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Dolphins’ Linebacking Corps: A Return To Respectability?

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Ohio State v Illinois

In transitioning from a forgettable 2017 to the current off-season, much of what this year means for the Miami Dolphins can be essentially condensed and crystallized down to two basic dynamics: the return of a healthy Ryan Tannehill and what should be a much improved defense. As hard as it is to believe, Miami wasn’t nearly as bad defensively in 2017 as they had been in prior seasons, finishing sixteenth overall in total defense, and if they had given up just seventeen fewer yards per game, they’d have been a top ten unit. That’s how close the rankings typically are, statistically, between a top tier defensive team and a middle-of-the-pack platoon.

Of course, we also know that those numbers are somewhat skewed, due to the Dolphins having largely shutting down some offenses (Tennessee, Denver) while being gashed unmercifully by too many others (Baltimore, Carolina, Kansas City). Unlike many previous years, when Miami would respond to horrendous defensive play during the season by devoting most of their high draft picks to the offensive side of the ball -- and I get it -- if your offense can’t convert a third down to save its life, your defense will eventually get worn out and be unable to stop anyone, anyway, the Dolphins finally got serious about upgrading the defense in both the 2017 and ‘18 drafts.

Miami defensive coordinator Matt Burke is no doubt looking forward to seeing what he believes are two young, talented linebackers the team selected in the second and third rounds the past two years, in Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker, both from Ohio State. McMillan, the projected starter at MLB a year ago, was lost for the season in his very first preseason game, when the coaching staff foolishly decided to use him on the punt coverage team, despite having virtually no one behind him. Before we rush to defend that decision, by saying, “But Belichick does that all the time...”, we should keep in mind that the Patriots, at any given time, have probably half a dozen linebackers who could start for most teams in the league. Like the Carroo pick in 2016, the inherent asininity of such a move should be self evident, in my opinion. But this is a new year, and the Dolphins, in addition to McMillan, appear to have a more athletic group at the position than at any time in the recent past. Baker, a third rounder this past April, has 4.53 speed at 6’1”, 229 lbs, and should compete for playing time in obvious passing situations, if not as a starter, by season’s end. Former Saints first rounder and 2017 trade acquisition Stephone Anthony has similar athleticism, with 4.56 speed at 6’3”, 242 lbs, but never could get untracked after a promising rookie season in New Orleans. Like a lot of guys who play defense, Anthony doesn’t appear to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, so the coaching staff is probably best off keeping his assignments as simple as possible.

Like Anthony, another linebacker who will be looking for redemption in 2018 is sixth year man Kiko Alonso. After a dynamite rookie season in 2013 with Buffalo, Alonso ruptured his ACL in 2014 and missed the entire year, then was traded to Philadelphia the following off-season. Despite superior athleticism, he has never lived up to the promise he displayed as a rookie, five years ago, but he did make several big plays for the Dolphins during their playoff run in 2016, including a game winning interception of San Diego QB Phillip Rivers. While many observers believe he could well return to form this season, he appears much better suited to an inside position in a base 3-4 scheme than as either an MLB or WLB in a 4-3.

Finally, since the team has announced its plans to use over-sized safety T.J. McDonald as a coverage ‘backer at times this year, that may add an extra dimension to the defense, as well. Since the Dolphins appear to be set at both conventional safety spots, with Reshad Jones and first round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick, that would seem like a good move. One thing is certain: Miami is determined to make it harder for opposing offenses to convert easy first downs and ‘chunk’ plays over the middle with their tight ends and running backs; if teams want to beat this defense by passing, they’re going to have to do it down the field on longer throws.