State of the Dolphins: D-line holds strong despite turnover

This is the sixth installment of State of the Miami Dolphins, a position-by-position breakdown of the franchise prior to the start of training camp.

Previously: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers | Tight ends | Offensive line

Position: Defensive line

Current corps: Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, Mario Williams, Andre Branch, Jason Jones, Earl Mitchell, Chris McCain, Jordan Williams, Jordan Phillips, Cleyon Laing, Terrance Fede

Key additions: Williams, Branch, Jones

Key losses: Olivier Vernon, Derrick Shelby

Key re-signings: Wake

Projected starters: Williams (DE), Suh (DT), Mitchell (DT), Branch (DE)

Analysis: They say if you really love somebody, you gotta let ’em go. In the everyday world, the reasoning behind this is often backed by personal agenda. In the NFL, though, it’s purely business.

The Miami Dolphins are Exhibit A.

Sure, they tried to make it work with Olivier Vernon — their 2015 sack leader, the man who led all edge defenders with 30 quarterback hits last season — but the splurging Giants presented 85 million reasons to reconsider.

Sure, they attempted to lock up Derrick Shelby, albeit with a supposed lowball proposition, but it just wasn’t to be. Miami’s reported one-year, $3 million offer was no match for the four years and $21 million he’ll get in Atlanta.

Instead, the cash-strapped Dolphins made the practical decision to let their homegrown talent walk, and replaced the budding defenders with veteran utility players.

Williams is the most high-profile of the bunch, with 96 career sacks and nearly $112 million in NFL earnings to his name. Set to make $8.5 million this season, he’ll slide in to base packages, replacing Vernon as a three-down starter.

And he’ll be book-ended not by Cameron Wake, but by Branch, the ex-Jaguar and former second-round draft pick. The tentative plan is to have Branch start opposite Williams, with 34-year-old Wake mixing in on passing downs.

The keyword there is “tentative,” though. Things certainly could (and probably will) change over the coming weeks, when training camp has run its full course.

Jones, signed in May, adds veritable depth to a group that was ignored in this year’s draft. He’s played in 31 games over the last two years, combining for 9.5 takedowns. He also has experience playing inside.

One name to keep an ear out for is Laing, who was plucked from the CFL following a standout campaign for the Toronto Argonauts in 2015 (41 tackles, nine sacks and two forced fumbles). There’s a slim chance he morphs into Wake 2.0, but hey, it’s worth the gamble, right?

Shifting gears, the defensive tackle slots are much more straightforward. Ndamukong Suh, he of the $114 million fortune, is locked into a starting role, and incumbent Earl Mitchell is penciled in alongside him.

Not that you would, but don’t forget about second-year tackle Jordan Phillips, who’s expected to push Mitchell for snaps in camp. For what it’s worth, Phillips (6-foot-6, 330 pounds) took first-team reps during May OTAs, impressing rookie head coach Adam Gase.

“We’re looking for him to make a big step this year,” Gase said of Phillips, per the Miami Herald. “For a man his size, he’s pretty quick. He’s powerful. Our biggest thing with him is being able to keep him on the field and get him going and be productive on a consistent basis.”

(Photo credit: Miami Dolphins)

Zack Kelberman
An award-winning sportswriter, reporter and blogger, Zack currently serves as the Miami Dolphins live correspondent and Team Stream curator for Bleacher Report. He's also a freelance NFL writer and the founder/editor-in-chief of Helmet2Helmet. His work has appeared on media outlets such as ESPN, Sports Illustrated, FOX Sports, MSN.com, FanSided.com, and About.com. Zack can be reached on Twitter (@ZackKelberman) or via email (zpkelb@gmail.com).