Dolphins considering he’s still in what should be the prime of his career at age 28.

“You don’t realize you’re suffocating until you can’t breathe no more,” Quinn said. “I’m glad I can have a new breath of fresh air down here in Miami. It’s allowing me to clear my mind and have a fresh start.

“It’s a new beginning and new possibilities. I’m excited for this new start. Honestly, I think it was best for me and my family, and sometimes things work out funny, but they always work out for the best.”

Whether this really works out for the best depends on whether Quinn still has the talent to be one of the most fearsome edge rushers in football and whether Burke and Kocurek can facilitate this comeback.

After starting with two promising seasons, Quinn caught fire in 2013 with 19 sacks, seven forced fumbles, 57 tackles and a touchdown. He and Watt were the all-pro defensive ends that year.

Quinn followed with 10.5 sacks the next season, but declined after that. Thanks to injuries and other issues, he managed 17.5 sacks in 32 games over the next three years.

Kocurek believes he’s still the Quinn of 2013 and ’14, and the first step toward getting him back there is to reestablish him at his natural position.

“It’s just scheme,” he said. “He was asked to do something differently than he had done in the past, going from strictly a 4-3 type guy to being more of a stand-up, outside-linebacker-type. It’s not an easy transition sometimes.”

Then he added, “It’s not like he played bad.”

That’s true. It wasn’t perfect, but Quinn made the best his situation last season and stayed mostly healthy. He played all but one game, was on the field for 59 percent of the Rams’ defensive snaps and had 8.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Even that level of production, which Quinn likely felt could’ve been better, would be welcomed. Other than Wake, no Dolphins player has had that many sacks in a season since Olivier Vernon in 2013.

The regular season is still well off in the distance, but the first few months of Quinn’s arrival have made the Dolphins even more optimistic than when his name first surfaced in their building. He could be the key to transforming their pass rush, and the early phase of this relationship has heightened that expectation.

“He’s been a good worker,” Burke said. “He doesn’t say much. He’s kind of a quiet guy. He just comes to work every day with a smile on his face and gets after it.

“I think he feels comfortable being in, hopefully, a scheme that fits his skillset. I’m really excited to see what he can do for us. I think that position is going to be an area of strength for us.”

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Dolphins defensive line will change its approach under Kris Kocurek

The defensive line will take a different approach under Kris Kocurek. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh played an insane 84 percent of the Dolphins’ defensive snaps last season, and they don’t want to see anyone doing that this year.

The new template for the renovated defensive line is to send players in “waves,” as position coach Kris Kocurek put it today. Miami believes it has enough talent to do that, and the collection of defensive ends and tackles will theoretically be better in smaller doses.

“Right now we don’t really have any depth chart set, but all I know is we’re looking for 8-10 guys,” said Kocurek, who was hired in January to replace Terrell Williams. “We’re gonna roll guys through games. We want to keep our guys fresh throughout four quarters and keep our guys fresh through 16 games… and try to keep snap counts down as much as we can and go as fast as we can and as hard as we can.”

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That’s a different approach than last year, but change should be a good thing in this case. The Dolphins didn’t get nearly the return they expected from the fourth-most expensive defensive line in the NFL.

Last season, at a cost of $36.1 million on the line, the team finished 26th in sacks at 30, with 25.5 of those coming from linemen. That works out to one every 19 pass plays, which is part of the reason the Dolphins were among the worst in the NFL in opponent passer rating and completion percentage.

They reallocated their spending to emphasize pass rushers and accepted a massive dead money hit to their salary cap in order to let Suh go and get out of some of what they owed him. The key pieces on this d-line are defensive ends Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn, each of whom has a 15-sack season on their résumé.

Wake is 36 and continues to make that number mostly irrelevant. He has 22 sacks over the last two seasons since coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Quinn is still considered to be in his prime at 28, but it’s been four years since he was considered elite at his position. He was an all-pro selection in 2013 with 19 sacks and followed up with 10.5 the next year, but managed a total of just 17.5 over the next three seasons in part due to injury. He had 8.5 last year to go with 32 tackles and two forced fumbles.

“It’s just scheme,” Kocurek said. “He was asked to do something differently than he had done in the past going from strictly a 4-3 type guy to being more of a stand-up outside linebacker type. It’s not an easy transition sometimes. It’s not like he played bad.”
Behind those two are a pair of enigmas: Andre Branch and Charles Harris.

