New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowksi has spent the offseason rehabbing after surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL suffered on December 8th, 2013. He's been practicing for weeks, but he was held out of all 4 preseason games and was hoping to be cleared in time to play in the first regular season game between the Patriots and Dolphins. Today, Gronkowski himself announced he was cleared to play on Sunday, and he potentially has a favorable matchup awaiting him.
The Miami Dolphins linebackers last year for the most part struggled in coverage, with the only starter who graded out as at least average in Pro Football Focus' coverage ratings being Dannell Ellerbe. Koa Misi was taken off the field on most obvious passing downs because the Dolphins didn't trust his coverage ability, and Philip Wheeler was exploited in coverage so regularly that he graded out as the fourth worst 4-3 outside linebacker in coverage in the NFL last year. Former 2013 fourth round pick Jelani Jenkins showed some promise in coverage last year as a rookie, but he had a poor training camp and preseason in coverage as a sophomore.
Meanwhile, the only additions to the Dolphins linebacker corps this offseason were rookie 5th round pick Jordan Tripp and undrafted free agent Chris McCain. Tripp has the athleticism to develop into a good coverage linebacker but still needs to add strength and improve his technique - plus, he is currently limited by a bruised sternum suffered in the final preseason game. While McCain has impressed the Dolphins with his pass rush ability and play against the run, he has struggled in practice when asked to drop into coverage. While McCain could see the field against the Patriots as part of the Dolphins "speed" package involving at least 3 edge rushers, it's unlikely he'll be asked to drop into coverage more than a couple of times.
To add to the Dolphins' woes, the safety position is weakened by the loss of Reshad Jones to suspension. Jones has been regularly asked to drop into man-coverage against tight ends, and he has had some success against the Patriots in that role. However, with Jones gone, the Dolphins will be starting nickel cornerback Jimmy Wilson at safety. Wilson is a physical defensive back who is only 5'11" tall and weighs 205 lbs, which gives a tight end like Rob Gronkowski an even bigger size and strength advantage against Wilson than he would have against the 6'1", 215 lbs Jones.
Some Dolphins fans would have liked to see Dion Jordan drop into coverage against Gronkowski after he showed the athleticism to run stride-for-stride downfield with Gronkowksi when covering the Patriots tight end for a couple of snaps last year. However, like Jones, Jordan is suspended for the first four games. Also, it's unclear whether Jordan's 15 pound weight gain, going from 260 pounds as a rookie to 275 pounds as a sophomore, would rob him of the fluidity to required to play man coverage even if he were available for this game.
Not all hope is lost - in addition to Ellerbe, the Dolphins can use their free agent signing at safety, Louis Delmas, in man coverage, and Delmas did reasonably well in that role last year, allowing just 14 of 32 targets to be completed against him (43.8% completion) and allowing 4 TDs compared to getting 3 interceptions. Quarterbacks who targeted Delmas last year earned a collective QB rating of just 79.8. Also, Jimmy Wilson's size disadvantage against Gronkowski doesn't necessarily mean he'll be exploited in coverage because Wilson has generally done well when asked to cover receivers in the slot not named "Reggie Wayne," so Wilson does have good coverage instincts. Last but not least, the Dolphins shut down star Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten in the first half of the "dress rehearsal" preseason week 3 game, when starters on both teams were playing. A fully healthy Gronkowski is more of an athletic mismatch than the 32 year old Witten, but Gronk may not be at 100% yet after only 9 months of recovery.
Still, if Wilson struggles in man-coverage duties against bigger tight ends, don't be surprised if the Dolphins end up re-signing former Dolphins safety Chris Clemons, who has generally been solid in man-coverage and is available to be signed as a free agent again due to a series of surprising roster moves yesterday involving the Bengals and Texans.