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Big Daddy swims with the Fins



Published: Tue, September 5, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Dan Wilkinson is an imposing presence on the Dolphins defensive line.

DAVIE, Fla. (AP) -- Like the new kid at school, defensive tackle Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson took some teasing the day he joined the Miami Dolphins, with linebacker Channing Crowder comparing his enormous new teammate to 300-pound rapper Rick Ross.

"Dan didn't like that," defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday said with a chuckle. "The way he looked at Channing, I think the guys kind of backed off."

The Dolphins can only hope the Pittsburgh Steelers react the same way in the NFL opener Thursday at Heinz Field.

At 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds, Wilkinson provides an imposing presence in the Miami line. And he's not the only one -- tackle Keith Traylor is 6-2 and 337, and end Kevin Carter is 6-6 and 305.

"We have huge guys up front to hide behind," 5-foot-11 middle linebacker Zach Thomas said. "I'm going to be smiling a lot more, and talking a lot more smack. You know that little guy who back in the day used to do all his talking when his big boys were around him? I'm going to be that guy."

Big and experienced

The Dolphins consider their front seven something to brag about. They're big, deep and experienced in the line, and talented at linebacker.

It's enough to rattle a quarterback -- and the Steelers will be starting backup Charlie Batch because Ben Roethlisberger is recovering from an emergency appendectomy.

The spotlight in South Florida has been on the offense because of the acquisition of quarterback Daunte Culpepper. But the front seven may be Miami's strength and the best justification for any title talk.

"This is a grand opportunity," said Wilkinson, signed as a free agent last month. "This is a team with the right nucleus, right players and right coaching staff to take it to the championship level."

After ranking among the NFL's top 10 defenses for seven consecutive years, the Dolphins slipped to 18th last season under new coach Nick Saban. But they tied a team record with 49 sacks, and late in the year the defense stiffened to help Miami sweep its final six games.

A revamped secondary may now be the team's biggest question mark, but the front seven has been bolstered by the additions of Wilkinson and rookie tackle Frederick Evans. And the returning Dolphins expect to benefit from a year playing Saban's complex scheme, which alternates between a 3-4 and 4-3.

"There's a lot going on," Crowder said. "It's hard to learn. If a guy just walks into our huddle, he won't know what we're talking about. But now we have it down."

Over the Hill Gang

The front seven can draw on plenty of experience. Traylor is 37, defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina 36, Wilkerson and Thomas 33, Carter and defensive end Jason Taylor 32.

"These guys have the intangibles," said Holliday, no kid himself at 30. "There's a reason that they've been around for as long as they have."

Age raises concerns about durability. Taylor and Traylor have battled back problems, and Thomas has played a full season once in the past six years. But Carter has yet to miss a game in 11 seasons, and Wilkinson has missed only seven games in 12 years.

Saban said linemen have more longevity than other players because they rely on strength and quickness rather than speed.

Theory on longevity

"You lose speed before quickness," Saban said. "You can keep quickness, and you can keep power, and I think those two things are probably more important at those positions because they are short-area positions. How many times does a lineman have to run a 40-yard dash? Basically he can be a pretty effective player if he can still burst and play fast in a 10- or 15-yard box. I think that is why those guys can play longer."

There has been no decline by Thomas or Taylor, defensive anchors since the Jimmy Johnson era who made the Pro Bowl again last season. Crowder is impressed by what they do to enhance their longevity.

"Kevin Carter is big into the yoga and all that stuff," Crowder said. "Zach has some special chef, and he's eating all kinds of nasty wheat noodles and cucumber salads and all kinds of stuff I would never touch. I know he'd love to eat a hamburger. But he'll sacrifice that to be a great player, which he is."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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