To get a full appreciation for how inadequate the Miami Dolphins’ defensive line was last season, consider this: The Dolphins, before this training camp even started, dumped the three defensive ends who played the most snaps for them in 2019 and made no effort to re-sign their No. 3 defensive tackle (John Jenkins).
The upshot is not a single player listed as a defensive end is back from last year’s team, and Miami hopes the addition of veteran ends Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah - and the selection of Alabama defensive tackle Raekwon Davis at No. 56 in the draft - will dramatically upgrade a unit whose shortcomings contributed largely to Miami finishing 27th in the NFL in rush defense and producing just 23 sacks, five fewer than any other team.
And besides the additions of Lawson, Ogbah, Davis and rookie fifth-round defensive linemen Curtis Weaver and Jason Strowbridge - plus the return of capable starting tackle Davon Godchaux - there’s another reason the Dolphins suspect their defensive line will be better: An improved Christian Wilkins.
The second-year former first-round pick from Clemson, who is listed as a tackle but plays some end when Miami is in a 3-4 defense, reported to camp in better condition, defensive line coach Marion Hobby said Saturday.
“When you watch Christian, at the end of the year, I thought he was in better shape and it started showing up on the field because he started making those plays we want him to make,” Hobby said. “He’s come in this year in better shape. He’s ahead and that’s tough because we didn’t get OTAs and minicamp. Somewhere this man went and really worked his butt off to keep his weight down. He really looks good out there.
“We’ll see him step up as more of a leader. Last year he came on at the end. Second year in the scheme. Knowing what’s expected of him. I’m looking for great things from him.”
Hobby knows Wilkins better than anyone in the Dolphins building, having coached him previously at Clemson.
“Anybody knows anything about Christian Wilkins, he loves football,” Hobby said. “He matured as he went on. He had a lot of things going on early. He’s going to try to do them all, in the community, going to try to do them all anyway he can. I talked to him about it; he said he had a lot going on, settling into [his] role.”
Hobby also has a history coaching Lawson at Clemson and endorsed pursuing him in free agency. He has 16.5 sacks in 50 NFL games, all for Buffalo, and is considered stout against the run.
“You kind of have a good history with him, kind of know where he’s from, what he’s about,” Hobby said. “We were looking for smart, tough players that know football and have a team-first attitude and he fits it. He’s been a leader all his career. His energy level I thought he would be a really good fit for us.”
Hobby also is thrilled about the addition of Ogbah, who has 18 career sacks in 50 games for Cleveland and Kansas City.
Last season, both Lawson and Oghab ranked very highly among edge defenders in Pro Football Focus’ telling “run stop metric,” which credits a player for a stop if the offense fails to produce a successful play. (For example, on a 1st and 10, any run four yards or less would be a stop. Any third down run stop that doesn’t get a first down would be called a stop.)
In that nuanced metric, only two NFL edge defenders - Detroit’s Trey Flowers and Oakland’s Josh Mauro - had a higher run stop percentage than Ogbah among players who were on the field for more than 100 running plays, with an injury ending Ogbah’s season for the Chiefs after 10 games. In the run game, only nine players with as many snaps had a higher run stop percentage than Lawson.
Hobby said he hadn’t met Ogbah before he signed but evaluated him on tape and asked other coaches about him. “He’s proven to be exactly what they said,” Hobby said. “He’s very conscientious. Got a good football IQ, smart, he’ll work.”
Even though Davis had only two sacks combined the past two seasons at Alabama after producing 8.5 as a sophomore, the Dolphins took a liking to him in the pre-draft process. He was considered one of the better run-stopping tackles in the draft.
Alabama coach Nick Saban told South Florida reporters after the NFL Draft that Davis “has got all the tools to be a really good player” but that the longterm hope with Davis is “to have ability match production.”
Hobby heard that comment and wondered “does he not take it seriously? I didn’t get that impression from him from the Combine. Getting a chance to visit with him at the Combine, I thought he did a great job at the interview. Raekwon is just different athletically but he’s a more conscientious football player.
“Football is important to him. Family is important to him. Just getting to know those things visiting with him at the Combine gave us good encouragement about that guy. Working with him, I think he’s he’s little more conscientious about what he does, his game and getting better.”
The key, Hobby said, is “showing him on tape where he can be better, holding him accountable to play at a high level. He’s in a meeting room where those guys will push him as well. He’s going to take some work, but man, he’s headed in the right direction.”
The belief internally is that Ogbah, Lawson, Weaver and Strowbridge will be a significant upgrade over Harris (who played a lot of linebacker last season but was listed as a defensive end), Taco Charlton and Avery Moss.
Harris (429 defensively snaps last season) was traded to Atlanta for a seventh-round pick, Charlton (396 snaps) was cut and is now with Kansas City and Moss (343) remains an unsigned free agent. Jenkins, who played well at times, signed with the Chicago Bears on April 28.