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Raekwon McMillan to man middle, Jerome Baker’s speed an asset

NFL: Miami Dolphins-OTA Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins are getting back to work this weekend, with the rookie minicamp taking place in the team facilities as well as the continuation of the team’s offseason training program. While the focus for the team has been on the quarterback situation, with the team excited to welcome back Ryan Tannehill after their 2012 first-round pick missed the team’s last 19 regular season games with a knee injury, the defense will also be seeing the return of a key member after a knee injury, as well as the introduction of a new asset to the middle of the unit.

The Dolphins spent a lot of this offseason looking to revamp a defense that underperformed last year. They released All Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and starting linebacker Lawrence Timmons. They added defensive end Robert Quinn in a trade and used their first-round draft pick on safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. They also looked to bolster the linebackers with the addition of third-round pick Jerome Baker.

“Obviously, the skillset for Jerome Baker, as an athlete, we like his speed,” Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said on Saturday about the team’s third-round draft pick. “That was obviously the first thing that stood out. He ran well in Indy, but even talking to a lot of guys up at Ohio State, they even felt like he’s even faster than what he tested at in some things. Put him in the category of some of those guys that’ve come through there in terms of the (Darron) Lees and the (Ryan) Shaziers and those type of athletes. That was obviously a strong point for us in terms of a starting point for a skillset. We want to add speed to that room and he was one of the faster linebackers in the draft and we felt good about getting him where we did.”

Baker joining the Dolphins reunites him with Raekwon McMillan, the Dolphins’ 2017 second-round pick, and Baker’s former Ohio State teammate. McMillan appeared ready to start at middle linebacker for Miami last year but was injured on the opening kickoff of the preseason, tearing his ACL and missing his entire rookie campaign. Other than the return of Tannehill, no player should have a bigger impact on Miami’s roster than McMillan.

“If it works out the way we think it can and hope it does, that’s a huge acquisition for us,” Burke said of McMillan’s return to the team. “We obviously had high expectations last year for him coming out of the draft as a second-round pick. It was tough, obviously. He was really getting to that point where he was about to make that move. We really felt like we went through training camp and we wanted to make him earn it. We really felt like he was just starting to take that step when we got him going before he got injured. We had high hopes for him last year. Nothing he’s done since then has discouraged that. He’s been really in-tune, been really sharp. He’s got all the leadership skills and things that we look for, especially at that position. He’s worked his ass off to get better. He’s rehabbed. He’s in here every day. He hasn’t shown any limitations so far, which has been encouraging. Hopefully he’s a big piece for us. I’m encouraged by him and I’m excited to see him get some work.”

The Dolphins have surprising depth at linebacker, a position that has struggled the past few seasons for the team. Along with McMillan and Baker, the position group currently includes Kiko Alonso, who started at middle linebacker in 2016 and moved to the weak side last year. Behind those assumed top three players, the Dolphins also have Chase Allen, Stephone Anthony, and Mike Hull, all of whom have played significant time for the club, including starting at times last year. Miami signed veteran free agent Terence Garvin this offseason, as well as using a seventh-round draft choice on Ohio University’s Quentin Poling. The team signed Mike McCray and Cayson Collins as undrafted free agents.

The depth of the position, and having multiple players who can play across all three linebacker positions and have starting experience, give Burke a lot of options for how to use all of the players this year.

“The guys that were here last year, all of them played for us. Chase (Allen) started for us. ‘Steph’ (Stephone Anthony) started for us,” Burke explained, looking to how the team can use all of their linebackers and who he sees as the starting linebackers. “Mike Hull started for us. Obviously getting Raekwon back and getting back in that mix, we feel good about where he is. Again, I think it’s a pretty open spot right now. We don’t have, per se, a returning starter. Obviously, Kiko (Alonso) in one spot and we’re hopefully projecting Raekwon. We feel good about putting him inside and letting him play ball there. I think we’ve just added a lot of pieces to that room and I think there’s going to be a lot of … Again, hopefully some cross-training and some mixing and matching a little bit and it may again.”

Burke continued, “This may come down to putting it on myself and the coaching staff in terms of there may be packages that Jerome fits in better than ‘Steph’ or Chase or whatnot. We’ve got some different body types and some versatile players in there that may end up shaking out. Again, looking ahead, it’s sort of package to package or week to week and things like that. All of those guys are going to get a shot to work through that and we’ll go from there.”

The Dolphins will use this summer’s training camp and preseason to lock in exactly how they will use each of their linebackers, an equation that becomes even more complex when adding in the likelihood the team could look to use more three-safety formations with Reshad Jones, T.J. McDonald, and Fitzpatrick all on the field together.

Burke discussed the possibility of using the safeties together, as well as how he could look to the linebackers in a constantly changing lineup. “I’m anticipating having different packages where there’s going to be different groupings on the field at different times, whether it’s all three of them or different groupings of two of them at a time or whatnot. That’s going to play out as we go through. I’m anticipating having to control that a little bit – whether it’s in the linebacker room or the safety, DB room, however you want to call those guys – having multiple packages were we’re going to have the ability. I think is a good thing. We’ll have to manage it, but it’s a good thing that we’ll have the ability to put different people on the field in terms of how the offense is dictating what we need to stop.”

He added, “Say it’s a first down and Minkah (Fitzpatrick) has absorbed a nickel spot better, then maybe we can use him as a first-down nickel, for example. Or maybe Jerome Baker has a role in that sense or whatever it may be. We played a little bit around with that last year against New England. We played some three-safety packages. They’re such a tight end heavy team and things like that. I just think the more players you get, again, that are multi-dimensional and have different skillsets, the more you can play around with how you’re utilizing them on the field on defense. It’s hard to say right now. It’s going to be week to week. We’re going to see how it plays out in the next, whatever we have here, six weeks of the offseason program and going into training camp. We’re going to try to get all of those guys caught up to speed and in multiple spots and have the versatility to do a lot of different things, hopefully.”