What are the Miami Dolphins’ three biggest defensive needs in 2021?

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Kyle Crabbs
·4 min read
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The Miami Dolphins’ offseason is well underway — the team is bracing for a critical week of evaluation next week in Mobile, Alabama as the 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl marks the official beginning of the NFL Draft process. Between now and the draft, Miami will of course have to tackle free agency; but both landmarks offer the Dolphins a critical chance to level up their roster and position the team to contend in 2021.

What are the key points of emphasis? Where must the Dolphins invest their time, energy and resources? Here are Miami’s three most pressing needs on the defensive side of the football entering this critical offseason for Miami.

October 11, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Elandon Roberts (44) sacks San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) during the first quarter at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Middle Linebacker

The Dolphins could choose to fill the void by resigning Elandon Roberts, who stepped up his run defense admirably as the season progressed. But Roberts managed to play just 39% (402) of the Dolphins’ snaps defensively in 2020 and in that limited role conceded a passer rating of 135.5 on 23 targets (21 completions, 220 yards and 2 touchdowns). Furthermore, Roberts was credited with 11 missed tackles — his strengths as a player don’t include playing in space.

If they retain Roberts, Miami will need a coverage linebacker. Miami’s defense thrives with matchups and the team did well to play around those matchups all season long — but a starring role at MIKE linebacker would go a long way to allow the Dolphins’ scheme and personnel to remain more flexible and account for the middle of the field against both the run and the pass with the same player on the field.

Sep 24, 2020; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel (43) tackles Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew (15) during the second half at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Designated Pass Rusher

The Dolphins had no problem dialing up blitz pressures. But if the team is going to contend with the Buffalo Bills in the AFC, they’re going to need to secure a pass rusher who can consistently win one on ones against opposing blockers to allow the team to heat up the opposition without bringing extra bodies. The likes of Emmanuel Ogbah, Kyle Van Noy, Jerome Baker, Andrew Van Ginkel and others all did well to win as rushers by committee — but a starring pass rusher gives the Dolphins more flexibility to rush four and still know they’ll make opposing passers uncomfortable from the pocket.

Nov 29, 2020; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; Miami Dolphins defensive back Nik Needham (40) intercepts a pass against New York Jets wide receiver Jamison Crowder (82) during the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Nickel Cornerback

Nik Needham, as Miami’s primary nickel, played 60% of the Dolphins’ defensive snaps this past season. And over those 617 snaps on defense, Needham allowed a passer rating of 95.1, conceded 42 receptions on 64 targets (65.6%) for 548 yards and three touchdowns. By comparison, Needham played 742 snaps in 2019 as a UDFA for Miami and conceded a 111.7 passer rating with 646 yards conceded and a whopping eight touchdowns.

And then there’s the penalties. Miami’s defense was credited with 34 penalties this season and Needham was responsible for 5 of them, plus an additional one penalty that was declined. Only Xavien Howard, who was targeted 101 times (and 37 more times than Needham) accounted for as many total penalties (6). But two of Howard’s were offsetting, making Needham the most penalized defender for the Dolphins in 2020.

With how much sub-package the Dolphins play, this spot needs to be better. Whether that is 2020 rookie Noah Igbinoghene stepping in or another player, the Needham journey is one that needs to come to a close. Needham is a fun story as an undrafted rookie and he made the most of his chance with the Dolphins — and Miami would be fortunate to keep him around as a depth and special teams player. But the talent upgrades around the rest of the defense make his limitations painfully obvious.