The Miami Dolphins coaching staff having an offseason debate about moving Koa Misi from the outside linebacker position to the inside/middle linebacker position had become an annual tradition for the past couple of years. What would happen each year is that by training camp, Misi would ultimately continue playing on the outside, so when reports this offseason began to pop up that the Dolphins were considering a position switch involving Misi, it was easy to be skeptical at first.
There was also some controversy over the potential move after a report was published by the Palm Beach Post's Andrew Abramson claiming that Misi had expressed reluctance about taking over the middle linebacker position. Misi publicly denied that report and said he was preparing for the move by studying two to four hours every night and arriving at team headquarters around 5 a.m. daily. Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin praised Misi's preparation efforts in public comments, and Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said that Misi's physicality and motor are what compelled the Dolphins to "experiment" with Misi at middle linebacker. Dolphins higher-ups from Philbin to Misi to general manager Dennis Hickey were careful to call it an "experiment," and yet whenever reporters were around to view practices earlier this offseason, Misi was almost always lined up at the middle linebacker position, as if he were the presumptive starter. Well....
Today, the Miami Herald's Armando Salguero reports that Philbin admitted that Misi had already won the middle linebacker competition. Philbin jokingly cautioned that the coaches could backtrack on their decision during training camp, but only if "Koa can't get us lined up or can't make a left call or right call, then we'll look at it more."
Philbin went on to say, "It looks like it's going to be OK. If the roof caves in we can always go back and those guys can be the same. The defense hasn't changed that much. But I think we're looking forward for it to work."
What It Means on the Field
In the Dolphins 4-3 base defense that features 4 defensive linemen and 3 linebackers, Misi will be lining up in the middle, and it will be his job to inform his teammates of the defensive playcall and call out audibles to counter any changes in formation made by the opposing offense after both sides have lined up.
The Dolphins base defense is most commonly used on "running downs," in which the defensive coordinator suspects the opposing team is likely to run the ball (1st and 10, 2nd/3rd and short). In theory, Misi will be in a position to make the tackle on more running plays by lining up in the middle of the field rather than lining up across from the opposing tight end as the strong-side linebacker.
Likewise, if the opposing offense ends up passing the ball instead of running against the Dolphins' base defense, Misi is more likely to end up in coverage against a running back than a tight end if he's playing at middle linebacker - though sometimes, against running backs with more threatening receiving skills, Coyle has a history of assigning a safety in coverage instead of a linebacker.
Another potential beneficiary of this decision is last year's starting middle linebacker, Dannell Ellerbe. When asked weeks ago about what some may consider to be a potential demotion, Ellerbe admitted that the outside linebacker position is actually where he feels more comfortable because he has more history of playing outside linebacker in 4-3 formations in the NFL than playing middle linebacker. Given that he was the Dolphins' best linebacker last year in coverage and second best blitzer, according to Pro Football Focus grading, his skillset is arguably better suited to the outside linebacker position. Dating back to college, the scouting report on Ellerbe is that he's better at using his athleticism to avoid blocks than taking them on and shedding them, so the weakside is a better fit than either the middle or strongside positions, and not coincidentally, he was a weakside linebacker for the Ravens when they used 4-3 looks.
(Click here for a more thorough breakdown of the terminology and roles of the 3 linebacker positions in Coyle's 4-3 defense)
What It Means for the Remainder of Training Camp
Philbin today also confirmed that despite Jelani Jenkins receiving some 1st team snaps at outside linebacker during OTAs earlier this offseason, Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler are both still the presumptive starters at the outside linebacker positions. As previously reported earlier this offseason, the Dolphins coaching staff debated giving Dion Jordan snaps at outside linebacker before deciding against it, and so far in OTAs, he hasn't received regular snaps at outside linebacker. That decision combined with Jordan's 4 game suspension that will limit Coyle's opportunity to experiment with Jordan getting snaps at OLB early in the season will make it very difficult for Jordan to make a push for serious playing time at OLB for this season.
However, this news does not mean all the linebacker position battles are over. In particular, the question of who will be getting snaps as part of the nickel defense (which usually features 4 defensive linemen and 2 linebackers, with the third linebacker replaced by a 5th defensive back like Jimmy Wilson) is still unanswered. Last year, Misi was almost always taken off the field whenever Coyle deployed the nickel package on likely passing downs due to concerns about his ability to blitz and drop into man coverage. Unlike the middle linebacker "position battle" that frankly didn't involve much splitting of reps, the nickel package battle between linebackers has featured multiple combinations, from Wheeler-Ellerbe (last year's duo) to Misi-Ellerbe to Wheeler-Misi to Jelani Jenkins earning reps with all 3 of last year's starters.
Rookie 5th round linebacker Jordan Tripp meanwhile managed to work his way up from only 3rd team reps to getting some 2nd team reps by the final practices of earlier this offseason. Specifically, Tripp has received reps as the 3rd team MLB and 2nd team WLB, so he's a dark horse candidate for receiving snaps in the 1st team nickel package during training camp.