In the first part of this series, we looked at how the players along the defensive line fit into a 4-3 front. Part two will look at the linebackers. While the defensive line is the main strength of the defense, the linebackers have a few more questions to answer.
The Miami Dolphins have a decent stable of linebackers. Much like the defensive line, this set of linebackers seems better fit for the 4-3 front based on their skill sets. But the new defense will ask them to play different roles. How they fit into those roles will determine whether or not the defense has a good season or not. Let's begin looking at the key players for this season.
Dansby has been a good addition to the Dolphins team, being one of the better players on the defense, since his arrival in 2010. His role in the 3-4 was to be the star, playmaking inside linebacker. In the 4-3, he is being asked to man the middle linebacker position (MIKE), a position he has never played. Though he has never played that position, I believe he has the skills to do so. He has the speed to play sideline to sideline in run defense and pass coverage. He has the size and strength to shed blocks and make plays against the run. He has been and will remain to be a defensive captain. He has the tools, but the biggest question will be about adjustment. As mentioned, he has never played a 4-3 middle linebacker before. I think his best fit is at outside linebacker in a 4-3. However, no one else on the roster currently can fit the MIKE role as well as Dansby. Dansby should do well, but it would not be surprising if the Dolphins don't look for a long term replacement in the 2013 draft.
Burnett is being asked to play the strong side outside linebacker in the new 4-3 (SAM). His job will be to take on lead blocks and cover tight ends. I believe his main objective on most plays will be coverage, more so than absorbing blocks. Burnett was brought in for his coverage ability so I would expect him to shadow the tight ends on most plays. In a division with some athletic tight ends, his coverage skills will be very important. As for the run game, how he handles lead blockers will be important also. If he can handle that well, then our defense will be tough to run on. If not, it puts more pressure on the defensive line to stop the run. Burnett is also the most likely candidate to replace Dansby at MIKE if necessary.
This season is the last chance for Misi to make a difference on this team. He was drafted to be a pass rushing outside linebacker in a 3-4, primarily the strong side rusher in that formation. He has shown ability as a solid run stuffer and decent coverage linebacker. The biggest issue with him was that he never became a pass rusher. He never developed the repertoire of moves and counter-moves that true pass rushers need to be effective. As result, he became a two-down player, leaving the field during passing downs. In a 4-3, Misi has the chance to be an effective linebacker. He is being asked to play the weak side linebacker (WILL) in the new front. Much like Odrick in the defensive end role, how Misi handles this position will be the key to how our defense plays. The WILL linebacker is supposed to be the playmaking linebacker. His job is to fly to the football and make plays. He is supposed to be explosive, fast, and instinctive. As you can imagine, this is a HUGE question mark. The biggest of those questions would involve the instincts. Misi will need to be in the right place at the right time on every play. If Misi struggles, don't be surprised to see him and Burnett switch sides.
The rookie outside linebacker will see most of his action on special teams at first. He will be the backup to Burnett on the strong side. Kaddu's specialties are playing the run and blitzing. He will be used in some blitz packages to make use of his athleticism. He needs to work on his coverage skills, but that can be developed. He probably won't be asked to drop into coverage that much in 2012. Kaddu comes from more of a 3-4 background, but should transition into a good 4-3 SAM linebacker with some development. If Kaddu excels and Misi struggles, Kaddu could supplant Misi in the starting lineup.
Gary Guyton will be the backup WILL linebacker and may also backup Dansby at MIKE. Spitler will probably be the backup to Burnett and Dansby. The Dolphins will likely keep 6 to 7 linebackers on the roster. Shelly Lyons is an undrafted free agent who could make the team as an outside linebacker if he flashes in camp.
The Miami Dolphins have some good starting linebackers and about average depth. The biggest question will continue to be how each of the players adjusts to the 4-3 scheme. It's possible that this unit excels in this system, but they could also struggle. Looking to the future at the position, I see linebacker as a huge need. Dansby and Burnett are good players, but both will be on the wrong side of 30 after this season. The depth is adequate, but none of the backups could be reliable in a long term starting role at this point. Linebacker will be one of the positions we address fairly early in the 2013 draft, possibly adding a long term player for the MIKE position.