Harris was the team’s first-round pick last year and played well as a backup, but had only two sacks. He graded out well overall and was among the team’s most disruptive players in some nuanced statistics like passes batted down, quarterback hurries and penalties drawn.

“Very serious about his craft,” Kocurek said of Harris. “Works extremely, extremely hard. It’s hard to outwork Charles. Wants to get better (and) strives to get better every single day.
“As a rookie, it’s always hard. As a defensive end coming in as a rookie, I thought he played well. Now we need to take that next step.”
Branch impressed the Dolphins in 2016 and earned a three-year, $24 million extension in the ensuing offseason, but was limited by injuries last season and didn’t produce like he wanted. If he’s healthy this year, he’ll be a valuable part of the line.

The Dolphins also have veteran William Hayes, who is particularly excellent as a run stopper, on their bench.

The interior is less of a priority, as indicated by the Dolphins’ spending. With an emphasis on creating a crew of top-level edge rushers, the team is willing to go young and cheap at defensive tackle.

One reason they think that’ll work is second-year player Davon Godchaux, who performed well enough last year to be a part-time starter and is expected to take over that spot permanently this year. Miami also has veterans Jordan Phillips and Akeem Spence, as well as second-year man Vincent Taylor.

If Kocurek can find at least eight really good weapons from among that group, he feels good about the defensive line making a resurgence in 2018.

“So far, I like the talent, but the talent’s gotta work,” he said. “That’s the thing these guys have been doing. Since Day One, they’ve bought into the work ethic that we’re looking for. They show up every day prepared and just make sure we get better one day at a time and maximize the abilities the best we can.”

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Who are the most expensive Miami Dolphins players in 2018?

Ryan Tannehill is seventh on the Dolphins in salary cap hit this year. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

The Dolphins have their roster mostly in place for the offseason, though they will explore some options after June 1, and it’s clear which positions they’re prioritizing based on the money they’re spending.

For a look a which position groups have the biggest salary cap commitments, click here.

As far as individuals go, new defensive end Robert Quinn will be the most expensive player on the team this year. That honor would’ve gone to Ndamukong Suh if Miami had kept him and his scheduled $26.1 million cap hit.

Jarvis Landry would’ve been around $16 million after signing the franchise tag had Miami not shipped him to Cleveland for draft picks.

Quinn, who came over in a trade with the Rams, will carry a team-high cap hit of $11.4 million this season and $12.9 million next year according to Spotrac. His 2019 cap number is currently third behind Ryan Tannehill ($26.6 million) and safety Reshad Jones ($17.1 million).

Fellow defensive end Andre Branch is next at $10 million, which could put him in a precarious position as Miami proceeds with Quinn and Cameron Wake as its starting defensive ends. Branch was strong in 2016 and earned a three-year, $24 million extension, but had to fight through injuries for much of last year.

Kenny Stills will have the biggest cap number on offense at $9.8 million, and linebacker Kiko Alonso ($9.7 million) and Wake ($9.6 million) round out the top five.

Tannehill will be seventh at a dirt cheap (for quarterbacks) cap hit of $8.7 million. That’s 24th in the NFL at his position, and the team ranks 27th in quarterback spending with him, Brock Osweiler and David Fales.

Tannehill was originally set to get $60.4 million fairly evenly spread out over the 2018-20 seasons, but restructured this offseason for upcoming cap hits of $8.7 this year, $26.6 million next season and $25.1 in 2020.

Among the great values on this year’s roster are starting defensive tackle Davon Godchaux with a cap hit of about $605,484 and running back Kenyan Drake at $910,315.

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Miami Dolphins’ allocation of salary cap space shows plan for 2018

Kenny Stills needs to be worth his contract this season . (Andres Leiva/The Post)

The most exasperating misfortune the architect of a football roster can experience is not getting his money’s worth. The Dolphins are painfully familiar with that frustration.

They’ve poured a ton of resources — money and draft picks — into both sides of the line of scrimmage the last few years, and the results have been underwhelming. The power trio of Mike Tannenbaum, Chris Grier and Adam Gase has tried, but there’s been little payoff for the effort.

