How can the Miami Dolphins Improve their Linebacker Corps?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The most rushing yards allowed since 1-15. That is what the 2013 Dolphin defense allowed to happen. How can the Dolphins improve their LB unit, which was the most disappointing unit in terms of guaranteed money received relative to production?

The Miami Dolphins allowed the most rushing yards since the historically atrocious 1-15 season of 2007. The 1,998 rushing yards was one of the main reason the Dolphins' playoff push faltered and the team finished the season on a two-game losing streak (a streak during which Miami allowed 357 rushing yards).

The Dolphins allowed less than 70 yards on the ground in only two games last season and Miami's defense allowed opponents to rush for over 130 yards in ten games. These numbers are a reverse in trend for a Dolphins team that had been top 15 in rush defense for three years before 2013.

This spike in rushing yardage allowed is largely attributed to 2013's new additions at LB, MLB (middle linebacker) Dannell Ellerbe and WLB (weakside linebacker) Phillip Wheeler. Ellerbe and Wheeler were signed in an effort to get younger/ more athletic at the LB position and create more big plays. The two didn't live up to the hype and now have to battle to retain their jobs as Miami now has to find a way to improve their linebacking corps.

IN-HOUSE

Miami, according to reports, is willing to move SLB (strongside linebacker) Koa Misi to the MLB position to improve upon the rush defense. Reports from the same source have also said that Misi is unwillingly to make the change as he doesn't think he could handle the extra responsibilities.

The proposed switch would move Ellerbe to WLB and Wheeler to SLB, the natural position of both players, but this option leaves Miami with no new pieces in the LB group which clearly lacks athleticism.

Miami's current LBs, outside of Misi, try to get around blockers instead of go through them which often times leads to big runs. The current LBs, outside of Jelani Jenkins (who began to steal snaps from Wheeler at the end of the season for this very reason) struggle to cover RBs and TEs effectively. Miami needs a LB who can cover a RB like Shane Vereen or Darren Sproles out of the backfield as well as be physical in the run game.

The Dolphins could also move Dion Jordan the SLB position, a role he excelled at in his few opportunities there in 2013. Jordan has the length and athleticism to cover TEs and the physicality to play the run effectively, but the team insists Jordan is committed to being a DE, so we will cross this one off the list for now.

To find the man who will provide the spark the Dolphins' current LBs lack, Miami must look towards....

NFL DRAFT

All three of Miami's LBs were underachievers last year and could all have a player drafted to replace them. MLB is the position that the defense would most benefit from upgrading as Ellerbe's finesse play style is more suited for the WLB position and his ability to read an offensive set and put the other members of the defense in a position to succeed has been called into question (MLB is the QB of the defense).

Unfortunately, the MLB class in the 2014 NFL Draft is weak with very few players who could contend for a starting spot and even fewer who could make a difference.

The MLB class is headlined by Alabama's CJ Mosley. Mosley is exactly what Miami needs and what I defined, a physical player who will crack heads in the run game and comes with the athleticism to cover sideline-to-sideline. Mosley was also a leader on one of the college football's top defenses and has been a National Champion.

Mosley, while supremely talented with the ability to start for the Dolphins right away, comes with his fair share of red flags.

Mosley has had hip, elbow and shoulder injuries during his time at Alabama, a program which is known for "getting the most out of it's players", which means running them into the ground to achieve the dream of one selfish small man named Nick Saban. Sorry about that, Saban gets me angry.

Anyway, Mosley's injury history and smaller size for a LB (6'2", 235 pounds) cause some to fret about his future in the NFL and how long it will last. With all that said, Mosley is one of the top defensive prospects in this draft who could come in and create an immediate impact on one of the team's weakest units. Mosley is a classic three-down 4-3 MLB and Dolphins' GM Dennis Hickey cannot pass on Mosley if he is on the board when Miami is on the clock at 19.

The addition of Mosley would move Ellerbe to WLB and would leave Misi and Wheeler to battle it out for the final LB spot, the SLB.

Miami could also look to directly replace Wheeler, unquestionably the most disappointing LB in 2013, with a player like Ohio State's Ryan Shazier. "Shazier or Mosley" has become a hot debate for the crowd that hopes Miami takes a LB in the first round. Shazier provides the Dolphins with ridiculous athleticism and a playmaker in the LB squad with over 45 tackles for loss in his career with the Buckeyes.

