Kelly: Dolphins need free agent additions and draftees to patch up 2024 defense | Opinion

The tone-setters of the past few Miami Dolphins defenses have left the franchise.

Christian Wilkins, the defense’s emotional leader, Xavien Howard, the most productive draftee of this decade, and Jerome Baker, a multiseason tackles leader, are no longer wearing aqua and orange.

All but Howard, who spent the past few months rehabbing a foot injury and is now shopping for a title contender in free agency, have joined other franchises.

Their departure means the Dolphins defense will be forced to create a new identity, and the hope is that new defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver will use the talent he has been provided to create a defense that remains a top-10 unit in 2024.

Here’s a breakdown of the Dolphins’ existing defensive roster after free agency and the selections made in the 2024 NFL draft.


On the roster: Jaelan Phillips (injured), Bradley Chubb (injured), Shaquil Barrett, Chop Robinson (R), Mohamed Kamara (R), Cameron Goode (injured), Quinton Bell, Zeke Vandenburgh, Leonard Payne Jr. (R), Grayson Murphy (R).

Free agents: Emmanuel Ogbah (released), Justin Houston, Bruce Irvin, Melvin Ingram.

Analysis: The Dolphins doubled down on the edge position in the draft, adding Robinson and Kamara, and their presence should allow the coaches to not rush Phillips and Chubb back from their injuries. This unit helped the Dolphins set a franchise record for sacks in a season (56), and did it without the top three edge players finishing the season because of the Achilles tendon injury Phillips sustained in November, the ACL injury Chubb sustained in December and the foot injury Andrew Van Ginkel sustained in January. Barrett will replace Van Ginkel, who signed with the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent, and the fact he’s a more accomplished pass rusher should help in the early months. The conservative goal should be to have Phillips and Chubb become rotational contributors by midseason, which would give Robinson, who needs work with his hand use, and Kamara, who is significantly undersized at 6-foot-1, time to blossom as rookies.


On the roster: Zach Sieler, Teair Tart, Da’Shawn Hand, Jonathan Harris, Benito Jones, Neville Gallimore, Isaiah Mack, Daviyon Nixon, Brandon Pili.

Analysis: With Wilkins and Raekwon Davis, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts, gone, the Dolphins are having a Bachelor-like audition to determine who would pair best with Sieler as the interior linemen in Miami’s hybrid 3-4 front. Wilkins and Sieler collectively had the most productive season a Dolphins defensive tackle tandem has ever had, combining for 128 tackles, 19 sacks, forcing two fumbles and recovering another four. They were the main factors that allowed the Dolphins defense to rank seventh defending the run (97.1 rushing yards allowed per game), and now Sieler must create a bond with another. Tart and Jones have nose tackle experience, while Hand, Gallimore and Harris might be better-suited to serve as five technique 3-4 ends. Mack, Nixon and Pili must impress to stick around past August. It will be interesting to see if Miami holds firm at this position or adds an established veteran free agent like Calais Campbell closer to training camp.


On the roster: Jordyn Brooks, David Long Jr., Anthony Walker Jr., Duke Riley, Channing Tindall.

Free agent: Calvin Munson.

Analysis: A new defense means the Dolphins are working off a new blueprint when it comes to positional skill sets needed from the inside linebackers. Jerome Baker, Long and Riley all had productive seasons when healthy, but Miami ended Baker’s six-year run as a starter for the Dolphins to create $9.8 million in cap space. That money was subsequently used to add Brooks, who has averaged 152 tackles the past three seasons, which equates to 9.3 per game, and Walker, who has started 75 games and produced three 100-plus tackle seasons in his seven-year career. Brooks is more instinctive than Baker, but will learn if he’s a more impactful playmaker. Long, who led Miami with a career-high 113 tackles last season, gets a second chance to prove he’s an impactful playmaker and the leader of Miami’s defense. Riley will likely remain a core special teams contributor. Tindall, the Dolphins’ third-round pick in the 2022 draft, hasn’t developed in his two seasons and might not make it out of training camp if he doesn’t pick up this new defense quickly.


On the roster: Jalen Ramsey, Kendall Fuller, Kader Kohou, Nik Needham, Cam Smith, Siran Neal, Ethan Bonner, Storm Duck (R).

Free agents: Xavien Howard (released), Keion Crossen (released), Eli Apple, Justin Bethel.

Analysis: Ramsey and Howard were one of the NFL’s top cornerback duos when they were both healthy for a midseason stretch of games. During that period, the Dolphins defense rose as high as the NFL’s fourth-best defense heading into the Ravens loss. Unfortunately, that stretch of games was short-lived because of Howard’s season-ending foot injury, which happened on the first series of the Ravens’ loss. Releasing Howard as a June 1 release creates $18.5 million in cap space Miami will be able to use. Miami intends on replacing him with Fuller, who has pulled down 16 interceptions, forced two fumbles and recorded two sacks in his 117 NFL games, which includes 93 starts. Expect the eighth-year veteran to be the boundary cornerback opposite Ramsey, who will likely shadow the opposition’s best receiver this upcoming season. Kohou and Needham will probably compete to determine who is Miami’s nickel cornerback, and the hope is that Smith, a 2023 second-round pick, matures enough to be counted on by Miami’s new defensive coaches. Duck has a chance to make it onto the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie, just like Needham and Kohou did in their rookie season.


On the roster: Jevon Holland, Jordan Poyer, Elijah Campbell, Mark Perry (R), Isaiah Johnson (R), Jordan Colbert (R).

Analysis: Brandon Jones signed a lucrative contract with the Denver Broncos, and DeShon Elliott joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent, leaving Miami a massive void in the back end of the secondary. The Dolphins signed Poyer, a former Pro Bowl talent who has contributed 806 tackles, 24 interceptions, 12 sacks and nine forced fumbles in his 11 seasons, and drafted McMorris in the sixth round to potentially serve as replacements. Poyer’s wisdom and maturity could help Holland take the next step as an NFL veteran, becoming the versatile, playmaking safety he has the talent to be. This is a critical season for Holland, who has started 42 games in his first three seasons, because he will be playing on the final year of his rookie deal ($3.3 million salary in 2024) unless Miami signs him to an extension. Campbell has spent the past three seasons as a core special teams contributor, but the former cornerback possesses the talent to do more. Don’t be surprised if the Dolphins continue to sign safeties because there’s a handful of veteran starters such as Justin Simmons and Jamal Adams who are still looking for work.


On the roster: K Jason Sanders, LS Blake Ferguson, P Jake Bailey.

Analysis: The Dolphins didn’t get any of the team’s specialists competition this camp, but those players realize they are competing with whoever gets released in today’s NFL. The Dolphins decided to restructure Sanders’ contact during the 2023 season. The move lowered the kicker’s cap hit from $3.7 million to $2.4 million last season. But Sanders, who made 24 of 28 field-goals attempts last season and missed just one extra point, is due nearly $3.8 million in 2024, and none of it is guaranteed. Miami signed Bailey to a new two-year deal that could be worth $5 million before free agency began. By re-signing Braxton Berrios the Dolphins retained last year’s kickoff and punt returner, but it’s possible the new changes to special teams could create some challengers for the kickoff role.