I have to be honest, I've been waiting for this one. The Dolphins current linebacker corps is composed of Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler, Koa Misi, Jelani Jenkins, Jonathan Freeny and Jason Trusnik. The first three mentioned all signed five-year deals in the 2013 offseason, and all three aren't guaranteed to retain their starting position in 2014.
Dannell Ellerbe was the Dolphins' starting MLB (middle linebacker), the leader of the defense. Ellerbe started the season solid, but injuries and a tendency to try to slide around blocks instead of power through them led to him being ineffective against the run, which, along with struggles I will soon get to, led to the Dolphins defense allowing over 100 yards rushing on 10 occasions last season (five over 150).
Ellerbe, along with Wheeler, was sold to the fan base (many of whom were angry about the release of Karlos Dansby) as a quicker, play-making LB whose ability to blitz would allow to thrive in Coyle's system which features frequent double "A" gap (on either side of the center) blitzes.
Ellerbe produced only one sack. What's worse, this sack was credited to him for being the closest one to Cam Newton as he ran out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage, a play in which the announcers questioned Cam's decision.
Ellerbe's coverage wasn't terrible, as tight man-to-man coverage yielded him two interceptions on the season, but he sometimes seemed lost in zone coverage, allowing receivers on shallow crossing routes to run right past him for easy, and often big, receptions.
Philip Wheeler was the Dolphins' starting WLB (weakside linebacker). Wheeler was the biggest disappointment of the season for the 2013 Dolphins' defense (Reshad Jones was a close second). Wheeler was often out of place when defending the run, leading to huge holes and big gains on the ground.
When Wheeler was in place, he would often miss the tackle, the worst example of this coming in a Thursday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals in which RB Giovanni Bernard provided a top ten play of 2013 after Wheeler missed a tackle in the backfield.
Wheeler actually led the Dolphins in tackles in 2013, but this stat is a bit misleading as most of these tackles well beyond the line of scrimmage.
Wheeler also struggled mightily in coverage and in space, which is the exact opposite of what you want in a WLB. Wheeler lost snaps in 2013 due to his lack of coverage ability. Both Wheeler and Ellerbe seemed slow in coverage.
The one area where Wheeler did thrive was rushing the passer, creating 23 QB hurries, which ranked second in the NFL. Wheeler is only officially credited with half of a sack on the season, which leaves much to be desired.
Koa Misi has started at SLB (strongside linebacker) for the Dolphins for the past two years. Misi has been dealing with position changes his whole career. Misi played DE at Utah, 3-4 OLB in his first two seasons with the Dolphins, 4-3 SLB the last two years and has always had speculation of moving to the inside of the defense.
Misi, as the Dolphins' SLB, was a two-down LB who was mainly a run-stuffer, a role Misi filled nicely. Misi is limited in coverage, which is the reason he comes off the field on third downs. Misi is reliable, but not spectacular which is why his job is not guaranteed for next season, though he has been rumored (once again) to on the move to the middle of the defense.
Jelani Jenkins is the backup WLB who stole snaps from Wheeler as a rookie last season. Jenkins saw the field due to his athleticism and ability to cover, something you do want from your WLB. But Jenkins was limited in situations in which he was an asset as he was washed away by blockers on running plays.
Jonathan Freeny and Jason Trusnik are both very good special teamers who are capable of playing a few snaps as backups, but are not players you would want to, or could, rely at any point.
Keep in mind, any of these LBs can improve upon last season with the help of experience in the scheme and new LB coach Mark Duffner, who coached LB Paul Posluszny to a Pro Bowl last season.
The Dolphins have made clear the desire to upgrade the linebacker group with the flirtation of now-Indianapolis Colts' MLB D'Qwell Jackson. Since no moves were made towards luring one of the other free agent LBs, the Dolphins will likely attack that position in the NFL Draft.
The Dolphins plan is to acquire a new MLB, move Ellerbe to WLB and have Wheeler and Misi battle it out for the final spot, SLB, where both are best suited.
The main target has to be Alabama's CJ Mosley, who I believe is the favorite to be the Dolphins first pick this May. Mosley would provide the Dolphins with the run-stuffing LB who can also cover sideline-to-sideline that was so obviously needed last season.
This deficiency was exploited by the better teams, like the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots, who would attack the Dolphins' LBs with TEs and RBs out of the backfield. Anyone remember the day Darren Sproles had against the Dolphins?
Mosley is a top-10 talent with instincts and an impressive resume, and with many LB hungry teams in front of them, the Dolphins may need to trade up to land this athletic freak.
Beyond Mosley, there aren't a lot of LBs who could step in and be immediate difference makers, or even starters. Chris Borland from Wisconsin is the second ranked LB in the class, but his body type isn't for the NFL and leaves some wondering if he can transition to the NFL smoothly. Borland has the heart and determination to make it, but his physical limitations will likely limit him to being a two-down LB.
Shayne Skov from Stanford is a physical player who is known for taking on and shedding blocks with force as well as making emphasis tackles in the backfield as the leader of the Cardinals' defense. Skov tore his ACL in 2011, but has regained some of the explosiveness he lost, though he is still not a prime athelete for the position and will struggle to cover the more athletic RBs out of the backfield.
The Dolphins could also take a look at FSU's Christian Jones, who played both MLB and DE in his time with the National Champion Seminoles but projects to be a MLB at the next level.
Late round gems for the Dolphins could be Michigan State's Max Bullough, who has over 30 tackles for loss in his Spartans career, or LSU's Lamin Barrow, who is a terrific athlete who needs to be refined as he makes a lot of mistakes on the football field.
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