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After ranking 24th in run defense for the second straight year, one of the biggest offseason questions surrounding the Miami Dolphins is the future of the linebacking corps, the middle linebacker position specifically, in Kevin Coyle's 4-3 defense.
Last offseason the rumor was that then-OLB Koa Misi was to switch spots with Dannell Ellerbe, from OLB to MLB. This rumor became an experiment when the Dolphins didn't draft a middle linebacker in the 2014 NFL Draft.
The experiment lasted all year but was tough to judge due to injury issues that dampened Misi's effectiveness, starting with his opening week ankle injury against the New England Patriots.
Now, with 2013 fourth round pick Jelani Jenkins firmly in place as the weakside linebacker after leading the Dolphins in tackles in his breakout season in 2014, the Dolphins need to solidify the rest of their linebacking corps.
It's likely that this offseason will see the subtractions of Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, the two LBs signed to replace Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett when the latter two were dumped in Miami's infamous LB "retooling" of the 2013 offseason. This will be a welcomed subtraction because, no offense to Ellerbe and Wheeler, their deals we're questionable to say the least from the beginning.
In this scenario the Dolphins are left with Jenkins and Misi as they would be the only two guys under contract that started a game at LB last year (and Dion Jordan, who technically started at OLB in the Week 17 loss the Jets). 2014 rookies Chris McCain and Jordan Tripp would be the back-ups with an opportunity to earn a job in training camp.
Will Koa Misi return to the MLB position? This is a key domino. Misi, who rarely shot gaps and too often found himself out of place at MLB, could get what Ellerbe never got, a second year at the position.
Misi's comfort at this position could grow, just as Ellerbe hinted would happen to him if he stayed in the middle in midst of the "Misi to MLB" rumors last offseason, but can the Dolphins afford to bank on Misi, who hasn't played a full 16-game season since his rookie season?
If the plan is to move Misi back to his OLB position, then the Dolphins have limited options to fill the MLB position.
New York Jets inside linebacker David Harris will be a free agent, as will Buffalo's Brandon Spikes. Harris and Spikes would at the very least improve the Dolphins run defense but would likely only be two-down linebackers. Atlanta's Sean Weatherspoon is a talented all-around linebacker but has health concerns and sat out 2014 with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
There are a few former University of Miami linebackers on the market, Collin McCarthy and Darryl Sharpton, but neither would be an upgrade over Misi.
The Dolphins could draft a middle linebacker in this case, but the options are extremely limited for a good three-down MLB in this draft, especially if looking for a day-one starter.
The only guy who fits that bill is UCLA's Eric Kendricks. Kendricks, who won the Butkus Award in 2014, may be the safest pick in this draft. Kendricks is extremely smart and uses his above average instincts to make plays by being in the right place at the right time. Kendricks is physical and aggressive when he needs to be and patient when the situation calls for it. The Dolphins would likely need to overdraft Kendricks at 14 in order to ensure they land him.
The Dolphins could also go Mississippi State LB Benardrick McKinney at 14, but McKinney doesn't play with the type of aggression that makes a LB thrive. I'm not a huge fan of McKinney, but his size and potential intrigue many. I doubt that McKinney would be able to start from day one, help solidify the run defense or even provide an upgrade over Misi.
However, if the plan is to keep Misi at MLB, or that's at least deemed a viable contingency plan if a middle linebacker isn't found this offseason, then the options to upgrade the linebacker unit open up significantly, mainly in the draft.
With Misi at MLB the Dolphins would have the option of drafting one of the linebackers that lack prototypical size for MLB but are excellent linebackers nonetheless.
That list includes TCU's Paul Dawson, my personal favorite in this draft, Washington's Shaq Thompson and UM's Denzel Perryman. Dawson and Perryman could both have a future at MLB but may need to play outside for a year to get accustomed to the NFL. Thompson is such an athletic freak that some have him projected as a safety.
The Dolphins would likely need to use the 14th pick on Dawson or Thompson while they may be able to secure Perryman in round two. Perryman could possibly be a day-one MLB but his lack of size (5'10") and length will makes things difficult for him in the NFL and will likely limit him to being a two-down linebacker.
The nickel defense, which the Dolphins were in roughly 60% of the time last season, would be deadly if the Dolphins drafted Thompson or Dawson to pair with Jelani Jenkins in this package.
Another option the Dolphins have is signing one of the free agent run-stuffing linebackers and also spend a high pick on one of the high-upside outside linebackers (Dawson or Thompson). This would deepen the LB corps significantly and allow a rotation to take place.
In any and all of these scenarios, Eric Kendricks should be considered if available simply for continuity at the MLB position to ensure that we aren't in this same situation next offseason.
So let's review. In short, the Dolphins options are to:
1) Sign a two-down run-stopping free agent MLB, move Misi back to OLB, spend high picks on other areas.
2) Draft the one plug-n-play MLB in the draft, Eric Kendricks (easier said than done), move Misi back to OLB.
3) Keep Misi at MLB, have the option of drafting either Paul Dawson, Shaq Thompson, Denzel Perryman or Kendricks then play the group accordingly.
4) Sign a two-down run-stopping FA MLB, draft either Paul Dawson, Shaq Thompson, Denzel Perryman or Kendricks, have a very good LB rotation.
Keep in mind that with all of these scenarios, the Dolphins will have Chris McCain and Jordan Tripp competing for an OLB spot. Jason Trusnik will likely be re-signed as he is a versatile piece and key special teamer. Also, Kevin Coyle is re-imagining how he uses Dion Jordan so it's possibly we finally see Jordan at linebacker regularly in 2015.
There are many options presented in this article, but one thing is for sure. The Dolphins should have at least one new starter in their linebacking corps in 2015. If not, GM Dennis Hickey is not quite the personnel man we deemed him to be after one offseason with the team. With that being said, I'm confident Hickey will make the right moves to improve the Miami Dolphins football team.