For the Miami Dolphins this off-season, the position group going through the least amount of personnel changes is going through the most changes overall. With all three starters at Linebacker returning from last season, a coaching decision has shuffled the deck among the second wave of defense, putting that unit up to a challenge acclimating to its new configuration.
This is a position group that enters camp with the least amount of experienced depth and the most question marks on the defensive side of the football. Question marks include the transitions for the starters, which for one is a challenge, and their durability, because one injury to the starters and the drop off in talent is severe.
For starters, former Strong Side Linebacker Koa Misi is moving inside to the Mike, swapping positions with Dannell Ellerbe, who now slides out to the Sam.
In theory this makes sense as Misi is bigger and stouter at the point of attack, something that was an issue for Ellerbe last year, especially while he was struggling with his shoulder injury. So getting your best tackler, best block shedder, and biggest Linebacker at the center of your front seven makes sense. It could pay dividends or could leave the defense broke, either way this is definitely a gamble, illustrating the unit’s rocky landscape.
The challenge becomes severe when you factor in the fact that Misi has never played Middle Linebacker and just 3 years ago, he had never played Outside Linebacker in a 4-3 defense, which was a huge adjustment from the Hybrid 3-4 Rusher he began his career as.
While the move is seamless for Ellerbe and will benefit him the most, the Miami Dolphins hope that rise in effectiveness and production can mask Misi’s growing pains as he acclimates to his new role. Bright side is Misi has been a very consistent performer throughout his career and when asked to adapt in the past, he has been a quick study. Plus Misi has the mobility and physicality to excel, with time and repetition he will only improve.
As I previously stated, Ellerbe, will benefit the most from this transition, but the real question of concern for this unit in my eyes is, will Phillip Wheeler continue to struggle on the Weakside?
While Wheeler led the team in tackles, most of them where garbage tackles, making close to zero impact. Often out of position and filling the wrong gaps, he’s in a position that the player playing it needs to be sound with their assignment, as it is their responsibility to play a clean up position in the 4-3 defense.
Action is typically funneled Weakside, trying to keep the offense from getting around the edges Strongside; especially against zone blocking schemes that play off of that, looking for cutback seams backside. The Mike and Will Linebackers especially need to plug those seams, keeping Tailbacks from running to daylight.
The biggest issue with Wheeler though was how terrible in coverage he was last year, almost makes you wish you could hide him at Sam as a 2 down Backer, but I like the idea of the Dolphins lining Ellerbe at Sam over the tight end in a base defense. Allows the defense to be more stout against teams using a flex TE to create mismatches.
The completion rate against Wheeler last season was obscene, and if he’s not going to step up and provide impact as a run defender or pass rusher… Then being below average better have the Dolphins looking to the bench for a Jelani Jenkins or to a position switch for Dion Jordan, once he returns form suspension.
Entering his second season, I think the Miami Dolphins are crossing their fingers Jelani Jenkins gives them a reason to bench Wheeler. He has the speed and coverage potential to do so, but the question mark for him, is did he develop enough physically over the off season to hold up at the point of attack?
Either way he represents the most upside of the backups, because as I said earlier, this is a very thin unit, with the next promising prospect being rookie Jordan Tripp at the Mike Linebacker spot, but he’s green and will be competing for a back up spot with the most seasoned vet of the unit, Jason Trusnik.
All in all, the Linebacker unit has some athletes that bring some good qualities to the field, but it is definitely a unit in flux with a lot of work to do development wise. Health will be pivotal this season, because the experience level of the back ups is very limited and the one vet that has playing experience is learning a new position. FINS UP!