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Miami Dolphins 2017 Depth Chart: Defense

Dolphins 2017 Depth Chart Leclaire via Flickr


Miami Dolphins 2017 Depth Chart

As training camp approaches, TSJ takes a look at the Dolphins 2017 depth chart. I previously broke down the offensive side of the ball, and today we break down the defense. 

It feels strange that the weak link on the Dolphins 2017 depth chart is the defense and not the offense for a change. Teams rarely make the playoffs with a rush defense like the Dolphins did in 2016. The future looks bright, as the majority of the defensive depth chart is young players. But they need game changers and elite players on defense. The Phins used five of their seven, including their first three draft picks, on defense in the 2017 NFL Draft. Add that to the team having their best free agency in years, they really can’t get any worse. However, Matt Burke replaces Vance Joseph as defensive coordinator. Joseph left to become head coach of the Denver Broncos if that puts a tag on his value.

Defensive Line

The Participants: DE Cameron Wake, DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Jordan Phillips, DE Charles Harris, DE Andre Branch, DT Nick Williams, DE William Hayes, DT Lawrence Okoye, DT Davon Godchaux, DT Vincent Taylor, DE Terrence Fede

Defensive Tackle

The Skinny: Despite having some of the best star power in the NFL on defense, Miami’s interior defense was terrible all season. Part of that is the linebackers, but the interior line didn’t give them much help. Earl Mitchell is gone, and behind Phillips, the depth is paper-thin. Nick Williams is a backup but didn’t look great last season. Meanwhile, Lawrence Okoye is just a body in the rotation. Rookies Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor are in limbo until they put on pads. Suh and Phillips will man the tackle spots, but Phillips needs to take the next step this season. The consensus is that he can only handle 20-25 snaps a game, but must take on more playing time. Training camp will sort out the pretenders on the Dolphins 2017 depth chart, until then things look bleak.

Defensive End

The Skinny: Cameron Wake and Charles Harris are the best pure pass rushers on the Dolphins 2017 depth chart. In their questionable wide-nine formation, the defensive ends need to cause the majority of pressure on the offense. Most likely, Wake and Andre Branch will take the majority of first team snaps. But Charles Harris is too good to not be rushing the passer. William Hayes and Andre Branch are both edge-setting run stuffing ends. They both will compete for the starting spot opposite Cameron Wake, but the first-round rookie will see significant snaps. Terrence Fede is on the bubble for a roster spot. If Miami can stop the rush, it makes the entire defense better. Out of the three rookies, one needs to emerge as a play maker.


The Participants: Kiko Alonso, Lawrence Timmons, Raekwon McMillan (R), Neville Hewitt, Mike Hull, Koa Misi, Trevor Reilly, Brandon Watts, Lamin Barrow, Deon Lacey

The Skinny: Truthfully, nobody really has a clue. There’s a reason none of the listed players have a position next to their name. Kiko Alonso was forced to play middle linebacker when starter Koa Misi suffered a neck injury in week three. Misi ended the last two seasons on the injured reserve list, which fueled the front office to find another option. Free agency yielded legendary middle linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who led the Steelers with at least 100 tackles in each of the last three seasons. Second-round draft pick Raekwon McMillan is a fantastic athlete, but excels in the middle, thumping running backs with limited coverage responsibility. Last season the Dolphins’ linebackers got attacked all year, in both the passing and rushing game. Hopefully, an infusion of talent will help mask the apparent deficiencies in the middle of the field.

Despite playing at middle linebacker, Alonso put together an exceptional 2016 campaign. The good news is that Alonso will return back to his natural outside linebacker spot, which will allow Miami to use him more creatively. Ideally, Alonso plays the weak side (WILL), and Timmons commands the middle (MIKE). This leaves the strong side (SAM) up for grabs and is the position battle to watch. Third-year player Mike Hull logged 33 tackles last season but looked lost while playing outside. Neville Hewitt had 64 combined tackles in 2o16, and former Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph praised Hewitt last season.  The Palm Beach Post reported: “He may be a guy that can be a full-time starter,” said Joseph. He isn’t perfect but is Miami’s best third option until another player proves they can accept the challenge.

