The most versatile athletes on the defensive side of the football are the Linebackers. On any given down, they can be asked to come up in run support, drop back into coverage, or rush the passer.
They have to be able to run from sideline to sideline in pursuit of the football and be smart enough to diagnose plays before they happen.
The Miami Dolphins have switched their primary defensive front from a 3-4 base to a 4-3 base defense and the Linebackers will benefit.
This transition is usually hard to make for players in these schemes because of the different skill sets each base requires, but fortunately for Dolphins Brass the transition looks to be seamless.
So far in the early going of camp, the unit has adjusted to Kevin Coyle’s new schemes and I’m excited for the pre-season to begin so we can see it on the field.
The change in fronts effects the “Mike” Linebacker position the most because instead of sharing responsibilities with the “Mo” Linebacker with only a Nose Tackle in front of them, the “Mike” is now alone with 2 Defensive Tackles in front of him, requiring him to take on less blocks and cover more ground.
Karlos Dansby is the Dolphins “Mike” greatly benefitting from Randy Starks and Paul Solai covering him up. Dansby’s experience in a 4-3 with Arizona has helped the transition but has still been an adjustment with most of his past experience coming at “Will” Linebacker.
New Defensive Coordinator Kevin Coyle has to be excited to work with a talent of Dansby’s caliber, who posted 103 tackles, 2 sacks and a pick last season while out of shape most of the season.
When in shape, Dansby excels at all phases of the game and should benefit from less responsibility taking on blocks and being able to flow in attack mode, whether it’s dropping back and reading the quarterbacks eyes or blitzing the gap after taking his read step.
Dansby’s strength is his ability to be a 3 down player, where his value comes from being able to stay on the field when the defense is in it’s nickle and dime packages.
With being in much better shape and having more opportunities to be aggressive within the system, expect Dansby’s number of impact plays to rise and be among those mentioned for a Pro-Bowl nod.
Last season Kevin Burnett played the “Mo” Inside Linebacker spot next to Dansby and this season has been asked to transition to the “Will” Linebacker spot flanking Dansby.
Burnett is still being asked to line up on the weak-side of the formation but for the first time in his career he doesn’t have a linebacker flanked to his outside.
He’s being asked to play on the perimeter and keep outside contain while keeping an eye in the back field and covering the seam to flats where Backs, Tight Ends and Slot Receivers like to run option routes.
After having a more productive season than Dansby with 106 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a pick six, I don’t doubt Burnett will be a productive player at the “Will”, what I fear is a learning curve.
Last season, Burnett was slow in getting comfortable with the scheme and was often victimized in the passing game because of it. He didn’t fall victim because he can’t cover but because he was often out of position due to bad adjustments between him and Dansby.
As the season progressed, the familiarity between them improved and so did their production. Hopefully there won’t be as steep a learning curve this season and early impressions from camp have been encouraging that it won’t.
For third year pro Koa Misi, who Coyle has said has the toughest transition in the 4-3, the scheme change must feel like a god send.
No longer will he be scrutinized for his lack of sacks and he will now be appreciated for the things he does extremely well.
His first two years as a starter were received with mixed reviews because Outside Linebackers in a 3-4 are expected to collect sacks in troves, but despite his lack of pass rush Koa is a very good young player with plenty of room left for development.
Koa is excellent in run support, showing great discipline in maintaining gap responsibility and playing with a solid base to stack oncoming blockers.
He also has a natural feel for zone coverage and is fluid in his drop but his lack of foot quickness could leave him exposed in man coverage.
While his pass rush responsibilities have been diminished on the strong-side in the new front, his overall responsibilities as the “Sam” Linebacker remain very much the same.
He will be asked to to line up over the Tight End and jam him off the line while maintaining outside contain and covering the seam to flat zones.
If Koa begins to get matched up in 1 on 1 situations with Backs and Receivers, expect the Dolphins to bring Richard Marshall and the nickle package onto the field. While Koa may be a starter, most of his plays will go to a Defensive Back to counteract multiple receiver sets in today’s passing league.
The top 3 back up Linebackers will likely end up being New England cast off Gary Guyton, Oregon rookie Joshua Kaddu, and roster holdover Jason Trusnik.
Guyton is a versatile player with exceptional speed for the position, but lacks the instincts and physical style to be any kind of competition for Koa Misi at the “Sam”. He will come in handy as a utility player at all 3 spots and coverage specialist to spell Dansby and Burnett.
Rookie Outside Linebacker Joshua Kaddu is a player who intrigues me. The coaching staff hasn’t had too much time to work with him yet due to college graduation rules, but Kaddu has the talent to become an interesting prospect.
He will start off as the primary back up to Burnett and will be counted on to contribute heavily on special teams.
Jason Trusnik is a player who plays with a high motor and has been invaluable on special teams, but he isn’t an overly athletic player and can seem ordinary playing in the base defense.
With the first week of camp now in the books, the starters have been making plays and are adjusting to the new scheme seamlessly but I fear the lack of experienced depth may become an issue in the event anything happens to the starters, luckily Dansby, Burnett, & Misi have proven to be rather durable throughout their careers.