After being cut by the Cleveland Browns last week, D'Qwell Jackson received invitations from multiple teams interested in signing the free agent linebacker. Jackson's agent made it clear that Jackson was only interested in being a starter, yet the Miami Dolphins were one of the teams to offer Jackson an invitation to visit.
That was a surprise because in the 2013 offseason, then-Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland decided to get younger and more athletic at linebacker by signing Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler as free agents. Ellerbe had been a 3-4 inside linebacker in Baltimore, and Wheeler had been a 4-3 strongside linebacker ("Sam") in Oakland. The logic at the time seemed clear - give the Dolphins nickel (pass) defense package two linebackers who were good blitzers, which fit Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle's blitz-heavy scheme. Unfortunately, both newly signed linebackers regressed in 2013, with Wheeler ending the year ranked as the worst starting 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL, and Ellerbe ranked bottom 5 at his position by Pro Football Focus (PFF).
Ellerbe graded out pretty well in pass coverage, ranking 16th (above average) out of 38 starters and giving up 7.7 yards per catch and a passer rating of just 73.0 when he was targeted by QBs, and he was ranked 15th (above average) as a pass rusher, generating 1 sack, 5 QB hits, and 6 QB hurries on 82 pass rush attempts (1 QB sack/hit/hurry every 6.8 attempts). However, he was ranked 3rd worst in the NFL against the run, and given that teams frequently ran the ball on the Dolphins, that brought his overall grade down to bottom-5.
Meanwhile, Wheeler was frequently targeted in pass coverage and finished the year with a bottom-5 coverage grade, giving up 10.3 yards per catch and a 108.7 QB rating when he was targeted. He was ranked top-5 as a pass rushing 4-3 OLB, with 1 QB sack, 4 QB hits, and 23 QB hurries on 127 pass rush attempts (1 QB sack/hit/hurry every 4.5 attempts), but he was ranked dead last against the run in the NFL at his position.
The Dolphins made other changes to their front 7 last offseason, including promoting Olivier Vernon to starting defensive end and moving Jared Odrick to defensive tackle nearly full-time, and the Dolphins' run defense overall dropped from above average in 2012 (13th in total yards, 10th in yards per attempt) to below average in 2013 (24th in total yards, 18th in yards per attempt).
So the raw numbers suggest a drop off in the run defense this past season, and Pro Football Focus' grades suggest linebacker play as one of the reasons. The Miami Herald quoted someone in the Dolphins organization as saying some felt that Wheeler's dropoff was due to him becoming "complacent" after landing his first big free agent deal. Despite the disappointing play, the salaries of those 2 linebackers this upcoming season are fully guaranteed, so it is not cost effective to cut either player. Given that linebacker Koa Misi also received a new deal last year, most fans thought the Dolphins were more or less locked into the same trio of starting linebackers for 2014. However, a new report from Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald suggests that the Dolphins are very serious about changing their linebacker lineup. Per Jackson:
The Dolphins have decided to move Dannell Ellerbe to outside linebacker (weakside) if they sign middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who visited the Dolphins on Tuesday and will choose among Denver, Indianapolis, Miami and Tennessee. Jackson, cut by Cleveland last month, will visit the Colts on Wednesday before deciding his next team. Philip Wheeler, if he sticks around, would compete with Koa Misi at strongside linebacker. Misi is Miami’s best linebacker against the run, which was a deficiency in 2013.
Jackson is considering offers from 4 teams (Dolphins, Colts, Broncos, and Titans), and the Herald reports the Dolphins have proposed making Jackson the Dolphins' new starting MLB as part of their sales pitch to the free agent. Phillip Wheeler, not Jackson, would be competing against Misi to be the third starter. Regardless of whether or not Jackson signs with the Dolphins, the fact that the new Dolphins front office is telling a prospective free agent linebacker that a starting job is his for the taking is a clear sign that the team is quite serious in pushing Wheeler in 2014 to perform better by providing serious competition, regardless of his fully guaranteed salary. It also means that the new regime doesn't consider Dion Jordan a viable option at linebacker yet - otherwise, they wouldn't be looking to sign yet another free agent linebacker.
So feel free to add starting linebacker to the list of needs the Dolphins are apparently trying to seriously address.