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Injuries, free agents make pass rush an offseason priority for Dolphins

The Dolphins’ 56 sacks in the 2023 season were a franchise record but Miami’s pass rush could look significantly different in 2024.

Outside linebackers Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillips, who combined for 17.5 sacks, are both rehabbing from significant lower leg injuries they sustained in the second half of the season.

Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, who had 5.5 sacks in a reduced role, was released last week to free cap space.

Defensive lineman Christian Wilkins and outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel, key starters who combined for 15 sacks, are scheduled to hit free agency.

Players who accounted for 24.5 sacks in 2023 will become free agents at the start of the league year on March 13.

What was the strength of a top-10 defense could quickly turn into a weakness in 2024, which makes retaining — and retooling — the pass rush among the priorities for the Dolphins this offseason.

Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (94) reacts after sacking Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) in the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Sunday, January 7, 2024.
Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (94) reacts after sacking Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) in the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Sunday, January 7, 2024.

General manager Chris Grier didn’t give a timeline for the return of Chubb and Phillips but acknowledged the team will need to bring in reinforcements as the edge rushers continue their rehab.

“Of course, it makes it challenging because now we have to have guys ready to go at the start of training camp,” Grier said Wednesday. “The timing of the injuries were later [in the season] but they’re working hard and hopefully we’ll get them back at some point there.”

New defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver is expected to run a scheme that is similar to what he helped run in Baltimore. Like former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the Ravens’ blitz rate ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in 2023. This means that Miami will have to make sure that it can generate pressure with a four-man rush.

With limited cap space, needs in other positions and the eventual return of Chubb and Phillips, the Dolphins likely won’t be in the market for the top-tier pass rushers who could be available in free agency. And Miami retaining Wilkins, who recorded a career-high nine sacks, would help to fortify the team’s interior pass rush alongside Zach Sieler, whose 10 sacks were also a career-high. However, the Dolphins will need stopgap options who can fill in and then provide depth when Chubb and Phillips are back.

There could be a second-tier market for veteran pass rushers, such as the Baltimore Ravens Jadeveon Clowney and Shaquil Barrett, who is being released from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

With concerns along the defensive front, outside linebacker and defensive line have been popular mock draft selections for the Dolphins with the No. 21 overall pick. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah projects Miami will pick UCLA outside linebacker Laiatu Latu and ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller’s latest mock draft has the Dolphins taking Illinois defensive tackle Johnny Newton (Miller noted on a conference call last week that this is heavily dependent on what happens with Wilkins).

Feb 28, 2024; Indianapolis, IN, USA; UCLA defensive lineman Laiatu Latu (DL42) talks to the media at the 2024 NFL Combine at Indiana Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 28, 2024; Indianapolis, IN, USA; UCLA defensive lineman Laiatu Latu (DL42) talks to the media at the 2024 NFL Combine at Indiana Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Latu has been one of the biggest risers in the draft process so far after he had a standout performance at the Senior Bowl. He said he met with the Dolphins at the NFL Scouting Combine this week.

“They talk about my pass rush capabilities ... that’s the biggest thing they need,” Latu said of his meetings with teams. “They talk about my versatility as a dropper, dropping in coverage, playing against the run as well.”

Latu, who had 23.5 sacks in the last two seasons, is regarded as one of the most refined pass rushers in the draft class. However, his football career ended for a moment when he medically retired before his sophomore season at the University of Washington in 2020 because of neck injuries. Latu said that teams haven’t expressed concerns about his injury history.

“Most teams have talked about pass rushing and going through certain clips,” he said. “Never was a concern for them.”

Latu’s career arc has mirrored that of another former Bruin in Phillips, who also medically retired before resuming his career and starring after a transfer. Latu said he doesn’t have much of a relationship with Phillips, who left UCLA for the University of Miami, but he has watched him from afar and has found encouragement in Phillips’ similar path.

“It definitely helps me get through a lot, too,” Latu said.