Depth Concerns

Both Hewitt and Mike Hull were called upon in 2016 and proved their worth to the staff. Jelani Jenkins is in Oakland, after an up and down career in Miami. Jenkins is superb in coverage, while the two replacements are not. Ultimately, Alonso, Timmons, and Hewitt will see a majority of first-team reps. Even if Koa Misi is healthy, the depth is scary behind those four players. Raekwon McMillan can only provide so much support as a rookie, regardless of where he plays. Trevor Reilly could see some garbage time snaps but has 33 tackles in three NFL seasons. Maybe Miami will experiment with more nickel defense, masking their depth problems. Either way, new defensive coordinator Matt Burke has his work cut out for him. The Dolphins 2017 depth chart is a tricky one and will take some real magic to make work.

Defensive Back

The Participants: CB Byron Maxwell, CB Xavien Howard, CB Tony Lippett, CB Bobby McCain, DB Walt Aikens, CB Jordan Lucas, CB Cordrea Tankersley, S Reshad Jones, S Nate Allen, S T. J. McDonald, S Michael Thomas, S A. J. Hendy


The Skinny: Press coverage is a cornerstone of the Dolphins’ defensive scheme, putting a lot of pressure on the defensive backs. Growing pains were a common theme for this unit because youth and inexperience limited how much of the playbook Miami’s staff was comfortable using. Fortunately, all four players who started a game last season return. Add Cordrea Tankersley and veteran Walt Aikens, and this position group could be great, average, or really bad. Maxwell, Lippett, Howard, and McCain all started on the outside or nickel at some point in 2016. Maxwell started the season in a slump, while Howard was limited by an injury prior to the season. As a result, Tony Lippett replaced Maxwell, and performed much better than expected, racking up 67 tackles and 4 INT. Bobby McCain is a consistent nickel. Maxwell on the outside replacing Howard, that combination has the most chemistry and plays extremely well together.

Those four will split time at the two corner spots, and compete for the starting nickel back spot. When Miami goes into the nickel, look for rookie Cordrea Tankersley to get some reps inside. Walt Aikens converted to safety from corner for three seasons and now he’s back to corner. Aikens possesses the size and speed Burke is looking for, but has stiff hips and needs to work on his down field coverage. This is possibly the most fluid position on the team because as many as six players could be in the rotation. Jordan Lucas played sparingly in eight games last season, look for him and a few other practice squad bubble players to round out the unit. Another year in the system should pay dividends for Miami’s young defense in 2017.


The Skinny: Nobody sets the tone for the Miami Dolphins better than Reshad Jones. Regarded by most teams as one of the premier safeties in the NFL, Jones is the leader of the secondary. He was looking to have a career season and earn his second straight Pro Bowl selection, until an injury in week six ended his season. The safety opposite him, Isa Abdul-Quddus, suffered the same fate and was released by the Dolphins after the season. Without these two, the secondary crumbled and looked lost week after week.

Luckily, there is an odd solution to this problem. Nate Allen was once a top NFL safety, but injuries have bothered him the past few seasons. If Allen and Jones are healthy, they can assert themselves as one of the best safety tandems in the league. With Jones, Miami executes the safety blitz at a high level. Also, T.J. McDonald was signed to a one-year deal after a productive stint in St. Louis. This could be a good thing, getting a fresh pair of legs halfway through the season. Both Allen and McDonald are perfect fits schematically and should shine opposite Jones while teams shy away from him. Those three, along with special teams standout Michael Thomas should round out the Dolphins 2017 depth chart. However, McDonald cannot practice while suspended. Until McDonald is cleared to play, Aikens will take reps for him.

Bottom Line

Both on paper and on the field Miami’s defense has to improve in 2017. The Dolphins 2017 depth chart is significantly improved, but that’s just paper. The glaring holes at defensive line, linebacker, and safety were all improved via free agency and the draft. A good mix of experience and youth is positioning the defense for a step forward. Take training camp with a grain of salt, the defense is always ahead of the offense. The Dolphins’ offense isn’t exactly explosive and will be easing Tannehill back into the game. Still, replacing Vance Joseph will prove difficult, he was a master of disguising weaknesses. The bottom line is that there are very few players with a cemented spot on the depth chart.