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NFL Draft 2016: Why the Dolphins Need to Select a Linebacker in the First Round

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February 8th marks the official beginning of the 2016 offseason, and speculation will immediately open as to what the Dolphins will do with their first round draft choice. While there is a strong case to be made for selecting a defensive back, the team would be better suited by selecting reinforcements at another position on their defense...

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The Miami Dolphins have a laundry list of needs on defense if they want to be competitive in 2016. This past season, a unit that was supposed to carry the team faltered, as the defensive effort appeared lackluster throughout 2015.

Now, the team has two specific areas at the top of their list of needs: linebacker and cornerback. Over the next three months, fans will hear endless debate centered around which of those positions the Dolphins could target at the top of the first round. Will they go with one of the dynamic corners, Hargreaves and Ramsey? Or will they go for one of the playmaking linebackers, like Jack and Ragland?

We are not here to answer the question of what they will do, but simply to address what they should do with the 8th overall pick this April.

Many will argue that the Miami Dolphins need a cornerback more than a linebacker before next season. While this might be true, there is no way to argue that the team doesn’t need plenty of help beefing up the front seven as well.

After the failed signings of Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, the Dolphins were lost at linebacker. Even with Ndamukong Suh eating up blocks, the team’s 2015 linebacking corps could not get penetration, or create any chaos, in the backfield.

The argument I am making is not that the Dolphins do not need to add a cornerback; the team hasn’t had a solid option opposite Brent Grimes since his arrival, and need one to help combat his advancing age. However, I am arguing that the best option ahead of the 2016 season for the Dolphins will be to select a linebacker in the first round of the draft, and work around the need at cornerback.

What They Have:

While the team has problems at both positions, there is one major difference that separates the linebacking corps and the group of cornerbacks in Miami.

They already have a starter-quality cornerback.

Brent Grimes might not be as effective as he was previously, but he is still capable of starting in the NFL. At linebacker, the team lacks starting level players, outside of the talented (but inconsistent) Jelani Jenkins.

The Dolphins have one more year left with Brent Grimes under contract, so they do have a starting-grade cornerback. That being said, it makes sense to ride with Grimes for one more season, and move on after 2016.

If they cut Grimes this season and select a cornerback at the top of the draft, they are simply pushing forward a need that they do not have to delay filling. They would have to then select a linebacker early in 2017, instead of selecting one this season and rolling with Brent Grimes at cornerback.

In the NFL, you must use every resource at your disposal. Currently, the Dolphins have a starting grade cornerback on their roster who, even at an advanced age, can still hold his own with the proper help in the secondary. The team needs to continue to utilize Grimes, and rebuild the linebacker group while they still have him.

Free Agency Slate:

The Miami Dolphins will not have a huge budget during free agency this offseason, so they will need to be wise about how they distribute their spending.

The linebacker position features plenty of expensive options, but very few budget players who fit the requirements of an ILB or 4-3 outside linebacker. The main options include Derrick Johnson, Rolando McClain, and Danny Trevathan.

The cornerback position, however, is packed with players who make sense for Miami and can help out opposite Brent Grimes. The team cannot afford to sign another player to a sizable deal, so a veteran option at cornerback could make sense to help lighten the load on Grimes.

Dolphins’ defensive coordinator Vance Joseph could target two of his former Bengals’ players, Adam Jones and Leon Hall. Both players carry some concerns: both at advanced ages, and Jones with a litany of issues off the field. Both could come at reasonable prices for the Dolphins.

If Miami were to seek out linebackers in free agency, they would find several options with veteran experience but are far from proven entities. However, the cornerback position has plenty of talent that could fit the bill in terms of price for the Dolphins. There will be an expansive number of options at that position, making linebacker the more sensible choice to address in the draft this April.

Maximizing Talent at Other Positions:

The Miami Dolphins are in a strange position. The issues on defense, and their record from last season, would indicate that they are without top-level talent. However, this is not the case.

Ndamukong Suh and Reshad Jones are two players in their physical primes. The Miami Dolphins have a top-five safety and a top-five defensive tackle, but are a mess outside of those spots. With that being said, the best way for the Dolphins to compete now is to make personnel moves that maximize current talent in order to speed up the defensive progress they will hope to make.

Ndamukong Suh makes life a joy for capable linebackers. He occupies multiple blockers on every single play, and if your defensive tackles are occupying three of the five offensive linemen in a 4-3 defensive front, then the linebackers will have lanes with which to penetrate the defense. The best thing for the Dolphins to do is to acquire these linebackers that can make the most out of Ndamukong Suh’s presence.

Many would argue that it is better to acquire top-level defensive backs, as it will make life easier for the front seven to have tighter coverage. While this is true, there is one argument that I have against the philosophy.

It will be easier for a linebacker to play at a high level in a front seven with Ndamukong Suh than it will be for a cornerback to walk in and play at a high level on day one. This is about maximizing the talent that the team currently has on the roster, and acquiring a linebacker who would allow for a shorter learning curve and an easier job, while cornerbacks take time to adjust to covering NFL receivers.

Not only will having Suh up front help linebackers adjust to the professional game, but it will also allow the cornerbacks to cover for shorter periods of time. We have watched teams go on deep playoff runs time and time again, thanks to their pass rush and the stellar play of linebacking corps. While defensive back play is also a huge factor, the Miami Dolphins need to make the pick that will allow them to succeed immediately, and that is linebacker given Ndamukong Suh’s presence.

Available Draft Prospects:

This heading might have confused some of you, who will be quick to point out that Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Ramsey are two dominant cornerback prospects. While this is true, it is worth looking far deeper into the 2016 NFL Draft.

There are several solid linebackers available early, but Miami will specifically be looking at Myles Jack and Reggie Ragland. Both are special players, and appear to be putting themselves in position to go early in the first round.

At the cornerback position, there is plenty of depth in the 2016 draft. This could lead the Miami Dolphins to wait until the second round to attempt to find a solution opposite Brent Grimes at that spot. These options include players like Eli Apple, Zack Sanchez, William Jackson, and Tre’Davious White. While they do not have the pedigree that comes with a player like Ramsey or Hargreaves, they will be options available later in the draft that could help the Dolphins at cornerback.

As I stated earlier, the team is better off taking a dominant linebacker who can feast off of the blocking allocated to Suh, and let the pass rush make life easier for a young defensive back that they select later in the draft.

The Skinny:

I am going to preface my final argument with this: the Miami Dolphins would not be wrong to select a cornerback in the first round of the 2016 draft.

There really is not a wrong answer between cornerback and linebacker with the 8th overall pick. There is simply one that I feel is more correct.

While Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Ramsey are both exceptional prospects, the Miami Dolphins will be better served by selecting a linebacker in the top ten of the draft. There will be plenty of options at cornerback in the later rounds, and the team needs to maximize the talent that they currently have on the roster. By keeping Brent Grimes, they can put off selecting a first round cornerback for one year, and improve a linebacker corps that was arguably the worst in the NFL during the 2015 season.

The team can use 2nd and 3rd round picks to improve opposite Grimes at corner, and could even look for some budget free agents. However, there are not as many late round linebackers available, and the group is expensive in free agency. With that being said, the best way for the Miami Dolphins to improve their defensive rapidly is to acquire a strong linebacker with the 8th overall pick, and to use what they already have on the roster until potentially addressing cornerback next year in the 2017 draft.