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Raekwon McMillan’s return overshadowed but just as important for 2018

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

For the first time since a knee injury sidelined him during a game, the Miami Dolphins saw their signal caller run out of the tunnel and return to game action. While that happened on the offensive side of the ball with the return of quarterback Ryan Tannehill last night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it also happened on the defense with linebacker Raekwon McMillan getting his first game action since tearing his ACL on the opening kickoff of the first preseason game in 2017. The vast majority of the attention has been on getting Tannehill back, but McMillan’s return could be just as important for the Dolphins in 2018.

“I was feeling thankful that I have the chance to play this sport again because in rehab, you just don’t [know] when it’s going to come,” McMillan said after the game. “It seemed like a long time, but it’s here.”

The Dolphins were counting on the then-rookie to solidify the middle of the defense last year, giving them a rock around which to build the linebacker corps. Instead, they scrambled to find players to fill in while McMillan rehabbed alongside Tannehill. Now, McMillan, after a year of film work and team meetings, is back in the middle of the defense and he should immediately upgrade a unit that struggled against the run last year.

Last week, at the team’s annual scrimmage, McMillan discussed what it felt like to return to Hard Rock Stadium and the team. He explained, “I’m just glad to be back. A year ago from today [August 4], I was named the starter. I was doing all this, doing all that. I had a big head but then I was humbled a week later. I’m just fortunate enough to be back in the same position and have a role with this defense.”

His role with the defense will be a critical one for the team this year. The Dolphins will have two new starters, counting McMillan, at linebacker this season. In last night’s playoff game, Stephone Anthony started outside, along with incumbent starter Kiko Alonso. Anthony did not have a great performance, appearing to get stuck on blocks and washed away from running plays too often. Meanwhile, McMillan’s college teammate Jerome Baker, who Miami selected in the third round of this year’s Draft, played well when he was given a chance, both with the starting group and against the second team, and could make a push for the starting position.

“My man went out there and made a couple of plays,” McMillan said of Baker. “He was out there balling out. It’s just good to see him out here doing what we love together again, so hopefully we can get a lot more where that’s from.”

Whomever is next to McMillan, the second-year linebacker is going to be expected to be the solidifying force on the defense. He is going to be asked to be the player who makes sure everyone in the front seven are in the right place to make a play, and he is going to need to diagnose and react to what the opposing offense is doing. A lot will be asked of McMillan this year, and he is going to have to respond.

As for Thursday night’s performance, McMillan said, “It was just a run through for the starters. I only got a couple of series, a couple of reps in there, but, other than that, we did what we had to do and got out of there.” McMillan recorded one tackle during his limited playing time.

The important part is the simplest part of the night for the Dolphins and McMillan. When the defense took the field for the first time, McMillan was out there, in position, ready to play. After last year, it was good to see him ready to take control of the defense, paralleling what was happening on offense with Tannehill.