In 2010, Koa Misi was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the second round after playing college football at Utah. Misi was considered a versatile defensive prospect with experience primarily at defensive end and defensive tackle, as well as some time spent at linebacker. Back then, the Dolphins ran a hybrid 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, so Misi became a 3-down 3-4 outside linebacker (OLB) as a rookie.
In 2011, the Dolphins asked Misi to change roles to a 2-down, run-stopping 3-4 OLB after they signed free agent Jason Taylor as a pass rushing specialist.
In 2012, the defense changed to a hybrid 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, and Misi was asked to change roles to a 2-down, run-stopping 4-3 OLB.
In 2013, the Dolphins reportedly pondered switching Misi to 4-3 middle linebacker (MLB), but ultimately decided to keep Misi at OLB and instead sign 2 free agent linebackers, Dannell Ellerbe for MLB and Phillip Wheeler for OLB.
Well, it's the 2014 offseason, so that means it's time to yet again debate whether the Dolphins should change Misi's position.
As the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson reports:
The Dolphins have been giving thought to having Koa Misi play middle linebacker, which would shift Dannell Ellerbe outside. But they’ve also toyed with that before.
The fact that the Dolphins are having this debate once again, after signing both Ellerbe and Wheeler to significant free agent deals in the 2013 offseason, is yet another indication that they were unsatisfied with the quality of linebacker play in 2013. Earlier this offseason, the Dolphins hosted free agent linebacker D'Qwell Jackson for a visit and reportedly promised him a starting role at middle linebacker if he were to sign with the Dolphins. The Dolphins told Jackson that Ellerbe would be moved to an outside linebacker spot, and Wheeler would compete with Misi for the remaining starting spot. Jackson eventually chose to accept the Indianapolis Colts' 4-year, $22 million offer ($5.5 million per year average) with $11 million in guaranteed money, but the Dolphins are continuing to consider options to improve their linebacker corps.
So that begs question - would it be a good idea to ask Misi to change his role once again?
Brief Overview of the 4-3 Linebacker Roles:
(Modified image originally created by Kevin Nogle)
The following role descriptions only apply when the Dolphins are in their "base" 4-3 defense, which the Dolphins use when they expect a running play. The Dolphins' favored pass defense is the "nickel" package, which is when the defense adds a fifth defensive back - hence the term "nickel" - while removing a linebacker off the field. In Coyle's nickel package, the two linebackers who stay on the field either blitz or drop into coverage, with no clear difference in their roles.
Middle Linebacker ("Mike") - The MLB typically plays the role of "quarterback of the defense," with Zach Thomas being the obvious "prototype" for Dolphins fans to keep in mind. MLBs generally accumulate impressive tackle totals because they're in position to play a primary role in stopping most running plays. Therefore, it's important for the MLB to be a sure tackler capable of making plays all over the field.
As for the role in pass coverage, the middle linebacker's main responsibility varies depending on scheme. In Kevin Coyle's scheme, the Dolphins' MLB (first Karlos Dansby in 2012 and then Ellerbe in 2013) has generally been asked to cover running backs while in the base defense.
Strongside Linebacker ("Sam") - The outside linebacker who lines up across from the tight end is called the "strongside" linebacker. Back in the "good old days," when tight ends were big and mostly used as blockers, the linebacker lining up opposite the tight end could expect a lot of running plays to come his way, so it was important for him to be big and strong enough to play against the run and take on blockers, while also being able to cover lumbering, blocking tight ends on generally shorter routes.
In Kevin Coyle's system, Koa Misi has been the Sam the past 2 years, and he would've been a perfect fit 20 years ago for the position because he's an excellent run defender. However, as the NFL has become more of a passing league, blocking has become less important for tight ends than being a "mismatch" in the passing game against linebackers like Misi. The Sam has traditionally been asked to cover the tight end, and that's gotten a lot harder with athletic tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis posing matchup issues against linebackers in the passing game when lined up in-line. The best modern strongside linebackers are good in coverage, and asking Misi to cover tight ends or undersized "H-backs" has not appealed to Coyle, who has asked Misi to come off the field on passing downs to be replaced as part of the "nickel" package with an extra defensive back such as CB/FS Jimmy Wilson. The Dolphins' defense faces around 600 passing plays per year, but Misi the past 2 seasons has only been asked to drop into coverage just 165 and 160 times, respectively. For the other 400+ passing plays, he's either been off the field or rushing the passer.
Weakside Linebacker ("Will") - The Weakside linebacker plays on the side without the tight end, leaving him free to blitz the QB or make plays in space, such as against screens. On passing plays, the Will is either blitzing or matched up against tight ends (ex. in 2-TE sets) and wide receivers lined up in the slot. Kevin Burnett in 2012 and Phillip Wheeler in 2013 have been the Dolphins' weakside linebackers the past 2 years. Wheeler struggled mightily in coverage in 2013, regularly giving up receptions as well as being penalized, suggesting that he's not a good fit for that linebacker spot.
The Dolphins' Options
Based on that description of roles, you can see why the team would consider moving its best run-stopping linebacker (Misi) to the 4-3 MLB position. Unless the Dolphins are up against running backs like Darren Sproles or Reggie Bush, the coverage assignments for Misi at MLB would be easier, too, than putting him against seam-threat tight ends. Likewise, moving Ellerbe, who was the Dolphins' best linebacker in pass coverage and second best at rushing the passer, to an outside linebacker spot (likely Weakside), would seem to play to his strengths.
However, there's always a risk that a player's performance declines when asked to play a new position. Also, if the issue is lack of talent, simply "re-arranging" the lack of talent doesn't solve the issue - only adding talent would help, which would likely be through the draft given that most of the remaining free agent linebackers don't represent significant upgrades. The Dolphins in 2013 only had one linebacker who could hold his own in coverage (Ellerbe) in heavy snaps, and that's an issue in the nickel package given that Coyle wants both linebackers to be able to either drop in coverage or blitz. That versatility in skillset is important from Coyle's point of view because it makes blitzes less predictable if the QB views both linebackers as equal threats to either be sent on a blitz or drop into coverage.
Last, there could be some other intriguing "in-house" options at linebacker. For example, OLB Jelani Jenkins flashed some ability in coverage in limited snaps, though he was graded negatively in coverage by Pro Football Focus for the whole season. Interestingly, Dion Jordan (remember him?) graded out positively in coverage by Pro Football Focus with a higher coverage grade than any linebacker - Ellerbe, Wheeler, Misi, Jenkins, etc. - on the roster. Jordan famously was able to run stride-for-stride with Rob Gronkowski on a couple of his routes in our second game against the Patriots, and the Phinsider's own Sean Donovan broke down how Jordan's athleticism was being used more creatively towards the end of the season. Once, Coyle had Jordan line up at defensive tackle before asking him to pick up a running back in coverage (which most defensive tackles certainly can't do), and Jordan's coverage contributed a strip sack of Ben Roethlisberger. However, Dion Jordan's total number of snaps in coverage is just 46 for the whole year, which is far too few snaps to draw any firm conclusions as to whether Jordan would be able to hold up dropping in coverage hundreds of times as a linebacker in 2014. While coverage ability was cited as a strength of Jordan's coming out of college, it's possible that if Jordan had been asked to drop into coverage more frequently than just 2 snaps per game on average, teams would have tested him more.
So given all those concerns, what would you do to address linebacker in 2014?