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Training Camp Positional Preview: Linebackers

Now it's time to look at the strongest unit of the 2007 Miami Dolphins: the linebackers. Without question, this starting group is among the best in the NFL. And keep in mind that I included both Jason Taylor and Abe Wright in my look at the defensive line, though both are also LBs in the Dom Capers 3-4 defense. Oh, and yet again you need to click the "read more" to see the entire article, as I just couldn't stop myself from writing:

Zach Thomas: 5'11, 228, 12th year
Well what more can I say about Thomas that hasn't already been said in the past, either by me or by anyone else who watches professional football. Thomas could very well be the best "undersized" linebacker to ever play the game. Either way, he's probably the been the best linebacker in the game in terms of production and consistency for the past 5 to 10 years. And when people think he's finally going to lose a step, he steps up and plays as well as he ever has.

This season, Thomas anchors a group of linebackers that could very well be the league's best by year's end. His instincts and football IQ make up for his lack of "ideal" speed. And don't forget his leadership. And as far as camp goes, don't worry if you see Thomas sitting out more than usual in practice. Cam and Dom will just be saving their superstar LB for when it really counts. At his age and at what he's accomplished, he deserves the breaks that he'll likely get throughout camp.

Channing Crowder: 6'2, 245, 3rd year
Crowder, a 3rd round steal in the 2005 draft, is entering his 3rd season and quietly but quickly blossoming into a great NFL linebacker. Last year, in just his second season, Crowder tallied over 100 tackles despite playing in a defense with tackling machines Thomas and Taylor.

Crowder is very good against the run, as he's strong and a solid tackler who can really lay the wood when given a chance. His weakness is his ability to defend the pass, as he doesn't possess great footspeed. Much like Thomas, however, Crowder makes up for his lack of speed with good recognition and instincts. And he has one hell of a tutor in Zach Thomas to show the young potential star how to really study gamefilm and prepare week to week. I expect this year to be Crowder's best yet.

Joey Porter: 6'3, 250, 9th year
Porter's signing was the highlight of Miami's free agent acquisitions. And we all know the contract and are well aware that many in the mainstream media have knocked this signing. However, what these critics fail to see is just how great of a fit Joey Porter is in Dom Capers' defensive system. He's an elite pass-rushing LB, with 60 career sacks, and will be the absolute perfect compliment to Jason Taylor. With Taylor on one side and Porter on the other, opposing offenses are going to have to take both into account, opening up pass-rush lanes. And with the speed of both Porter and Taylor, Capers will have many different ways he can attack an offense.

Also don't forget the leadership and intensity that Porter brings to the table. The Dolphins haven't had a fiery LB like Porte since Bryan Cox. Of course, he'll need to kee this fire in check, both on the field and off. Luckily, his incident in Las Vegas in which he punched Bengals T Levi Jones didn't result in a suspension. But the bulls-eye will be on Porter now, and he'll have to keep himself under control. In camp, look to see how Capers is utilizing Porter, as that will be the most interesting part of thi entire LB core in training camp.

Donnie Spragan: 6'3, 242, 7th year
Spragan was a starter last year, but didn't really show all that much, tallying just 50 total tackles and just 1.5 sacks. He tested the free agent market but then decided to come back to Miami to be Joey Porter's backup.

Spragan isn't anything to get excited about, as we've seen, but is a solid back-up guy to have. He doesn't have good speed, but he's smart and knows this system. He is not a good pass rusher at all, but he also won't be out of position too many times when in coverage. He's the kind of player that you could live with as a starter if absolutely necessary, making him an ideal back-up for this group of linebackers.

Jim Maxwell: 6'4, 240, 4th year
Maxwell came over in October of last year, when the Dolphins signed him following his release from the 49ers. He played in a reserve role in 8 games, and tallied 4 special teasm tackles in these 8 games. In 2005, he appeared in 11 games with the Niners and tallied 14 special teams tackles. That's really his strength: special teams.

However, the Dolphins signed him last year when Derrick Pope went down with an injury, and with two LBers drafted in 2007 and with Pope likely to make the team, it doesn't seem as if Maxwell will have any value to the Dolphins in 07.

Derrick Pope: 6'0, 232, 4th year
I personally like Pope a lot and think he's very valuable to this Dolphins team. He's a guy who has been with the Dolphins for his whole career and who really understands the system. He's been Miami's primary backup at linebacker the past two years and can play both the inside and outside positions, though the inside is his primary position.

Pope is a quality backup throughout his young career and always steps up when called upon. In 2005, Thomas had to leave the Browns game early with a shoulder injury, and Pope stepped in and picked up 4 tackles. In 2006, he filled in for an injured Channing Crowder against Minnesota and picked up 5 tackles. In both of those games, it seemed Pope was in good position to make plays more times than not. He's also a very good special teamer, picking up 7 special teams tackles in 11 games.

Akbar Gbaja-Biamila: 6'5, 263, 4th year
Gbaja-Biamila is most known for being the little brother to Packers DE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Akbar was signed on January 25 after seeing action in 3 games with the Chargers in 2006. Before that, he spent 2 seasons in Oakland. He has 22 career tackles and 2 career sacks.

Gbaja-Biamila is a tweener and saw action at the DE/OLB spot in mini-camp. The way I see it, he'll be competing with Abe Wright to be JT's primary backup, and like I said in a previous post, Wright will make the team, meaning goodbye AGB.

Kelvin Smith: 6'2, 233, rookie
Smith was one of the Dolphins' 2 7th round picks, coming out of Syracuse. In his senior season at the Cuse, Smith racked up 115 tackles (good for 2nd in the Big East) and 2.5 sacks, an interception, and 2 forced fumbles. Against Notre Dame in his junior season, Smith had the best game of his collegiate career, racking up 12 tackles, including 2 tackles for a loss, and forced a fumble. Throughout his career at Syracuse, Smith has been very productive. He's got good size and is a big hitter. He also is a pretty good pass rusher and has a lot of experience.

So why did he fall to the 7th round? He has bad timed speed and isn't as athletically gifted as some would hope for. He also has a tendency of not being able to get off blocks. In a way, it sounds like desdcribing a young Zach Thomas. Now, I'm not saying Smith is going to anywhere near as good as Thomas, but I am saying that Smith will battle for a roster spot and is likely to get one if he shows he can also contribute on special teams.

My Take
I think that it's going to be fun watching the LBers in camp this year because of the few different storylines we have to keep an eye on this year. We will see how Crowder is developing and how Porter is being used by Capers. We will also watch to see what kind of players Abe Wright and Kelvin Smith could be. I'm especially excited to see Wright, who, again, I didn't include as a LB because I have him being JT's primary backup and I listed Taylor as a DE for the purposes of these previews.

Predicted Depth Chart

1st Team 2nd Team
ILB/OLB Channing Crowder Kelvin Smith
ILB Zach Thomas Derrick Pope
OLB Joey Porter Donnie Spragan