Shazier is a tremendous athlete who is still learning to be a football player and needs good coaching, but the tools are there to be a disruptive LB in the NFL. Shazier runs a 4.40 in the 40-yard dash and his explosiveness was on display in full tilt at the NFL Scouting Combine when he scored the highest metrics in the vertical jump, the broad jump and the 3-cone drill.

Shazier is the Johnny Manziel of LBs in this draft, both will enter the league with ridiculous tools and big-play potential that need to be groomed by good coaching and both are small for their positions. Shazier's size (6'1", 235 pounds) and skinny looking frame cause some concerns on whether he will stay healthy in the NFL.

Shazier's size also cause some to question his ability to work through blocks instead of around them (like Miami's current LBs) as he did so much in college because he was simply a quicker and better athlete. His quickness is a wonderful tool but it won't earn him the same production it did in his time at Ohio State. Shazier also has questions about his football instincts and ability to diagnose plays quickly.

The bottom line on Shazier is he is more of a raw prospect with a high upside. Shazier is best when kept clean and doesn't provide Miami with exactly what they need from the LB position but he provides athleticism that, as I stated earlier, is clearly missing in the Dolphins' current LB troupe. It's unclear if he could start right away but he could at the very least be a good situational WLB and nickel MLB, but is that role big enough for the 19th pick? And would Shazier perform in this role better than Jelani Jenkins?

Shazier has boom or bust potential, it's up to Hickey to decide if the risk is worth it.

Then there's day two prospects like Shayne Skov, Chris Borland and Telvin Smith. Smith, from FSU, is similar to Shazier in that he is slim and athletic. Smith, however, is even thinner than Shazier (6'3", 220 pounds) and may not be as much as a natural playmaker. Smith fits the mold of nearly every collegiate athlete in that he needs to bulk up to be effective at the next level. Smith has the instincts to play MLB, but his lack of size will likely cause him to be a WLB.

Borland and Skov are both MLBs who lack ideal athleticism and size but have great minds for the game and a love for the game of football.

Borland is a tenacious player who reminds some of the similarly built Zach Thomas, but his size limitations (6', 250 pounds) will cause him to struggle mightily in today's NFL which requires LBs to have the ability to cover big TEs and fast RBs. Borland will likely be a two-down player in the NFL, subbing out in obvious passing situations so he doesn't get picked on by the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world.

Skov is two inches taller than Borland, but due to his lack of speed will likely be limited to being a two-down LB. Skov has excellent instincts at the MLB position and is a natural run-stuffer. Skov, who tore his ACL in 2011 and has never been quite as quick since, will struggle in coverage in the NFL.

CONCLUSION

The Dolphins likely have one or two chances to make it's LB corps better in this draft, and that is drafting Mosley/ Shazier at 19 or Smith on the second day of the draft. Even Smith and Shazier aren't guaranteed to make the LBs better or even contribute right away, and neither would provide a better signal caller in the middle.

Mosley provides the best chance for improvement from this disappointing LB posse, but whether he will be healthy enough to play is a big question mark, and Dolphin fans won't have much sympathy for an injured first round pick after having to see last year's third overall pick, Dion Jordan, play less than a third of the team's defensive snaps.

Even so, the alignment of Ellerbe at WLB, Mosley at MLB and Misi/Wheeler at SLB gives the Dolphins' LBs the best chance at a rebound season after being the team's second most disappointing unit in 2013. (Keep in mind if the Dolphins do draft Mosley, it's possible he could spend a year at WLB while getting acclimated to the speed of the NFL.)

The Dolphins current LB group improving isn't out of the question with new LB coach Mark Duffner, who turned Paul Posluszny into a Pro Bowler, coming over from Jacksonville. Another year in the system would do Ellerbe and Wheeler well, but fielding Wheeler as a WLB is a mistake the Dolphins likely won't make two years in a row. This means Misi would have to be on board with a switch to MLB so Wheeler could shift to SLB or Jenkins would have to start at WLB.

Duffner is a very good coach, which would be exactly what Miami needs if they were to draft a guy like Shazier, who needs good coaching.

Any LB taken in the later rounds, like Montana's Brock Coyle or Michigan State's Max Bullough, could turn into a surprise contributor eventually, but the likelihood of a late-round LB coming in and providing production is not very good.

Follow @DannyWeeumzNFL on Twitter

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