Over the past few days I’ve outlined reasons the 4-4 Miami Dolphins, who are also 196-196 over the past 25 years, are apparently stuck on a mediocrity loop.
If you missed it, go here.
Today we address a different reason and that is the defensive end spot. You know that spot, right? It’s one of the four premier positions in the NFL.
Those four most important positions are quarterback, left tackle, defensive end or pass rusher, and cornerback.
The Dolphins have apparently locked down the left tackle spot pretty well. Laremy Tunsil is having his best season at the position and arguably his best season in the NFL. So that’s good right now.
And the Dolphins have a good, ascending player at one cornerback spot in Xavien Howard. He’s a keeper.
(So the Dolphins picked good players on their first two picks of the 2016 NFL draft.)
But, obviously, Miami is struggling with its quarterback spot in that it doesn’t have a great player there and you typically cannot win big in the NFL without somebody balling at QB.
And the defensive end spot is, well, troubling.
In fact, I would say the defensive end spot is perhaps the most troubling of them all for the Dolphins.
How is it not QB?
Because I believe I have a clue how the Dolphins are going to address the QB spot in the future. More on that tomorrow. (Teaser). And I don’t think it’s a terrible plan if they do what i think they’ll do.
Defensive end, meanwhile, is a problem. Because the Dolphins are going to need a quarterback next year. But they might need, like, three defensive ends.
Including two starters.
The team’s starting DEs right now are Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn. And I have great respect for Wake because of all he’s done and how hard he’s worked and how well he has produced since 2009 when he arrived in Miami.
A much deserved tip of the hat to him.
But he’s 36 years old now. And he’s going to be 37 in January. And he has one sack this season.
Wake is on track to finish with two sacks this season and that would be his lowest NFL season total — ever.
Wake, you must recall, had 10.5 sacks last season. He had 11.5 in 2016. He also had 11.5 in 2014.
You’ll recall he blew out an Achilles’ tendon in 2015 in the seventh game of the season. But that season Wake had seven sacks in those seven games. He was on course for one of the best seasons of his career.
But now he’s on course for one of his worst.
And that’s jarring because Cam Wake has been a machine throughout his career. So what do the Miami Dolphins do with Cam Wake next year?
It’s an important question because he is unsigned for 2019. The team flirted with the idea of extending him another year before this season began but it ultimately didn’t happen.
And that’s wise in hindsight because Wake hasn’t produced as he has in the past.
So that’s a question mark now.
On the other side, the Dolphins thought they stole Quinn from the Rams for a fourth-round pick. At least that’s how it looked in the offseason when Quinn came in and simply dominated Tunsil in OTAs.
Then the pads went on.
And let’s just say Quinn has been much less prominent in games that count than he was in OTAs that don’t count.
Quinn also has one sack through eight games this season. So he also is on track for two sacks, which would be his worst NFL season.
Unlike Wake, Quinn is signed for 2019. He’s scheduled to cost the Dolphins $12.9 million on their salary cap.
But here’s the thing: Why would the Dolphins pay that?
And it just so happens no dead money from guarantees remain on the deal in 2019 if the Dolphins cut him after this season. If the Dolphins cut Quinn after this season, they save $12.9 million on next year’s cap.
That seems the logical move at this point.
But if you cut a low-producing Quinn and don’t re-sign the 37-year-old and low-producing Wake, you need to replace two starting defensive ends.
Except, defensive ends are valuable and that makes them hard to acquire. And finding two starting DEs in a year you potentially have to re-stock other premium positions — such as quarterback and cornerback — is difficult.
I suppose some of you will suggest the Dolphins should simply thrust former first round pick Charles Harris into a starting job. After all, that was the idea when the team picked him in 2017, right?
And I ask you and would ask the team what has Harris done so far in his career that suggests he’s a starting NFL defensive end?
(Remember that good job by the personnel department I was referring to in picking Tunsil and Howard? Well, no bueno on Harris so far, personnel department.)
The greater point is of the four key positions I mentioned above that NFL teams want to be strong at, the Dolphins have serious questions in three: Cornerback is one because they need more than just Howard. Quarterback, where Ryan Tannehill is about to miss his fourth games this season after missing all of last season and three regular-season games in 2016, is another.
And defensive end.
The Dolphins obviously aren’t focused on those issues that shine in the distant horizon of 2019 — a whole two months from now.
Coach Adam Gase, his assistants, and players are thinking of right now. Today.
They’re trying to salvage 2018.
And one way Gase said Wednesday Wake and Quinn could be more productive is if the pass coverage behind them improved a significant amount.
“A lot of times it’s taking a guy off the first progression, the quarterback off the first progression,” Gase said. “That’s part of when I talk about front and coverage working together, when a quarterback goes to throw to that No. 1 guy in the progression, you take him away and now he has to go to No. 2, that’s most of the time when you get home if you’re dealing with a type of team that gets the ball off fairly quick.
“So you have to be able to take something away on the back end as well, or even at linebacker if you’re dealing with a team working the tight end or a running back. We’ve been talking about it basically since the last game … We have to work great together on all three levels. Right now, the last two games, we haven’t done a great job of the back end working with the front and vice versa.
“That’s where we need to get things cleaned up. We have to do a better job of when they do get the ball out quick, we have to be tight coverage, don’t allow him to take the first progression, make him move to No. 2. Now we’ve got a chance to get home.”
You know what, this makes sense. It really does. If a team is intent on throwing the ball quickly — and many are these days — the coverage has to somehow force the quarterback to scan his progressions.
If the first guy is open immediately, the line has practically no chance of getting pressure on the quarterback because the ball comes out fast. So Gase is right.
Honestly, that’s not the only problem.
Take the last game as an example. The Houston Texans were one injury short of having to sign someone out of the stands to play cornerback. They had a backup safety playing to one side and a safety on the other.
And their coverage was horrible.
The Dolphins actually had receivers running open most of the evening.
But the Texans still won. They still got after quarterback Brock Osweiler. The Houston front was good enough that it helped blur the obvious problems that defense had in coverage.
J.J. Watt picked up a sack. And both Watt and Jadeveon Clowney on multiple occasions pressured Osweiler to flee the pocket and throw the football away because he wanted to live and not get trucked by one of them as they chased him.
It was the opposite of what Gase said must happen. It was the Houston front making up for deficiencies of their defense’s coverage rather than relying on that coverage to get to the QB.
So, yes, Wake and Quinn could use some help from better coverage. But they also need to win and make a play every so often to, you know, help their coverage.
And as they have only two sacks between them, they obviously haven’t been making plays often enough.
Which puts their 2019 status with the Dolphins in question.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero