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Dolphins' potential upgrades on defense: Justin Simmons, Gregory Rousseau

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DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins defense attacked offenses with a confusing, blitz-happy and man-heavy scheme throughout the 2020 season. But the lasting memory for that unit is its Week 17 loss in Buffalo when Bills quarterback Josh Allen and the starters played only the first half, yet the Bills put up 56 points.

Despite spending parts of the season with the No. 1 scoring defense, the Dolphins aren't a finished product. While still the strongest part of a young team, Miami's defense can use that Week 17 blowout as fuel to avoid complacency and add more sideline-to-sideline playmaking speed and elite pass rush.

"Having playmakers on offense and defense is what the great teams have," Dolphins general manager Chris Grier said at the start of the offseason. "We'll keep doing that here in trying to address issues on both sides of the ball."

The Dolphins have been effective scheming pressure, but they will reach the next level when they don't have to blitz to get home. Emmanuel Ogbah broke out as a 1-on-1 pass-rusher, but Miami needs more. A hybrid linebacker who can cover sideline-to-sideline and blitz would allow Kyle Van Noy to spend more time outside where he is most effective. Miami could seek a more rangy playmaker at free safety as an upgrade from veteran Bobby McCain.

Last week, we highlighted potential offensive playmakers who Miami could target. Now, let's preview some top-tier or mid-tier defensive playmaker options:

Free agency

Many of the Dolphins' 2020 free-agency splashes came on defense with cornerback Byron Jones, defensive end Shaq Lawson, Van Noy and Ogbah. The Dolphins might still make a notable move for a defensive player if there is a great fit.

Justin Simmons, safety, Denver Broncos: If Denver lets Simmons test the market, the Dolphins should be all over it. Simmons is one of the NFL's best safeties -- a complete playmaker with elite range, intelligence and 12 interceptions over the past three seasons. Miami coach Brian Flores would love him.

Lavonte David, linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: David, 31, has plenty of game left as a top-end linebacker. If Tampa lets him walk and the Dolphins are willing to splurge, the Miami native would be a great fit to defend crossing routes, mobile QBs and lead the defense.

Malik Hooker, safety, Indianapolis Colts: A 2017 first-round pick (No. 15), Hooker had seven interceptions (three pick-sixes) in his final year at Ohio State. He has been plagued with injuries, including a torn Achilles in September, but with seven interceptions in 36 NFL games, he is a low-risk, high-upside bet.

Haason Reddick, edge, Arizona Cardinals: A 2017 first-round pick (No. 13), Reddick broke out in 2020 with 12.5 sacks (including five in one game) and a top-5 QB pressure rate after being moved to OLB. It's a one-year breakout but some team will pay for the pass-rush upside.

Romeo Okwara, edge, Detroit Lions: In Year 5, Okwara picked a great time for a 10-sack and top-5 QB pressure rate season. Like Reddick, it's a bet off of one year, but if this is the beginning of a career breakout, Okwara could be a value addition.

Duron Harmon, safety, Lions: Harmon spent six years with Flores in New England as a No. 3 safety and later a captain with a knack for clutch interceptions before becoming a full-time starter in Detroit last season. He knows the Dolphins' scheme and won't break the bank.

Draft

Miami selected three defenders -- cornerback Noah Igbinoghene, defensive tackle Raekwon Davis and strong safety Brandon Jones -- in the first three rounds last season. A year later with another five picks in the first three rounds, Miami likely drafts at least one versatile front-seven playmaker and possibly a rangy deep safety.

Gregory Rousseau, defensive end, Miami: It's about projection for Rousseau, who played one college season flashing tantalizing traits and 15.5 sacks. The South Florida native has elite size, athleticism and versatility but lacks technique and polish making him an intriguing pass-rush option in the middle of Round 1.

Micah Parsons, linebacker, Penn State: Arguably the draft's best defensive player, Parsons seems likely to be drafted somewhere between the Dolphins' No. 3 and No. 18 picks, but could be a trade-up option if he slips. Parsons seems like a great Dolphins fit -- sideline-to-sideline range, great pass-rush ability, tough against the run.

Azeez Ojulari, edge, Georgia: As a slightly undersized edge rusher, Ojulari wins as a pass-rusher with his speed, athleticism and effort. He had 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles last season and projects as a linebacker in both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. He likely goes somewhere between mid-Round 1 to early Round 2.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker/safety, Notre Dame: The 2020 Butkus Award winner is a proven playmaker who excels in versatility (Flores' favorite buzzword). He likely will be drafted between mid-Round 1 and early Round 2 as a sideline-to-sideline OLB with pass-rush ability, but he can also play box safety and cover out of the slot.

Zaven Collins, edge/linebacker, Tulsa: Collins is another, you guessed it, versatile playmaker who could be available for Miami at No. 18 or No. 35. Collins doesn't have the same athleticism as the playmakers above, but his four interceptions, including two pick-sixes last season, show you how productive he can be.

Safeties -- Trevon Moehrig, TCU, Jevon Holland, Oregon, Richie Grant, UCF: All three are potential Day 1 starters at free safety who could be available on Day 2 of the draft. Grant, who had a great Senior Bowl week, nabbed 10 interceptions over his past three seasons. Holland had nine in two seasons and Moehrig had seven in three years.

Linebackers -- Chazz Surratt, North Carolina, Baron Browning, Ohio State, Jabril Cox, LSU: All three of these prospects have similar parameters: off-ball linebackers who have strong athleticism, speed and versatility. They are likely Day 2 draft prospects who the Dolphins evaluated up close at the Senior Bowl.