Last year, for example, Miami was one of four teams (all of them bad) that were top-10 spenders on the defensive line and bottom-10 in sacks. The Dolphins spent 21 percent of their salary cap space on the defensive line, according to Spotrac, and that was the fifth-largest chunk in the league. When that doesn’t work out, it’s usually crippling.

As the Dolphins look to balance out their spending, a process that will take more than a year because of dead-cap ramifications from cutting players like Ndamukong Suh, there are signs that their philosophy is shifting.

The main positions on which they’re spending big this season are defensive end and wide receiver, with mid-range commitments at defensive tackle, safety and on the offensive line. The groups that ought to be under the most scrutiny are the receivers and defensive ends.

Those figures don’t take into account signing the eight new draft picks, who will come in on relatively cheap contracts. They’re also adjusted to count Robert Quinn as a defensive end, rather than a linebacker like Spotrac has him.

Miami’s receivers are set to eat up $28.2 million in salary cap space, which is the second-highest in the league this year and the most the organization has spent at the position since 2014. It’s about 16 percent of the total payroll.

Kenny Stills, rightfully, is the most expensive man in the room at a cap hit of $9.8 million. He’s the best receiver on the roster and he’s in the middle of what looks like one of Tannenbaum’s smartest moves as vice president.

The Dolphins got him from New Orleans for Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round pick in the 2015 offseason and he’s turned in two highly productive years as a deep threat in addition to being a valuable leader. They re-signed him to a deal that was cheap last year and pays an average of $9.4 million over the upcoming three seasons.

They’re counting on him to lead a group that features DeVante Parker, Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson. This is the last cheap year for Parker, who has a cap hit of $3.5 million and an upcoming team option for $9.4 million in 2019. Miami exercised Parker’s option, but can revoke it next spring unless he’s injured.

On the offensive line, Miami is near the middle at 19th in the NFL after shedding Mike Pouncey and giving right tackle Ja’Wuan James a massive raise by exercising an option on him. The total number stays level, though, because left tackle Laremy Tunsil is still on his rookie deal and guards Ted Larsen and Jesse Davis have small cap numbers this season.

The team is near the bottom of the league in spending at quarterback, running back and tight end. Miami restructured with Ryan Tannehill to save space this season, and the other two positions are chock full of players who are young and cheap, but promising.

The Dolphins currently have the second-most expensive defensive line in Spotrac’s calculations, but that figure will drop when Suh comes off the books in June. Instead of a $26.1 million cap hit for 2018, they incur a $22.2 million cap hit that can be spread over the next two years.

Once that happens, Miami should be around 10th at defensive tackle and third in total defensive line spending.

The reason the d-line expense remains high is because the Dolphins have loaded up on pass rushers and are on target to have the biggest salary cap number at the position. Quinn ($11.4 million cap hit) and Andre Branch ($10 million) are the two most costly players on the entire team this year. Ultimately, the line is likely to take up around 30 percent of the total cap space.

Quinn came over from the Rams in exchange for a fourth-round pick, and the Dolphins love the idea of pairing him with Cameron Wake as edge rushers. They also have Branch trying to work back from an injury-wrecked season and 2017 first-round pick Charles Harris, plus veteran William Hayes playing end and tackle.

Wake and Quinn are both former all-pros and enjoyed a run as elite defensive ends.

Quinn, who turns 28 this month, racked up 40 sacks over the 2012-14 seasons, but managed just 17.5 the last three years. He said he was “suffocating” with Los Angeles and feels rejuvenated now that he’s with the Dolphins. If that plays out on the field, Miami will be glad it has him under contract for 2019 at $12.9 million.

Wake, 36, will count $9.6 million against the salary cap this year and is scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season. Despite his age and a ruptured Achilles injury in 2015, he’s had 22 sacks over the last two years.

The Dolphins hope their arsenal of pass rushers will make life easier for a linebacker corps that ranks 27th in cap dollars and a cornerback crew that ranks 30th.

Just as expensive doesn’t always equal good, cheap doesn’t necessarily mean bad. The best teams in the league have players exceeding their rookie deals, and the Dolphins need that to happen with Tunsil, Parker, running back Kenyan Drake, linebacker Raekwon McMillan and this year’s draftees.

If that happens and their heftiest expenses prove to be money well spent, the Dolphins have a chance to be one of the league’s biggest surprises this season.

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